By Fiona Forde

Sekgobelo "Ace" Magashule has been described as a politician with seven lives, a man whose struggle continued long after 1994, despite being the Free State's ANC strong-man since the dawn of democracy.

Twice he has been forced to resign as a member of the executive council (MEC). Twice as many times he has been overlooked as premier in favour of a host of Thabo Mbeki supporters, who came and went over the years, despite the fact that Magashule has been the provincial chairperson of the party since the mid-1990s.

He clearly became a victim of the two centres of power that emerged in the Free State in the past decade. But today he is the premier in waiting.

"I will not cry over spilled milk," he says, with no trace of ill-feeling or bitterness. "It's history now".

But even he would find it hard to dismiss the fact that the premiership is a position that has been a long time in coming.

Magashule was born in the northern Free State town of Parys in 1959 and he was barely out of short pants when he began to agitate for freedom. By the time he enrolled at the University of Fort Hare, where he studied for a Bachelor of Arts, he was already a committed activist.

In his free time he was a thespian. And when he wasn't performing on the stage or agitating for change on the streets he was to be found darting around the boxing ring or strutting his stuff on the soccer field. Magashule played midfield in his day. He wore Number 8. He had style and plenty of panache as a player. And he fast earned the title, Ace, a name that has stuck to this day.

Politically, Magashule was mentored by Chris Hani and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. And he did his fair share of footwork in the underground and went on to become a key organiser in the Free State, lending a hand as a founder of the United Democratic Front in the early 1980s.

In 1984, as anti-apartheid resistance mounted, Magashule also dug his heels in and was one of a handful of activists who fought against municipal councillors, who were reviled at the time for their participation in the brutal system. For that he was detained in December 1985 and spent the next nine months in solitary confinement.

"I can assure you that Section 29 is serious torture," he says. "You know I wanted to commit suicide after that. I was completely and emotionally destroyed."

But he went back to the anti-apartheid beat, into the underground and on the run.

In the years that followed he would find shelter in a number of safe houses in Johannesburg, sometimes at the generosity of Beyers Naude or for months on end at the home of Matthew Chaskalson, the son of eminent lawyer, Arthur.

He was married by Paul Verryn at the Methodist Church in Johannesburg in 1987 and no sooner had he tied the knot then he was on the run again.

He was still a wanted man and, "when things got very hot in 1989", he went into exile and returned only in 1991.

A year later he was appointed the chairman of the ANC's northern Free State region and continued in this post when the party merged the northern and southern regions in 1994. That was also the year he was appointed the MEC for economic affairs, under Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota, the premier.

It was a political marriage that would be short-lived. Lekota ousted Magashule from office in 1996 for "insubordination", despite the fact that Magashule had stood aside to pave the way for Lekota to become premier in the first place.

Magashule had been nominated by his party for the post of premier. But he offered the privilege to Lekota, his one-time comrade, on a golden plate. Others say this was no act of benevolence and that Magashule's hand was forced.

"We were warned," Magashule recalls. "We were even warned by Mandela" They said, 'you should be premier. You are number one on the list.'"

Magashule didn't listen. But neither did Lekota, it seems.

According to Magashule, Lekota "couldn't listen to the decisions of the collective. He wanted to go it alone all the time."

Lekota had become a vexatious premier that few would forget. His actions had provoked outrage at a provincial and national level.

However neither man came out unscathed. Magashule emerged with allegations of corruption hanging over his head and Lekota eventually lost the premiership.

Their political paths parted and Magashule was appointed to parliament, where he stayed until 2004, while retaining the chairmanship of the Free State ANC.

Yet he was repeatedly overlooked for the premiership while one Mbeki-ite after another was sworn in. In the wake of Lekota came Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri. Then Winkie Direko stepped in. And in 2004 came Beatrice Marshoff.

Marshoff appointed Magashule as the MEC for agriculture that same year. But the boxer was floored again a year later, when Marshoff dropped him from her cabinet.

He got up fighting and within months was back on the bench, this time as MEC for sports, arts and culture, a position he still holds.

Polokwane came and went and the changes at the top of the ANC soon sealed Magashule's fate. The provincial party structures took a decision in July that it was time for Marshoff to go and for Magashule to finally step in.

"We were the first to argue that the two centres of power do exist and it doesn't auger well," he says.

Today as he awaits a decision on the premier of the Free State, which has yet to be made by Luthuli House, Magashule ironically watches Lekota attempt to carve out his own political future with talk of forming a new political party.

"But that's Terror," he says. "He has been a bitter man for a long time. He did not like it when he was taken out of the province. And now that Thabo Mbeki has been recalled from office, he doesn't like it either.

"But there is nothing surprising in that. I was recalled. Terror was recalled. Zuma was recalled. Now Mbeki has been recalled".

"These are people who don't want to be led. They want to lead. You can't take a decision based on anger... A bitter leader never leads".

But patience goes a long way. As Roy Jankielsohn, the leader of the Democratic Alliance in the Free State, recently put it: "The expected reshuffle is likely to end 14 years of struggle for Ace Magashule to become premier".

The boxer is back. And he says he's now fighting fit: "This time I'm ready for it".