THE LITCHI FARMER WHO WOULD BE pres­i­dent

A lawyer, poet and busi­ness­man, Mathews Phosa does not al­low gov­ern­ment ten­ders in his fam­ily and is pas­sion­ate about farm­ing

CityPress - - News - SETUMO STONE setumo.stone@city­press.co.za

Mathews Phosa beams as he hands me a framed copy of car­toons from late 2001, which he keeps in a small per­sonal li­brary at his fam­ily home in White River, Mpumalanga. The City Press car­toon shows Phosa stand­ing next to busi­ness­man Tokyo Sexwale and Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa, all of them look­ing down at a kneel­ing Steve Tsh­wete who pro­fusely apol­o­gises for claim­ing that the trio were plot­ting to top­ple for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki. At the time, Tsh­wete was min­is­ter of safety and se­cu­rity. He died in 2002.

A sec­ond car­i­ca­ture, by car­toon­ist Bethuel Man­gena, is even more bru­tal. It shows the three men car­ry­ing long whips and chas­ing Tsh­wete down a road. Phosa sees the hu­mour in it, and cracks into laugh­ter.

“We are hit­ting him,” he chuck­les. Later, as we talk, it be­comes clear that that part of his life was not a laugh­ing mat­ter.

At one point dur­ing that episode in his life, for­mer jus­tice min­is­ter Penuell Maduna called him. Maduna sug­gested the “con­spir­acy thing” could be solved if Phosa and crew apol­o­gised to Mbeki.

A fu­ri­ous Phosa re­jected the idea and told Maduna in rather colour­ful words to go jump.

“I have never been in­volved in a plot so I’m not go­ing to apol­o­gise to Mbeki at all,” he told Maduna. A later in­ves­ti­ga­tion cleared the three lead­ers.

Fast-for­ward to 2017 and it is no more a ru­mour that Phosa is among a throng of can­di­dates vy­ing to take over from Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma at the ANC’s na­tional elec­tive con­fer­ence in De­cem­ber.

Un­like some of the other con­tenders – Lindiwe Sisulu, Jeff Radebe and Ramaphosa – Phosa started his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign on a front foot. He al­ready had the hu­man in­fra­struc­ture that he had set up in 2012, when he un­suc­cess­fully con­tested the post of ANC deputy pres­i­dent at the ANC’s Man­gaung con­fer­ence.

How­ever, as it be­comes clear later that day, when he speaks at a grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony of one of his pro­tégés, Phosa’s Forces of Change anti-Zuma group­ing has weak­ened fol­low­ing the birth of Julius Malema’s Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers (EFF) in 2013. Many of his back­ers opted to jump the ANC ship and join the new party.

But first we have a fam­ily lunch with the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren where Phosa, a lawyer and a ruth­less busi­ness­man, shows dif­fer­ent sides of him­self: a fam­ily man and pas­sion­ate farmer. The lunch is a weekly Satur­day rit­ual, ex­plains Phosa’s wife, Pinky, an ANC MP.

For the next hour or so, the dis­cus­sion around the ta­ble is about busi­ness, ethics and how to han­dle money. Phosa’s first­born daugh­ter Moy­a­habo, now mar­ried with three chil­dren, runs her own public re­la­tions com­pany. Her younger sis­ter, Tshep­iso, runs a Puma fill­ing sta­tion in Nel­spruit. His other two chil­dren Matl­hatse and Le­sika are ab­sent.

Tshep­iso says her fa­ther is health con­scious and drinks only wa­ter and tea.

“He avoids rice and pap and he eats green salad. He works out at the farm, she says, re­fer­ring to a litchi farm a few min­utes from Nel­spruit.

A golden rule in the fam­ily is that gov­ern­ment ten­ders are banned. This is de­spite Ms Phosa be­ing a for­mer deputy speaker, speaker and MEC in Mpumalanga.

“You can­not live off the fat of the state be­cause you have ac­cess to it,” says Phosa, ad­ding that “these are not the Duduzanes” – a ref­er­ence to Zuma’s son Duduzane.

Moy­a­habo says her fa­ther is so strict that when­ever she asks for “a push” – a loan – for her busi­ness she al­ways has to pay it back, with in­ter­est. Tshep­iso is rent­ing the petrol sta­tion’s site from her fa­ther.

“The prin­ci­ple be­hind it is that I should learn how to pay my dues,” says Tshep­iso. Phosa quips: “There is noth­ing free in life. You must pay back the money.”

Phosa speaks pas­sion­ately about his litchi farm, where he fre­quently goes to spend quiet time with the fam­ily. “You get to know your chil­dren bet­ter when you are calm,” he says. The 22-hectare farm has up to 6 000 litchi trees. The litchis take seven years to har­vest and the trees are in their sixth year.

“You have to have the pa­tience of the farmer be­fore you har­vest.”

He says a cul­ture of farm­ing, and game farm­ing, is big in the fam­ily. He breeds buf­falo, sable an­te­lope and black and white im­pala, “just like Ramaphosa” on an­other farm near Tza­neen. This in­cludes a hunt­ing farm. He breeds Bon­s­mara cat­tle and ex­ports av­o­ca­dos to Europe, com­pet­ing with coun­tries like Mex­ico.

“I’m more of a farmer than peo­ple re­alise. It is one of the big­gest parts of my busi­ness.

“Then there is the min­ing as­pect, pro­cess­ing in the Brits area, North West. It is a di­ver­si­fied port­fo­lio of busi­nesses. The whole group em­ploys more than 30 000 work­ers through­out the coun­try,” he says.

He has de­lib­er­ately kept all this out of the public eye.

“My busi­nesses are cheek­ily in­de­pen­dent be­cause first I banked on my­self. I made mil­lions from con­sult­ing and put that into busi­ness. I did that very qui­etly, so to­day many ANC peo­ple do not know my busi­nesses be­cause I hide it and keep it pri­vate.”

He re­jects as “su­per­fi­cial non­sense” and “pol­i­tics of the ig­no­ra­mus” the sug­ges­tion that he was in the pock­ets of Afrikaner busi­ness­peo­ple.

“What do I have to do with Afrikan­ers? Afrikaans is a sub­ject I ex­celled in and had 85% of my sub­jects in Afrikaans,” he says. He writes po­etry in both English and Afrikaans.

When he was ap­proached to be pres­i­dent of the Afrikaanse Han­delsin­sti­tuut, he got for­mer pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela’s bless­ing.

“The ANC em­braced the move, de­scrib­ing it as a break­through for na­tional unity and non­ra­cial­ism.”

Like­wise, he says, it is wrong to claim that Ramaphosa is in the hands of the Jews.

“I will de­fend Cyril be­cause I know him. We come from univer­sity to­gether, we were in the same class­room. I have never known him to be a pup­pet of the Jews.”

The two were stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Lim­popo’s Tur­floop cam­pus in 1972 and both led stu­dent ac­tivism. Later in life, Ramaphosa be­came ANC sec­re­tary-gen­eral and Phosa fol­lowed later as trea­surer-gen­eral. He put Ramaphosa in his ANC fi­nance com­mit­tee. “We have known each other for many years. I know his first girl­friend and he knows mine.”

He does not mince his words when he says that In­di­ans con­trol Zuma.

“Of course they run him and there is enough ev­i­dence.” He says many of his col­leagues in the ANC agree that they were wrong to think they re­ally knew Zuma.

“He was the kind­est of all un­cles and lead­ers. He was charm­ing, al­ways laugh­ing and wor­ry­ing about all of us. He had a soft hu­man side about him which was very nice. I think in a way he still has it.

“You would not see the greed as­pect of him be­cause it did not man­i­fest it­self. Some say he must have been very de­cep­tive. Oth­ers say Mbeki should have warned all of us be­cause he was close to him. They were like twins.”

At one point dur­ing the in­ter­view he looks at his phone and gig­gles. He seems pleas­antly amused.

“I’m get­ting more nom­i­na­tions from East­ern Cape. It is amaz­ing,” he says as he hands me his phone. The mes­sage comes from his cam­paign or­gan­iser in that prov­ince.

“The East­ern Cape has been crazy since they started nom­i­na­tions yes­ter­day,” he says.

Phosa ar­rives just af­ter 7pm at the Casambo Ex­clu­sive Lodge near Nel­spruit for the grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony of EFF pro­vin­cial leader Collen Sed­ibe. Be­fore the cer­e­mony starts takes self­ies and shares jokes with those sit­ting at his ta­ble, in­clud­ing EFF gen­eral sec­re­tary Godrich Gardee.

He is in­tro­duced to the au­di­ence as “one of our own”. The event could have eas­ily been a re­union of the old Forces of Change lobby group.

Gardee tells the au­di­ence: “In him [Phosa] we have a rev­o­lu­tion­ary and a free­dom fighter.”

He says he hopes Phosa will win so that he can be there when the ANC and EFF ne­go­ti­ate a coali­tion gov­ern­ment af­ter the 2019 gen­eral elec­tions.

“Not Baba ka Duduzane [Zuma] be­cause he rep­re­sents cor­rup­tion.”

He says Zuma’s pre­ferred suc­ces­sor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is cor­rupt.

Gardee’s part­ing words for Phosa: “We hope soon when you lose the race in Nas­rec you will come to the EFF. We are just a phonecall away. We want a very strong EFF in 2019.” The ANC’s De­cem­ber con­fer­ence will take place at the Nas­rec Expo Cen­tre, Jo­han­nes­burg.

When he takes to the podium, Phosa says many in the au­di­ence are his chil­dren or po­lit­i­cal stu­dents. He says he opted not to wear his aca­demic gown “be­cause they are so ma­roon, I will look like EFF”.

He crit­i­cises Zuma’s ax­ing of Blade Nz­i­mande as higher ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter last month.

“Chang­ing min­is­ters does not change the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion. Zuma is un­com­fort­able with peo­ple who dare to dif­fer with him and he prefers syco­phants,” Phosa says.

He does not sup­port gov­ern­ment’s ex­pen­sive plans for nu­clear en­ergy and says those push­ing for it have al­ready pock­eted com­mis­sions.

He says vot­ers are con­vinced that the ANC has lost its way and the out­come of the De­cem­ber con­fer­ence is any­body’s guess. His sug­ges­tion is that the ANC, EFF, United Demo­cratic Move­ment and Congress of the Peo­ple work to­gether in 2019.

“The time for po­lit­i­cal re­align­ment is com­ing and no one can avoid it. I’m call­ing for unity of the pro­gres­sive forces. We are all one.”

PHOTO: LISA SKIN­NER

CLEARSIGHTED Mathews Phosa pre­dicts a po­lit­i­cal re­align­ment af­ter the 2019 elec­tions that will see splin­ter par­ties join­ing forces

Mathews Phosa, his wife Pinky and their grand­son en­joy Satur­day lunch

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