This year, National Women’s Day on 9 August coincided with Varalakshmi Vratham, traditionally the day when Hindu women offer prayers to Mother Lakshmi asking for the protection of their homes, and their families’ safety and prosperity.
On this day, there were a lot of mothers at the Shri Mariammen Hindu Temple in Mount Edgecombe, north of Durban. Serious ones, leading their families into prostrations around the temple. Old ones, squeezed into chairs at the back of a marquee, seemingly halfway to the mortuary because of their “sugar” (diabetes) and “pressure” (hypertension) yet still able to stick it to passersby with titbits of sharpened gossip, some of it more political than personal. There were also younger ones chasing small children. Poor ones and rich ones. Some in saris. Others in punjabi dresses. All barefoot.
Zandile Gumede, who referred to herself in the third person as Mama when addressing a crowd of about 1 000 supporters outside the Durban magistrate’s court the previous day, was also there.
The former mayor of eThekwini is the matriarch of a crew of councillors, ANC members, municipal workers and self-styled military veterans who allegedly propped up her reign as Inanda’s Iron Lady through an extensive patronage network that crippled the finances and functioning of the municipality.
It was clear that the network was still operational. Her supporters were dressed in a range of outfits, from blue municipal overalls to ANC regalia to Hugo Boss’ best. There was a marquee outside for an all-night vigil before Gumede’s court appearance and a “redeployment” of municipal resources: the city’s buses ferried in supporters and a municipal water tanker dislodged the wooden poles that prevented cars from parking on the pavements by reversing on to the verge, where it remained at the disposal of Gumede’s supporters.
The ANC removed Gumede as mayor of the eThekwini municipality two weeks after her court appearance. Her R208 million corruption, money laundering and racketeering case was postponed to 15 January 2020.
The National Prosecuting Authority alleges that Gumede, the municipality’s deputy speaker Mondli Mthembu, supply chain head Sandile Ngcobo and various other city officials were involved in inflating a R25 million waste removal tender to R208 million. No work was done and, instead, those implicated divvied up the money and channelled it through four companies with no waste removal experience or capacity.
Gumede is adamant that one of the reasons the ANC is removing her is because she is a woman. She has provided no evidence to back up her claim, while allegations of mismanagement of the municipality’s budget build up against her.
At the temple, Gumede was dressed in ANC colours. Like former president Jacob Zuma, she had drawn comparisons between her prosecution and the persecution of Jesus Christ.
Gumede must keep the Zuma playbook next to the Bible on her bedside table. At the rally, she ranted against the politicisation of the prosecuting authority and suggested that the allegations against her were spurious as she had yet to see a charge sheet.
She ignored that courtroom procedure dictates that those accused are presented with charges only when they are asked to plead. This scenario for her is still some way off. The case was brought to court early to prevent her from interfering with witnesses at the municipality, such as municipal manager Sipho Nzuza, who has turned state witness.
But Gumede’s misinterpretation of the legal system built on her conspiracy narrative and angered the crowd.
Girl who ignites dry fuel
Gumede was at the temple in Mount Edgcombe to unveil a bust of Valliamma Munuswamy Mudliar, a child martyr of South Africa’s centuries-old fight against colonialism’s injustice and apartheid’s barbarity.
She was born in 1898 in Johannesburg, to vegetable hawkers and satyagrahis (passive resisters) who were often arrested for their civil disobedience in the campaign started by Mohandas Gandhi in the early 1900s.
By the time she was eight years old, Valliamma was already sharing political platforms with activists such as Gandhi and others. She has been described by Durban Casbah raconteur Aziz Hassim as an independent-minded and bluntly revolutionary young girl “born with the flame in the heart”.
In October 1913, Valliamma and 10 other women left Tolstoy Farm in the former Transvaal province to embark on a 117-day revolutionary odyssey, protesting against discriminatory legislation and new taxes for black people. They took part in marches and demonstrations across the country.
In Newcastle, in what was then Natal province, Valliamma and her comrades addressed indentured labourers and miners, triggering South Africa’s first coal miners’ strike.
Valliamma’s oratorial brilliance was evident to Gandhi, who wrote: “In Newcastle the women would meet the indentured labourers and their wives, give them a true idea of their conditions and persuade them to go on strike on the issue of the £3 Tax. The strike was to commence on my arrival at Newcastle.
“But the mere presence of these women was like a lighted matchstick to dry fuel. Women who had never before slept except on soft beds and had seldom so much [as] opened their mouths, [let alone] … delivered public speeches among the indentured labourers. The latter was roused and, even before I arrived, were all for commencing the strike … By the time I reached there, Indians in two coal mines had already stopped work.”
The women continued on their journey of subversion, inciting workers in towns such as Ladysmith and Tongaat before they were arrested and jailed in Pietermaritzburg. Sickly but refusing on political principle early release for medical attention, Valliamma died on her 16th birthday in 1918, shortly after leaving prison.
Valliamma had selflessly lived the satyagraha rallying cry, Shatham Prati Satyam (Truth against a rogue). What might she have thought about Gumede formally unveiling her bust? Or her name appearing directly above that of Councillor Zandile Gumede: Mayor eThekwini Municipality?