Mpumalanga is perhaps the biggest provincial winner of the revolution in the ruling party at its Polokwane conference. The province’s early support for Jacob Zuma as ANC president has been rewarded with the highest five positions on the national executive committee (NEC), plus Mathews Phosa’s election to the party’s top six leadership.
In addition, Mpumalanga has, for the first time, won a seat on the national working committee (NWC) With Phosa’s automatic inclusion as treasurer general, that gives the province two voices where it previously had none.
But, provincial pundits speculate, the real prize might be the presidency itself, should Jacob Zuma be prosecuted for corruption and fraud.
Local ANC structures, and even opposition parties, believe that Phosa would be better placed to assume the presidential mantle than other more obvious candidates.
Supporters believe that Phosa’s relative youth, his plain-speaking grass-roots appeal, his willingness to take risks and commit to visionary schemes and his popularity with business and minority groups set him ahead of candidates who have operated in less public forums.
But it isn’t just populist charisma that makes Phosa a contender.
Supporters also point to his extensive governing experience as Mpumalanga’s first premier, his legal training, technical policy experience, both in the ANC and government, and his wide international networks as a solid grounding for the presidency.
It will not, however, be plain sailing for Phosa should he make a bid for the Union Buildings.
The public hallmark of Phosa’s term as Mpumalanga premier was scandal, with critics keen to dust off skeletons they believe have not yet been put to rest. He has also been grilled in party structures for his willingness to takes risks and ‘shoot from the hipâ€ and over his choice of advisers, a number of whom have subsequently been charged with corruption or fraud.
Although Phosa himself was not available for comment on Thursday, his supporters insist that objective scrutiny of his handling of the scandals highlights his fearless commitment to clean governance. They say he held powerful provincial strongmen accountable and insisted on public investigations and trials in virtually every case.
His backers also insist that Phosa’s decisive leadership includes consultation with interested parties and that his relatively modest successes in the business world prove that his achievements are the result of ‘real workâ€ and clean business practice. ANC networks that helped other leaders carve out business empires effectively cold-shouldered Phosa under Mbeki, they argue.
For this reason, they say, he is not beholden to powerbrokers or dealmakers and has managed to transcend many of the factions in the tripartite alliance as a peacemaker and unifier.
What no one knows, however, is whether Phosa will be keen to bare himself to the kind of bruising battle and bitter betrayals he suffered last time he made a bid for high office, when he squared off against Zuma for the nation’s deputy presidency in the run-up to the ANC’s 1997 national conference in Mafikeng.
The compensations of being a close adviser to Zuma or his successor, while serving in the ANC’s top six, and growing his personal business empire might be reward enough for him.