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Profile: Mosiuoa Lekota

By Nick Ericsson
BBC News

When Mosiuoa Lekota was heckled from the stage at the African National Congress conference in Polokwane last December, it marked the end of a complicated journey from liberation hero to party pariah.

Mosiuoa Lekota in Johannesburg, 1 November 2008
Mosiuoa Lekota has accused the ANC leadership of damaging democracy

The hostility almost equalled that being directed at his boss - then president and party head Thabo Mbeki - who was soon to be axed from his party position and replaced with his nemesis, Jacob Zuma.

Mr Lekota, on the surface an Mbeki loyalist, had become an outspoken critic of the more populist Mr Zuma - an arch Mbeki enemy.

All this in a party used to keeping its dirty linen indoors.

Less than a year later, Mr Lekota, 60, is the leader of a new, breakaway party, the Congress of the People (Cope), which is to stand against the ANC in elections next year.

Robben Island

"Terror" Lekota - so named for his prowess on the football field - spent the turbulent of the 1980s fighting in South Africa's trenches, prior to the legalisation of the ANC.

Mr Lekota has the remarkable ability to come across to many in the South African electorate as a 'conviction politician'

Many historians look back on that decade as representing the final push against apartheid, when the country's townships were burning and the fight against racial segregation was taken right to the government, rather than being fought from the United Nations, Lusaka, Washington or London.

Despite recent accusations that he is detached from the masses, Mr Lekota was at the heart of this mass internal resistance as a key member and the face of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of liberation movements, civil society and religious groups.

He served four years in prison for treason, on top of six years in jail on Robben Island a decade before.

Defence minister

In the early days of South Africa's first democratic administration, Mr Lekota clashed quite publicly with Mr Mbeki.

Appointed premier of the Free State province under President Nelson Mandela, Mr Lekota was then removed by Mr Mbeki, the de-facto head of state.

This, says analyst William Mervin Gumede, was ostensibly for cracking down on corrupt ANC officials in the party.

Thabo Mbeki (file photo)
Now seen as an Mbeki ally, Mosiuoa Lekota also clashed with the ex-leader

Mr Mbeki then battled for five years to sideline the increasingly popular Mr Lekota, who was using his position in government to bolster his reputation for speaking out against injustice.

As Mr Mbeki's centralist tendencies and shadowy modus operandi became more and more apparent, the same "left" that has since fallen out with Mr Lekota, appropriated him as their martyr.

Removed from the provincial premiership, Mr Lekota was put to pasture as chair of the ineffectual council of provinces in the country's legislature, but bounced back in 1999 with the defence portfolio in cabinet - a poisoned chalice according to Mr Gumede.

He was able to keep his nose clean as a disastrous 1999 arms deal went horribly wrong, but he made some ill-judged remarks about how HIV infections affecting the country's armed forces were being overstated.

He also had to contend with some rogue elements in South Africa's peacekeeping forces in Burundi.

Outspoken

But it was when, true to form, he began publicly to question the moral character of Jacob Zuma - facing charges of rape and corruption but still intent on leading the ANC and the country - that his popularity with the anti-Mbeki faction in the party really began to wane.

Mr Lekota had served in an Mbeki administration since 1999, and for that he was made to pay heavily.

Supporters hold pictures of Mbazima Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota in Johannesburg, 1 November 2008
The new party hopes to challenge the ANC in elections next year

Mr Zuma's boisterous allies - the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party - have portrayed him as a disciple of Mr Mbeki's aloof style of leadership.

Mr Mbeki's presidency - accused of pandering to South Africa's powerful business community by targeting inflation and alienating the trade union movement - could boast of an expanding economy, but not job creation.

In a country with soaring levels of unemployment, this hurt those who saw the ANC - Africa's oldest liberation movement - as being a party of the poor.

Critics say Mr Lekota's shrill cries, warning of the abandonment of the ANC's founding principles under Mr Zuma's stewardship, have not been matched by any acknowledgement that the authoritarian Mr Mbeki may have had a hand in starting the rot.

But if his opponents in the ruling party thought that Mr Lekota would just disappear, they failed to account for his outspokenness and ability to make headlines.

Much like former ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa (sidelined by Mr Mbeki 12 years ago), Mr Lekota has the remarkable ability to come across to many in the South African electorate as a "conviction politician".

The wave of ministerial resignations he led shook South Africa as much as Mr Mbeki's axing as president.

At the very least, his new party - and a possible alliance with other opposition groups - will make next year's elections far more interesting than the ANC landslide which had been inevitable, although that may still be the outcome.

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