/ 20 March 2015

Chabane: A humble but wily politician

Honorary chair of Alliance for Affordable Internet
Honorary chair of Alliance for Affordable Internet


One Sunday night in February 2010, a ground staffer at OR Tambo International Airport demanded to see the passport of a passenger in a black suit. The man looked frantically in his bag for his passport. The staffer’s patience wore off and she called the next passenger to go through the bridge connecting the SAA flight to London.

After a few seconds, the passenger found his diplomatic passport. The staffer apologised profusely. She had not recognised Collins Chabane, then minister in the presidency – and who also happened to be an aviation technician. He was on his way to London ahead of President Jacob Zuma’s state visit to Britain.

It’s not clear why he didn’t use the state VIP lounge, from which he would have been accompanied by protocol officers to the flight. And for reasons known only to him, he also chose not to travel in the presidential jet with Zuma.

Some say this is one of the little things that defined Chabane’s personality: humility, which was sometimes mistaken for diffidence. Yet his unassuming character and disarming smile could be misleading. Just ask his factional rivals in Limpopo. The figurative praise recitation of his clan name says it all: “Va ka mafula hi xivuri va tshika nyundzu [those who use fists where others would use a hammer]”. He could be vicious, divisive and a powermonger, says a former Limpopo mayor, who asked not to be named because it’s unAfrican to speak ill of the dead.

A former Limpopo ANC official and provincial director general confirmed that, “for a very long time, he never gave [former premier and now Minerals Minister Ngoako] Ramatlhodi peace”. “He challenged and later got candidates to contest [Ramatlhodi] at each ANC conference … He succeeded in getting George Mashamba to unseat Ramatlhodi [as ANC provincial chairman] in 1996 … This divided the party in the province and in government,” said the official, who refused to be named because “I can’t say these things about a fallen comrade”.

He said there were perceptions that Chabane’s tireless efforts to unseat Ramatlhodi were motived by greed for power. Yet a minister who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject said “to accuse Collins of factionalist … tendencies is unfortunate” because “he operated in a factional environment. Ramatlhodi is not innocent; Collins had reasons why that crowd had to go. Let’s be fair and honest here.”

A former youth leader and government official also defended Chabane, saying that, unlike Ramatlhodi: “Collins could fit into any of these factions in the early 1990s because he had been to Robben Island and [in] the underground. When the factional clashes started, Collins and Joel [Netshitenzhe, then ANC northern provincial chairman] were able to hold the party together.”

Ramatlhodi said his friendship and comradeship with Chabane was never affected by “a healthy contest for leadership. We should not confuse competition with hostility… I appointed him in my cabinet after he contested me several times. He served me with distinction as MEC.”

Ramatlhodi recruited Chabane to his drama group when the two were studying at the then University of the North, more than three decades ago. Who knows? Chabane could have been a movie star. Or he could be saving Eskom from the current crisis (he is an electrical engineer by training). The power utility tried to recruit him in the early 1990s.

The former Limpopo director general said Chabane forged closer ties with Zuma when the latter tried to mediate in the factional battles in the province. But Zuma told reporters their friendship was older than that: “To me he was like a son. I knew him since he was 17. I was among those who made him join the ANC.”

Some whisper there was a falling-out between the two. Yet senior aides say the president believed Chabane could execute his domestic policy as minister of public service and administration.

In 2008, most people outside Limpopo had never heard of “the Animal” (Chabane’s nom de guerre). Luthuli House staff realised he was the policy engineer and brain behind the new Zuma administration.

“At that time, people thought Blade [Nzimande] or [Zwelinzima] Vavi were going to be key policy- shapers in the Zuma administration,” said a deputy minister.

He was central to Zuma’s domestic policy through what was then conceptualised as a communist-oriented central planning system, but later morphed to the Indian planning commission model. When Zuma announced his new Cabinet on May 10 2009, Chabane was the only minister present to explain the rationale behind the reconfigured government.

If you wanted to understand the psychology, philosophy and architect of the incoming Zuma administration, you had to meet this shy fellow from dusty Xikundu village in Limpopo. He didn’t mince his words about the Zuma administration being a departure from his predecessor’s policy outlook. “This administration is not a carbon copy of the previous administration,” he said.

Chabane was frank, not arrogant. He was Zuma’s Essop Pahad without the pomposity of Thabo Mbeki’s former right-hand man.

He led through competence, not anger, said Richard Levin, former public service and administration director general who worked with Chabane to structure the Zuma administration. Other directors general believe he was one of the few ministers who understood the importance of a stable civil service.

“He understood a minister’s role is to give strategy and operations should be left to the DGs,” said Levin. Chabane had a clear idea of what was required to improve the efficiency of government, says Netshitenzhe, who was head of the presidential policy unit until December 2009.

Themba Maseko, who reported to Chabane as government spokesperson, said he “gave us space to do our work”. When Maseko was axed as chief executive of government communications in February 2011, Chabane said “I would not leave you on the street” and placed him as director general of public service before advising the then minister, Richard Baloyi, which peeved Baloyi.

Chabane’s weakness, some observed, was the poor execution of his ideas. As minister in the presidency in charge of monitoring and evaluation, lazy and incompetent ministers loyal to Zuma were never punished, some said.

A former minister, who would not be named because he cannot criticise the dead, said the performance agreements they signed with the president were “useless pieces of paper. We carried deadwood for years without Ohm [Chabane] raising his voice,” he said. Chabane was a jetsetter and an absent minister, said a former official; but in his defence, one director general said Chabane had carried out the president’s assignments.

He is one of the founding fathers of the post-apartheid order in South Africa. In 1994, a 35-year-old Chabane was seated three rows from Nelson Mandela when Albertina Sisulu nominated Madiba as the first democratically elected president.

Chabane was born 55 years ago of the Maluleke clan of the Van’wanati (people of the river). They are adoringly referred to as Vadyi va bangu (they who ate the bangu). Academic and fellow clan member Tinyiko Maluleke said some believe bangu is dagga. Like Bob Marley, Chabane loved his music and enjoyed his spliff.