PULE Mabe is young — very young in terms of the African National Congress (ANC) definition of youth. At 32, he is the youngest member of the ANC’s national executive committee, its most senior committee. His rise is linked to his work in the campaign for President Jacob Zuma’s second term.
On the flip side, it is also linked to his victimisation, as an adversary of Julius Malema, when they both served on the ANC Youth League’s top committee. Mr Mabe became treasurer of the league in 2008 when Mr Malema became the body’s president. But their relationship fractured in 2011.
Mr Malema went all out against Mr Zuma — leading him to get the boot from the ruling party.
As Mr Malema pulled the strings in the league, with his lieutenants following his orders, Mr Mabe was hounded out of the anti-Zuma youth league — straight into the hands of the "elders" running the second-term campaign.
Mangaung came, and Mr Mabe now finds himself on the national executive committee — as senior as it gets. He is not the only younger leader in the executive, however. Former youth league spokesman Zizi Kodwa, an ardent Zuma aide, also broke onto the committee for the first time.
Mr Kodwa, at 42, joins his age contemporary, Malusi Gigaba, on this committee. Mr Gigaba, now Minister of Public Enterprises, has been rubbing shoulders with the party’s top brass for the past 10 years. He is a former president of the youth league. He was the star performer at Mangaung, coming in as the second-most popular in the votes for the 80 additional members of the 86-member body, when the "top six" officials, including the president, are taken into account. He was second only to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who came first.
What this means is that Ms Dlamini-Zuma was the most popular fair and square. But when the gender ruler is put in the middle, Mr Gigaba emerges as the most popular male. Mr Kodwa is likely set for senior government "deployment" after next year’s elections, as senior government leaders are mainly chosen from the executive.
He was one of the key operators in Mr Zuma’s Mangaung campaign, running things on the ground, linking with the branches, which is where it matters most.
The ANC, a generally conservative organisation, tries to manage its internal elections, ticking all the boxes, from gender, to age, and ideology. It is a long list of boxes, but the youth aspect often suffers from the party’s slant towards ageism. To ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, experience and wisdom that come with age is key.
"Obviously the older the organisation, the older the composition of the leadership, because it is the time-tested and tried leaders who get elected. With people who have been in the ANC for a long time, there is more confidence they will be capable, and the younger people are in the collective of 86 in this case," he says.
The ANC’s orientation towards the younger voter — with about 3-million being eligible to vote for the first time next year — is at the back of many minds. Leaders of the opposition Democratic Alliance feel that they are better placed to cash in on the "born frees", who have no first-hand experience of legislated apartheid.
But the ANC is not about to give up on this segment, with its leaders finding ways to relate to the younger voter and citizen. South Africa has one of the youngest populations in the world, with those under the age of 39 making up the majority of the country’s population of 52-million. But 40-year-olds — the prime age in many a business — are considered too young to make it into the ANC’s "top six".
The ANC seems quite a way still from embracing the idea of younger leadership. Nobody born after 1950 has been president of the party. In fact, the past two presidents after Nelson Mandela — Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma — were both born in 1942.
After the Polokwane conference six years ago, Fikile Mbalula — a colourful and energetic youthful leader — was one of the stars of the ANC show, running the blitz programme that saved the party from a disappointing performance in the 2009 elections.
But he fell by the wayside in Mangaung, when unchecked ambition and poor calculation saw him unsuccessfully take on Mr Mantashe for the position of secretary-general. As a result, he fell from all senior leadership structures, leaving the likes of Mr Kodwa in the thick of things.