It’s a big day. Today’s the 35th anniversary of the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF). I didn’t attend the launch —I was still in my first year of journalism at Technikon Natal —but my rookie job at The Leader the next year threw me into the deep end of extra-parliamentary politics. What I experienced changed me. Permanently. I’m glad it did.
It’s mid-morning, so Durban’s Pixley ka Seme Street is bustling, teeming with people. Office and shop workers, shoppers, people passing through the city centre on their way to its outskirts. They’re all drumming the pavement, heads down, avoiding eye contact, each on their own mission.
There are four hawkers hustling at the entrance to Mercury House, between them offering all kinds of everything. Bowls of naartjies, oranges and apples are set up in the concrete municipal stands; beanies, scarves and cellphone covers hang from the columns supporting the roof. There are four or five packets with loose cigarettes filling up the space between the fruit bowls, a lighter taped to a long piece of string, an open packet of big Rizla, six or eight kinds of sweets. Plastic bags of chips are perched on the edge of the stand, balanced somehow and defying gravity. Just looking at them gives me vertigo.
A young woman seated on an upturned plastic bucket is selling R2 peanuts. There’s a crowd around her. Most of them are students from the mass of colleges that line the city’s main street, which runs eastwards towards the ocean, or from the residences in buildings that once housed companies that have closed down or moved north of the Umgeni River.
The sight of the nuts makes my stomach grumble. Breakfast was hours ago, a quick sandwich with my 12-year-old while getting him ready for school. I’m starving.
I pass on the nuts. I’m late for the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) press briefing that’s happening on the 16th floor. I’m plotting a mutton bunny chow from Orientals at the Workshop for lunch. It’s the real thing, thick with mutton, potatoes and lashings of extra gravy; fiery, but in a guzzleable way, so I’m going to need an unspoiled appetite. Orientals have been operating there pretty much since the Workshop, Durban’s first shopping mall, opened it 1986. It used to be an old railways workshop, hence the name. Creative.
I first ate at Orientals as a young reporter with The Mercury. It was called The Natal Mercury then. Lots of Old Natal Family, Old School Tie colonial shit. Suits, and no open-collared shirts. Racially segregated canteens. One black and one Indian reporter in a 30-person newsroom.
I lied like a bastard in my interview with the editor, Jimmy McMillan —more of an interrogation to see if I had any left-wing tendencies —because I had to. By the time McMillan discovered the truth, it was too late.
I ended up with two beats. Politics, which was covering white City Hall and the Indian and coloured local affairs committees, and “African affairs”, which was covering Inkatha and the UDF.
The bosses didn’t just stand by and condone apartheid, they implemented it —not just in their coverage but in the way they ran their operation.
I head upstairs.
Former president Jacob Zuma’s fall from power has had its own fallout in Sanco. Its treasurer, security company boss Roy Moodley, who allegedly paid Zuma R1-million a month during the early days of his presidency, is being purged. So are his allies in the provinces.
Despite this, Moodley wants to stand for re-election.
In Limpopo, the Sanco provincial secretary has been suspended by the provincial chairperson, who in turn has suspended the provincial secretary.
In the Eastern Cape, there are two parallel structures, neither of which recognise the other. It’s a mess.
Richard Mkhungo, the Sanco KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary and Moodley’s running mate as secretary general when the Sanco national conference eventually takes place, gets going. Mkhungo used to call himself Hlophe. I don’t know why he changed his name.
Mkhungo’s been suspended by secretary general Skhumbuzo Mpanza. Mkhungo says he won’t accept the suspension. He’s not vacating his office.
Mkhungo threatens to go to court, to call his own national conference.
The irony of the situation isn’t lost on me. Sanco was meant to take on the role of the UDF’s civic component after the ANC was unbanned and the UDF disbanded. Act as an umbrella body for civic organisations, represent their interests in the Alliance. Keep the ANC honest.
Instead, Sanco became a cross between a cheerleader for the dominant faction in the ANC and a junior conveyer belt for parliamentary, legislature and council seats on an ANC ticket.
It’s paying the price now, another victim of Zuma’s toxic legacy. Sad but inevitable.
Mkhungo wraps up.
I gather up my gear and head off to file.
Somehow, the mutton bunny from Orientals doesn’t seem that appetising any more.