The ‘people’s choice’ just keeps bouncing back
This popular Free State politician wields serious clout, writes Moipone Malefane
HE HAS been overlooked for the premiership three times, but Ace Magashule remains an ace in the pack in the eyes of the people of the Free State.
He is popular among loyalists and enemies alike — not because he is the longest serving ANC provincial chairman in the country, but because of the power he wields in the province.
He has led the ANC in the Free State for over 12 years and has been at the centre of almost all the ANC infighting in the province since 1994.
This did not give the people in the province any doubts about his leadership qualities; they always rewarded him by electing him chairman each time a conference was held.
Between 1997 and 2004, the ANC deployed him to Parliament following a bitter power struggle between him and then Premier Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota. The fight was sparked by Magashule’s revolt against Lekota, which led to provincial ANC structures not electing Lekota as provincial party chair. Instead, they chose Magashule’s buddy, Pat Matosa.
The fight escalated in the provincial legislature where Lekota sacked Magashule before being forced to reinstate him on the same day.
The fight continued and with no clear winner emerging, the provincial leadership was disbanded twice by former President Nelson Mandela in 1996 and again in 2000 under President Thabo Mbeki.
In 1996 Lekota was replaced by Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri as premier, and an interim leadership was appointed in the province while Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni, who was Labour minister at the time, was dispatched to organise new party elections.
Parliamentary secretary Zingile Dingane was elected provincial chairman. He lasted only one term before Magashule came back and ousted him. He was also overlooked for the premiership in 1999 when Winkie Direko took over, but led the party from Parliament until the 2004 elections when the province thought Mbeki would appoint him premier. Instead, Mbeki opted for a lightweight — Beatrice Marshoff — much to the disdain of the rank and file in the province.
When Marshoff took over, she appointed Magashule MEC for Agriculture, but was to fire him in April 2005.
The story still goes around in the Free State of how black farmers benefited from Magashule’s short tenure as Agriculture MEC when he donated tractors to scores of them.
Magashule used his axing from Marshoff’s executive as an opportunity to reconnect with the masses. He intensified his Botho project, raising funds for students who could not afford to pay their fees, delivering blankets and getting donations for the elderly and orphans in the province.
With the project he has managed to get about 30 students into different educational institutions in the province, provide blankets in winter for the elderly and buy shoes for orphans.
The ANC Women’s League provincial chairman, Sisi Ntombela, said Magashule was passionate about the project and had asked his ANC provincial executive committee members to adopt a child by either taking them into their care or providing basic needs for them.
“He is a humble man who is prepared to help anyone. All his life, he has been a hard worker. The ANC comes first and he is really committed to the party.
“As the Women’s League, we have worked well together. He always phones us to check on our programmes. He gives us support by attending all our gatherings,” she said.
Last week, the father of three bounced back into government as Marshoff again reshuffled her Cabinet. She appointed Magashule MEC for Sport, Arts and Culture, a post he accepted this week — some say reluctantly.
Although the appointment surprised many, some saw it as a move to contain Magashule ahead of the national Limpopo conference that has divided the ANC over whether to retain Mbeki for a third term or elect a new party president.
Magashule’s deputy, Pat Matosa, did not want to discuss Magashule’s pain.
“Our view has been you cannot put a good man down forever,” Matosa quipped when asked for his views.
He said Magashule was the people’s choice in 1994 for premiership, but the provincial leadership decided he was still too young to lead, opening the way for Lekota.
“We went to Shell House [previously ANC headquarters] together with Ace and told former President Nelson Mandela that comrade Terror [Lekota] should be appointed but in 2004 we wanted Ace for premier.”
Matosa explained that in 2004 the ANC built its campaign around 49-year-old Magashule as the man who was destined to lead the provincial government.
“We were mindful at the same time that in 1997 we gave the ANC president powers to appoint premiers.
“We were confident that Ace would be the man, but it happened that Mbeki ‘on merit’ appointed Marshoff.
“Ace was phoned by the president of the ANC about his decision. He was not bitter. With the powers given to him, he [Mbeki] had every right to appoint Marshoff.
“I was also phoned as then provincial secretary and the same message was conveyed to me, but Ace continued to lead us without anger,” says the man who has worked with Magashule since his own release from Robben Island in 1990.
Matosa said they were angry at the decision because they had to explain the President’s decision to the masses.
“Ace has the ability of putting people’s interests ahead of his own.
“Even now on his appointment, Ace came to inform the organisation there was a new assignment for him and we gave him the go-ahead.”
Yet while many sing his praises, Magashule’s enemies see him as a source of division and infighting in the province.
At the moment there are three court cases against the ANC, and his detractors accuse him of being too powerful and unilaterally using his position to gain patronage by “deploying” supporters in powerful government municipality positions — whether they are qualified or not.
“If you are not seen to be close to Ace you will not be deployed anywhere. He gives jobs to his pals only,” said one.
Born Elias Sekgobelo Magashule at Tumahole township in Parys — where he still lives with his family — he became involved in politics in 1976.
He played an active part in the now famous Vaal Triangle riots — at the time he was a teacher at Moqhaka High School — but was forced into exile following his arrest in 1985.
He lived in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania until his return after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990. He describes his new appointment as “one of those assignments”.
“I got the blessing from the ANC and have been allowed to take up the new responsibility. I will do my best. Fortunately I was a soccer player and earned myself the name Ace, so I do what people need. I was also a boxer,” he said.
His childhood friend Thabo Manyoni describes him as a people’s person who does not drink, but “you can find him in taverns in the company of those enjoying beer”. “Not only black people have confidence in him as a leader but people in white communities too.”
Manyoni added that Magashule was a leader and an implementer, and that was why he had remained the people’s choice throughout the years.
I SEE YOU: Ace Magashule remains the trump card in the Free State