A Transkei princess
Stella Sigcau, Minister of Public Works who died this week, cut her teeth on homeland politics and was involved with government from the late 1960s, when I was still at school. At that stage, the Matanzimas ran Transkei.
Her power base was a traditional one.
Her father, Paramount Chief Botha Sigcau, was one of the senior Xhosa traditional leaders who helped Kaizer Matanzima pioneer a “self-governing territory” in the Eastern Cape in 1963. They were vehemently opposed by other chiefs, including Sabata Dalinyebo.
Stella Sigcau joined Matanzimaâ€™s Transkei National Independence Party (TNIP) and served on his cabinet from an early age. She held various portfolios in the homeland cabinet, including minister of the interior; and became TNIP leader and ruled the territory briefly in 1987, before her government was toppled by the Transkei Defence Force (TDF).
The TNIPâ€™s strong-arm tactics in Transkei are well documented, including laws allowing detention without trial and banning liberation parties. Many young Transkeians skipped the country to join the African National Congress or Pan Africanist Congress in exile.
It has to be admitted, however, that the Matanzima and Sigcau governments empowered many through education and bursaries.
In 1976, Transkei became “independent”, requiring the government to establish departments — and this also provided opportunities. Indeed, Matanzima recruited some exiles back into his government.
I was such a beneficiary, joining the newly established TDF in 1976 after leaving school and passing through an accelerated programme of courses in preparation for a leadership position.
A major weakness of the TNIP was the growth of corruption after “independence”. Matanzima wanted to build airports and harbours to prove that the territory was truly independent. In one of a number of similar incidents, a shady Middle Eastern character, Mr Elhajj, managed to cheat the government of R9-million on pledges for a harbour.
Because the money was coming from Pretoria, both Transkeian and South African taxpayers began pressing for corruption by Matanzimaâ€™s ministers to be probed. He stonewalled the calls until his retirement in 1986.
His brother and successor, George, finally bowed to pressure and appointed inquiries that confirmed fears that ministers were allocating property and contracts to themselves and their families. No action was taken. George Matanzimaâ€™s own illicit dealings were also highlighted by these commissions, but the police and prosecuting authorities refused to move against him.
We in the TDF decided to force him out. The TNIP then appointed Sigcau as prime minister.
At that stage, she was a respected senior party member who was not associated with corruption. There was general relief that the Matanzimas were no longer running the show and many expected a breath of fresh air to blow through the government.
As defence force commander, I worked closely with her office and the armed services to ensure a smooth transition.
Three months later, however, the Transkei security services showed me and other senior officers documents, including bank statements and transfer records, proving that casino magnate Sol Kerzner had paid George Matanzimaâ€™s cabinet R2-million for exclusive gambling rights in Transkei. Unfortunately Sigcau — seen at the time as Transkeiâ€™s saviour from corruption — had benefited.
The TDF officers felt that forcing her to step down would not suffice, as large sections of the ruling party had been infected by corruption, and instability would continue if the government changed every month as a result of new revelations. The army took control.
The Kerzner bribe was referred to a commission of inquiry, which confirmed that the money was paid to Matanzima, who distributed it among his cabinet ministers. Sigcau testified before this commission.
George Matanzima was later sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in this scandal, serving three. The military government also tried to extradite Kerzner and other South Africans to face the music, including directors of JALC Construction. South Africaâ€™s Foreign Affairs Department flatly refused to cooperate.
This fuelled tensions between the two governments, already complicated by our efforts to forge strong links with the liberation movements. It was at this time that Kaizer Matanzima and Sigcau approached South Africa to topple the Transkeian government, militarily or through sanctions. In 1990, Pretoria was involved in an abortive coup attempt in Transkei.
We did not arrest her, police merely interviewed members of her entourage and warned them. Although the military had ousted her, we had maintained her pension and invited her to choose bodyguards for her protection. We also offered help with transport and security if she wanted to travel outside Transkei.
However, the trips to Pretoria by Matanzima and other TNIP members, pleading for South African intervention in Transkei, continued. All extradition applications were ignored and the finances for vital development projects were halted, with Pretoria accusing us of harbouring the armed wings of the ANC and PAC.
In the early 1990s, South Africaâ€™s watershed constitutional talks began. In the spirit of reconciliation, the Transkei government invited Sigcau to join its negotiating team. Later, we both joined the ANC and were invited to serve in Nelson Mandelaâ€™s Cabinet.
Our last encounter was an indirect one — through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which invited all ANC structures to narrate their experiences under apartheid. I approached the TRC to ask for compensation for the families of soldiers who died in the abortive coup.
In briefing the commission about the circumstances around the ousting of the Matanzima and Sigcau governments, I said nothing that was not known by Transkeians and the affected people themselves. However, I was viewed as accusing Sigcau of corruption. The rest is history — I was expelled from the ANC.
To the surprise of many, Sigcau and I continued to speak and to share jokes and anecdotes when we met. In 2004, when President Thabo Mbeki invited the United Democratic Movement to deputise at the Ministry of Public Works, we continued to interact.
Analysts and media commentators have asked why the ANC stuck with her, viewing her as a failure in both ministries she served. I believe the ANC had to retain her because she had led a party that long dominated Transkeiâ€™s politics and included most of its traditional leaders. Bear in mind, also, that after she was ousted she was never charged. Politically, it made sense to buy her influence, so that Transkeians would vote ANC. Remember that under the Matanzima governments, the UDF and the ANC had not been not allowed to operate.
There is no denying that Sigcau had a chequered career. But for many Transkeians, she was a mother figure. She will be sorely missed by a multitude of people.
Bantu Holomisa is president of the United Democratic Movement