Paul Mashatile, 61, the party's former finance chief, was Monday elected the new vice president
The spotlight in South Africa’s turbulent political scene has been relentlessly fixed on President Cyril Ramaphosa as he battles a damning cash-in-sofa affair.
But, little noticed, is the rise of the man who could succeed Ramaphosa if the scandal destroys his career.
He is Paul Mashatile, who after years of quietly ascending through the ruling African National Congress (ANC) was installed on Monday as deputy to Ramaphosa, newly re-elected as party chief.
Under the ANC’s constitution, the party’s vice president succeeds the president if he or she is ousted or incapacitated.
And that, in turn, opens the way to the position of head of state, which is determined by parliament, where the ANC has an absolute majority.
Mashatile, 61, is a calm and enigmatic fixture of the ANC who started his political career during the struggle to dismantle apartheid.
He then went on to occupy regional and national ministerial positions.
Over the past year, he has simultaneously held three key posts in the party’s uppermost echelons, replacing incumbents who died or were removed because of graft charges.
Those powerful positions — treasurer, interim secretary general and deputy secretary general — earned Mashatile the moniker “Holy Trinity”.
Mashatile’s attempts to clean up the books of the financially struggling ANC have been a dismal failure.
But within the party, his steady rise and new visibility have earned him unexpected popularity.
His soft-spoken influence has enabled him to reach deputy president — traditionally a launch pad to the head of state job.
Ramaphosa was deputy to President Jacob Zuma, just as Zuma was deputy to Thabo Mbeki before. And Mbeki was deputy to the first black president, Nelson Mandela.
– Apartheid struggle –
Born in 1961 on the outskirts of the capital Pretoria, Mashatile took up activism fighting white minority rule during his school years in Alexandra, the country’s oldest township.
He was arrested and detained without trial from 1985 to 1989.
After democracy came in 1994, he held several top provincial positions before serving as a minister under Zuma from 2010 to 2014.
He led the campaign to remove his corruption-stained boss, paving way for Ramaphosa to become president.
Mashatile put his hand up for the ANC deputy president’s job but remained vague on his support for Ramaphosa in the run-up to the vote.
In recent months, Mashatile has made “strategic” political moves, said Hlengiwe Ndlovu, a lecturer at the Wits School of Governance in Johannesburg.
“Until 2017 his political maturity was not at a point where he could stand alone like we’ve seen in the past few months, where he developed his own political ambitions,” said Ndlovu.
But he “potentially” could be South Africa’s next president, Ndlovu said.
“Mashatile is a political realist,” said analyst Richard Calland.
– Corruption allegations –
But like many ANC top leaders, corruption accusations trail him.
Dubbed by some as the ringleader of the “Alex mafia” — activists who began their political careers in Alexandra township during the 1970s and 1980s — Mashatile was embroiled in corruption scandals in which the group was accused of defrauding public funds.
It was alleged the tall slim-built leader awarded top jobs to his friends when he was head of finance for the province, which includes the country’s financial hub of Johannesburg, between 2004 and 2008.
Mashatile has distanced himself from the group and denied any corruption allegations.
In June 2006, Mashatile, then as provincial finance chief sparked a minor scandal when he spent 96,000 rand (around $13,000 at the time) on his government credit card, on a dinner for government workers at an upmarket French restaurant in Johannesburg.
Undeterred, he went on to occupy the province’s top job as premier from 2008.
Few details are known about Mashatile’s personal life. He has two children with his wife, Ellen, who died in 2020 after a long illness.