Ronald Lamola: 'I'm no comeback kid'

2019-07-04 16:14
Justice Minister Ronald Lamola (Gallo Images)

Justice Minister Ronald Lamola (Gallo Images)

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A young boy sits on a dusty floor on a farm in Bushbuckridge, a remote rural area near the Kruger National Park. Obedient, he and his siblings fall into a hushed silence as his father, a farmworker, turns on the old Omega radio player.

It is the early 1990s and Ronald Lamola is barely 10 years old. He listens to the jingle announcing the news broadcast and hears reports about peace talks at Codesa, the potential of hope from meetings between Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer and how people were massacred far away at Boipatong in the Vaal.

Listening to those news broadcasts from the Omega player on the farm in Mpumalanga, birthed the political consciousness of the boy who would become the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services of South Africa two and a half decades later.

"When I was growing up, we were still young, we did not understand apartheid, racial segregation… we saw no colour. It was obvious to us we were not playing with the kids of white people who were all staying far from us. We went to different schools and we would only meet them with some few games," recalls Lamola, now a lanky, slim, fresh-faced 35-year-old politician.

Listening to those bulletins was enlightening.

"Those things made me to be conscious and understand what is now going on on the farm; why we can't play with the kids of white people and why we don't attend the same school and those were the first, early stages of my influence."

Lamola's mother and father were farmworkers and met on a farm near Komatipoort. The first few years of his education were spent at a small farm school but he then moved to high school in Bushbuckridge, an area for which he has a deep affection.

"We pride ourselves in being almost like mixed tribes. There's MaPulana, there's Shangaans there's Swati and it's a good mixture. That's why you'll find a person from Bushbuckridge can speak multilingual languages. Myself? My mother is Swati, my father is Shangaan. So, I'm a hybrid kind of an individual," Lamola explains, chuckling at the description. "So it's a beautiful place and that's where I did my matric."

300519w- News -Pretoria- President Cyril Ramaphosa

Ronald Lamola with Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng as he takes the oath of office at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Pretoria. (Felix Dlangamandla)

Building political consciousness

The second poignant memory he has of being politicised is when he was in high school in 1996. "We were given the Constitution by the teacher and they wanted to apply corporal punishment. We said no, but you've just told us about the Constitution and how corporal punishment is now no longer allowed. I was very active in high school so that also built my consciousness," says Lamola.

His route to the executive and being appointed one of the country's youngest Cabinet ministers was through student politics, the youth structures of the ANC and a culture of activism and radicalism.

Lamola, who has casually unfolded his long limbs on the couch next to me looks nothing like the traditional, stuffy, officiously styled Cabinet minister. He's athletic, dressed in designer sneakers, faded jeans and a sporty jacket. He has just one bodyguard-type trailing him and there's no flashy blue light cavalcade to speak of.

Ronald "Ozzy" Lamola is just a regular guy who likes to mountain bike at Northern Farms over the weekend (he's disappointed he only did 20km last weekend, not the usual 40km), plays football to relax (he's a Kaizer Chiefs supporter and hopes they will do better this season) and spends time with his 2-year-old son and wife. When he got the call from the director general of the Presidency to go to the Union Buildings, he was getting ready to play a soccer game and was wearing a tracksuit when he was asked to become a minister.

The appointment of a relatively young politician to the important and influential justice portfolio has raised some eyebrows and Lamola is evidently irritated by the suggestion that he is too young for the job. He has his response ready to roll.

"I think it's a good thing. In sub-Saharan Africa, the population is young. In South Africa, the majority of the population is young. Half of the Cabinet ministers today, they were appointed at my age. If you go back to look at history, they were almost my age or a bit older or younger."

A lived experience of the Constitution

What makes him qualified for the job? I push him. Is he experienced enough?

"I have got a lived experience of the Constitution. I have practised it and I have lived it earlier in my life as an activist in the ANC and in actual practice. The Constitution is new, all of us are still grappling with the interpretation of the Constitution. I am part of one of the first generations that was taught the Constitution in the current dispensation so I think it makes me the perfect candidate. I can qualify also to be a judge of any High Court in this country. I have accumulated enough years of practice and now I can go through the judge training. If I'm qualified to be a judge I can also qualify to be a Minister of Justice."

"I don't know what they mean. What experience is enough? I've run my own practice for seven years. I have built it from nothing but two employees to more than fifteen employees, so I don't know what they mean. Even before I ran my own practice, I practised before. So what level of experience would they be talking about? Anyway, experience is not a requirement for any political portfolio anywhere in the world and in this regard, the president has appointed an experienced person in the field."

Meeting Malema

Lamola's language is measured and his lexicon is reflective of the political animal he is. He talks about his time spent in the student structures of the ANC, the difficult years when he was the deputy president of the ANC Youth League and when he was suspended and sent to the political wilderness. It was when he was at the University of Venda, studying for his LLB, that he first met EFF commander-in-chief and ex-ANCYL president Julius Malema, who was then the secretary of Cosas, the Congress of SA Students, in Limpopo.

"It's a long history. We met in the course of the struggles of young people and I think being in the structures of Sasco and the Youth League and the Young Communist League really made me aware, but it has also taught me the real theoretical context of politics," says Lamola. He says he and Malema are still friends and meet each other at parties, funerals and weddings.

He chose not to follow Malema and Floyd Shivambu to the EFF and there is believed to be bad blood between them now. The EFF has issued statements describing Lamola as a "narrow-minded careerist" who "zig zags on principle" and has suggested that he may have entered into a deal with former president Jacob Zuma to escape criminal charges or expulsion from the ANC.


ANC Youth League leaders defend their president Julius Malema during a news conference at Luthuli House on July 25, 2011 in Johannesburg. Present are treasurer general Pule Mabe, secretary general Sindiso Magaqa and deputy president Ronald Lamola.

"I believed we could still change the ANC from within, because the founders of the ANC are all dead. All of them. The ANC belongs to its members, to all of us. It is up to you, how you want to shape it. So I believed we are able to steer it in a direction of renewal."

Lamola looks at his time in the wilderness as a "sabbatical" during which he was able to grow himself and attain two master's degrees. The first was in corporate law, exploring the regulation of property syndication schemes while the second was in extractive law in Africa, focusing on corporate social investment by the mining and energy sector. Lamola has publicly spoken about how he is the product of "black tax" – his sister, Constance, used part of her salary to sponsor his education.

"I felt that I needed to prepare myself for the future. Because I felt that was a test for us as the younger generation in the ANC. The Mandelas and the Tambos were tested differently to us, by being taken to Robben Island and to exile… The new political environment includes factionalism, includes patronage, includes various things that may affect any young activist. So I remained strong, I believed that we could still change the ANC from within. For us to do so we need to have the necessary knowledge and the requisite skills."

Saving the soul of the ANC

Lamola reappeared on the political scene with a placard strung around his neck and protesting against Zuma outside the St George Hotel in Pretoria in 2016. He was calling on national executive committee (NEC) members to "save the soul of the ANC". He had had a brief stint as David Mabuza's spokesperson while the latter was premier of Mpumalanga and he has been running his own law firm. At the Nasrec national elective conference in 2017, Lamola was elected onto the NEC and the powerful national working committee of the party. But he doesn't like to describe himself as a "comeback kid". 

"It's not like I'm just falling from heaven. I've been tried and tested in the politics of the youth league, of the ANC and of the mass democratic movement and, in fact, it's a delayed process. There should be a clear infusion of a younger generation in the structures of the ANC. You will remember the youth league speaking about generational mix and so forth because we believe that when you graduate from the youth league you can't graduate to the streets, you must graduate to lead the structures of the ANC."

Lamola has hit the ground running in his well-heeled shoes. (The Louis Vuittons he wore to the State of the Nation Address were bought in Milan, he tells me.) He's already visited courts and prisons across the country. He has the responsibility of the deeply damaged National Prosecuting Authority in his portfolio as well as a correctional services system riddled with corruption and overcrowding to deal with. He also wants to "overhaul" the court system. It is a mammoth task.

Driving land reform is also a project he is passionate about, a legacy of having grown up watching his parents toiling on a farm they did not own.

"I have seen my parents farm. I have seen them working on a dairy farm so I know that black people have the skill to farm. I know that black people, given land and opportunity, can farm and would be able to use it for the economic benefit of our country. But the other lived reality which I have as part of a young black middle class coming into the city of Johannesburg is you don't have the land to build a house for your family.

"Land is expensive and many other young people who are growing up and now finding jobs in the urban areas of our country cannot easily find accommodation. So the land question is no longer about agriculture. The urban question will have to be addressed."

And could he see that the son of two farmworkers, who grew up listening to news bulletins on his father's old Omega radio, one day becoming president of the country, as some have predicted? Lamola responds with a hearty laugh, his perfect smile stretching across his face.

"No, I don't know! I mean, I can't be prophetic. I don't know, we will see. Time will tell."

300519w- News -Pretoria- President Cyril Ramaphosa

Ronald Lamola and Sdumo Dlamini during the ANC national executive committee media briefing after its two-day lekgotla on August 1, 2018 in Johannesburg. The lekgotla resolved to amend the Constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. (Gallo Images, Daily Sun, Lucky Morajane)  

Read more on:    ronald lamola  |  politics

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