With two of the South African Communist Party's senior leaders now ministers, Solly Mapaila is set to run the show, and take over from Blade Nzimande.
Solly Mapaila has in effect become the most powerful man in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and is tipped to take over from general secretary Blade Nzimande when his term ends in 2017.
But opinions about him are divided. His allies claim they are "inspired by his resolute and principled fight to defend and rid the party of both the dangers of right-wing and ultra-left deviations", whereas an opponent described him disparagingly as a "henchman" and questioned his intellectual capacity.
Mapaila was elected the party's second deputy general secretary at its national conference at the University of Zululand recently, but has in effect been in charge of it because Nzimande and the first deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin, have full-time government positions as the minister of higher education and the deputy minister of public works, respectively.
Regarded by many as Nzimande's protégé, Mapaila keeps his cards close to his chest, especially when dealing with the media, which his mentor has labelled being part of the "liberal offensive".
In an interview this week, Mapaila downplayed the importance of his new role and said: "The central committee will decide for us what role we need to play."
Mapaila is said by his critics in the party to have played a central role in purging leaders who differed with Nzimande from the party. Months before the national conference, he crisscrossed the country, apparently campaigning to ensure that those close to Nzimande were elected to key positions in provincial structures – the reason why, some believe, there was no leadership contest.
Mapaila is a former Umkhonto weSizwe cadre and after his return to the country in 1994 was integrated into the new army and based at Thaba Tshwane in Pretoria.
He started working as an election co-ordinator for the SACP in 1998 and later became its national organiser.
The party's Gauteng secretary, Jacob Mamabolo, who serves with Mapaila on the party's central committee, said he was a dedicated servant of the party.
"I deeply admire his passion for ideological and philosophical work, especially the Marxist-Leninist theory and practice. He works very hard to uphold communist values and to be the standard-bearer of communist values and ethics. Since I have known him, he lives a simple but consistently revolutionary life that is free of any lavish, flamboyant and luxurious lifestyle.
"He is one of the most highly disciplined party members, who always works very strictly to adhere to and observe party discipline and submit to the authority of party structures.
"I was deeply inspired by his resolute and principled fight to defend and rid the party of both the dangers of right-wing and ultra-left deviations.
"He has led battles in all the nine provinces of the SACP against anarchists, workerists and opportunists that sought to divide the party, the alliance and the ANC and the national democratic revolution. As one of the most honest and loyal members of the SACP, he certainly has a good future in the SACP.
"The only serious difference I have with him is that he has not yet appreciated the need to rest and preserve himself for the next round of class struggles," Mamabolo said.
Young Communist League leader Buti Manamela, who has known Mapaila for 13 years, said: "To him, the party comes first over everything. He is hard-working. The political leadership would not have brought the SACP where it is today had it not been because of Solly.
"After 2009, he was offered roles in higher offices in government, but he felt strongly that he should remain in the party, even for a smaller salary."
But an SACP leader who did not want to be named did not agree, nor regarded Mapaila as an intellectual.
Intelligent and accessible
"What has he written? Since I have been in the SACP, I have not read any comprehensive paper written by him.
"What I know about him is that he is a great conspirator, character assassinator and militaristic in approach. He is not a democrat. He engages by force. He is a good henchman, who likes to exaggerate his involvement in MK to cover his political weakness. I'm sure if the SACP was to win national elections, we would have a police state." But an ANC leader and a senior government official Robert Nkuna disagreed with the notion that Mapaila was not an itellectual, "Solly is intelligent and accessible. I doubt he will grow to be a leader who will be difficult to greet because of his position."
Mapaila said his key priorities would include increasing the party's membership from 160 000 to 500 000 and establishing a political school. Another would be to strengthen unity within the alliance.
"I want a situation where, if you find a member of the ANC in shebeens, they must reflect the views of the movement," he said.
"The biggest problem we are facing today is the new ideology of money. In order to tackle poverty and unemployment, you need a strong organisation. You can't afford to have ill-discipline, otherwise it will break the organisation."
Political observers believe that Nzimande had Mapaila in mind when he told delegates at the conference that the party needed a new identity.
"The SACP has become overly identified with the general secretary. So has the party been often overly identified with provincial secretaries in the provinces. Surely this is not good for the party?
"We need other leaders to be more publicly identified with the party and be accepted by our members and various other constituencies as leaders carrying the full authority of the highest levels of leadership of the party," Nzimande said.
Party spokesperson Malesela Maleka denied that Mapaila was earmarked for the SACP's top job. "The party is not run like a monarchy. There is no process to anoint leaders. Comrade Solly has been elected by congress to lead the SACP, not engage in some shadow leadership exercise. He is a leader now, not practising for some unknown."