South Africa is set to have a new deputy president in Paul Shipokosa Mashatile, the deputy president of the governing African National Congress (ANC). He’ll replace the incumbent, David Mabuza, who announced he would step down.
Who is Mashatile and what does he bring to the position?
Mashatile (61) is a veteran politician from the ANC, the party that has governed South Africa since democracy in 1994. He has occupied a dizzying array of posts and portfolios during his climb to the top.
Mashatile has been continuously in party or state posts for 29 years. Though he battled with the ANC’s parlous financial plight before 2023 as treasurer, overall his track record is a creditable performance.
He brings gravitas to whichever post he occupies. Mashatile holds a postgraduate diploma in Economic Principles from the University of London. He demonstrates competence and diligence in whatever post he holds. If anyone can, he will bring visibility to the office of deputy president.
A strong incumbent can shape the role, although it is partially dependent on the president’s actions. The deputy president’s role as the leader of government business in parliament also has much potential for wielding power and attracting publicity.
Mashatile’s commitment to political activism started as a schoolboy in the Congress of South African Students, an ANC-allied organisation for high school pupils. He later became the first president of the Alexandra Youth Congress, also allied to the ANC. He represented the organisation at the launch in 1983 of the United Democratic Front, which provided a political home for “Charterists” while the ANC was still banned. The term refers to exponents of the Freedom Charter, the blueprint for free, democratic South Africa adopted by the ANC and allies in 1955.
Mashatile was detained without trial throughout the 1985-1989 states of emergency. These were the core years of President PW Botha’s repression during the closing years of a crumbling apartheid era. After the 1990 unbanning of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP), the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania and other liberation movements, Mashatile helped reestablish both the ANC and the SACP in the Johannesburg region. (Almost uniquely in the world, these two political parties permit dual membership in each other.)
During the 1990s Mashatile rose to become provincial secretary of the ANC in Gauteng province, and provincial chair during the 2000s.
Role in government
In 1994 he was elected as a member of the provincial legislature and leader of the house in Gauteng. He became in turn a member of the executive committee for transport and public works, next for safety and security, then human settlements, then finance and economic affairs. For 2008-2009 he became the fourth premier of Gauteng.
From 2010 to 2016 he was a member of parliament, when he served as minister of arts and culture.
He became an opponent of then South African president Jacob Zuma’s alleged corruption. In 2017 he was elected as treasurer-general of the ANC, and added to that in 2022 the role of acting secretary-general. At the ANC’s 2022 national elective congress, he was elected by a sizeable majority as deputy president of the ANC.
So Paul Mashatile is in pole position to be appointed as the next deputy president of South Africa. Being a decade younger than President Cyril Ramaphosa, he is also well positioned to compete to succeed him in five years’ time.
There are no substantiated charges against him of corruption – a serious problem in the ANC. Critics are fond of loose talk that he was a member of the “Alex mafia”, an informal network of political activists and business people from Alexandra, north of Johannesburg. But the Gauteng integrity commissioner, Jules Browde, cleared him of any improprieties. The Gauteng integrity commissioner is the only provincial post with a corruption-busting mandate.
Similarly, he was cleared of any wrong-doing concerning his alleged misuse of a government credit card. Allegations that he was involved in stealing one billion rand (now worth about US$55 million) for the Alexandra renewal project were exposed as smears – no budget was ever allocated to that proposal.
The deputy presidency has become invisible during David Mabuza’s five years in office. Neither good news nor bad news has emanated from it. This raises the debate about what function the deputy presidency fulfils.
Historically, the role of a deputy president was to be on standby in case a president died or was otherwise removed from his post. But the time has long gone when governments would pay the expenses of such an office solely for it to be a spare tyre.
In 1961, the US president John Kennedy gave his vice-president Lyndon Johnson the portfolio to oversee the high-profile National Aeronautics & Space Administration, a tradition continued ever since by both Democrat and Republican presidents.
In South Africa, presidents have flexibly varied the job description of the deputy president around the strengths of the incumbent, or the current needs of the presidency. As deputy president, former president FW de Klerk symbolised that his political constituency would not be entirely marginalised from state power after 1994. Thabo Mbeki functioned as de facto prime minister during Nelson Mandela’s presidency, seeing to the day-to-day running of government.
Mabuza’s last-minute delivery of the winning margin of votes to Ramaphosa at the ANC’s 2017 elective conference clearly demanded a prestigious reward, so the deputy presidency became his.
As the time of writing, Ramaphosa has not yet replaced Mabuza. His concentration of power in a bloated presidency means that a future deputy president could conceivably be tasked with any portfolio from minister of electricity through to intelligence services, to overseeing municipalities’ return to fiscal and administrative health.
Mashatile’s disposition will serve him well in either role. He does not have the outbursts of ANC tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu, nor the over-the-top internet flamboyance of party secretary-general Fikile Mbalula. He will be well aware that his performance in his next post will be crucial to his chances for the culmination of his political career – as president of the country.