Premiers on the provincial thrones

Some of the new provincial leaders are well known, others are not. We focus on five of the lesser-known premier. Farouk Chothia, Stephen Lufer, Chris Louw, Steuart Wright report

Ngoako Ramatlhodi
The new premier of the Northern Transvaal, Ngoako Ramatlhodi is probably the least known of the provincial leaders. But the 38 year old has a long history of resisting apartheid since his days as a student leader in Lesotho, where he lived in exile for 10 years. Ramatlhodi — currently deputy registrar and executive assistant to the principal of the University of the North — was described this week by his vice-chancellor, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, as “fair-minded, extremely warm and caring and very competent. “You can expect a very self-effacing premier, but extremely insightful in his understanding of issues.” Ndebele has known Ramatlhodi since 1983, when the latter was the president of the students’ representative council at the National University of Lesotho and Ndebele was head of the department of English. “I remember him as a very energetic leader. Then I didn’t see him for a long time; the South African government exerted pressure on the ANC to leave Lesotho, so most of the people left. I only met him again when I came back.”

Ramatlhodi was born at Tauetswala, a small village near Potgietersrus, on August 2 1955. His father was a mineworker and his mother a housewife. In 1976 he enrolled for a B Juris at the University of the North, where he made his name as a poet. Expelled in 1977 for his political activities, he was later allowed back, but left for exile on July 17 1980. Today Ramatlhodi holds a masters degree in law from the University of Lesotho. He is known to get along very easily with a wide range of people. Says Ndebele: “I expect him to be somebody who will be easily acceptable to the different communities in the Northern Transvaal. “He can be a person around whom differences can be resolved. “He inspires confidence and is very self-effacing in a very humble sort of way, but at the same time can project qualities of fairmindedness which are necessary when you get into a leadership position.”

Ndebele thought Ramatlhodi would be ably suited to deal with the rightwing in his area: ‘He is willing, in the tradition of the ANC, to meet and talk to everybody, so I don’t think he will pre-judge the rightwing before meeting with them. “He already said on television that everyone who is born here, belongs here, and that he would want to make everyone comfortable. “I would presume that if the rightwing presents itself as a problem, it will not be because the premier is unwilling to meet them, but because they themselves prefer to be a difficulty”

Frank Mdlalose
The bespectacled Frank Mdlalose has two qualities which will stand him in good stead as premier of kwaZulu/Natal: a good ear to listen to gripes and an ability to remain impartial when dissent wrecks a party — abilities honed in chairing Inkatha Freedom Party central committee meetings since 1976. Both qualities will be tested once he assumes his functions as premier: with the ANC also represented in the 10-member provincial cabinet, Mdlalose faces the task of seeking consensus in a divided cabinet and pushing ahead with peace initiatives and economic development. By choosing him as its premier, the IFP signalled it wants improved relations with the ANC in kwaZulu/Natal.

Mdlalose has built a strong rapport over the years with his ANC rival, Jacob Zuma — both have been at the forefront of attempts to end the 10-year-long-age in the province. But Mdlalose’s greatest strength — remaining non partisan — is also seen as a weakness. It has resulted in his failing to stamp his authority over IFP hardliners and “warlords” who will feature prominently in the provincial legislature. He is also said to be a leader who prefers not to antagonise Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. It is also said that he has, on occasion, read speeches drafted by Buthelezi’s close confidante, IFP hardliner Walter Felgate, despite disagreeing with their contents. While Mdlalose does not lack experience in the political arena — he was minister of the interior in the kwaZulu homeland and co-leader of the IFP’s negotiating team at the World Trade Centre talks — there is concern in IFP circles over his health.

Aged 61, he suffered from exhaustion last year after endless constitutional wrangles and subsequently fractured his knee in a car accident. Reliant on a walking stick, he subsequently fell in the bathroom and injured himself again. But Mdlalose is once more assuming a high public profile in kwaZulu/Natal. Caught up in the hurly-burly of politics, Mdlalose finds he has little time to concentrate on his other interests: tennis and boxing.

Mathews Phosa
In his brash self-confidence, Mathews Phosa is the ANC regional premier best able to match Western Cape supremo Hernus Kriel. Secure in the knowledge of his overwhelming election victory in the Eastern Transvaal, the former head of the ANC’s legal department is likely to be a leader in testing the limits of regional independence and room to manoeuvre under the constitution. Phosa and Kriel have locked horns several times in the recent past, and the ever-smiling Phosa was rarely bested by the former law and order minister in arguments over such sensitive issues as joint SAP/ANC investigations into the murder of Chris Hani and the shootout between policemen and Walter Sisulu’s bodyguards. But ANC constitutional experts intent on solidifying the centralist aspects of the new dispensation could find the two men joining forces in championing regional powers.

Phosa lists law and business as long-standing interests — he made a name for himself as one of the jurists who he fought the South African government’s intention to give kaNgwane to Swaziland. But he is first and foremost a politician, a man who enjoys the limelight and the rough-and-tumble of crossing swords with his adversaries. At 41, he has opted for the premiership of his home region rather than take his chances in the race for a position in the national cabinet. While respected for his role in the ANC underground — after military training in East Germany he ran Umkhonto weSizwe structures in the Eastern Transvaal — Phosa is said to have faded as a frontrunner for a cabinet position because he had detractors at Shell House.

Born in Mbombela township, Nelspruit, Phosa spent his early years with his grandfather in Potgietersrus, learning traditional skills such as hunting, fishing, and tilling. His political education came from his mother, a nurse during World War II he describes as “highly political”. On the location of the new Eastern Transvaal capital, Phosa has said the decision is still open. With opposing lobbies favouring Nelspruit and Witbank, his wish to see his three children grow up in his hometown might just tip the scales.

Manne Dipico
Having recently turned 35, Manne Dipico could well have found himself contemplating the end of his career as a semi-professional soccer player. But politics intervened, forcing him to hang up his boots prematurely as he chased a majority for the ANC in the Northern Cape. Less than half the age of Eastern Cape premier Raymond Mhlaba, who is 74, Dipico will be the youngest of the nine regional premiers when he is sworn in tomorrow. But don’t underestimate him, say former colleagues in the National Union of Mineworkers — Dipico is an independent thinker, a hard worker and a popular figure in the region. And, they might have added, an example of how the unions nurtured a generation of political leaders through the 1980s. ‘His popularity in the Northern Cape is not an abstract thing,” said NUM deputy general secretary Gwede Mantashe. “People know him and the fact we won the region despite predictions to the contrary is a testament to his ability.”

Dipico was born in Kimberley’s Greenpoint township and brought up by his mother, a domestic worker at the town’s hospital. He was fired from De Beers’ Finsch Mine for participating in a wage strike, and later enrolled at the University of Fort Hare. An Azanian Students’ Organisation activist while at university, he also joined the ANC’s underground structures, and was detained for his anti-Ciskei activities. Denied readmission to Fort Hare on his release, he became a full-time regional organiser for the NUM in Kimberley. “He is a team person,” commented Mantashe. “He will do his best to exploit everybody’s experience and abilities in the region, even those of the NP.”

Doing so will require the charm and skill Dipico has exhibited as head of the NUM’s education department. He has had to put behind him the memories of his years in jail for furthering the aims of the ANC. Unmarried and without children, Dipico has a major task ahead of him as father of the Northern Cape, feels Mantashe. “The area is rich in mineral and agricultural resources. The challenge will be to bring investment there which will allow value to be added to the raw products. If he succeeds, the Northern Cape can have the highest per capita income in the country.”

Ray Mhlaba
In the 1952 defiance campaign in Port Elizabeth a young ANC activist climbed the stairs at New Brighton Station to sit on a “Europeans Only” bench. He was arrested and spent a month in jail. More than 40 years later, Ray Mhlaba (74) climbed the same stairs as the ANC’s Eastern Cape premier candidate to tell thousands of supporters he had already tested the new region’s seat of power in Bisho. Sitting behind the desk left vacant by Ciskei dictator Brigadier Oupa Gqozo. Mhlaba told Ciskei administrator Bongani Finca: “We are going to rule this country and make sure that no black man uses the word ‘baas’ to a white man. Those days are gone.” The incident marked the end of Mhlaba ‘s struggle for freedom as he faced the daunting task of governing a region laced with apartheid’s leftovers.

His position as head of regional government confirmed by election results. Mhlaba must oversee the creation of a single bureaucracy from what remains of Transkei, Ciskei and the Cape Provincial Administration and the appointment of senior public servants. Also burdened with addressing health, housing and education in the region, human rights campaigner and close friend Rory Riordan is confident Mhlaba will rise to the challenge. A former Robben Islander, Mhlaba is among the ANC’s “leadership which is unmatched by my political party on earth. “He has an unbelievable grasp of political events and an extraordinary capacity to read people and to move them to where they should be,” he says.

From the cradle of the liberation movement, the Eastern Cape, Mhlaba was born in Fort Beaufort and has been inextricably linked to the politics of the region. He became involved in the trade union movement in the 1940s and is now deputy chairman of the SACP. His leadership first made headlines in 1949 when he headed a boycott against the South African Railway’s discriminatory bus service. In 1950 he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act and in 1952 he lead the defiance campaign in the Eastern Cape. Long-standing colleague Govan Mbeki says Mhlaba showed the same leadership in the ANC’s underground structures. “Ray is a very courageous person and if there is something that requires fighting he will be the first to jump in, but in the present situation I think he will continue to keep his cool,” he adds. Faced with reconciling the past, Mhlaba has already welcomed the opportunity to work with the NP’s Tertius Delport in the regional government. Mbeki stresses that one of Mhlaba’s greatest virtues is that “he readily smiles and readily laughs and I think that will see him a long way to being accepted by the people with whom he is working”.

The other premiers
The leaders of the remaining four provinces are:

  • Tokyo Sexwale becomes premier of the PWV
  • Patrick ‘Terror” Lekota is the leader in the Orange Free State
  • Former law and order minister Hernus Kriel takes control of the Western Cape
  • Popo Molefe is elected premier of the North-West

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