Bumbane Great Place, the home of the AbaThembu royals,in Mthatha feels deserted on Wednesday. Chief Zwelenqaba Mgudlwa, the spokesperson for the king, remarks on this apparent emptiness as he goes to open the gate that guards the piece of land where King Sabata Dalindyebo is buried.
Dalindyebo was not always buried where his body lies now, overlooking the rolling green hills of his dominion.
He died in 1986 in self-imposed exile in Zambia. His body was exhumed and brought back to what was known as Thembuland, which covers almost all of the former Transkei, in 1989. Reportedly at the behest of the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the ANC in exile, he was given an official burial at the current site.
The reburial was attended by Dalindyebo’s son and successor,Buyelekhaya, who had returned to his home from Zambia for the first time in 14 years.
Buyelekhaya’s controversial reign has been marked by conflicts with the very party that groomed him while he was in exile.
In 2015, Buyelekhaya was convicted and handed a 12-year sentence on charges of kidnapping, arson, assault and culpable homicide for setting fire to the homesteads of three of his subjects after he accused them of breaching tribal rules.
The prospect of a presidential pardon for Buyelekhaya — with the national elections on the horizon —has been seen by some as a bid by the ANC to curry the favour of those loyal to the AbaThembu king.
Torture: Elder Zibuzele Cobotswana says that as long as Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo is imprisoned, his people also do not feel free. (Paul Botes/M&G)
In the King Sabata Dalindyebo municipality, some blame a divided ANC leadership for poor service delivery — which has become a rallying call for opposition parties looking to unseat the ANC.
Last week, the presidency confirmed that President Cyril Ramaphosa was studying Justice Minister Michael Masutha’s recommendation for Buyelekhaya to be pardoned. In 2017, during his campaign for the ANC presidency, Ramaphosa reportedly visited Bumbane. According to Mgudlwa, it was during this visit that the prospect of Buyelekhaya’s release was discussed. Ramaphosa left Bumbane with a strong endorsement from acting king and Buyelekhaya’s son, Azenathi Dalindyebo.
Spokesperson for the king, Chief Zwelenqaba Mgudlwa, accuses the DA of using Buyelekhaya to lobby votes. (Paul Botes/M&G)
Free the king
A group of elders, gathered together by Nongenile Nyoka, point to Ramaphosa’s visit as a sign of an ANC changing for the good.
King Sabata Dalindyebo’s burial place is just visible from Nyoka’s home. Inside, the bright pink walls of her bedroom are a stark contrast to the endless green of the surroundings.
“As long as he [Buyelekhaya] is in jail, we do not feel free … It is torture for us,” Zibuzele Cobotswana says. Cobotswana’s eyes dart towards Nyoka;he is bolstered by her agreement.
According to Cobotswana, Buyelekhaya’s subjects are not interested in voting in the upcoming elections while government continues to “undermine” the king.
“People can vote for who they like,” Nyoka says, but adds that the issue of Buyelekhaya’s release must be resolved first.
Nyoka has always voted for the ANC, but the 74-year-old’s loyalty was left shaken by Jacob Zuma’s presidency. She winces when she talks about the former president.
Prior to his conviction, Buyelekhaya made various public jibes directed at Zuma, including referring to him as “a boy”. Hewas left politically alienated after he disavowed the ANC under Zuma and cozied up to the Democratic Alliance (DA).
“Buyelekhaya turned to the DA, because he wanted to show the ANC that he didn’t like how they were treating him,” Cobotswana says. “They just took the total wrong action, the government of Msholozi.
“At least Ramaphosa is better than Msholozi,” he says, adding that the current president “has shown some humanity” by considering the pardon.
Nyoka puts her thumb up at the mention of Ramaphosa. “He is a good one,” she says.
King Sabata Dalindyebo’s grave is visible from Nongenile Nyoka’s home. (Paul Botes/M&G)
Cobotswana is quick to point out that the ANC does not have a total monopoly of people’s loyalty in the region: “Some people love the ANC, but in fact there are so many political parties around here,” he says. “Even I, myself, am a member of the UDM [United Democratic Movement].”
The UDM, led by Bantu Holomisa, is the strongest opposition to the ANC in the region. The party has consistently gained ground in the King Sabata Dalindyebo municipality, which comprisesMthatha and Mqanduli. Holomisa, himself a member of the AbaThembu clan, is seen as a proponent of the king.
Cobotswana gets worked up when he talks about the failures of the present government, his voice rising as it competes with the rain thathas begun to beat down on the zinc roof.
“If you are poor, you remain poor,” he says, his imposing body tightening like a fist.
“The political leaders are getting bigger and bigger,” the retired prison warden says, adding that corruption in the ANC isthe “order of the day”. Cobotswana’s criticism of the ANC elicits hearty laughter from Nyoka.
Allegations of corruption are at the heart of the ANC’s leadership crisis in themunicipality. This week its mayor, chief whip and speaker were effectively axed by the ANC. The decision to recall the trio comes after accusations of infighting and corruption on the part ofmayor Dumani Zozo.
In Mthatha, about 50km from Bumbane, striking municipal workers trashed the streets at the beginning of this month to protest against the alleged corruption.
“The infrastructure in Mthatha is decaying under the leadership of the ANC,” UDM provincial spokesperson Mabandla Gogo said this week. He blamed the perceived dwindling support of the ANC in the municipality on its failure to respond to calls for better service delivery.
“The ANC is sinking … the ANC is an empty box. Everybody is realising that the ANC is no longer the ANC that [former president Nelson] Mandela left,” Gogo told the Mail & Guardian. He does an excellent impression of the former president, whohe saidloved Holomisa.
Despite the UDM’s political differences with the ANC, Gogo says he does not question Ramaphosa’s motives regarding the proposed presidential pardon of Buyelekhaya.
“To us it doesn’t matter, as long as the king is out of jail. The very ANC that jailed the king is the very ANC that is releasing the king,” he said.
When it emerged that Ramaphosa was considering the pardon, the DA accused the president of attempting “to buy votes in light of the ANC’s dwindling prospects at the polls”.
“Should President Ramaphosa pardon King Dalindyebo (or attempt to reduce his sentence), it would be yet another indication that not much has changed since Zuma left,” DA spokesperson on justice Glynnis Breytenbach said in a statement last week.
‘Not a political issue’
ANC provincial secretary Lulama Ngukayitobi rubbished the DA’s claim. “It [the pardoning of Buyelekhaya] has never been a political issue,” he told the M&G.
“The political pressures must not sway the decision of the president on that matter. It is not politicised. The president is the president of the country and will not make that decision in his capacity as ANC president.”
Holomisa called the DA “a confused political party”.
“The sooner that they stop this thing of opposing anything that moves, they will be better off,” he told the M&G, adding that the party should be “sensitive to these issues”.
Many in Bumbane feel that the ruling party is corrupt and some favour the contesting smaller parties. (Paul Botes/ M&G)
On the drive from Mthatha to Bumbane on Wednesday, Mgudlwa sneered at the DA’s claim, accusing the opposition party of using Buyelekhaya to lobby votes when the king joined the DA in 2013.
“So, we should be asking: What are their motives?” he said.
Mgudlwa — who has worked with Buyelekhaya since his return to South Africa — says that he hopes the king will be “above party politics” once he is released.
“That is what we are praying for,” Mgudlwa says, his words punctuated by the seatbelt warning sign which beeps throughout the journey to Bumbane.
“You know, politics is such a dirty game,” he adds. — Additional reporting by Paul Botes