Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale. Picture: SOWETAN
Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale. Picture: SOWETAN

IN AESOP’s fable about a swan mistaken for a goose, the swan, caught by mistake, begins to sing as a prelude to its demise. That song saves its life. Not so for axed Limpopo premier Cassel Mathale.

Mr Mathale, it could be argued, delivered the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) 85% elections victory in Limpopo in 2009. He commanded a significant support base in the province, despite facing strong challengers within the party.

His premature departure underlines what seems to be the continuing unravelling of the Polokwane coalition that brought President Jacob Zuma into power. Today, Mr Mathale is counted among Mr Zuma’s chief enemies.

The former chairman of the ANC’s troubled Limpopo province resigned on Monday. He will be redeployed in Parliament. He is the fourth premier to be pushed out by the ANC since Mr Zuma took the reins in Polokwane.

Other premiers who were pushed include Sello Moloto (Limpopo), Nosimo Balindlela (Eastern Cape), Maureen Modiselle (North West) and Ebrahim Rasool (Western Cape).

Under former president Thabo Mbeki — who had the sole power to appoint and dismiss premiers — most served their full term. Mosiuoa Lekota was the only one to be recalled, from the post of Free State premier, under former president Nelson Mandela.

What these fallen provincial power brokers have in common is that the dominant political forces of the day, within the ANC, were not in their favour. Their failure to read the party’s mood led to their downfall.

"It comes as no surprise to us. It was just a matter of time," says a close aide of Mr Mathale, claiming that the premier was fired only because he did not support Mr Zuma’s second-term re-election in Mangaung last December.

If that is the case, North West Premier Thandi Modise will also be watching to see whether the winds that swept away Mr Mathale are blowing in her direction. Ditto for Eastern Cape Premier Noxolo Kiviet, some would say.

Parliament, it seems, has also not been an easy home for former premiers. At least three have resigned before finishing their parliamentary term, including Manne Dipico (Northern Cape), Popo Molefe (North West) and Ngoako Ramatlhodi (Limpopo).

But Mr Mathale, despite having served as ANC provincial chairman, won the provincial leadership contest in 2012 by a narrow margin of 82 votes. This limp grasp on power would have made it easier for the ANC to disband his provincial executive in March this year.

This week, referring to his term in office, which started about a month before the 2009 national elections when he replaced Mr Moloto, Mr Mathale had only good things to say.

"We have succeeded in building more than 63,123 houses for our people… We have provided 1.2-million households with water and electricity… Government has successfully built more than 54 state-of-the-art schools in the province," he said. Not enough, the ANC would say.

Limpopo has often made the headlines for the wrong reasons, and Mr Mathale — a close ally of former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema — has had to fend off perceptions that he turned a blind eye on corruption.

In April, Mr Mathale reportedly had a tiff with Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu for allegedly blocking disciplinary action against two unnamed provincial heads of department.

The province’s near-bankruptcy in 2011 was attributed to the "looting" of state resources under Mr Mathale. In December of 2011, the central government placed five provincial government departments under administration, including the provincial treasury.

Pressure on Mr Mathale to step down had come from all sides, including the ANC‘s alliance partners and the opposition.

The ANC caucus in the Limpopo legislature in 2013 blocked a move by the Democratic Alliance to pass a motion of no confidence in the premier, while trade unions led several marches to the premier’s office demanding that he step down.

But Mr Mathale’s departure from the helm of the provincial government is unlikely to have much effect on the bad state of the ANC in the province.

Leading the race to replace him is Stan Mathabatha, a choice that will not go down well with some in the province’s pro-Zuma bloc.

Mr Mathabatha’s elevation would mean that provincial education minister Dickson Masemola, Mr Mathale’s former deputy in the ANC, would be overlooked. Mr Masemola had been serving as acting premier for the past three weeks while Mr Mathale was on leave.

Also overlooked would be ANC Limpopo task team chairman Philemon Mdaka, who replaced Mr Mathale in March.

Mr Mdaka allegedly survived a motion of no confidence against him last week, amid reports that the national executive committee deployees in Limpopo were not happy with the work of the interim leadership.

The provincial task team on Monday rejected speculation that it was in trouble.

Mr Mathabatha, who comes from the background of the South African Communist Party in Limpopo, was seen to be ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s candidate.

The ANC would surely aim to improve on its 2009 elections performance in Limpopo. But instability in the organisation and in government might see the people of Limpopo looking for an alternative.

And if the party’s support drops next year, there is no guessing who the scapegoat will be: Cassel Mathale.