One to watch: Ronald Lamola, the young minister with presidential attributes

By Stephen Grootes 24 February 2020
Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Deaan Vivier)

Predicting the future is foolish. In the ANC, past performance is not an indicator of future results. However, it does appear that there is at least one possible contender for power in eight years’ time.

One of the questions asked in certain circles is about succession and the future. Who will take over from President Cyril Ramaphosa? Who would he want to take over? Who would be the person who could — should nothing tectonic happen from now until late 2027 — continue with the reformist agenda?

Looking at the ANC at the moment, there does not appear to be much choice. Several developments have made it difficult for obvious candidates of the younger generation to come through. Some have ended up in factions that make it difficult for them to appeal to a large cross-section of the ANC. Others, because of their proximity to power, have the shadows of past and future scandals over them. Others may just not possess the rare combination of traits that has produced people like Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and Ramaphosa himself.

There is a gaping opportunity for the right candidate. This person would need to be untainted by scandal. They would have to be able to plot and plan for the long-term future. Experience in government would be important. And then, perhaps most importantly, it would help to be closely associated with a senior politician who is able to provide political protection, guidance and opportunity.

Ronald Lamola, the current Minister of Justice and Correctional Services would appear to have all of these attributes.

Lamola came to public notice when he was the deputy leader of the ANC Youth League in the years before 2012. This made him the deputy to the man who used that time to gather so much media attention, now EFF leader Julius Malema. When Malema started to move against the ANC’s leadership at the time (and particularly Jacob Zuma) Lamola didn’t move in sync with him.

When Malema and others (including the league’s secretary-general, Sindiso Magaqa,) were expelled from the ANC, Lamola tried to pick up the pieces. It was already clear then that there was a huge political gulf between them. Just months after Malema’s expulsion, amid talk that he was going to form his own party, Lamola made sure that people knew he was against such a move, and that they should still support the ANC. 

In the years after that, he opened his own law firm and studied. He has two masters degrees in law.

His return to politics was quick, and showed immense forethought. It is now clear that he played an important role in Ramaphosa’s victory at Nasrec. He was forthright about why he was there. At Nasrec, caught up in Ramaphosa’s just-victory, he was elected to the National Executive Committee, and then appointed to the position of justice minister at the age of 36, probably the youngest person to hold that post in SA’s history.

That position has given him ample scope. Among others, his job included overseeing the decisions on pardons, including the amnesty for AbaThembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo in late 2019. 

But perhaps more politically significant in the long run is the fact that he will be overseeing trials that could lead to important convictions. While he will have no formal role in the making of decisions (while funded by the Justice Ministry, the National Prosecuting Authority is independent), he will be the minister with oversight over it. It will also be up to him to ensure that the NPA and the courts are properly funded. Should these prosecutions occur and the trials result in convictions, he could gain approval for restoring a properly functioning justice system.

This would make some in the ANC turn against him. Already, former mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who features heavily in claims that he worked for the Guptas, has said that he and others will not get a fair trial because of Lamola.

As political pressure grows in the ANC and as the possibility of politicians being charged increases, these claims will get ever louder. This will help Lamola, as it appears that most South Africans do want prosecutions and convictions. If he is seen as the person who is standing up to those suspected of wrongdoing, it would strengthen him in the longer term.

It is also clear that he has Ramaphosa’s trust.

The president ensured that Lamola was in charge of the land issue for the ANC. He has spoken at length in public about the issue, and about how it should be managed. This has shown him to be careful with his public statements, and yet able to articulate what is a complicated and divisive issue for the party.

Lamola has also been able to go on the offensive against the EFF. The past 10 days have seen intense politicking between the parties in Parliament, during Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address and the debate that followed it. For much of that debate, it appeared that ANC MPs had no answer to Malema’s ability to dominate proceedings (Malema said, repeatedly, “I am in charge here”, before referring to other MPs as “fools”).

Lamola, however, was able to deliver a clear attack on Malema in a concise speech, in which he said that a minority cannot govern a majority through anarchy. He also found Malema’s weak spots, labelling him a dictator and a megalomaniac within his own party. 

For the ANC’s party faithful, it must have been an enjoyable moment. 

Making predictions in SA politics is a dangerous game. But in a field with few challengers, Ronald Lamola is undoubtedly the person to watch. DM


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