It cannot be flattering when comrades in your own party, the ANC, describe you as “that strong-arm lady from Inanda” and “a bit of an established warlord”. But there have been persistent whispers swirling around eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede, who was released on R50 000 bail after appearing in the Durban specialised commercial crimes court on charges of fraud, racketeering and corruption.
The charges relate to a refuse removal contract worth R208 million, which implicates an astonishing 62 councillors in the city.
Allegations that she embodies the gangster-politician model that has emerged and flourished in the ANC and the state during the Jacob Zuma project trail after her.
The project that swept former president Zuma to power in the ANC in 2007 was based on a consolidation of regional support through patronage networks profiting from the public purse. It has evolved, structurally, into a violently short-termist and cyclical system conflating state resources with personal ambition and, in KwaZulu-Natal, is premised on political assassinations, rampant kleptocracy and a shutting down of the ANC’s internal democratic processes.
In Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal – where his support has been most ardent, his imprint most profound – this system appears to have reached its apogee, with mayors appearing in court on corruption or murder charges, and witnesses and whistle-blowers being snuffed out.
Some of these elements are evident in Gumede’s rise within the party.
In 2013, ANC national executive committee member Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was tasked with a countrywide investigation of 419 disputes in the party’s list processes for councillors leading up to the 2011 local government elections.
The report recommended that in 125 of these cases, processes be redone and, at a bare minimum, councillors be recalled and by-elections held in the affected wards.
Gumede’s Ward 53 was one of those affected, with Dlamini-Zuma recommending she be “removed [as councillor] and that the process be redone”.
According to the task team, it had been notified “that there were problems in the list processes as some members were intimidated in meetings”. The report found that “there were conflicts revolving around the ward councillor … [who was] accused of murder and fuels tensions and divisions in the ward [sic]. Tensions are high ever since one of the complainants was shot.” Gumede was also accused of living in a ward outside the one she represents.
The ANC appears to have sat on the report, bearing out concerns at the time that nothing would be done as there were ANC regional and provincial elections in the offing and some of those compromised were power brokers with banks of voting support.
Gumede went unsanctioned. Later, she tussled with James Nxumalo and Sibongiseni Maxwell Dhlomo for the position of ANC regional chairperson in a succession of conferences that had to be reconvened because of reports of ANC branch meetings being disrupted by armed men, who kept some members out or influenced proceedings inside.
But her rise to power, “from nowhere”, continued unabated.
Three ANC sources from KwaZulu-Natal who spoke to New Frame on condition of anonymity, because they were not mandated to do so by the party, said they had no recollection of her being actively involved in the anti-apartheid struggle before 1994.
“I remember working with people from Inanda, like Sihle [Zikalala, ANC provincial chairperson and presumptive premier] but I don’t remember her. She only started getting involved in politics in the 1990s,” one said.
Gumede first emerged as a proportional representative councillor in Inanda for two terms before being elected as councillor for Ward 53. According to sources, she slowly built her support in Inanda, where she was “initially not very popular” but tested the waters and slowly grew her base.
From 2007 to 2015, she served as regional treasurer for the ANC in eThekwini and it is here that she was “exposed to making money from government”, an ANC leader who had worked at the municipality said.
Her terms overlapped with the leadership stints of two eThekwini regional bosses who, in mobilising support for Zuma in the build-up to the ANC’s 2007 elective conference in Polokwane, helped finesse the system that currently builds and breaks power within the ANC: John Mchunu and Bheki Cele.
“As treasurer, she saw how jobs and tenders could be used to mobilise people and she obviously wanted some of that action,” said an ANC insider.
“The problem with Mama [Gumede] is that where John and Bheki kept people included, even those who may have thought of toppling them, she has installed acolytes as councillors and, within the city, individuals to serve a particular purpose, her people only,” the insider continued.
This was most evident in the 2016 local government elections, when a wave of new councillors, most of them supporters of Gumede, were installed as members of the city’s executive committee and council. They included her co-accused in the waste removal case, Mondli Mthembu, who is the regional ANC deputy secretary in eThekwini.
“Entire teams under James Nxumalo, from politicians to people working in the city’s departments, were kicked out of the city. Its institutional memory was completely destroyed,” said an ANC member familiar with the inner workings of the municipality.
It is also evidenced by the recent protest by Durban’s municipal workers against Gumede’s appointment of people claiming to be former Umkhonto weSizwe veterans on high pay grades and apparently non-existent key performance indicators.
“The fundamental role of councillors, to engage with communities and ensure service delivery, is now completely lost. Everything in the city is about self-enrichment,” one councillor said.
Gumede’s apparent (golden) goosing of the municipal coffers appears so comprehensive that, according to local media, she allegedly employed a former domestic worker as a “mayor’s helper” to carry her handbag at official functions.
The “helper” was allegedly on a T17 grade, similar to that of a senior manager, earning around R50 000 a month.
Such apparently wanton expenditure raised the concerns of one former city official and ANC member: “When James Nxumalo was mayor [around 2015] we had R8 billion in reserves, an AA credit rating and a clean audit … At the moment, the city’s finances are a real mess, the debt levels are very high and I shudder to think what we are borrowing.”
The investigation into Gumede’s role in the waste removal case has revealed an alleged hand that lacks subtlety and finesse. According to an affidavit by the investigating officer in the case, Gumede allegedly influenced people in the supply chain management, legal and human resources departments in the city regarding the contracts.
The city’s integrity and investigations unit had singled out Gumede and Mthembu, who is exco chairperson for infrastructure and human settlements, for interference in the municipal public accounts committee, the executive committee and the auditor general’s office.
It is also alleged that Gumede had acted outside her mandate in influencing the bid specification committee, the bid adjudication committee and the bid evaluation committee for the deal, which appeared to give four companies free rein in collecting municipal cash, but not the rubbish.
Her Iron Lady reputation was also enhanced by scandals including the R20 million purchase of four armoured casspirs for public order policing. The deal did not go out to tender and was heavily criticised by activist groups and social movements as an indication that the city was adopting a hardline and violent approach to public protest. This was at a time when, especially after the Marikana massacre in 2012, the Farlam Commission of Inquiry recommended a more nuanced approach to public order policing.
More recently her spokesperson, Mthunzi Gumede, was questioned about the 2017 murder of ANC councillor Sibusiso Maphumulo. Her “personal adviser”, Mlungisi Ntombela, also recently approached the courts to stop the Hawks from allegedly “harassing” him. The Hawks have maintained they are investigating the link between Gumede, Ntombela and eThekwini councillor Mthokozisi Nojiyeza, who was arrested for Maphumulo’s murder.
Yet complete control in politics is difficult, especially when the structure of power means there are always disaffected hungry wolves looking to bite a chunk out of you.
Symbolically, this was obvious when Gumede appeared in the Durban commercial crimes court on Tuesday 14 May to face the charges against her and apply for bail.
While South African Police Service (SAPS) members, in an astonishing dereliction of their independence, prevented the media from taking pictures of Gumede entering and leaving the court, videos of the mayor tapping away on her phone in a holding cell before her appearance quickly started doing the rounds on social media.