Why you should care
Ronald Lamola, 35, could be president one day. But first, he needs to get his country’s legal system back on track.
When, in 2013, Ronald Ozzy Lamola was dismissed by President Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress as acting president of its Youth League, he had two choices. One was to go home to rural Mpumalanga, one of South Africa’s most impoverished provinces. The other was to continue his legal studies and his internal fight against the corruption and intolerance of the Zuma administration.
He chose the latter, putting him on track to one day perhaps contend for the presidency himself.
Lamola, 35, the newly appointed minister of justice under President Cyril Ramaphosa, is youthful, tall and athletic, with a Nelson Mandela-like charm. On a tour of the Brandvlei maximum-security prison, he is prepared to engage with everybody, and he is always keen for a joke and a cheerful laugh. But, as public policy expert and professor Mzukisi Qobo says, underneath the public playfulness “is a man who takes his work very seriously.”
I want to see consequences where there is wrongdoing.
The son of farm laborers, Lamola was motivated during his studies by his sister, who put almost her entire salary into his education. He cut a lone figure during Zuma’s reign as president. Although not the most high-profile of Zuma’s eventual critics in the ANC, he was certainly one of the first. He was famously photographed in 2016 outside an ANC National Executive Committee meeting holding a placard that read “Save the Soul of the ANC” and calling for Zuma’s removal.
That was at a period when few within the ANC dared to express Lamola’s kind of open dissent. Lamola says “the ANC at the time failed to manage that” dissent. But, he qualifies, “I think lessons have been learned.”
According to political commentator Stephen Grootes, “there is a hunger in South Africa for a young person like Lamola, who is studious, learned and also represents the rural people of the country.” Grootes adds, “It is really too early to say, but there are few people better suited and better qualified” to be a future president. Qobo agrees, saying that Lamola “has the capacity to succeed.”
But Lamola’s posting was still “slightly strange,” in Qobo’s words, given his inexperience: Lamola is at least 15 years younger than any previous minister of justice. His appointment came as part of the wave of anti-corruption sentiment that swept Ramaphosa into power, given the media revelations around the Zuma administration’s corruption — known as “state capture” — that is estimated to have cost South Africa more than $700 billion. Zuma has denied any wrongdoing and, bizarrely, declared that the ongoing inquiry into state capture is part of a convoluted plot to assassinate him that was initiated in the early 1990s by the apartheid government.
On the tour of the prison, designed to spotlight both the declining state of prison infrastructure and the new justice minister, Lamola engages easily with inmates, guards and the media. He takes time to talk to the guards about their jobs, shoot pool with the juvenile detainees and play soccer with the 20-year-olds — making the only assist of the first half. In the prison’s bakery, he laughs with and encourages the older convicts.
Lamola’s promise is to “rebuild” South Africa’s institutions, to turn around a country that saw a crippling decline in its economy and infrastructure under Zuma. This is not going to be easy. For one thing, we tour the prison facility with Zuma’s head of state security, Arthur Fraser, who is the commissioner, or bureaucratic head, under Lamola in the Correctional Services Department.
When asked how he can operate this portfolio with one of the ex-president’s allies, Lamola replies, “I am guided by the law. He is the legal commissioner of the department, and I have to work with him.” The courts, the National Prosecuting Authority and the president, he goes on to say, must “deal with this issue. … But I want to see consequences where there is wrongdoing.”
This kind of talk fits with Ramaphosa’s institutionalist approach to politics and corruption. It is a game in which faith and growing support have been placed in South Africa’s legal institutions and its, to date, fiercely independent judiciary. Arrests will begin only once the NPA has rebuilt itself from the Zuma years. And it is Lamola who must rebuild the NPA.
Lamola spent five years in South Africa’s political wilderness after 2012, when he publicly endorsed the corruption-free Kgalema Motlanthe — Zuma’s presidential rival at the ANC’s December 2012 elective conference. Lamola was shortly thereafter forced to leave the ANC’s political structures and start his own legal practice.
His initial entry into national politics came in the ANC Youth League with Julius Malema, a well-known populist firebrand. But unlike Malema, who was expelled from the ANC and went on to form the Economic Freedom Fighters, Lamola, although suspended and dismissed, held onto his party membership. This led to Malema labeling Lamola a “sellout” and claiming that Lamola made an unspecified “deal” with Zuma. But recently Malema, who has never held back either in the press or in Parliament, has shown a distinct reluctance to take on Lamola publicly.
In contrast to Malema’s unpredictable populism, Lamola speaks the language of what people call “the ANC’s soul.” These traditions, made famous by Mandela, promote economic equality, racial harmony and social transformation under the guidance of South Africa’s celebrated constitution — ideas that took some blows during the Zuma years.
The reconstruction starts in many ways with the NPA, which is funded by Lamola’s department and has yet to prosecute anyone from the previous government for corruption. Lamola admits the NPA “has enormous challenges” and says that his role is to make sure it is well-funded, functions properly and acts “without fear or favor.”
If Lamola “wants to uphold the rule of law in South Africa, he would do well not to meddle in the internal workings of the NPA,” Qobo says. Political interference in the NPA has, after all, been at the root of South Africa’s current problems.
And if he can restore credibility to the legal system, then what? When asked about being a future president, Lamola smiles and says, somewhat reluctantly, “time will tell.”