/ 15 December 2011

Sindisiwe Chikunga: The fiery midwife who took on Cele

Sindisiwe Chikunga: The Fiery Midwife Who Took On Cele

Even if suspended police commissioner Bheki Cele is missing his job, he certainly won’t be missing Parliament’s oversight committee on police.

In the two years that Cele was commissioner, he repeatedly locked horns with the committee, led by chairperson Sindisiwe Chikunga.

On several occasions, Chikunga was brave enough to criticise Cele, a senior member of the ANC, and has been unrelenting in conducting the committee’s oversight role.

She laughed when referring to Cele and said their relationship had not been soured by their clashes.

“Bheki Cele is my comrade. He is my leader in the ANC but, when he comes to Parliament as a national commissioner, he is a national commissioner and I’m a member of Parliament and that is the relationship. After the meeting or at lunchtime, we talk as comrades.”

Chikunga told how in March 2010, a few months after Cele’s appointment, she found herself having to act against him at a four-day meeting the committee held with senior police management in Pretoria.

Cele was not part of the meeting but was called in by police officials who had been facing a grilling from committee members.

“He arrived at the meeting directly from the airport wearing tracksuits and takkies. He stood up a few minutes after arriving and really went for us [the committee]. He was saying things like ‘There is no principle here’.

“I was sitting there shocked, thinking how am I going to handle him? I knew that if I were to allow this — let him do it and keep quiet — then this portfolio committee was gone.

We’d never talk to the department ever again and we’d never be able to hold the department accountable.

“I told him where to get off. I told him what our mandate was constitutionally and that we were another arm of government — which he was surely not part of — and that he would act in the manner we saw as correct.

“I saw him disappearing in the chair and that was the last time.”

‘Without fear or favour’
Chikunga vowed to continue the committee’s work without fear or favour.

“It pains one today when we talk about corruption — this liberation that we have today did not come on a silver platter. It makes you sick, you sit there and shiver.”

Referring to the South African Police Service spending about R60-million on parties for law enforcers on Police Day in the past financial year, she asked: “Why must we have irregular expenditure for a national police day when the money could have been spent on something else?”

Chikunga is originally from KwaZulu-Natal but now lives in Mpumalanga. She is a midwife by profession and has been an MP since 2004.

“What I’m enjoying with my work in politics is its challenging nature. I have got to represent you here in Parliament. Whether you agree with the policies of the ANC or not, I must try as much as possible to incorporate that which the ANC says and that which you say. I find it very difficult sometimes but I believe I’ve got to be honest. I fail to say yes when I mean no.”

Chikunga also spoke highly of the rest of her committee, and said it was “a strong and very hardworking team. I don’t think a chairperson could ask for better members than what I have. As a chair, it takes a lot of effort to have a team you can trust out of people who come from different parties.

“If you are to succeed, you must have a good team. This is what I look for when we interact with the senior management of the South African Police Service — who is getting appointed and why. And that is why things such as the section 45 appointments, where they advertise, remove the advert and then appoint, sicken me because I believe that people should earn any appointment,” she said.

“I’m even talking about whether you consider your affirmative action [requirements]. That black person must earn the appointment or that white person must earn the appointment. They must not be given any position simply because they are women or because they are black.”

Chikunga was a member of the DCO Makiwane Youth League (then a front for the ANC Youth League in KwaZulu-Natal) whose members included Bevan Goqwana and deputy ministers Joe Phaahla and Ben Martins.

Chikunga has also held leadership positions in the ruling party as deputy secretary of the Gert Sibande region as well as serving on the provincial executive committee in Mpumalanga and in the women’s league.

She said people often asked her about her uncommon surname and explained that her late husband’s father was born in Malawi.

Chikunga trained as a nurse at the Edendale Nursing College in KwaZulu-Natal in 1978 and worked in clinics and hospitals in Mpumalanga after she got married. She later became head of a nursing college, which, she said, was one of the top two in the country with its midwifery results.

“I was very experienced. There were no maternal or neonatal deaths under my watch — unless the woman came with a dead baby. I think I was a good midwife; I still believe I am.”

Chikunga’s father, Lucas Gcaba, was a Lutheran Church minister, which meant the family moved often from townships to villages and church missions.

She recalled her primary school education in Kopleegte, a small farm mission between Colenso and Winterton in KwaZulu-Natal. The church building was also used as a school, which went up to standard two, and later standard four at Gcaba’s request.

“The whole place was completely against anything that had to do with education. There was nothing motivating you to go to school. What motivated us was the fact that we were the pastor’s children,” she said.

It was at that time that Chikunga first heard the names of Mandela, Sisulu and others.

She said her father, in his prayers, would mention the Mandelas, Govan Mbeki and the Sisulus, who were in prison then.

“We didn’t know what that was all about but, when it was my turn to pray, I would pray for them to impress my father,” said Chikunga.