Mathews Phosa walks out of a boardroom escorting a group of people who had come from Bloemfontein to pledge their support for his campaign to be president of the ANC.
“You’ve met them as they walked out, [they’re] not even from my province [Mpumalanga]. [They’re] from the Free State and from Gauteng … I don’t know all these people. They phone me and say: ‘We’ll come to pledge support and you’ll tell us how we can work together to get you nominated.’ Is that not a good feeling?” Phosa said.
As one of the seven candidates who hope to succeed President Jacob Zuma at the party’s elective conference in December, the former ANC treasurer general is mostly viewed as an underdog. But he said his clean record — free of any corruption scandals — and straight-talking nature would make him the favourite among ANC members yearning for decisive leadership.
Should he win, his plan is to restore the ANC’s moral leadership, revive the state of branches, ensure economic stability in the country and root out corruption.
“I was the first South African to say the president [Zuma] must step down. I was not afraid to say it, because I think it was the right thing to do. Giving moral leadership. [To say] ‘I’ll fall on my sword, I’ve wronged you’. Not to say ‘I’ve wronged you, I was misled by my lawyers’. What rubbish?” Phosa says, criticising the president’s apology over the Nkandla debacle.
Phosa’s campaign has been heavily focussed on corruption and restoring the ANC’s moral compass. He has crisscrossed the country to speak critically about the party’s inability to root out corrupt members or to hold itself or the president accountable.
“People know what I stand for — I’ve been speaking my language and I’ve not minced my words or waffled. There are people in this race, they have never condemned corruption, they have never condemned state capture … like they are afraid of something.”
Phosa criticised narrowing down the succession debate to a choice between Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa, saying a debate between a woman president or the automatic succession of the deputy president stripped branches of their power to decide.
“The branches must be kingmakers. It is an unconstitutional debate.”
Phosa said his generation erred when they helped Zuma become president at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference. But he rejected any suggestion that he should apologise for his part, saying he couldn’t have known what lay ahead.
“We must all take collective responsibility for [what] happened in the lead-up to Polokwane. The interaction between Thabo Mbeki and Zuma … creating a climate for us to see Zuma as a victim,” he said.
“We didn’t know that he was corrupt, we didn’t know that he will behave the way he does now. I didn’t know the Guptas existed.”
Flicking his wrist dismissively, Phosa rejected questions about whether he should defer to a younger generation of leaders. “Mandela was older than me when he became president so that’s not a problem.”
Phosa also dismissed the view that he is an unlikely candidate, calling it a media invention. So far, he has been nominated by branches in Khayelitsha and Langa in the Western Cape. He said he was also receiving “grass-roots” support from across the country.
As the interview with the Mail & Guardian came to a close, more ANC members trickled into his offices. He said: “You see? Here are more people. It’s amazing!”