Mathews Phosa is a true son of the Lowveld, the grasslands that stretch endlessly through the Mpumalanga province.
Born in 1952 in Mbombela township in Nelspruit in the then Eastern Transvaal, Phosa is hoping that the roots which lie deep in his home province now Mpumalanga — the “place where the sun rises” — will be sturdy enough to see him rise to the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC).
Phosa has thrown his name into the hat to succeed Jacob Zuma as the leader of South Africa’s ruling party and it is a peculiarity of South African politics that Mpumalanga has emerged as one of the key provinces in the race for the ANC presidency.
Phosa served as provincial Premier in Mpumalanga under President Nelson Mandela for the founding years of South Africa’s democracy, from 1994 until 1999, proving a popular and unifying figure for South Africans still feeling their way post-apartheid. It helps that he can speak nine languages.
Today though, Mpumalanga is under the firm control of current Premier David Mabuza, under whose watch the ANC membership in the province has ballooned that it now suddenly ranks second behind only traditional powerhouse KwaZulu-Natal as the province with the most numbers — and hence voting delegates at the party’s elective conference in Johannesburg in December.
Not for nothing is Mabuza regarded as the kingmaker in ANC politics heading into the elective conference.
But Phosa, who still has a law practice in Mbombela, is above provincial politics, putting himself forward as a man on a mission to clean house in Africa’s oldest liberation party.
In recent months he has come out strongly against looters of state resources, warning that he would throw them in jail should he be elected president of the party in December and then the country in 2019.
In a bruising critique of Zuma’s rein, Phosa said anti-apartheid struggle icon Oliver Tambo — whose centenary of his birth date this year has been widely celebrated by the governing party — would be shocked if he were alive to see what was happening today.
He has heavily criticised the fact that little seems to have been done to investigate the myriad allegations of brazen corruption and state capture which emerged from the so-called Gupta Leaks email dump, with Zuma and his family at the centre of it all.
“A naked emperor,” is how Phosa saw Zuma.
His low-key campaign has also seen him lament the fact that the 2012 Marikana massacre of striking mineworkers happened under an ANC-led government, dismiss the cheap sloganeering around radical economic transformation, as well as the controversial mining charter which he said was crafted by corrupt politicians.
Instead, his political-business tuned mind says the government must create non-divisive interventions, in partnership with business and labour, that address the exclusion of black entrepreneurs from the mainstream economy.
Phosa left South Africa in 1985, and soon became the regional commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, in Mozambique. He was one of the first four members of the ANC to re-enter South Africa from exile in 1990 to form part of negotiations with the National Party after the ANC’s unbanning and played a key role in the transition to democracy.
He has at various times been head of the ANC’s legal department, and at the party’s 52nd National Conference in Polokwane in 2007 was elected treasurer general. He has been a member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) since 1999.
In 2001, Phosa was named alongside fellow presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale as part of a plot to oust President Thabo Mbeki, but were all later cleared.
In 2012, the trio were thrown together again, this time in the race for the position of ANC deputy president. Ramaphosa roundly trounced his two rivals.
Five years later and Phosa is once again in the running. This time the stakes are even higher. To win, he will have to conjure up something akin to the title of his 1999 poetry collection “Deur die oog van ‘n naald” (Through the eye of a needle).