The litchi farmer who would be president

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.”

“I’m calling for unity of the progressive forces”

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 19:00 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.”

* This article first appeared in City Press on 5 November 2017.