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Minister of justice & correctional services Ronald Lamola. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Minister of justice & correctional services Ronald Lamola. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

So, justice minister Ronald Lamola is in the news after last week’s chief justice interviews. The Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interviews have resembled a Jerry Springer show in recent years, and last week’s episodes were no different.

The subsequent controversy and threats of legal challenges may not be a bad thing for Lamola’s political image. Publicity may boost his profile at an important time, as there is noise about his suitability to be the ANC’s deputy president. The controversy might also help South Africans better make up their minds about exactly who Lamola is.

At 38, he is the youngest minister in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet. By the ANC’s standards, Lamola is very young. It doesn’t matter that SA’s median age is 28. Or that young people make up about a third of the population. Lamola is a former deputy president of the ANC Youth League, under Julius Malema. 

In March 2016, Lamola got widely noticed when he led a handful of protesters who called for Jacob Zuma’s ousting. It was a brave act – at that time not many people were bold enough to take Zuma on.

Granted, Lamola didn’t have much to lose, as he was on the fringes of the political establishment then. He did not support Zuma’s second-term campaign in 2012, when many of the current leaders, from Ramaphosa to Lindiwe Sisulu, were happy to accept positions on the Zuma ticket. Lamola supported Kgalema Motlanthe, who ran against Zuma.

After the elective conference, the Zuma camp sought to bring Lamola in, as he became the youth league’s acting president when Malema was expelled from the party. Lamola was then sidelined after the rise of the “premier league” group, which engineered the rise of Collen Maine (nicknamed Oros). Maine was robotic in his worship of Zuma and the Guptas. So, standing against Zuma in 2016 was a consistent step for Lamola. 

As the ANC struggles to cope with the reality that it is a sinking party, some supporters are wondering whether Lamola should not be the next ANC deputy president. The position is a powerful one. Most of the party’s presidents in the past 70 years were deputy president before they became president. (Though I suspect that this is a matter of coincidence, rather than a deliberate succession culture.)

So the odds suggest the deputy president has a good chance of rising to the top. The last time someone came from outside the ANC’s top structures (mostly the top six) and became party president was in 1949, when JS Moroka, who was not even a member of the party, was brought in to replace AB Xuma. But Moroka was out of touch with politics and what the ANC stood for, and was removed after just three years. The political lesson from that Moroka failure is that leaders should come from the ANC succession sausage machine. But the problem is that the ANC’s succession process is dysfunctional, and all its other important practices are broken beyond repair.

So, Lamola’s rise to the ANC’s deputy presidency, and ultimately the presidency – if it happens – might not help SA. We have to look at succession within the context of the party’s culture and how it manages its politics. The ANC has failed to produce policies that can help SA move beyond the 1994 democratic breakthrough (despite some successes in poverty-alleviating welfare interventions).

Several indicators suggest that SA is regressing under the ANC. In short, the ANC is undoing its successes. One set of statistics concerns GDP per capita (a division of the national output by the total population). SA’s GDP per capita grew from $2,497 in 2002 to $8,810 in 2011. It is now about $5,600. Unemployment, inequality, crime, poor public health services – all these indicators tell us we are going backwards. And I’m not even comparing the ANC’s track record with the abominable apartheid government.

So, even if Lamola were to succeed Ramaphosa, he is unlikely to make a difference. The ANC’s problems run deep, and its culture has become interwoven with corruption and sophistry.

In any event, the ANC is likely to fall below 50% in 2024, and will need a coalition partner to form a government. It may need to offer the country’s deputy presidency to the coalition partner. By the time Ramaphosa’s second term as SA president is over, in 2029, the ANC will probably have lost even more electoral support.

Unemployment will have breached the 40% mark, give or take, and inequality will be even more pronounced than it is now.

Unfortunately, the focus on saviours for the ANC is consistent with the party’s problematic thinking on leadership choices, which has brought us to where we are in the first place.

Instead of following the ANC as it goes through the motions, we need a conversation about a post-ANC SA, and how to change gears from the post-1994 SA and all the ideas associated with it. We need to define the country we want, without throwing away the good from the post-1994 order. We need to look at how we move from here, and not necessarily how we move away from apartheid.  Apartheid is not the sole reference point in our history. And neither is Zuma or state capture, as the current administration wants us to believe. The ANC keeps creating unflattering milestones along the way.

In the next few weeks, the JSC process in selecting a candidate for chief justice is likely to be challenged in court, and Lamola’s role might come under the spotlight. That will be a good thing. We may learn more about the man and his politics.

We still do not know what his role was in the Zuma parole saga. And judging by his silence, I assume, at the very least, he found nothing wrong with it. Well, at any rate, Ramaphosa welcomed Zuma’s release. 

But pairing Lamola with Ramaphosa will not help SA. Lamola might be swallowed up by the politics of expediency driving Ramaphosa currently. Our president, with his lack of both drive and backbone, is starting to resemble an amoeba.

When the ANC finally sinks, it will have on board people like Lamola who are carrying the bags of old people who preside over the erosion of the party’s glorious history, from its time as a liberation party to SA’s first democratic governing party.

History will remember Lamola, though not quite the same way it will judge Malusi Gigaba, who traded his political ambitions for a few pieces of silver, blindly following Zuma. Ramaphosa may not be corrupt, or controversial like Zuma, but following a visionless political figurehead is equally destructive. I do hope the real Lamola will stand up eventually, so we know what exactly he is about, besides having been opposed to Zuma. 

Anyway, the ANC’s leadership choices are not influenced by political standing, intellect, or integrity. It’s a numbers game more complex than the lottery or the horoscope, meaning Lamola will rise if the majority of the ANC’s provinces support him, and the political stars line up in his favour. But so what if he rises? What does he stand for? 

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