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

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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.

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