The air jarred at St Catherine’s Catholic Church near Bulwer in KwaZulu-Natal on that Sunday. At times, the choir struggled to hear itself over the Jehovah-techno drum machine beats that blasted from the speakers. Occasionally, loud shrieks of feedback cut through the praising and singing.
It was a discordant soundtrack on a wet, muddy Mother’s Day in the Underberg; the kind of breathtaking rural outlier where the mountains cause the heavens, glowering with rain clouds, to appear low-hanging and within reach.
The ANC’s presumptive president, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was attending a “Thanksgiving Holy Mass” held to welcome her back from her tenure as African Union Commission chairperson.
Dlamini-Zuma grew up in this area so the congregation had ballooned to about 1 000 people. The nkosi and indunas were there, as were councillors and mayors and political players – the kind who organise crowds, mobilise support in ANC branches, contribute to campaign costs and assure you that they have your back if you want to be president. People who expect a return on their investment.
Sitting in the front row with Dlamini-Zuma was the party’s provincial chairperson and KwaZulu-Natal economic development minister, Sihle Zikalala, and one Jacob Zuma, Dlamini-Zuma’s ex-husband (they divorced in 1998) and president of the ANC and the country.
During his speech Zuma described her as bold and impossible to fool, a leader people could “trust”. Speaking to his rural audience in deep Zulu only, the president – in veiled but unambiguous terms – endorsed Dlamini-Zuma to lead the ANC.
He recounted her successes as a former Cabinet minister, saying he had recognised these “qualities” when he appointed her to the home affairs portfolio in 2009: “She has her own way of doing things‚ which is very important,” said Zuma.
That “way” – taciturn, technocratic, more comfortable with getting on with the job than with getting the masses lathered up for a bit of song and dance before a free lunch – clashed with the flurry of events Dlamini-Zuma had attended over the week.
Unofficially, she had not been campaigning, but at every event there was a palpable sense that she was. Dlamini-Zuma’s movements centred on two ANC regions vital to her growing support in KwaZulu-Natal: the Harry Gwala region, which includes her childhood home near Hlanganani, and the Moses Mabhida region, which includes Pietermaritzburg and has emerged as the homogeneous power bloc in the province because of divisions in the eThe-kwini region.
So Dlamini-Zuma tapped into emotional nostalgia and the deeply religious parts of the electorate. She addressed an interfaith gala dinner in the province’s capital and stiffly danced to deafening gospel-techno at a feverish protest against social ills at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall the next day.
She delivered the keynote address at the Stephen Dlamini lecture. Dlamini, a trade unionist and ANC activist, was her father’s brother and a “second father” to her, an uMkhonto weSizwe veteran said.
She smiled weakly during the official launch of the Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma Local Municipality, formed last year by converging the Ingwe and KwaSani municipalities. There her supporters sang an adaptation of the slogan, “Wathint’ abafazi, Wathint’ imbokodo” (You strike a woman, you strike a rock), retailored to “Wathint’ imbokodo, Wathint’ omama.”
There was a dissonance in these events – her no-nonsense approach to public appearances at odds with the ramped-up populist vibes of the campaign machinery of her ex-husband, now supporting her.
Where Zuma is all loose-hipped charisma and easy smiles, Dlamini-Zuma is clenched shoulders and inscrutable demeanour. It was as if the bumper from the family’s sensible station wagon had been bolted on to a conspicuous Hummer – a green-gold-and-black Hummer with serious engine problems.
The Harry Gwala region is reflective of the ills that successive ANC secretaries general warned are affecting the party. Last month its deputy chairperson, Khaya Thobela, was assassinated, the third murder of an ANC official in the province this year. Last year’s regional list conference – to finalise who will be ward councillors – was marred by allegations of “ghost delegates” and procedural flaws. The practice of using ANC membership to access government jobs and tenders appears to run deep here.
But by wedding her presidential aspirations to the mobilising powers of what political analyst Steven Friedman describes as the “patronage faction” in the ANC, it remains unclear whether Dlamini-Zuma can ever resolve the party’s kleptocratic and careerist problems.
A former MK operative, who remembers Dlamini-Zuma attending firearms training in Maputo in the 1980s, says she would be unable to “manage” the expectation of those supporting her: “I don’t want to put it crudely … but I think her election would compound the problems facing the ANC because her ex-husband is at the centre of these problems.”
The MK veteran describes those singing Dlamini-Zuma’s praises as parochial and “too tribalistic and too nationalistic” to keep “sight of the problems and solutions” required to transform South Africa’s economy and society.
But Stephen Sibetha, Dlamini-Zuma’s cousin, offers a different view. He describes her growing up as a “very disciplined young girl” who had led her contemporaries. The eldest of eight children, Dlamini-Zuma had been prim and proper, Sibetha says. He attributes this to her disciplinarian father, Gweva Dlamini, a school principal.
Sibetha believes Dlamini-Zuma would be able to resolve the problems facing the ANC and the country because “she doesn’t take bribes, she doesn’t do any special favours for people, even if they are family”.
“She brought umhlabulo [political consciousness] to the young people here,” Sibetha says, arguing Dlamini-Zuma could do a similar job for the ANC.
KwaZulu-Natal ANC Youth League spokesperson Mandla Shange said the organisation backed Dlamini-Zuma and was “very happy” with her interpretation of “radical economic transformation” and her ability to drive it. Shange said her commitment to alleviating the tax burden on the working class, increasing corporate tax and revenue from the rich, and encouraging industrialisation were essential to rectifying the country’s socio-economic inequalities.
Born on January 27 1949, Dlamini-Zuma completed high school at Adams College in Amanzimtoti. The mission school’s alumni include John Dube, the ANC’s first president, and former chief justice Pius Langa. Its teachers included ANC leaders such as ZK Matthews and Nobel laureate Albert Luthuli. Dlamini-Zuma completed an undergraduate science degree at the University of Zululand where she helped to set up the South African Student Organisation (Saso). After enrolling at the University of Natal to study medicine, her political activity soon led to exile in England where she completed her degree at the University of Bristol. There she served as chairperson of the ANC youth section in Great Britain between 1977 and 1978.
After graduating she worked in England for two years before moving to Swaziland, spending five years in the ANC underground while working as a paediatric officer at the Mbabane Government Hospital. She met Jacob Zuma, whom she married in 1982. Sibetha remembers Zuma’s family visiting the Dlamini home to conduct clandestine lobolo negotiations because the “security branch was always around, asking where she was”. The families settled on a bride price of 11 head of cattle.
After the unbanning of the ANC and the first democratic elections in 1994, Dlamini-Zuma served as health minister in Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet, and two terms as foreign minister in Thabo Mbeki’s administration.
When Zuma became president in 2009, he appointed her home affairs minister, a position she held until her election as African Union Commission chairperson in 2012.
The campaign machinery has relentlessly punted Dlamini-Zuma’s achievements in all these positions as evidence that she is ready to lead the party and the country.
In Bulwer, Zuma told the crowd that Dlamini-Zuma had weeded out corruption at home affairs and reduced the turnaround time for the issuing of identity documents.
Yet ANC stalwart and former home affairs director general Mavuso Msimang, who served under Dlamini-Zuma and her predecessor, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, said it was Mapisa-Nqakula who should be credited with the turnaround at home affairs. When he joined the department in April 2007, Mapisa-Nqakula had already done a “thorough investigation” of the problems at home affairs, “sourced a really good group of consultants” and initiated the department’s turnaround, which was already showing results by the end of his first year.
During the Mbeki years, Dlamini-Zuma dovetailed her ambitions with her president’s continental vision of an African renaissance. Her experience while chair of the AU caused antagonism with Francophone African countries, which accused her of extending the neocolonial economic and political interests of South Africa, rather than playing a nonpartisan role.
A former MK operative pointed to unresolved political violence in countries such as Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo during her tenure.
When she was health minister, the public protector found in 1996 that the department had ignored proper tender procedures to award a R14-million contract to Mbongeni Ngema to produce the Sarafina II Aids-awareness play. Dlamini-Zuma had dreamt up the idea of the sequel.
Virodene was quack medicine developed in South Africa as an Aids drug, which was rejected by the scientific community.
But despite the Virodene and Sarafina II scandals, activist and co-founder of the Treatment Action Campaign Zackie Achmat describes her record as health minister as “almost peerless”.
Achmat says Dlamini-Zuma would have been a “great candidate” to lead the ANC were she not “tarnished by the stench of corruption surrounding Zuma, the Guptas and others intent on state capture”.
His list of her achievements in the health department include “being central” to the implementation of South Africa’s first National Aids Plan; making primary healthcare more accessible to a broader section of the population; “creating an essential drugs list, which ensured state hospitals and clinics were not compelled to prescribe drugs pushed by big pharmaceutical companies”; and passing the Termination of Pregnancy Act that legalised abortion.
Five former or current national executive committee members described Dlamini-Zuma as “lucid”, “reflective”, a “deep thinker” and someone who lived for the ANC. She was also described as brusque, lacking in personal skills and having a “spiky governance style”.
One former government official said that when a trusted adviser made recommendations on hiring people, Dlamini-Zuma would “violate all principles to get that person hired”. The official reeled off examples during their time working for Dlamini-Zuma when “heaven and earth were moved” and wage structures ignored and broken to ensure hiring.
“This demonstrates really terrible judgment, which makes me really opposed to her becoming the president of the country – she breaks rules so easily,” said the ex-official.
Although those critical of her association with the “patronage faction” of the ANC argue this represents another ill-advised judgment call by Dlamini-Zuma, it may also turn out to be a wily strategic move by a political operator who has devoted her life to the ANC, and much of her career to advancing the gender transformation agenda.
Whether she will be able to lead a potentially divided ANC to victory in the 2019 national elections and still balance the expectation of rapacious backers remain questions hanging heavily over her.