By Sechaba ka’Nkosi
People’s power without the gravy train
When the new African National Congress deputy secretary general, Thenjiwe Mtintso, was asked last month what her ambitions in the party were, her answer was simple: “I would like to see our slogan, ‘All power to the people’, implemented in reality.”
This may sound mundane, the standard response of a newly elected office bearer, but, according to supporters in the party, she lives by that slogan and they expect nothing less from her than its implementation.
In the run-up to the election of the ANC national executive committee in December, Mtintso had been the subject of a disinformation campaign that sowed confusion about her availability for the position. But intense lobbying by her supporters ensured that Mtintso beat the only other candidate for deputy secretary general, Mavivi Myakayaka-Manzini, who was said to have been the ANC leadership’s preferred option.
Mtintso, a former close associate of Steve Biko, joined Umkhonto weSizwe in exile after being horribly tortured by police in the 1970s, and soon rose to become the MK commander in Botswana.
Her battles on behalf of her troops — protecting their human rights, correcting administrative flaws in MK’s command structures and guiding them through the painful and sudden decision by the ANC’s leadership to abandon the armed struggle — won her the undying loyalty of hardened soldiers.
A South African Communist Party politburo member and one of the country’s foremost gender activists, she defied the odds to become the only woman in the ANC’s uppermost structure.
At the end of March, she quits her position as chair of the Commission for Gender Equality to work full-time for the ANC at the party’s Johannesburg headquarters, Shell House.
In March, the ANC and its allies hope to convene a national conference on gender and women which will discuss the formation of a broad women’s movement.
Says Mtintso: “I think my new position will give me an opportunity to advance the cause of women in the ANC. I will have to create more gender awareness and also deal with some stereotypes that are found within our ranks.”
Her colleagues at the gender commission said some of them cried when they heard she had been elected deputy secretary general. “It was a mixed response. Some of us cried because we were so happy for her, some of us cried because it meant she would be leaving us, and there were even tears because some of us believe she should have been general secretary and not the deputy,” said one.
Asked to characterise their boss, almost all spoke of her integrity, intellect, work ethic and commitment to human rights. They were divided over whether she was a workaholic or just a driven human being.
“She can be devastating. She looks cold and fierce and towers over everyone. Her intellect is intimidating and can be disempowering, but when she’s wrong, she’s the first to admit it. She can be very human as well,” said a colleague.
“She’s a very insecure and driven person. Her plate is always full and she wants to do everything to perfection. Not only does she have a full-time position on the gender commission, but she completes every task given to her by the SACP and the ANC and she’s completing her MA in management at the University of the Witwatersrand.”
As a product of a broken home, Mtintso has not been as successful in her personal life as her career. The members of the organisations she belongs to are her family, friends say.
Her commitment to communism is evident in her everyday decisions. Under her leadership, the gender commission has not become another gravy train. She insists that catering for the commission be restricted to Nando’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, dismissing any suggestion that visiting VIPs get five-star treatment.
Very few people are willing to compare Mtintso to her predecessor, Cheryl Carolus. The only parallel being drawn is that both love a good party, although Mtintso often has to be dragged away from her work first.
For her most recent birthday, her staff organised a surprise party, but then struggled to ensure she attended. “We told her the Swedish minister for development aid had half-a-million rand to spend and was considering the gender commission for a grant. Her immediate reaction was that he did not have to meet her, she had more than enough confidence in the staffers who dealt with funding.
“We told her protocol insisted that the chair meet a minister, and not a junior functionary. In the end, we managed to drag her out of her office and to the venue where the minister was supposedly waiting. We all did the usual ‘surprise’, and did she enjoy that party!”