The Past: Dali Mpofu is pictured here with Winnie Mandela in the then Transkei in 1989. It's an image which has repeated on him.	 Picture: Benny Gool
The Past: Dali Mpofu is pictured here with Winnie Mandela in the then Transkei in 1989. It's an image which has repeated on him. Picture: Benny Gool
The Present: Dali Mpofu has played a number of different roles in South African society, but this one  of empathic leader to the students  might not be agenda-driven. Then again, it might.    Picture: Nonhlanhla Kambule
The Present: Dali Mpofu has played a number of different roles in South African society, but this one  of empathic leader to the students  might not be agenda-driven. Then again, it might. Picture: Nonhlanhla Kambule

Dali Mpofu was a surprise element at the Wits protests on Tuesday, when he provided leadership to the Fallists. If this was a test of his personal power, what lies in the background? asks Janet Smith

It was no surprise when young revolutionaries Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu became detached from the ANC’s hierarchical neo-liberal politics and rebelled, got expelled and ultimately formed the EFF.

But it was a play on the nation’s nerves just short of three years ago when advocate Dali Mpofu announced he was giving up his membership of the ruling party to join the EFF. This is not to say no one expected him to align himself with Malema who, then aged 32, had a year less on him than Mpofu had spent in the ANC.

As Malema’s representation at his disciplinary hearings in 2011 and 2012, Mpofu had recovered some revolutionary impetus when he also represented families of miners killed in the Marikana massacre. But that’s the old news, as are the stories about how he was dismissed by the ANC in 1992 over monies on its social development department account when he was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s deputy.

Mpofu has since been chair of the EFF and an active political campaigner. He was also a holy lance in the side of Judge Ian Farlam throughout the Commission, and he’s been a vocal fighter against aspects of the Farlam report, particularly on the aspects of political capture and a neglect to award responsibility to mining capital.

It was difficult to remove all that memory when Mpofu took the mic at Solomon Mahlangu House at Wits on Tuesday morning. He was occupying a spot he might last have had in the late 1980s when he was in the Black Students Society (BSS), and this made him something of a surprise element at the gathering which came on a day when Wits’s management was determined to wrestle back control, using securitisation as a lever. But not entirely.

At the very least, Mpofu would almost certainly have got up the noses of former comrades, who are also parents of Wits students, in the ANC’s ward 73, which includes Houghton and Saxonwold.

He was formerly convener of its disciplinary committee.

Famously, Mpofu had allegedly been asked to offer a legal opinion on the actions of fellow Saxonwold resident Atul Gupta, who was facing the possibility of charges from the party for bringing it into disrepute over the Waterkloof Air Force Base scandal in July 2013. Gupta had been a member for seven years.

As it happened, however, that didn’t go anywhere, and Mpofu was in any event mere months away from making his radical decision, telling City Press that November when he resigned that he didn’t leave the ANC, “the ANC left me”.

Mpofu stole the early headlines on Tuesday morning, hours before Malema became a social trigger again after saying on eNCA’s Checkpoint that evening that he envisaged the EFF and the ANC collapsing into one new political party after 2019. This was highly intentional; it’s important.

With Malema having relinquished his day-to-day role as an EFF MP in favour of building the party at its roots, organisationally, ahead of the 2019 elections, his party is entrenching its ideological direction. It is indeed one which Malema intended at the start, followed by the building of impressive minds who could run the party in his stead, if necessary.

The EFF’s plan was always going to include a need to rely on its highly placed intellectuals, headlined by Mpofu, to remain in the vanguard – and therefore in the broader public’s imagination. And that can happen in many different ways that appear to be non-partisan, but are in fact strategic.

Yet, that might also be the cynic’s approach to Mpofu providing leadership to the Fallists at Wits on Tuesday.

At first, his appearance felt possibly dangerous to the party. After all, if a politician is going to assume the role of a sensei, or an empathic figure to a younger generation, they must be able to deliver on the demands with which they have been presented.

In this case, it is simply not possible for the EFF to intervene at this stage in the state’s budgetary allocation to higher education. And if Mpofu were to have made that promise, it would have been a rare misstep on the part of the EFF as it continues to capture the youth of this country.

With the Fallists’ Charterist agenda so close to that of the BSS of the late 1980s, Mpofu, however, already had the personal and historical credibility on Tuesday, and therefore, he had no need to use the EFF’s name in particular.

Rather, by osmosis, he would have helped entrench the impression that his party is there for the anti-fascists and the dissidents.

Some said Mpofu was being opportunist and a careerist – perhaps like some of the current Wits student leaders themselves. There are some among them who may be fairly accused of elbowing out other contenders in the knowledge that, if there is an unseating of the government through a popular uprising, they will be at the forefront and can then pick from the political riches that unfold.

Indeed, in March 1957, the state’s brutality was wielded upon student insurgents who tried to storm the presidential palace in Havana and kidnap President Fulgencio Batista. But it hadn’t counted on the might of former law student Fidel Castro and his maquis who would fearlessly overthrow the dictator, a former populist, years later through revolution.

But while many different versions of why Mpofu was there on Tuesday remain in the public discourse, there’s no denying that, later that night, he and others who were student leaders of his generation – including Terry Tselane, now with the Independent Electoral Commission of SA, and Firoz Cachalia, who was an MEC in Gauteng’s government – convened peace talks.

If, through that, Mpofu helped give the EFF a compassionate face and a political rationality, so be it.

He looked like he was playing a functional, cohesive role, which said something about overcoming criticism about his son Sizwe being an Oxford graduate, living in the northern suburbs, leaving his job as the SABC’s chief executive under a cloud, making money through business and, worst of all, allegedly being the reason why Nelson Mandela’s marriage to Winnie failed.

The true test of that leadership action on Tuesday is, of course, if the General Assembly planned for Wits tomorrow will be able to reach a consensus position on the principle of access to higher education. If that fails, and the divide between stakeholders only intensifies, Mpofu will be challenged to step in again. But at what political cost, and to what end?