THE ‘BLACK JESUS’ OF NORTH WEST
Supra Mahumapelo’s quest to grow the ANC’s influence in North West may have set him on track to become one of the party’s top six, writes Setumo Stone
Two Molefes have come to define how history will remember Supra Mahumapelo.
In the 2000s it was Popo Molefe, the former premier of North West, who once told Mahumapelo that he would make his life miserable until he saw him walking the streets in torn shoes with no soles. Molefe lost.
This time, it is Brian Molefe who has suddenly become the poster boy for chaotic ANC politics in North West, despite his disgraceful exit as chief executive officer of Eskom after corruption allegations involving President Jacob Zuma’s benefactors, the Gupta family.
Mahumapelo has personally taken over the quest to ensure that Brian Molefe becomes an MP, paving the way for Zuma to appoint him as either minister or deputy minister of finance.
For Mahumapelo (52), the drive to elevate Molefe is personal after he managed to push North West ANC politician, and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Des van Rooyen to the same post in December 2015 – only to have big business force Zuma into retreat after just four days, and appoint Pravin Gordhan to the post instead.
But what are Mahumapelo’s bigger ambitions?
It is 2011 and I’m sitting down with Mahumapelo for a late-morning interview at his Afrikanos restaurant on the outskirts of Mahikeng’s central business district. It was such a rare opportunity that even my former editor was astonished that I’d managed to make it happen.
Mahumapelo’s political persona was then something of an enigma as he was almost reluctant to speak publicly about his ideas and vision for the provincial ANC. As he walked through the doors of Afrikanos, the “comrades” sitting at another table stood up. He flashed them a brief smile and proceeded to an empty table close to the window.
In February that year, Mahumapelo was elected as chairperson of the ANC in North West after a highly contested conference on Valentine’s Day in Rustenburg. He had cut a last-minute deal with his nemesis Kabelo Mataboge to emerge victorious.
Slowly enjoying a dish of dumplings and a variety of meat, Mahumapelo introduced the topic of “rebranding and repositioning” North West’s image as one of his chief tasks in the years to follow.
His face beamed as he started unpacking concepts, using words like “saamwerk” and “saamtrek”.
It was “necessary”, he said, to change North West, which was viewed as “peripheral in terms of national discourse”. He lamented that senior provincial posts were held by people from “outside” the province.
This was “unforgivable”, he said, adding that it was impossible to accept the idea that a province with more than 3 million people could not produce 10 heads of department.
Then his phone rang and former police minister Nathi Mthethwa’s name flashed on the screen. We paused.
“Nyambose,” he answered, referring to Mthethwa’s clan name. He spoke confidently, affirming that he had arrived on the national stage.
I wondered whether “changing the face” of the province had anything to do with the lobby for Mahumapelo to boot out then premier Thandi Modise and take over. But he said he was not interested in a position in government because it was “consuming” and “inflexible”. The bureaucracy, he said, allowed no space for creativity.
His last words revealed why he had been avoiding reporters for a long time, and his fear of being misunderstood: “I wish that the media will report fairly, objectively and accurately.”
My first encounter with Mahumapelo was, however, the previous year, during a political class in Stadt village, outside Mahikeng. An official from Luthuli House was schooling ANC volunteers in preparation for the upcoming provincial conference.
Heads turned as Mahumapelo walked into the halffilled community hall, and an uneasy silence washed across the room. Realising his audience’s attention had shifted to the back of the room, the Luthuli House deployee stumbled over his words.
A companion next to me leant across and whispered: “That’s him, Black Jesus.”
The name was familiar. I had been told many times during ANC gatherings that he was the most feared politician in the province.
Mahumapelo was a former political education officer at Luthuli House, a role he started after he “quit a technical job at Eskom after six months because of racial discrimination”, says his friend, Israel Thoka.
Mahumapelo was the former provincial secretary of the ANC executive in North West, which Luthuli House disbanded in 2009 on the grounds of “institutionalised factionalism”, although some called it punishment for supporting former president Thabo Mbeki instead of Zuma at the 2007 ANC national conference in Polokwane.
In 2011, Mahumapelo resurrected his political career and become the provincial chairperson and, three years after that, the premier of the province.
Afrikanos seemed more than just a restaurant, but a symbol of Mahumapelo’s firm grip on the provincial ANC. It was the dining spot of choice for those who revered him, and is a visible embodiment of his power.
It was taken for granted that those who dined at Afrikanos were loyal to Mahumapelo, and those who didn’t were treated with suspicion. Party members had to find something on the menu – which featured traditional foods such as mogodu, liver, magwinya and pounded beef – that they liked.
A peculiar item on the restaurant’s counter was a visitors’ book that many patrons signed after each visit, perhaps assuming that Mahumapelo monitored it to find out who was on his good or bad side.
Whatever the truth, councillors and wannabe politicians ensured that not a week went by without filling in the Afrikanos register.
It was said that, after hours, Afrikanos became the “nerve centre” where Mahumapelo met his foot soldiers to plot his comeback to the provincial ANC leadership and the total takeover of North West.
Those who attended caucus meetings with him said he was “ruthless”, and carried himself like an army commander who barked orders.
It was also at Afrikanos – which closed soon after his election and was later swapped for two McDonald’s outlets – where the plan for Mahumapelo to succeed premier Modise was hatched.
At the first ANC national executive committee meeting after the May 2014 general election, Mahumapelo was among those who lobbied hard for provinces to be given the leeway to choose their preferred leaders.
He was now playing in the big league, where his influence in North West counted for little. It was a battle he was unlikely to win on his own.
The meeting had broken for lunch and the members were queuing for food when I spotted Mahumapelo speaking to Free State Premier Ace Magashule. He looked a little nervous, but did not mince his words when he said that the province’s premier candidates should prevail. Magashule nodded continuously.
It was the first time I saw Mahumapelo look vulnerable. He’d previously told me he was not interested in government, but, as I looked at him, he seemed desperate to get into it.
To get there, he needed as many supporters as possible to ensure he landed in the premier’s office on the third floor in the provincial government’s Garona headquarters.
Magashule soon became a key figure in Mahumapelo’s quest to grow the North West ANC’s influence. Then came Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza, completing what has now become known as the Premier League.
The three said they were working together because their provinces formed a part of the maize triangle. But detractors say they control Zuma and are unfairly positioning themselves to become kingmakers in the race to choose Zuma’s successor this year.
A close aide of Mahumapelo, who asked not to be named because he preferred “to avoid the limelight”, said the three provinces “must work together” because they produce maize for the country, and it was only by default that Zuma had a relationship with all of them. The aide said the detractors “thought we were going to abandon the project and run away because we are being accused”.
“That is why we said, ‘if this is the Premier League, we like it and are going to be it’. So instead of being vulgar, it is popular now,” he said.
“In terms of ANC membership numbers, we are seventh – but in influence, we are second. That is a special place. Others trade on numbers, but we trade on ideas.”
Before City Press revealed the existence of the Premier League, the lobby group’s machinations were discussed in ANC circles, but little evidence existed about its agenda.
The ANC Women’s League national conference in September 2015 provided the first circumstantial evidence that the Premier League’s influence was more real than imagined. Former Women’s League president Angie Motshekga complained about the influence of men in the league’s democratic processes.
By the end of the conference, the three provinces dominated the top posts. North West’s Meokgo Matuba was elected secretary-general of the league.
And, as if to put a stamp on it, two of the three premiers – Mahumapelo and Magashule (Mabuza was ill) – were seen at the conference venue celebrating with the victors. When approached for comment, the two said there was nothing wrong with their getting involved in the elections of the party’s leagues.
At the ensuing ANC Youth League leadership conference, former North West MEC Collen Maine became the league’s president and Mpumalanga’s Desmond Moela was elected deputy.
Working together, the Premier League gradually became part of Zuma’s inner circle, taking Mahumapelo’s mission to rebrand and reposition North West a leap forward.
In Mahumapelo’s circles, Zuma is revered for being the first ANC president to give North West, the Free State and Mpumalanga the recognition they’d not had.
So why would you not be loyal to him when the past never was, Mahumapelo’s aide asks.
Historically, three provinces have determined the future and direction of the ANC largely because of their demographic and economic muscle. The Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng led, and the remaining six provinces toed the line.
Now, Zuma has given Mahumapelo and company an opportunity to raise the profile of their provinces. They have repaid him with resilient defence, even in the face of state capture allegations regarding the Gupta family, and the massive overspending of state funds at the president’s home in Nkandla.
Mahumapelo’s conversion from supporting Mbeki to Zuma has been questioned, but his explanation is simple: his principle is to support any sitting president of the ANC. In 2007, it was Mbeki – now it is Zuma.
During the state of the nation debate in Parliament in June 2014, Mahumapelo gave an impressive oration in the National Assembly, speaking largely in Setswana, which had the likes of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa eating out of his hand. But many would have missed the symbolism of the moment.
Moses Kotane, Silas Modiri Molema and Solomon Thekisho Plaatje were among the prominent Tswanaspeaking leaders of the ANC, and yet these giants of the liberation are seldom associated with North West, which is generally accepted as the home of the Tswana people.
So one of the political programmes Mahumapelo championed after he became premier was the reburial of Moses Kotane and JB Marks in North West in an event presided over by Zuma.
This raises the question: With such a rich history in the liberation struggle, why has North West not enjoyed similar status to the Eastern Cape?
North West’s transition to democracy, following the forced removal of former Bophuthatswana president Lucas Mangope, was not an easy one.
Firstly, said David van Wyk, a former teacher who was one of the activists behind Mangope’s downfall, the ANC did not have formal structures in the province because of Mangope’s clampdown on dissent.
“Therefore, it was not easy to decide who would become the premier of the province,” he said.
Several names were bandied about, including that of former People’s Progressive Party leader Rocky Malebane-Metsing and former nurse Martin Kuscus. Luthuli House turned them down.
Having failed to find a leader in North West to build the provincial ANC, the ANC headquarters deployed Popo Molefe from Gauteng.
Molefe’s arrival in North West soon fed perceptions that key provincial government positions such as heads of department were the preserve of Gauteng residents.
Mahumapelo emerged as North West ANC Youth League leader, under national leaders Malusi Gigaba and Fikile Mbalula, to wrest power from Molefe. After Molefe’s departure, Mahumapelo became the ANC provincial secretary in 2005, a position he used to cement his power, particularly in determining government deployments.
For those who despised Molefe, Mahumapelo became the “saviour”. He was to become the saviour again when both former premiers, Maureen Modiselle and Modise, were seen to be imposed on the ANC North West structures, entrenching Mahumapelo’s cult status. Several threats and opportunities come to define Mahumapelo’s journey as he continues to make new enemies and new friends. Not long ago, he survived accusations that he was behind the assassination of Mahikeng businessman Wandile Bozwana. This allegation was almost believable because, at the time Bozwana was killed, he was involved in a Constitutional Court case against the provincial government, which was unhappy that he had attached a state bank account and vehicles over unpaid invoices. Three men have since been arrested. Mahumapelo’s vision for the provincial government seems to be largely understood by him alone, hampering his executive from implementing his plans effectively. His personal life also seems to influence government policy – such as his recent campaign against obesity announced during his state of the province address last month. “He keeps a scale in his car and monitors his weight frequently,” says provincial secretary Dakota Legoete. Legoete often has to watch Mahumapelo do his job and take minutes during meetings, for which he has been accused in the provincial government of being the “super MEC” in charge of several portfolios and dishing out tenders to cronies. His detractors have even given him a new name – “Mahumapele” – which means “the one who gets rich first”. They are waiting for him to run out of steam so that they can pounce. Those close to Mahumapelo say he is not in a hurry for an office in Luthuli House, and that this explains why his name has not come up for one, while those of Mabuza and Magashule are being punted for top-six positions. Mahumapelo’s sights are set on the ANC’s 2021 conference. If he succeeds, he stands a chance of being given the opportunity to rise in the party like his heroes Kotane, Molema and Plaatje. But tying his future to a fallible Zuma – and slavishly helping to promote a disgraced Brian Molefe to the detriment of the country and its citizens – may earn him history’s harshest judgement.