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The 'black Jesus' of North West #CAPnews

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 half-filled 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.

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 Tswana-speaking 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?

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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