... but poverty is in his DNA

Like hares transfixed by the glare of a car beam, staff at the swanky Hilton Hotel in Sandton stood mesmerised when he passed through the restaurant.

He shyly acknowledged them with a nod of his head, like a man who shuns the spotlight.

"Hail, the King! Long live the King!" I imagined them singing in reverence.

The Hilton has, of course, played host to more august guests than he, but what I think makes Sello Moloto inspire reverence is that he doesn't have airs, something sadly in short supply among today's political elite.

His wholesome image of village-boy-done-good endears him even to people who come into contact with him for the first time.

But somehow he appeared haggard and tired, like a man who had wrestled a beast and only just managed to scrape through. His strides were slow and laboured.

"It's a hard job," Moloto said without being prompted.

"One hardly finds time to sleep. People call you in the middle of the night with their problems and expect you solve them there and then. It's a hard slog."

Of course, no one thought it was going to be easy for the youthful premier, who turns 43 in August.

He presides over a mostly rural province where some villages are virtually "evil empires" where practices from the Dark Age, including burning so-called witches at the stake, are still happening in this day and age.

Though the temperature in the reception area was agreeable, he requested that we sit outside on the patio.

Sounds strange, but I later discovered why he chose the outdoors - the premier of Limpopo is a chain smoker.

For someone who is a beast of burden on whose puny shoulders the future of his province lies, Moloto is otherwise a cool customer. No exaggerated or dramatic gestures. No rhetoric or catchy sound-bytes so beloved of the media.

That might explain why, unlike some fellow premiers, including S'bu Ndebele, Mbhazima Shilowa, Ebrahim Rasool and Edna Molewa, he is rarely in the media.

He accuses the media of losing the plot. If he could help it, we in the media would be playing more of a developmental role as opposed to sensationalising events.

Someone, I thought to myself, forgot to tell him that media is big business that has to pay its way one way or the other.

Clad in a milk-white silk shirt, black flannel trousers and black leather sandals, he took his seat to face me.

There was unexplained sadness in his eyes, the residue of a life lived through poverty and the struggle for freedom from an early age.

His carefully weighed every question before answering and when he spoke, it was in a slow, soft monotone - the diametric opposite of the charismatic rejoinders that were his predecessor, Ngwako Ramatlhodi's, stock in trade.

The Hilton staffers might have been in awe of the man, but it was his ordinariness that fascinated me.

Being the political head of one of the poorest provinces in the country, where more than 75percent of the population is black and mostly poor, Moloto blames apartheid for the underdevelopment of his province.

"With so few whites, the previous regime saw no reason to develop the province. Resources were redirected to areas where there was a huge concentration of whites," he said.

So endemically poor is the province that sections of communities, as is the case in Moutse, are protesting violently against their incorporation into Limpopo.

Moloto knows what poverty is.

When you look closely at him, almost uncomfortable in the mink and manure surroundings offered by one of the best hotels in the country, you begin to believe that he has the peasant DNA deeply and forever embedded in every fibre of his being.

Poverty, he said, defined his early years. He dreamed of a career as a medical doctor, but a lack of funds prevented him from pursuing his dream.

"My mother couldn't read or write. My father was a drifter, a village salesman who sold little things to get by."

That fate, he said, hasn't escaped his family even as he sits on the throne of the province.

He is from a large family and he's the only one who is relatively educated.

"Most of my siblings and relatives are wallowing in poverty because they never went anywhere with their schooling and thus are unemployed."

When medicine proved beyond his parents' financial reach, he opted for the next best thing and studied pharmacy at the University of the North.

A staunch communist, his pharmaceutical studies were funded by the well-known democrats Helen Joseph and the late Beyers Naude.

The future of his province looks bright, though.

Despite being a poor province, things are looking up, so much so that Moloto might soon be in need of rose-tinted glasses. Limpopo is currently the fastest growing province in the country economically.

Between 1996 and 2005 the province recorded an average real yearly economic growth rate of 4 percent, which is above the country's average.

"The latest statistics indicate that Limpopo is now the fifth largest contributor to South Africa's growth rate at 6,7 percent," Moloto said in his state of the province speech last month.

Towards the tail-end of the interview, he kept checking his watch.

"Anything wrong?" I asked.

"No. It is just that I'm worried about [the hotel's] check-out time."

Now, you tell me, which premier would worry about mundane things like check-out times when the aides are there?

But then that's that the Sello Moloto I came to know briefly - courteous to a fault.

NEW FEATURE: Starting today and every Friday in Sowetan, THE ANDREW MOLEFE PEOPLE. Our intrepid specialist writer, Andrew Molefe, tracks down personalities from a diverse South African background, rich and poor, and gives you insight into what makes them tick - newsmakers ranging from movers and shakers, heroes and heroinesm and charlatans to outright outlaws. These are THE ANDREW MOLEFE PEOPLE. Watch out for it every Friday.