Fransman's bumpy road to the top

Three days after election to the top job in the Western Cape ANC, Marius Fransman’s face shows the effects of the battle for leadership.

The deputy international relations minister slipped out of last week’s State of the Nation debate in Parliament—the first he attended as a member of the executive—to be interviewed in his office on the 17th floor of 120 Plein Street, where government leaders have their Cape Town offices.

As he sat down in an orange designer chair, he tried to rub the late-afternoon tiredness from his face and asked his secretary, Zenobia, for tea and water.

A fresh bunch of lilies and roses stood on the shelf opposite his shining, empty desk, but he didn’t notice them. “I’m not the kind of man who pays attention to flowers,” he mumbled, after being complimented on his choice of bouquet.

Fransman is now arguably the most powerful ANC politician in the Western Cape and he has national standing as a member of the president’s executive, but the glamour of it all is not yet apparent in his demeanour.

He writes notes with a Bic pen, far removed from the Mont Blancs of his colleagues, and the thick gold chain around his wrist is not a Tiffany bracelet.

Because to get to his position, to beat the odds of political scandal, you can’t be a smarty pants. You have to be a street fighter.

The picture Fransman is presenting now, with his two secretaries and a bodyguard, is not one in which every matriculant from Bishop Lavis High in the Cape Flats would feature.

He suffered the hardship of growing up in a province where, as a coloured person, apartheid treated you slightly better than it did your black fellow Capetonians, but only marginally.

“I can’t say I come from the poorest of the poor,” Fransman admits. With a teacher father, William, and his mother, Johanna, who was employed at Gossard, the garment factory, Fransman grew up in relative comfort.

‘I wasn’t a very good teacher’
He showed early signs of leadership by becoming head of Bishop Lavis High’s student representative council at the age of 15. His political activism started at the University of the Western Cape, where he completed a bachelor of arts degree and started a career as a teacher.

That didn’t last long. “I wasn’t a very good teacher,” he says of his short stint at a high school in Vredendal, a rural town 200km outside Cape Town.

“To me, there should be no democracy in a classroom. I’m the teacher: I speak, you listen. That didn’t work, so I realised ons gaan mekaar doodmaak [we will kill each other] in the classroom.”

He went to work for the ANC and rose to the position of mayor of Vredendal before being appointed provincial minister of social services at the age of 31 in 2001.

Ten years later, he is one of the youngest members of President Jacob Zuma’s executive, after having travelled a political road that had more potholes than smooth surfaces.

Fransman has never shied away from controversy. He was catapulted up the political ladder by his association with former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool and his supporters and was a member of Rasool’s cabinet.

After Rasool was removed as premier, stories emerged about Rasool paying journalists to ensure positive coverage—dubbed the “brown envelope” scandal.

Fransman’s name came up during the investigations. “Suddenly, surprisingly, there was this name of Fransman,” he says. “I don’t understand the technicalities of it, but I understand the politics of it.”

Fransman claims to have been targeted by old political enemies who still take issue with him because he didn’t die a political death after Rasool was pushed out as premier and his cabinet was fired.

Even when the ANC lost the province to the Democratic Alliance, Fransman was elevated to the position of portfolio chairperson in Parliament and later deputy minister.

‘There is venom around town’
In his own words: “The only person who is still standing out of that Rasool government is me.” Rasool was posted to the United States as ambassador and others defected to Cope.

Fransman’s election as ANC leader in the Western Cape is the cherry on top for some.

“There are people out there who badly want to hurt me,” he says. “The reason for that is because I’m the only person left standing. There is venom around town and there are some individuals who can’t get over it.”

The battle ahead for the ANC is to recapture some municipalities in the Western Cape. Having studied the ANC’s electoral defeat in the province, Fransman has a plan to woo coloured voters.

Mitchell’s Plain will be targeted, as will other areas that were previously ANC strongholds. “Our first priority is to take back what was ours,” he says.

Maybe later he will take on those still out to get him.

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