A key man in the contest for control of the ANC’s most influential region is Thabani Nyawose, an eThekwini municipal official with Bible-thumping religious zeal who is largely unknown outside the party.
He stands in the way of ousted mayor “Mama” Zandile Gumede’s bid to reclaim her leadership at the eThekwini ANC regional conference scheduled for early April. And perhaps it is just as well that Nyawose is a religious man as many say only divine intervention can deliver ANC contrition.
The middle-aged man speaks with fervour, has a broad smile and a voice that belongs in a choir. He isn’t a big guy but his bass and countenance project a presence full of conviction, although not the type that seizes most of his comrades. Rather than stubborn ideologue, Nyawose speaks of the ANC “humbling” itself.
He also talks of miracles, which is what it might take to deal with Gumede. Dubbed a gangster boss who refused to go away, in spite of a raft of criminal charges and being sacked as eThekwini mayor by her own party, Gumede’s supporters say she controls most of the ANC’s 110 eThekwini branches ahead of the April showdown with Nyawose.
Nyawose’s supporters disagree. So who is he and why does he matter?
An eThekwini hostel manager, Nyawose occupies a small, nondescript municipal office in downtown Durban. He travels around unaccompanied and is the antithesis of his rival. Whereas Gumede is an imperious woman typical of many ANC leaders who assume might is right, Nyawose is quiet and engaging.
If there were a live television debate between the two, Nyawose would probably walk the contest. Gumede is seen as a sullen, backroom power broker although her supporters pitch her as a scapegoat for ANC failures. The contest for leadership of eThekwini will not come down to a televised debate. Rather, it involves internal lobbies and serious plotting, which both camps are doing extensively.
The outcome of the repeatedly delayed eThekwini conference has wider implications. The argument ANC members posit is that eThekwini is the most influential region in the country after OR Tambo in the Eastern Cape. If you run the party in the city, you control the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and then the country.
Some say Gumede and her close supporters are entrenched. The woman facing charges of corruption and pilloried for being at the helm of the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality’s most malfeasant era is, like her chum, former president Jacob Zuma, a savvy street fighter, and the lines of patronage are well oiled in eThekwini.
Nyawose is a declared Christian. But many still recoil at the sight of Zuma kneeling suppliantly in prayer on numerous occasions while his kleptocracy was at its height. As he prayed with men of the cloth to win the support of their flocks, Zuma’s benefactor Roy Moodley looked on, the picture of piety.
Nyawose’s story might resonate. His bid to clean up the ANC is backed by a personal journey of triumph over adversity as a result of “God’s grace and blessing”. His family home is near Shobashobane on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the site of a Christmas Day massacre in 1995 in which an Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) member slaughtered 19 people in the ANC-supporting area. The dead included 16 of Nyawose’s kin.
He was shot during political violence, narrowly escaped his burning hostel room when IFP members set it alight and recovered from a serious illness at university. He claims a deep affinity with the working class. His father was a Dunlop factory worker who moved his son into the room he shared with seven other men at SJ Smith hostel in Umlazi when the teenager finished school.
Hostel life conscientised him to the brutality of apartheid’s migrant labour. He slept on the floor and stashed his prized possessions in his father’s steel locker, which only had enough space for three hangers. The rest was kept under the bed.
The hostel, with its shared cooking and ablution facilities, was a place without “privacy or dignity … anything you want to do will disturb the others. If you want to pray, cook or play music, it will disturb others.”
Nyawose was an ANC councillor for the area for a short while after his comrade, Cyril Zulu, was murdered. He then studied on the Durban-Westville campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he became president of the Student Representative Council. After graduating with a degree in public administration, Nyawose became an employee of the eThekwini municipality and moved from hostel officer to manager. His home is in the blue-collar suburb of the Bluff, close to the hostel he lived in with his father.
At the height of Zuma’s stranglehold on the ANC, one of his key lieutenants lamented the “hooliganism” of dissenters in the party. It was, said Zuma acolyte Super Zuma, “completely alien to our movement”. The irony was surely lost on the man uttering the words as Jacob Zuma and his cronies irreparably tarnished the image of the ANC.
Most comrades looked the other way, except for a spirited band that included Nyawose.
In 2014, he and others in the ANC’s eThekwini region clashed. Two factions, one led by Gumede, the other by then mayor James Nxumalo and Nyawose, were pitted against one another. Zuma and Sihle Zikalala, then ANC provincial secretary and now premier of KwaZulu-Natal, supported Gumede’s faction. Senzo Mchunu, who was aligned to President Cyril Ramaphosa, supported Nyawose’s side.
Disputes over membership and voting irregularities delayed the eThekwini conference, and a two-year battle ensued that the high court eventually settled. Nyawose’s faction won and this affected the composition of the provincial ANC leadership and ultimately the ANC’s 2017 national elective conference that led to Ramaphosa’s victory.
Nyawose is pleased with the role he played in that, although marching against Gumede, who was effectively his boss, was challenging.
“As an official in local government, which is highly politicised, it was tough. This is the stronghold of Zuma, Zikalala and Gumede. But I stood for principle and justice in the ANC and I was vindicated.”
When Super Zuma roasted hooligans in the ANC, he was referring to ANC eThekwini councillor Sthenjwa Nyawose, Thabani’s brother and political ally. The aspiring ANC chairperson has remained mum about Sthenjwa, who has been charged in connection with the R208 million waste tender for which Gumede is in the dock. It makes for easy confusion because Sthenjwa Nyawose is an ardent supporter of Ramaphosa and is pitted against Gumede.
That one of Thabani Nyawose’s key campaign organisers is Boy Shozi, a taxi operator and councillor from violence-torn Hammarsdale, has raised eyebrows among his opponents. Nyawose said he couldn’t vet his supporters and rogues would “definitely” find their way into his camp. It is inevitable. His job as a leader, he said, was to “to instil a good culture”.
He wants to reform the ANC and rid the party of gatekeepers intent on control for their selfish ends. “The party was hijacked by criminals,” he said. The ANC has denied this, but if it were untrue, there wouldn’t be intimidation, threats, intolerance and ANC members killing one another, said Nyawose. Internal democracy was manipulated and votes were bought because a culture of “greed, hatred and anger” had been fostered.
Nyawose said that saving the ANC demands accountability. “Those of us with ethics, morals and integrity need to claim our organisation. If we sit down then the thugs and criminals will own it. Many good people are scared of dying or being labelled. I am raising my hand so they can support me. People want to be led in a godly way. That means they don’t want to be killed. They want to be loved and protected. They don’t want their leaders to steal from them or to live in chaos and disruption,” he said.
“God has a plan for me. I was saved from a bullet, a burning room and sickness. The bullet lodged in my body is a daily connection with me and God.”
Inside Mama’s camp
Apart from Gumede’s celebrity appearance at the State of The Nation address in Parliament in February, she’s not big on interviews.
Her campaign manager and the man vying for the position of ANC secretary in KwaZulu-Natal on her slate is Musa Nciki, who said Gumede was innocent until proven guilty. “There is corruption and perceived corruption.” Gumede was the product of ANC “investment” in time and experience, he added.
Her candidacy for re-election as eThekwini chair acknowledged her “influence” and respect for the fact that she “can stand on her position and defend it”.
Nciki is from Amaoti, near Gumede’s stronghold of Inanda. He put his civil engineering business on hold to campaign. It was previously contracted to the eThekwini municipality and championed radical economic transformation. That’s how Nciki’s supporters pitch it. He said he got 100 black-owned businesses to supply water and sanitation services to the City.
Gumede’s tenure as mayor of eThekwini was characterised by the rise of the Delangokubona SA Business Forum and others that raided construction sites and demanded work and/or a stake in the developments. Nciki said he did not know about Gumede’s connection to Delangokubona, but credited her with advancing radical economic transformation. “Development must create a space for locals. It is not a problem.”
But forums have been criticised severely as extortionists, self-styled champions of the poor that circulate their ill-gotten gains among a select few. Nciki said radical economic transformation had to be “formalised to create accountability and regularise it”.
Reformers and revolutionaries
Nyawose’s group has been tagged as the “reformers” and Gumede’s the “revolutionaries”. In a party like the ANC, adrift on policy matters and with a patchy record of service delivery, a militant, pro-poor pitch is obvious.
Nyawose’s promises don’t appear to be too different from Gumede’s. Both campaigns are aimed at ANC members, say the right things and don’t seem substantially at odds.
Nyawose wants transparency in municipal spending, a beefed-up revenue management system, to fix water leaks, clean up the city, advance entrepreneurship and women’s rights and regulate street sellers.
Gumede also has a wish list, not demonstrably backed by researched policy. Nciki said Mama’s camp would advance women and radical economic transformation, especially using businesses servicing water and sanitation contracts. Ironically, these are sectors Nciki serviced as a City consultant and where Gumede now faces criminal charges.
Benefactors and bribes
In 2015, when Super Zuma called out Sthenjwa Nyawose, he implored “all genuine ANC members to avoid being hijacked by anarchists and thugs”. Some might despair at the striking similarity in the language of Thabani Nyawose and Super Zuma.
Talk in the Nyawose and Gumede camps is thick with conspiracy. At times, it is as though the contest is not so much about the figureheads or what either promises. It is more about internal trade-offs for position and benefactors.
If Gumede wins, she would be the ANC eThekwini chair for a year before being promoted to a provincial ANC position, making way for the deputy on her slate, eThekwini ANC Youth League (ANCYL) head Thembo Ntuli, to become chair. Nciki would be regional secretary.
If Nyawose wins, ANC regional secretary Bheki Ntuli remains in place and controversial ANCYL presidential aspirant and Durban City councillor Thanduxolo Sabelo becomes deputy secretary.
A compromise, unity slate was mooted but rejected by both sides because of contestation over the secretary. It envisaged Gumede as chair and Nyawose as deputy, but fell apart on the choice of secretary. “This thing is full of personal grudges, jealousy and personal interest,” one ANC member said.
Nciki and Sabelo seem as fervently liked as they are disliked, depending on the camp. The social media rumour mill is churning around which side has which benefactors to sweeten voters ahead of the upcoming conference.
Gumede supporters sent New Frame an opinion piece shared on social media that is perhaps representative of the mood and the behind-the-scenes machinations. The piece roasts Sabelo and accuses him of shifting allegiances to secure a position for himself as a city councillor and of trying to turn the ANCYL against Gumede. “Gumede’s real enemy is now Thanduxolo Sabelo. If Zandile Gumede knows what’s good for her, she’ll stay clear of Thanduxolo Sabelo,” the piece reads.
Many ANC members talk about the influence of Sabelo, as they do about the importance of the Ntuli family from KwaXimba near Cato Ridge in Durban.
Bheki Ntuli is the uncle of ANC provincial secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli and Thembo Ntuli, but is not to be confused with the two other Bheki Ntulis in the ANC, one the provincial member of the executive council for transport and the other an Umlazi circuit inspector.