Waiting for Mama in eThekwini

Refusing removal: eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede’s been suspended, sparking protests from her supporters (Rajesh Jantilal)

Refusing removal: eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede’s been suspended, sparking protests from her supporters (Rajesh Jantilal)

Thursday.

A small army of mayor Zandile Gumede’s supporters has halted the usual morning rush-hour blizzard of taxis past the City Hall — where it has camped since Wednesday night — down Pixley ka Seme Street towards the beachfront.

READ MORE: Zandile Gumede and her eThekwini regional leadership face the chop

It’s almost 9am, kickoff time for Mama, as she’s known to her followers inside and outside the ANC, to make her return to the office by hash, as they say in some parts of this beautiful but politically and administratively broken city.

I’ve been here for a while, despite having to walk from Yusuf Dadoo Street, where the taxi into town diverted towards Margaret Mncadi Avenue because of the blockade, and the late night watching the football.

The Landlords vs Landless game was a decent match, even if we did go out through a soft goal minutes from the final whistle. We appear, after some time, to have the makings of a national football team, despite the lapse in concentration at the back last night.

Gumede’s people have locked the city centre down since daybreak, stopping traffic and blocking municipal staff from getting to work in the administrative offices in and around the Durban City Hall precinct.

Mama’s members are intent on delivering on their threat to blockade the area to force the governing party to reinstate Gumede, who was placed on 30-day leave last month after being arrested on corruption charges.

The day before, the ANC provincial leadership had — eventually — announced that Mama’s enforced leave was being extended until the provincial executive committee meets at month-end.

Mama’s supporters are having none of this, arguing that 30 days is 30 days and Mama is going back to work, whether the ANC likes it or not. To them her arrest on charges of corruption and racketeering was simply part of a conspiracy to get her for being in the camp supporting former president Jacob Zuma ahead of the ANC’s December 2017 elective conference.
From where they sit, sending Mama on leave and collapsing the eThekwini regional executive committee is part of a purge of Zuma-ites in the ANC.

They’ve marched on City Hall and the ANC provincial and regional offices several times already since Mama was picked up by the Hawks, shortly after the elections, and are committed to keep marching and blockading City Hall until she’s back in office and the region is reinstated.

READ MORE: Gumede to take ‘enforced’ leave of absence but maintains her innocence

On the one hand, their support for their Mama is quite remarkable — touching, even — an outpouring of love, respect, loyalty.

On the other, they’re what was once described, disparagingly, in the ANC as “members of members’’: voting — or marching — cattle, owned and paid for by powerful leaders in the party and loyal to them, not the organisation.

There’s another reason so many of the eThekwini branches have turned out in support of Mama. According to testimony by the Hawks at a bail application of some of Mama’s co-accused, 62 Durban councillors got monthly kickbacks of R5 000 from the R208-million refuse removal scam she was arrested for. Durban has 110 councillors, which means that the bulk of the ANC’s elected representatives in the city face potential jail time if Gumede is convicted.

If she goes down, so do they.

If I were them, I’d also be standing outside City Hall.

I interviewed Mama once, shortly after she became mayor, at a ward committee function in Phoenix, not far from her home at eTafuleni in Inanda. We had lunch — lamb curry, phuthu and beans, spinach, butternut, coleslaw with raisins— in a marquee where food parcels were being distributed. The food was tops — I was starving, as usual — but the interview was stilted. Mama was tense, uncomfortable, trotting out prepared answers rather than talking. Frozen.

She warmed up visibly after the interview, when distribution of the pockets of potatoes and five-litre bottles of cooking oil got going. All of a sudden, she was in complete control, all poise and balance as she reeled off instructions to her lieutenants, who called residents forward, ward by ward, to collect their parcels, the conductor of a bent orchestra performing a symphony of patronage in the name of governance.

The magic hour passes.

No Gumede. Mama hasn’t pitched.

I head off. There’s no sense hanging around here any longer. Mama’s not coming. It’s only a matter of time till the cops decide to disperse her flock, but I don’t really feel like sticking around. I’m starving — I missed breakfast to get here — and there’s still copy to file, so I’m out.

I’m nearly at Yusuf Dadoo, the closest place I’ll find a taxi home until this lot disperse, when I hear the thump of a stun grenade.

The cops, it seems, have finally decided to move Mama’s members.

I keep on going. There’ll be plenty more stun grenades before this is over.

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