"Wherever I go I carry a gun these days," a longtime ANC member from the eThekwini region in KwaZulu-Natal said, "not because I am afraid of thugs or political opposition, but because I am afraid of my own."
That ANC comrades in the province are packing heat to defend themselves against their "own" indicates that the political temperature has reached boiling point: there have been three assassinations, allegedly political, in the province in just more than a year and a half, which debunks the notion that politics in the region is homogenous.
Several provincial ANC members said the political landscape was just a few bullets and funerals away from "Mpumalangaisation", a reference to the province where political murders are nearly as commonplace as potholes.
With the exception of Ugu district municipality chief whip Wandile Mkhize, who was murdered outside his home on the South Coast two weeks ago, the other two murders, of eThekwini ANC regional secretary Sbu Sibiya and regional executive committee member and city councillor Wiseman Mshibe, have taken place in Durban.
The eThekwini region of the ANC, it is commonly held, is the tail that wags the KwaZulu-Natal dog. It is so strong numerically and financially that it dominates provincial politics and has pull when presidents are installed at national level – as it did at the ANC's elective conference in Polokwane in 2007 when Jacob Zuma was elected party president.
With an audited 103 branches in good standing at the time of the ANC's policy conference in Midrand last month – the largest region in South Africa in terms of membership – it would appear to be in a position to do so again at the elective conference in Mangaung in December.
But the state of the party at a regional level suggests there are serious fractures stemming from the consolidation of grassroots support bases and access to the eThekwini municipality's resources and contracts. These are threatening to break the political edifice – the hegemony – that helped to install Zuma as ANC president.
Fifteen sources, including municipal employees and ANC members from all its structures, spoke on condition of anonymity, either for fear of persecution or not wanting to be seen to be breaking ANC protocol.
The importance of eThekwini
According to many of them, competing factions have emerged since the death of former regional chairperson John Mchunu in 2010. It has meant that the focus of ANC members has shifted away from mobilisation and lobbying in the region and also more widely to the consolidation of personal or factional power in Durban.
Mchunu was larger than life and dominated regional politics, although his reach extended much further to the rest of the country.
A close Mchunu associate recalled the strongman's role in the movement that resuscitated Zuma's political life after he was sacked as deputy president of the country in 2005.
"John was a tireless mobiliser and strategist who came from the grassroots and held that mass support … "I still remember sitting with John and he would have a piece of paper with a list of regions across the country and he would be going through them one by one, deciding which ones he would need to visit and lobby and which ones had already decided to back Zuma against [then-ANC president Thabo] Mbeki at Polokwane."
According to the source, Mchunu ushered in a new dynamic in internal ANC politics: "The realisation at Polokwane was that power actually resides in regions, not the provinces. The media were saying that Mbeki had support from six of the nine provinces, but the secret – and this was down to John's work – was that Zuma had the regions."
According to Mchunu's confidantes, as regional secretary and later as chairperson he became a Chicago-mob kind of character, establishing a system of economic and political patronage in local politics. Historically, the municipality has had a large operating budget, which, in this financial year, is nearly R31.5-billion.
City contracts, ranging from the building of low-cost housing to waste collection, were awarded to influential business associates, who would channel money back to the ANC for its operations, or to small and medium-sized businesses connected to the ANC at ward level. These were an extension of the system of patronage, which created jobs to establish voting banks in the city for the ANC.
According to shack-dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, even the clearing of rubbish in informal settlements was politicised and the jobs went to card-carrying ANC members. Mchunu's political manoeuvring led to a conflation of city and party at regional level, and the mayor's position was reduced to a ceremonial one. No important decisions, particularly involving tenders, were taken without Mchunu's input, city and party sources said.
"If you needed a decision taken, you just went to John or Bheki Cele [regional chairperson when Mchunu was secretary] and they were decisive," said a municipal insider, who intimated that this kind of political leadership was now missing in the city.
Mchunu's largesse led to the rise of several businesspeople "favoured" by the city, including "Prince" Sifiso Zulu and the Mpisanes – Shauwn and Sbu (a former metro policeman), a "bling" couple who are facing more than 100 counts of fraud and tax evasion.
Under Mchunu (and Cele's political figurehead), eThekwini's influence extended far into the province. According to the sources, the eThekwini region funded the conferences of other, poorer regions in KwaZulu-Natal.
"The Bantustan of eThekwini effectively controlled the province," one former regional leader said wryly – the region was in a much better financial position than the rest of the province, thus holding greater political sway.
This appeared to have upset the provincial leadership, which tried to reassert it authority during the lead up to, and over the outcome at, March's regional conference, according to the sources.
There have been widespread allegations of smear campaigns and the buying of votes in the battles for regional leadership.
Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo, who was finally elected as chairperson, is considered to be close to provincial Premier Zweli Mkhize. The rest of the top five appears to be a compromise between Mkhize supporters and factions from Mchunu's splintering political edifice, according to ANC sources.
Of these, current regional treasurer Zandile Gumede and municipal housing committee chairperson Nigel Gumede have emerged as the most powerful, but neither appears to command the hegemonic grassroots support at branch level that Mchunu did.
According to sources, factions are emerging in eThekwini that were born out of resentment at having been barred from the patronage because of Mchunu's manoeuvring. Cleansing the municipality of his legacy is well under way and allegations are being made that the damaging Manase report into corruption and maladministration in the municipality is being used selectively to pursue those connected with the deceased power broker.
eThekwini's influence in the provincial executive committee has also been reduced since the provincial general conference in May. Of the 25 officials directly elected to the committee, eThekwini previously provided about 15. But after May's provincial conference, this was reduced to about eight, according to an ANC source.
The structural problem
Although current regional leaders such as eThekwini secretary Bheki Ntshangase are quick to say that the ANC is bigger than one person, Mchunu's omnipresence still appears to permeate the region's politics.
With Cele busy as chairperson and an ANC national executive committee member, and with his day-to-day job as provincial safety and transport minister, Mchunu could consolidate the administrative and political role of the regional secretary to become the centre of power in eThekwini.
In 2008, Mchunu took over from Cele as regional chairperson and Sibiya, who was assassinated in September last year, became the regional secretary.
According to ANC sources, Sibiya had prepared himself to take over Mchunu's role as the power ruling the eThekwini region and municipality. But it did not happen.
According to a source who worked closely with Mchunu, it was linked to Mchunu's political history: he was a former Inkatha Freedom Party warlord from Mpendle, who joined the ANC in the early 1990s.
"In the IFP there is no democracy, so when John had built that power there was no way he was going to let it go," said the source.
Mchunu died of pneumonia in October 2010, but when the news broke of Sibiya's murder a year later, rumours circulated that it was linked to his attempts to assert the power of the regional secretary entrenched by his predecessor.
Returning to the bigger picture, apparently Dhlomo has chaired only one meeting in the region since assuming his post and there are rumours that a motion of no confidence and the possibility of recalling him are being considered by factions opposed to his leadership. He is seen as Mkhize's point man in the region with no real grassroots support.
100% JZ at Mangaung
Following its regional conference in March, eThekwini came out publicly in support of Zuma's bid for a second term, despite the party having banned proclamations until October.
But on a regional level the party is in apparent disarray – factions are competing to consolidate support and gain access to municipal coffers.
The region is also bereft of a strategist in the Mchunu mould, according to party insiders. This begs the question: What about the homogenous support that the region, and province, provided to Zuma between 2005 and 2007, which catapulted him to the ANC presidency in Polokwane and to the first-citizen position in 2009?
Insiders say that support for Zuma remains solid in the region, but the fractures caused by the internecine squabbles in the party could be exploited because of unhappiness over the expediency with which the president uses and discards allies.
One source used an old Zulu proverb, Umbeki weakosi akabusi (the kingmaker will never be king), to encapsulate Zuma's approach to those who carried him to power.
Some of those who assisted in the Zuma project feel they have not been properly rewarded and are unhappy, and others feel that the president has not backed them adequately. One source referred to the case of former police commissioner Cele, who was sacked by Zuma, as an example of the president's indifferent approach to his backers. Cele is popular in KwaZulu-Natal and sources said his popularity would play a significant role at Mangaung.
According to one source, Zuma "acts like a king, not a president". He compared him with the Zulu monarch Shaka, who ensured that there were no male heirs to threaten his kingship. Likewise, Zuma surrounded himself with people and advisers who posed no threat.
Whether these fault lines will be bridged and the dissatisfaction with Zuma staunched, only time will tell. As one source said: "It's five months to Mangaung and in politics that is a very long time."
The provincial players behind the Zunami
In the build-up to the ANC's 2007 elective conference, eThekwini regional secretary John Mchunu provided the muscle that mobilised the region and fed into the "Zunami" of support for Jacob Zuma in ANC and tripartite structures around the country.
But there were several other key players and power bases that carried Zuma to the ANC presidency – support that, particularly in the year following Zuma's sacking as deputy president, proved vital to his political survival.
Senzo Mchunu: Not related to John Mchunu, but his political soul brother as a strategist and mobiliser. The then ANC KwaZulu-Natal secretary was tireless in mobilisation at provincial level and his building of a pro-Zuma consensus with other provinces on the road to Polokwane. But it is understood that the current MEC's relationship with the provincial chairperson and premier, Zweli Mkhize, has cooled recently.
The KwaZulu-Natal cabal: It includes Mkhize, who was fingered in Richard Mdluli's intelligence report as being supportive of the bid to remove Zuma at Mangaung. He has since publicly denied this and reaffirmed his support for the president. But it is understood that their relationship has also cooled.
Nathi Mthethwa: The current police minister ran the policy schools and discussions that took place in KwaZulu-Natal in the build-up to Polokwane. He was instrumental in hammering out a policy consensus that rejected documents such as "Through the Eye of the Needle", which was considered a proxy rejection of then-ANC president Thabo Mbeki. It has been suggested that the manner in which these discussions were held contributed to the narrow, sometimes intolerant, manner in which policy and politics in the province are often discussed.
Other influential provincial politicians included Bheki Cele, then-eThekwini regional chairperson, Cosatu's Zet Luzipho and the South African Communist Party's Themba Mthembu.
The "real" ANC Youth League: Although erstwhile league president Julius Malema has often trumpeted his role in installing Zuma as ANC president, the truth is the real slog was done by the leadership that preceded his. The hard-working young lions at that time included then-president Fikile Mbalula (now sports minister and considered the public point man in the bid to replace Zuma as ANC president), secretary general Sihle Zikalala (currently ANC provincial secretary) and then-league spokesperson Zizi Kodwa.
The divided reds: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and his SACP counterpart Blade Nzimande both had very real hopes for a greater role for the left in a potential Zuma government. Nzimande appears happy with his leadership, Vavi palpably less so.
Buying votes is big business
Dispensing contracts and patronage that flow from the municipality's coffers and entrench ward support and voting banks in the city come election time have, according to one city source, "seen the emergence of many small businessmen".
It has also given rise to mega-rich businesspeople unafraid to flaunt their luxury cars and shoes that cost more than the monthly take-home salary of a municipal worker.
Sbu and Shauwn Mpisane: Shauwn is facing more than 100 charges of fraud and tax evasion involving more than R5-million. Her company, Zikhulise Cleaning, Maintenance and Transport, has been the beneficiary of several multimillion-rand contracts with the city. The company saw an increase in sales from R34-million in 2007 to R120-million a year later.
A March 2011 forensic report, compiled by auditors Ngubane & Company, recommended that an investigation be launched into the awarding of tenders to the company and 34 other contractors.
The report investigated R3.5-billion worth of contracts awarded by the municipality over 10 years.
The Mpisanes are unabashed fans of luxury brands such as Rolls Royce, Lamborghini and Christian Louboutin shoes.
Jay Singh: It was revealed this week that the controversial businessperson, who is considered to have run the city's bus service into the ground following its privatisation – before selling it back to the city at a healthy mark-up – is still benefiting from city contracts.
Gralio Precast: Criticised by opposition party members for shoddy work on RDP homes, it recently won a R22-million tender to lay access roads and provide bulk water for the city's latest housing development, Cornubia.
The company was also awarded a R72-million tender to provide engineering services and top structures for 486 units in Cornubia.
Earlier this year, a Jay Singh-linked construction company was criticised in the Manase report for alleged irregular spending on two other housing projects. Singh was convicted of bribing a city official to turn a blind eye to substandard work.
The ANC responds
ANC provincial secretary Sihle Zikalala, responding to claims that the current eThekwini regional executive committee was a result of the provincial leadership's attempt to reassert its authority over the province, said: "The province has no control over the eThekwini region and its leadership is not a clone of the provincial leadership."
Zikalala said the eThekwini region was, however, "stabilising" after months of disharmony and that "factionalism was being dealt with within the party … Uniting the province is an ongoing process."
The recent political murders in the province were cause for "serious concern" and although he did not want to pre-empt investigations or speculate about what, or who, was behind the murders, he believed that political education was "very important" for the ANC to maintain harmony.