Oom Ray in the Wild East

Raymond Mhlaba, Eastern Cape Premier, in The Mark Gevisser Profile

You catch the similarity first in the tone: the ponderous and spare mode of delivery, a schoolmasterish stress on each syllable. Then you catch it in the ability — perhaps borne of a half-lifetime in captivity — to control a large, even gangly, frame with the smallest of gestures; in the wry self-deprecatory humour that nonetheless never intimates self- doubt; in that archaic mission-school language where men are “fellows” or, if a little younger, “chaps”.

Nelson Mandela and Raymond Mhlaba are almost exact contemporaries: they were born, two years apart, on opposite ends — socially and geographically — of what is now the Eastern Cape. They both landed up at Healdtown Mission School, the Thembu princeling by right and the policeman’s son by pluck.

Mandela went to university, became a lawyer in Johannesburg, assumed his position of leader. Mhlaba drifted into Port Elizabeth, found the Communist Party on a dry-cleaner’s shopfloor, and was working as a clerk in a lawyer’s office when Mandela recruited him into Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961. They stood trial together in 1964, spent 25 years in jail together. Now the one governs the country and the other the Eastern Cape.

Although they share many mannerisms, Mhlaba is as down-home as Mandela is patrician. Mandela is “Tata”, the father adored, revered and sometimes also feared. Mhlaba is “Oom Ray”, the uncle, loved too, but a little distant, a little less directly engaged in the destiny of his subjects.


In Mandela’s autobiography — and, indeed, in most accounts of the Rivonia trial and life on Robben Island — Mhlaba is something of a conundrum: he is always around, yet somewhat invisible; he is always very senior (he was one of the four-man “High Organ” on the Island), and yet one knows very little about his personality, his style, his responsibilities. He is part of the trail of names, Mhlaba-Motsoaledi-Mlangeni, that follow in the typographical wake of Mandela and Sisulu. Of the Rivonia generation, however, he is the only one, apart from Mandela, to hold a position of significant responsibility in the new government.

Mandela does give us one little clue when he describes how he consulted his inmates about negotiating with the government. “Ray was always a man of few words, and for several moments he digested what I had said. He then looked at me and said, ‘Madiba, what have you been waiting for? You should have started this years ago.'”

He is indeed a man of few words, no-nonsense and common-sensical, staunch in his belief in the common man, unwavering in his commitment to socialism (he replaced Joe Slovo as the National Chairman of the party), and given to workaday but quite compelling homilies, often with a martial tinge (he was sent for extensive military training in China in 1962). He and his comrades in government, he tells me, are “untrained to govern … like a man in a war situation who has never used a gun before, but is handed one and told to fight”.

We sit in the banal, face-brick, suburban box that Lennox Sebe deluded himself into believing was a Presidential Palace. All in all, Bisho is a pale imitation of Mmabatho (say what you like about Lucas Mangope, he knew how to buy style). The Ciskei capital used to be infuriating, outrageous, deadly. Now its stone leopards are pathetic and without the omnipresent crunch of soldiers’ boots giving the illusion of order and sovereignty, the sound of peasant women announcing their freshly roasted corn dominates.

Now, the incongruously classicist lines of the buildings are smudging into a true post- modernity that proclaims that order is unattainable and reflects the bewilderment of is current political occupants — democrats! modernists! communists! In a world of stone leopards, they are trying to clear a new society out of a hinterland that is vast, populous, underdeveloped. It holds within it South Africa’s own Wild West, our very own tragic caricature of a Banana Republic, the Transkei, the poorest part of the country, the logical end product of apartheid. It is lawless, corrupt and undernourished; it has R9-billion in debt, serviced by 90 000 civil servants who do … well, very little indeed.

Oom Ray, the commoner from New Brighton, chuckles about Transkeians: “Oh yes,” he says, “they have their own history … They’ll tell you, ‘we have always governed ourselves, we know how to govern’. Even when I was at Healdtown, people from Transkei spoke about how they were from the Black England … ‘We are elite, we are special’. Yes, if you want to approach a Transkeian you handle it with

But there are dangerous politics lurking behind the gentle mockery. For the system he inherited boasts not only bone-idle civil servants but also puffed-up chiefs. They privately scorn Mhlaba as a deracinated commoner and, while he would never publicly admit it, those close to him say he sees them as precisely the kind of feudal scourge socialism was supposed to do away with. But they, like the senior ranks of the civil service, are key ANC power brokers. They are thus not easily discarded, they all have vested interests in the status quo, and all have (or believe they should have) a hotline to Cousin Madiba.

The evidence of graft grows by the day: paycheck embezzlement in the health department was so entrenched the government has had to tender an outside contractor to manage the payroll; phantom teachers at phantom schools were paid very real salaries; the Transkei government defrauded itself in a bizarre scam where it charged itself illegally high interest through its bank.

Little wonder the civil service is, by Mhlaba’s own admission, “very hostile to us”. The cause of the “mistrust”, he believes, “is that this is a bloated administration that will have to be trimmed. So they know they will have to be retrenched”. Indeed, on the day I interviewed Mhlaba, the province’s Director General, Thozamile Botha, announced that around

18 000 civil servants could lose their jobs in a plan aimed at bringing the province’s impossible civil service into line. His goal is to reduce the numbers from 155 000 to 124 000.

By completely restructuring the province, thereby rendering everybody redundant and forcing everybody to reapply for their jobs, Botha believes he has provided the rest of the country with a model for how to circumvent the sunset clause. “We are the first province,” he says, “which is facing the reality of bloated administrations head on and which is trying to deal with it, rather than using delaying

But in my interview with national Public Administration Minister Zola Skweyiya in December, he pointedly contrasted the Eastern Cape with Mpumalanga. The former, he said, “was very negative towards old public servants already there, from South Africa and the bantustans. They tried to chop everyone, and the result was hostility. Mpumalanga never had that problem: from before the elections, [Matthews] Phosa interacted with all the different stakeholders to set things up. So, from the beginning, they had a vision shared by everyone. There has thus been less tensions

The result: things have moved quicker in Mpumalanga. One example is that both provinces made significant agreements with Germany shortly after the 1994 elections. According to the Germans, most of the agreements have been implemented in Mpumalanga, but nothing has happened in the Eastern Cape. Mhlaba acknowledges this: “There is some delay I cannot put my finger on.”

Answers like that are testimony to the premier’s straightforwardness and honesty. They also lead many to believe that he does not have a grasp on his province’s issues. “He is,” says one senior official, “very good on the big picture but very fuzzy on the detail.” Several of his advisers acknowledge that there is a general impression that he and the province are not doing a good job, but insist this has to do with the impossibility of the

It is unfair to blame Mhlaba for the excesses of a system that rotted while he was sitting in prison. He is industrious, engaged, and

But one key player notes: “Oom Ray inspires loyalty and love in those who know him. I, for one, can honestly say I love him. But he is not a charismatic figure. He doesn’t have the verve to be able to say, ‘Come on, we’re all in this together!'”

One of the more irrational laws of politics is that if you make people believe you are doing things, you encourage a confidence which actually makes things start to happen. Almost every other ANC premier, for example, has taken a leaf out of Mandela’s book and deflected attention from service delivery by flourishing the magician’s rainbow cloth of reconciliation. At least, they say, we’ve got everyone working together! Both Mhlaba and the Eastern Cape don’t seem to be interested in this rhetoric — perhaps because the region is so overwhelmingly dominated by one ethnic majority; perhaps because Mhlaba, a man truly reconciled after 25 years in prison and a communist to his bones, can’t bring himself to play games with racial identity.

‘I think more than anything,” says another senior politician from the region, “that Oom Ray is trapped by the fact that he is not Steve Tshwete.” This is a reference to the fact that the hugely popular Tshwete was expected to be given the province. Some say Mhlaba’s appointment was the direct intervention of Mandela, a combination of the Old Man’s loyalty to an old comrade and his sentimental attachment to his own province. Others point to the fact that the province is an amalgamation of three very powerful ANC regions — the old Eastern Cape, Border and the Transkei — each of which believes, fervently, that it is the cradle of the liberation movement. The competition between the many leaders from these three regions was so severe that Mhlaba had to be called in as the elderly statesman compromise.

In every other province the ANC won, it installed a young, charismatic, ambitious man as premier. All of them are a good three decades younger than Mhlaba. The provinces were given to the young “chaps”: no-one really expected them, anyway, to have much power in a centralised state.

But, because the “chaps” are ambitious and the constitution ambiguous, the provinces have become reservoirs of political testosterone. The archetypal premier is as pop as Tokyo, as cocky as Manne, as main-man as Matthews and as tuned-in as Terror. A Tshwete or a Holomisa would fit right in to the profile. There’s something quite incongruous, and not a little moving, about Oom Ray Mhlaba, with his dove- white hair and his blue-flecked cataracting eyes.

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