It was in the early 1980s on a train ride to Germiston that Panyaza Lesufi was pushed towards political activism when, as a teenager, he came face-to-face with the injustices of apartheid’s racial segregation.
“My father was going to apply for an ID book for me, a dompas at that time. And we were travelling from Tembisa to Germiston and here comes a train with 11 coaches, almost seven were empty and the remaining four were squashed [with passengers],” Lesufi said.
“I said to my dad: ‘Papa, those ones are empty, let’s go there.’ And my father said, ‘No! You can’t go there.’ But my dad was not ready to tell me why I could not go in there.”
The empty coaches the 15-year-old Lesufi was forbidden to board were reserved for white passengers, leaving the majority black passengers to fill the remaining few carriages.
Since that encounter he has dedicated his career to fighting injustice and protecting the rights of the “weak, the vulnerable and the poor”.
Last weekend Lesufi, who is Gauteng’s education minister, was elected deputy chairperson of the ANC in the province following a close contest with economic development MEC Lebogang Maile, whom he defeated by only 22 votes.
“It’s very scary because the expectations are too high and it’s reasonable why they are too high. We have to quickly cleanse the ANC and prepare for the huge battle of the 2019 elections,” Lesufi said of his new position. During the 2016 local government elections, the ANC in Gauteng suffered crippling losses when it relinquished control of the Johannesburg and Tshwane metros to the Democratic Alliance, and narrowly retained its control of Ekurhuleni. The party lost 13.8% of its support across the province.
Those who supported Lesufi in his bid to become the ANC’s deputy chairperson believed he enjoyed a particular affection among Gauteng residents, which would help the party win back voter trust to secure a 2019 election victory.
Lesufi said he appreciated the acknowledgement of his public appeal but his focus was not on becoming a personality; rather it was on assisting the ANC to solve society’s problems, particularly those of the poor.
“I’ll always be for the weak, the vulnerable and the poor. I’ll be more comfortable [for people] to say: ‘This is an individual who is eradicating poverty through skills,’” he said.
“And if they say, ‘This is an individual who is defending the weak through girl children programmes in schools. This is an individual who is defending the vulnerable,’ that has been my interest from the word go.”
In addition to its Gauteng losses, the ANC also suffered an 8% decline in its national support, which it attributed partly to an arrogance that had alienated voters. The organisation believed voters had punished provinces such as Gauteng over their unhappiness with the party’s inability to deal with former president Jacob Zuma’s corrupt elements in the party.
But Lesufi said the ANC in Gauteng had also caused a deterioration of the party in the province through the existence of lobby groups such as the so-called ‘Alex mafia’. These are former activists from Alexandra who rose to positions of power in politics and business. The group was believed to have a tight grip over the province’s leadership and finances.
Lesufi, known to be outside this group, criticised it for promoting a culture of believing that some people in the ANC were disposable.
“We focused on wrong things. We focused on not recruiting or identifying talent but [rather on] identifying which grouping you were in,” he said.
“During the era of the Alex mafia, they thought they [Alex mafias] could survive without anyone. But now everyone is in the era where we know we can’t survive without anyone. We need each other so we can go to the next stage,” Lesufi said.
He insisted that the Alex mafia no longer existed and that the party now had “pure leaders” at all levels who had the best interests of the organisation at heart. He added that the Alex mafia was now purely a figment of the media’s imagination.
Following the ANC’s 2017 elective conference at Nasrec, there has been optimism about the party’s ability to regain its 2016 election losses. A recent Ipsos survey projected that the party in Gauteng would secure about 58% of the vote next year.
But Lesufi warned against the ANC becoming too complacent because of the renewed optimism. He believed the 2016 election losses had taught the party important lessons about not playing with power and undermining voters.
“The good thing is that we have tasted [what it’s like] to lose power. We have tasted it and it is shocking. Our comrades who were in power, for them to occupy the opposition benches shook them,” he said.
“It was something we had to go through or else we were going to be too complacent. All these things pushed ANC members to wake up and say, ‘Chief, this thing [power] can go from our hands.’”