Panyaza Lesufi’s populist ‘toughness’ mirrors the rise of provincial disregard for ANC’s central power
Comments by Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi that a national minister’s ‘days are numbered’ because of their refusal to legally recognise his crime prevention wardens may open another front in the contestation between the national ANC and its provinces. For a provincial premier to publicly oppose a national minister in this way is virtually unheard of. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence that Lesufi and the Gauteng ANC are prepared to disobey decisions of the national ANC if they believe this will help keep them in power.
On Monday, Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood reported on comments made by Lesufi at a South African National Civic Organisation meeting on Sunday.
In particular, he quoted Lesufi as saying, “We have trained these young people to be police wardens. You, as a police minister, are refusing to recognise them.
“Your days are numbered.”
He also went on to say “…this minister, give us the power for these young people to have the power to get guns so they can protect our townships and chase away criminals in our own areas”.
Presumably, he was talking about Police Minister Bheki Cele (the only other possibility is Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, who has to formally gazette these wardens).
Lesufi has publicly responded to the publication of his comments late on Monday, blaming the leak itself:
We collectively move forward to fight crime. A safer Gauteng needs our collective resolve to work together pic.twitter.com/W5xUDCcqcB
— Panyaza Lesufi (@Lesufi) November 13, 2023
Regardless of what happens next, Cele (if indeed it was he who was addressed by Lesufi) is unlikely to simply lie back and accept the original threat.
The police minister regularly refuses to take criticism, including telling Action Society’s president Ian Cameron to “shut up”. When Parliament ruled that he must apologise, he said he would go to court to fight that finding.
Cele is also not scared of publicly disagreeing with other leaders in his party.
In 2017, when he was supporting Cyril Ramaphosa’s bid to be leader of the ANC against those in Jacob Zuma’s camp, he once referred to Nomvula Mokonyane as a “little girl”, directly contradicting her in a public meeting, while she was in the room.
While Lesufi may feel that he has power in Gauteng, there can be no doubt of the power that Cele has. He has survived reversals of fortune and is a tough political operator.
Apart from the personalities, there are many other dynamics to consider here, however.
The first is that it is clear that the crime wardens are important to Lesufi for his political future. He has now tied himself to the issue.
While many voters may support any move to fight crime, the idea of giving people with just one month’s training a firearm will surely have disastrous consequences. Many potential ANC voters live in areas that suffer high levels of gun violence – giving young, untrained people guns is hardly the solution to the problem.
At the same time, this also suggests there is nothing Lesufi will not do to win power. His critics will now argue that he is prepared to break the law with the institution of these wardens, just to win votes, while Cele and others in the ANC will have good reason to be wary of yet another police force in South Africa.
Already there is the national SAPS, some provincial traffic officers, and in many places, Metro Police which are run by cities.
In the past, there has been violent conflict between officers from the SAPS and Metro Police officers, with shots being fired in some cases.
For Cele, to now allow virtually untrained crime prevention wardens into the mix can only make things even more unstable.
With wardens’ salaries coming from the provincial government, the whole programme is on unsound ground should Gauteng in the future be run by another party.
But politically, this is also another issue on which Lesufi is happy to fight the national ANC.
Already the ANC province that he leads, Gauteng, has appeared to defy the sentiments of the national ANC through his insistence on continuing with the coalition agreements with the EFF.
As Daily Maverick’s Queenin Masuabi and Ferial Haffajee have previously reported, it appears the Gauteng ANC is dragging its feet after the ANC NEC decided the party should no longer work with the EFF.
Also, the timing of Lesufi’s comments about Cele may be significant.
It was just last week that ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula told ANC structures that they should not engage in “public spats” ahead of the election.
It is likely that the main spur for this letter was the fight between the KwaZulu-Natal ANC and the ANC Women’s League over the mishandling of the Rugby World Cup trophy by KZN ANC leader Siboniso Duma.
Lesufi has now clearly defied Mbalula just days after he made that request.
All of this may be an indication of another dynamic which could soon dominate our politics and affect all parties.
While there has been much discussion about how political parties are now battling to maintain coherent political identities amid the rise of independent political personalities within our party system, there may be another, deeper, dynamic underneath this. It may be that a tide leading to greater power for regional and provincial formations may now be unstoppable.
This is a process that began in 1994 and has seen ANC provinces and regions steadily taking power from the centre.
Lesufi’s actions may well be a part of this dynamic and he appears to believe the ANC will not be able to stop him.
There may still be limits to how far the Gauteng ANC can go, because if it loses power in Gauteng, or even if it can cling to power only through a coalition, it is likely to lose influence within the ANC as a whole.
This is, of course, the story of the Western Cape ANC, which has been increasingly marginalised within the ANC after losing political power.
It is also not clear what impact the Gauteng ANC would continue to have in the ANC if it were to be seen as dependent on another party. Certainly, if it formed a coalition with the EFF, and thus was seen as closer to the EFF than some parts of the ANC, this could lead to a very difficult dynamic within the party nationally in the future.
In the short term, Cele may well respond publicly to Lesufi, or Luthuli House will try to find a way to smooth things over.
But, with voters deeply concerned about the huge impact of violent crime on their lives, and the continued failure of the police to contain it, and with a murder conviction rate of just 15%, the issue of crime is likely to be strongly divisive again and again in the near future. DM