The `sister' of the nation


I HAD been waiting more than 30 minutes for Cheryl Carolus, idling my time away listening to her secretary gossip over the phone. The African National Congress’s acting secretary general was late. I was growing more furious with each passing second, having rushed like a lunatic to get to ANC headquarters on time.

Suddenly the door to the office opened and out of this inner sanctum stepped a slightly shabbily dressed old lady, her face awash with smiling pleasure.
No, it was not Carolus! She followed, or rather her famous toothpaste smile did, and the two women bade each other farewell.

“Sorry about that,’’ says Carolus, bounding toward me to offer a firm handshake. “She used to work in the building and was passing by so thought she would just pop in for a chat. What could I say? She’s my mother’s age and just expected me to make time for her.’‘

This was girlish Carolus, willing and able to make time in her busy schedule (not to mention keeping a busy journalist waiting) while she entertained a cleaning woman. I felt petty and churlish about my earlier impatience.

Carolus is much more petite than I had imagined, and warmer than I could have expected, greeting me like an old friend with an apology. My eyes were drawn to her arms - muscular and defined like an athlete in training. I am told she is a fanatical long-distance runner and can often be seen pounding the pavements of Kensington on her regular morning jog.

It probably accounts for her boundless energy. This is a woman whose diet is largely chocolate-based - the half-eaten Mars bar hidden in her desk drawer is lunch - and yet her skin is flawless without makeup. Though how she does it baffles me.

We spent the first 10 minutes talking about crime - or rather she talked about crime and how it drove her and husband Graeme Bloch out of Yeoville. “I love the area, but decided not to live there because we don’t have the kind of money needed to cushion us.’‘

She meant the high cost of security. So I asked if she had followed other ANC leaders and high-tailed it to the northern suburbs. “I have friends living behind high walls and fences in Sandton, who don’t know their neighbours. I can’t live like that.’’ The couple bought a modest house in Kensington.

Crime is just one of many issues on which this senior politician has strong views. Views which she has no hesitation in expressing, and boy can she talk - often going off on a tangent before pulling herself back into the frame.

Perhaps she talks a little too much, judging from her reaction a day later when she called my office to express her concern about “our very loose conversation”.

Specifically, Carolus wanted to correct any impression I might have had when she said Cyril Ramaphosa had been forced out of politics. “Was he pushed or did he jump?” I asked during the interview. “Both,’’ she replied candidly.

“Cyril was pushed because . we needed people to go into the business arena and change the white commercial face of this country. The Johnnic deal (Ramaphosa led the black business consortium that last year bought a stake in Johnnic from Anglo American) came up at the particular time when Cyril’s responsibility was scaling down.’‘

To hear her tell it, this was all part of the transformation process. Yet the day after our meeting this seasoned politician was anxiously saying: “I don’t want you to get the impression that Cyril was pushed by Thabo [Mbeki] as it’s been rumoured.’‘

Her anxiety is natural. Carolus’s star appears to be waning and she is seen as out-of-step with the new party hierarchy. Hers is a holding position, which might explain her announcement to me that she plans to retire from mainstream politics when her term in office ends.

Political watchers say this is because she played her cards badly. She had tied herself too closely to Ramaphosa and both had hoped the ANC as a party would be stronger than the government.

So instead of going into Parliament and becoming the youngest Cabinet member, Carolus opted for an administrative role within the party bureaucracy. However, those some have called “the new liberals” have been scuppered by Mbeki’s technocrats.

But as one of the ablest and most committed party members (the party comes before everything, including having children) this begs the question: can the ANC really afford to lose her?

Carolus, of course, insists she always intended to leave mainstream politics. “The president said I was undisciplined not to stand for Parliament, but I have no ambitions to become a career politician.’‘

She wants to study. “I have accumulated insight and knowledge which I would like to sit back and formalise in an intellectual environment. The party has always known that I have no intention of going into hard-core politics.’‘

In the meantime she would just like some acknowledgment for her contributions to the transformation process, instead of being seen as a kind of appendage to Ramaphosa. “I co-ordinated ANC policy and did a bloody good job of it. Something I think I deserve a pat on the back for . it had nothing to do with Cyril. He only worked half-day a week and I was here all the time.’‘

“So was he not your mentor?” I asked hesitantly.

“I don’t need any man to get on in my life . not for my advancement or for defining my personality.” Here is the tough, uncompromising Carolus. One of the lads. The Cape Flats girl whom a friend confided “can drink anyone under the table”.

This spitfire says it is impossible to measure up to stereotypes of women in this society. Like the pressures to have children, for example. After seven years of marriage to Bloch, an economist and former political activist who now works at the Ministry of Welfare, she is forever parrying questions about why they have not had children.

“I think it would be a fulfilling experience but I won’t be defined by motherhood.’’ At 39, however, surely the biological clock must be ticking at double time? “Yes it would be nice to have children but I don’t think my fulfillment is dependent on it.’‘

In a country where politics is dominated by males and male values, women in senior political positions are always expected to be “mothers of the nation”. Carolus is more of a sister or girlfriend. “I’m not a moral custodian or nurturer,’’ she says.

To get into any position of seniority she had to work 10 times as hard as the average man and, she says, the process of ascendancy is usually profoundly discriminatory. A hint, perhaps, of why she was not offered the job she has been doing since Ramaphosa left the post in April last year permanently.

Carolus says she did not want the job. “Bah!’’ says one ANC aide. “She did not apply because she expected it to be offered.’‘

If she is disappointed it is well masked. Carolus is a dedicated ANC animal and always plays the same party tune. So she approved when Patrick Lekota was removed as Free State premier after a lengthy internal power struggle.

“People vote for the ANC and the party decides who the best person for the job is. So if you are not doing what is expected the party has a right to recall you. The split in the Free State was damaging the party’s image and impacting on people doing their jobs.’‘

As for the expulsion of Bantu Holomisa from Parliament and the party, her only criticism is that the ANC allowed him to shape public perception of what was happening. “We have some pretty juicy things we could say about his past, which are pretty scandalous, but we accepted that what was in people’s past was in the past. We did not want to hurt his family.’‘

Whatever she says about leaving the political theatre, Carolus is a consummate life-long politician. She began as a 13- year-old in high school in Cape Town when she joined a multi-racial organisation called the National Youth Action. “Some of us broke away and formed the black consciousness high school movement.’‘

Her parents (mother was a nurse’s aide and father a printer’s assistant) were not political, but they shaped her values by giving “me and my three sisters confidence.’‘

Carolus wrote poems and short stories about life until her early 20s. She did a BA in law at the University of the Western Cape “then decided I wanted to teach, in an idealistic kind of way’‘. She taught in schools on the Cape Flats between 1979 and 1983, then became full-time United Democratic Front secretary. “I did not get involved in politics, it got involved in my life.

“There was no other way in which I could retain my sense of dignity without fighting back.”

But she would have preferred to have been a singer or an actress, “something creative and which would allow me to express myself,” she says. “I’m quite flamboyant.”

It was a natural acting ability which allowed her to operate as an activist for many years, using a variety of disguises - including occasionally dressing like a man. She refused to go into exile. “I love my country and did not want to leave. I thought apartheid would last forever, so if I would have to leave for more than 20 years, no way. My soul and everything was here.”

This is Carolus the idealist who wanted to uphold the purity of a grassroots-led ANC. But choosing to remain in South Africa appears to have contributed to her stagnating in the party. That and her decision to be labelled a Cyrilite at a time when the exiles are in ascendancy.