In search of MaMbeki

Mandy Rossouw and photographer
Paul Botes went looking for Thabo Mbeki’s mother in Idutywa and came away feeling there’s only one Cope supporter in town

Posters of Jacob Zuma adorn every lamppost in Sofuthe village outside Idutywa, where Epainette Mbeki lives. Thanks to an oversupply of posters and undersupply of electricity, two identical posters sometimes festoon the same pole.

There are one or two of UDM leader Bantu Holomisa, but Mvume Dandala, Cope’s presidential candidate, is nowhere in sight.

For weeks we have been trying, through avenues official and unofficial, to persuade MaMbeki to grant an interview, but the answer remains no. Eventually one of her aides said: “Just go—maybe she’ll talk to you when you get there.”

A policeman directs us to Ngcinwane, the greater village in which Sofuthe is situated. We have no problem finding her house, everyone knows it: Zuma may be the area’s favoured president, but MaMbeki remains its most famous resident.

There are no signs of life at her modest house, painted bright orange. A satellite police office stands in the yard. A policeman goes to tell MaMbeki of our business and we send with him a five-year-old clipping of a Mail & Guardian story profiling Khanyisa Ntsimbi, the dress-making enterprise she founded that makes traditional Xhosa wear and accessories.

The message returns: “She’s closed for press interviews.” We are, however, given permission to talk to the Khanyisa workers.

The outbuilding that houses Khanyisa has six sewing machines. A rail with half-made dresses and a dressmaker’s dummy stand in a corner of the airless room.

The only man among the 10 women, Caston Sibidla, tells us studio space has recently been acquired where the team learns to make copper jewellery and that the average take-home pay is around R100 a month. They say MaMbeki is a strict but well-loved team leader. While Sibidla talks about their new premises—a swanky new building close to Sofuthe—the conversation turns to politics. “In getting the new site we were assisted by the ANC. The ANC gave that to us,” he says.

Asked about MaMbeki’s Cope allegiance, the other workers come to life. “This place is ANC, we’re all ANC here,” proclaims 60-year-old Nancy Dukashe. The rest of the group emphatically agrees: “There’s no Cope here; it’s ANC.”

Sibidla is more diplomatic: “I don’t know whether she’s [a] Cope [supporter] or not. But it’s the same as you like tea and I like coffee. If someone has an opinion, they must follow that.” An old newspaper clipping on his cutting table betrays him: in it, Ma-Mbeki’s Cope affiliation is made clear.

The windows and doors to MaMbeki’s house remain tightly shut as we prepare to leave; not even a twitch of the lace curtains.

Perhaps, locked in her house, it’s easier to deal with being the only Cope supporter in town.

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