South Africa: Could Ronald Lamola become country’s youngest president?

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Tuesday, 12 April 2022 12:04

Ronald Lamola (photo: @RonaldLamola)
Ronald Lamola (photo: @RonaldLamola)

South Africa's Deputy President David Mabuza has lost his power base in his home region, lending weight to speculation that he will not be in the running for a second term. This could open the way for a younger candidate, such as Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, should President Cyril Ramaphosa run for office uncontested at the ANC's elective conference in December.

The win for the Ramaphosa camp at the conference a week ago in Mpumalanga – a province that was in Mabuza’s grip for well over a decade and a half – has raised hopes for fresh blood in the deputy presidency. However, it also unleashed a fierce fightback by Ramaphosa’s detractors, which might force Ramaphosa, again, to accept a compromise candidate as deputy.

Who is Ronald Lamola?

38-year-old Lamola is from Mpumalanga, the same province as Mabuza. The two were close. Lamola briefly acted as Mabuza’s spokesperson in 2011 during the latter’s term as premier (2009 to 2017).

Lamola rose to prominence through the ANC Youth League, which he joined at age 13. He became Julius Malema’s deputy following the latter’s expulsion from the ANC in 2012.

Unlike a number of Malema’s allies, Lamola did not leave the ANC, but instead retreated from the public eye to focus on building his law firm. He was apparently also busy with party work behind the scenes, lobbying for Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as party president ahead of the party’s 2017 conference. He emerged with the second-highest number of nominations for an additional member of the party’s national executive committee.

The ANC needs an urgent break from the old guard to rejuvenate itself

Lamola was rewarded with a cabinet position in 2019 and is regarded as amongst the most capable and unsullied of the party’s younger generation of leaders. Since his youth league days, he has been a proponent for the promotion of younger leaders in the ANC.

If he becomes the party’s deputy president, this could put him in good stead to be elected party president five years from now and then the country’s youngest president ever, should the ANC still be in power in 10 years. “There is an itch for a decisive break away from the shenanigans of the past,” he told Mail & Guardian shortly after his election to the party’s NEC in 2017. “The ANC needs an urgent break from the old guard to rejuvenate itself.”

Who is his support base?

Lamola appears to have the support of the newly-elected Mpumalanga ANC chairperson, Mandla Ndlovu, who said the province would like the new deputy president to come from there.

At the same time, however, all of the province’s leaders are not united on this, and Lamola might have to turn to the ANC Youth League to strengthen his bid.

Even though Lamola hasn’t been eligible to be a member of the league since his 35th birthday, he is still considered to be a young leader worthy of the league’s support.

The league’s structures were, however, disbanded in 2019, and even though it is due for an elective conference soon, it’s unlikely to be the same powerful lobbying vehicle it was when it helped catapult Jacob Zuma to power in 2007.

But would Ramaphosa choose Lamola?

Some have credited Lamola as having been one of those who worked in the background to help Ramaphosa secure victory in 2017, but if the leadership battle is fierce, Ramaphosa might have to choose his running mates strategically.

His lobbyists in Free State province have previously said Ramaphosa wants Thandi Modise to be his deputy, which is why he moved her from the position of national assembly speaker to defence minister last year.

Modise hails from that province and is a former premier, just like suspended ANC secretary general Ace Magashule. Her presence among the ANC’s top six officials could satisfy lobbyists from Free State that the province is being adequately represented in party structures.

ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile’s lobbyists have, however, claimed that he is the chosen one for the deputy president’s position. It’s unclear whether Mashatile is as close to Mabuza as he used to be in 2017, when the two lobbied for unity in a very divided ANC.

Mashatile is a former premier of Gauteng, where Ramaphosa has a solid support base. In the case of a tight contest, it’s not clear what he could bring to the table to strengthen Ramaphosa’s position.

Ramaphosa’s detractors fight back

Ramaphosa’s camp suffered a setback over the past weekend when the party’s biggest region, Ethekwini (around Durban), elected the corruption-accused former mayor, Zandile Gumede, as chairperson. This is despite the fact that she is unable to serve in the position because of the charges against her. She also did not attend the conference.

Her election comes after a full-scale lobbying effort in Durban by Ramaphosa’s detractors, including Magashule. Ramaphosa’s former health minister, Zweli Mkhize, was one of Gumede’s chief campaigners.

Mkhize was forced to resign as minister after his alleged involvement in an irregular Covid-19 communications tender by his department, but he has always harboured presidential ambitions.

The outcome of the Ethekwini conference is an indicator that Ramaphosa’s lobbyists aren’t as powerful as he might want them to be in KwaZulu-Natal, which is expected to be the biggest voting bloc, again, at the ANC’s elective conference. He might therefore need Mkhize, since his other point man in the province, Senzo Mchunu, seems to have lost some influence after he was appointed to Ramaphosa’s cabinet in 2019.

Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu has also been lobbying Ramaphosa’s detractors to support her bid for the presidency, but it remains unclear whether she has been able to garner enough support to be in a position to bargain.

Current KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala is also rumoured to be wanting to make a competing bid from the province to Mkhize to run as deputy president with Ramaphosa.

Lobbying is still continuing behind the scenes since the ANC’s rules only allow prospective leaders to campaign for positions once the nominations process by branches have been completed, which is usually only a few weeks before the elective conference.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options