Dons have KZN in their grip — and Don of Dons Jacob Zuma has the tightest grip
There are remarkable similarities between the Italian island of Sicily in the post-war period and South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province today — with violence, corruption and crime being facts of political and social life. In Sicily, Mafia bosses ruled; in KZN, the still-looming figure of Jacob Zuma pulls the strings.
It is said that in Italy, especially after the end of World War 2, there was something called the “Sicilian Question”.
While the rest of the country was emerging, and even prospering, from a post-war reconstruction boom (mainly funded by the US, which did not want Western European countries falling into the communist bloc), Sicily was stubbornly left behind.
There, underdevelopment was accompanied by high levels of crime, rampant corruption, nepotism and other forms of highly organised criminality.
In other places, like Milan or Turin, a businessman could rely on available opportunities and hard work to succeed. In Sicily, it was different.
Any type of development in Sicily, any economic activity, had to get the nod of approval of Mafia bosses, aka Dons. The Dons controlled economic networks and, if they didn’t get a piece of the pie, any project, however big or small, would not go ahead.
There was a Mafia group controlling every sector; a market Mafia, a fish Mafia, others for agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, you name it. People had to pay protection rackets for every business transaction. They had to pay protection fees just to be left alone or merely to conduct their business.
The Mafia had begun centuries before, when Sicily was ruled by foreign invaders. Locals started a secret organisation, a banditry, to create a parallel, secret state whose aim was to eventually overthrow these invaders.
Among other things, members of this secret society had an omertà, or code, to not tell police about the activities of fellow members or the bosses.
People had to forget murders and other crimes they saw with their own eyes, or be witness and provide alibis for people they had never seen — if instructed to do so.
Mafia Dons’ words were law. The federal Italian state could be undermined or subdued at the behest of the Dons. They had hitmen to “deal” with those who transgressed their law. So, until the Mafia was defeated or weakened to such an extent that it didn’t challenge the authority and or legitimacy of the Italian state, there was always the question of what to do with Sicily.
Sicily and KwaZulu-Natal parallels
One can draw parallels between post-war Sicily exceptionalism and what is happening in KwaZulu-Natal, both socially and politically.
There are high levels of crime across South Africa, but in KwaZulu-Natal it is accompanied by extreme brutality. There are drug dealers in all parts of the country but in KZN a bloody turf war is taking place and bodies are picked up in sixes and sevens.
Taxis operate throughout the country, but in KwaZulu-Natal the industry is characterised by constant killings. It is an open secret many taxi owners pay hitmen to protect their associations and their bosses. The fee is paid so that a taxi association can call on a hitman at a moment’s notice, should the need arise. The province is a “reservoir” of killers for hire. They just pull the trigger and move on to the next target, without qualms.
Contests of traditional leadership are a factor in most parts of the country, but in KwaZulu-Natal these often result in the killing of amakhosi or izinduna, sometimes in front of their families and in broad daylight.
In politics, vying for councillor positions is common, but in KwaZulu-Natal it is accompanied by the deaths of scores of people. A leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo, who is troubling ANC councillors, was ruthlessly wiped out. A leader “within our movement” not willing to take instructions, making “too much noise” or troubling “our deployed cadre” meets a bad end.
It is an open secret that big tenders in KwaZulu-Natal, especially in the eThekwini Municipality and the provincial government, are only awarded after the nod of approval from certain individuals.
In the rest of the country disputes arise over the awarding of contracts, in KwaZulu-Natal a construction Mafia, in the form of a “local business forum”, will simply invade the construction site, stop work by force and demand a slice of the contract.
There is an ongoing complaint that trucking companies hire only foreign drivers, at the expense of South Africans. In KwaZulu-Natal, this complaint has escalated to blocking freeways, burning trucks and looting cargo.
South Africa as a whole did not see much wrong with the arrest and jailing of a leader – even if that leader was a former president of the country – who defied the courts and declared he was not afraid of jail. But in his home province, it triggered untold havoc, resulting in the death of nearly 350 people, mass looting and wanton violence, burning and destruction, the likes of which had not been seen in South Africa before July 2021.
The operation was planned and carried out with such military precision that the national authorities were dumbfounded, outwitted and poorly prepared. The poor masses who looted were used as fodder as they helped themselves to food and any other stuff they could lay their hands on. It was all planned to deliver the warning: you touch our leader, we can bring the country down with him. This is a message similar to the actions of biblical-era Samson.
Zuma and the ANC in KZN
Before, during and after the recent ANC eThekwini regional conference one had an opportunity to speak to the behind-the-scenes leaders of both factions of the ANC in KZN. They are deeply divided about their vision for the party they both claim to hold dear. They are just as divided about the direction of South Africa. But they agreed that spectre of Jacob Zuma still looms very large in the politics of the province.
Many things are peculiar to KwaZulu-Natal, including groups and individuals whose behaviour is similar to that of the Sicilian Mafia Dons.
KwaZulu-Natal is a very hard province to bring under a sphere of influence. It needs a strong man, with the capacity for war, or a strong muthi man, or preferably both.
Former president Jacob Zuma is a central figure in the province, with boundless influence. The former intelligence chief of the ANC in exile, with capabilities to direct and wage secret battles and knowing the nuances of the region, fits perfectly into local power politics. He has the province in the palm of his hand and this influence is playing itself out in the theatre that is KwaZulu-Natal.
Zuma is an enigmatic character who gets supporters to vow to fight and die for him. He knows his organisation very well, and is able to use its structures to do his bidding, whatever it might be at any particular time.
If evidence presented at the State Capture Inquiry is anything to go by, he is also able to make “learned” subordinates break the law at his behest.
Malusi Gigaba was an up and coming ex-youth leader until he came under Zuma’s spell and helped the likes of the Gupta brothers. Brian Molefe was an accomplished executive until he came under the same spell. Matshela Koko was a brilliant engineer until he succumbed. Nomgcobo Jiba was an excellent prosecutor until she did things that saw her lose her job and certificate to practise law.
Many analysts have underestimated Zuma, but he has survived and outlived many political opponents. He outplayed his predecessor Thabo Mbeki and could easily outsmart and outlast his successor Cyril Ramaphosa if he is allowed to play his endgame to the full.
Some may have taken it lightly when Nkosenhle Shezi, spokesperson for Zuma supporters and a member of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of the ANC, told Daily Maverick last year his cohort will go to branches and regions and mobilise ANC members to back them and their preferred leaders in regional and provincial elective conferences.
Zandile Gumede mounts the throne
The election of Zandile Gumede as the ANC chairperson of eThekwini last weekend proves this point. In all regional leadership contests so far in KwaZulu-Natal, the pro-Zuma leadership has been won. It is only a matter of time before a pro-Zuma leadership is elected to head the KZN ANC. The provincial elective conference is due in mid-July.
Read in Daily Maverick: ANC set to kiss goodbye to Durban after Zandile Gumede win
The current ANC leadership in KwaZulu-Natal is being accused of a turncoat tactic – using the support of Zuma and RET forces to gain the throne but then planning to abandon ship and move to the hated Ramaphosa camp.
So, the next leadership will have to be made up of trusted RET loyalists, with no minds of their own but obliged to take orders from uBaba and his lieutenants. They will have to march in step like good soldiers, without asking too many questions.
The Zandile Gumede win and the governance of eThekwini Municipality
The story goes that, more than 20 years ago, Zandile Gumede, then a little-known ANC councillor in eThekwini, was added to the eThekwini “top five” leadership to meet the ANC’s gender quota.
The job of treasurer was not critically important at the time, clearly not as prominent and powerful as regional chairperson or regional secretary. But it was crucial to an individual who knew how to play her cards right. For more than a decade, whenever an election in the region took place, Gumede retained her position as treasurer.
To fundraise for party activities, she met and became acquainted with many business people – some shady, some less so – but all of them sympathetic to the ANC. This sympathy was used to gain their reliance upon the eThekwini Municipality and its R52-billion annual budget to sustain their businesses.
These people have become filthy rich. They don’t go to rallies or conferences and play a behind-the-scenes role. But they are influential and can easily “buy” a conference. These businesses donate money to the ANC to hold conferences, pay staff, print T-shirts and hire stadiums – and do the party other favours.
As a treasurer, having worked hard and pressed the right buttons to secure funds for your party, it might not seem amiss to buy yourself some sweets with the change and solve some small-anyana challenges. Donors themselves might offer to help. You might even use these businesses to fund your political ambitions.
Gumede was so successful in her fundraising duties that some regional ANC structures in other parts of KwaZulu-Natal enlisted her services to introduce them to supportive businesspeople and persuade them to open wallets and purse strings.
It is not clear when Gumede became entrenched in Zuma’s inner circle but it is clear that she had the nod of approval of uBaba or the inner circle when in 2014 she vied with former eThekwini mayor James Nxumalo for the position of eThekwini ANC leader. She lost initially, then appealed the results and had the leadership annulled by the Zuma-led NEC. When the election was about to be held again, it was disrupted because her faction “did not have the numbers”.
After winning the election as mayor of eThekwini, Gumede didn’t wait too long to sweep away officials close to the former mayor. Word spread that Gumede and Sbusiso Sithole, then eThekwini city manager, were not seeing eye to eye.
The first salvo against Sithole was fired by the eThekwini ANC Youth League in November 2016 when it called a press conference and declared Sithole and other officials were against “transformation”, refused to implement ANC policies and “must leave”. The Youth League also demanded that 40% of eThekwini tenders be awarded “to young people”.
Before the year was out, Sithole was suspended and then fired. This allowed Gumede the space to take her own free kicks, unencumbered.
Sithole’s successor was Themba Nzuza. The Youth League never made similar accusations against Nzuza, so it is reasonable to assume that he allowed floodgates to open.
The R320-million Durban Solid Waste Water tender, for which Gumede and 21 others, including Nzuza, municipal officials, businesspeople and other individuals and companies are now charged over, was awarded by the eThekwini Municipality between January 17 and July 2019.
Both Gumede and Nzuza are out on R50,000 bail and their trial is due in the Pietermaritzburg High Court from 13 July to 31 August. Both have pleaded not guilty, with Gumede saying the charges against her are politically motivated and designed to remove her from her office and political position.
A number of other shady contracts and tenders were awarded during the Gumede/Nzuza era. Their dates coincided with eThekwini Municipality adopting a draft report aimed at compensating the city’s “son and daughters (who were) involved in the struggle who in process sacrificed their lives and futures”. These “sons and daughters” were to be awarded tenders and jobs.
In 2019, the municipality upgraded 53 MK vets, employed as council workers in 2016, to Grades 9, 10 and 11, resulting in some receiving more pay than their line bosses.
Municipal workers downed tools and refused to fix leaking water and sanitation pipes, especially after the 2019 floods. The unions demanded their members also be upgraded to earn as much as the MK vets. This strike was resolved weeks later, but the vets remained in their pay bracket.
Abahlali baseMjondolo, whose members and leaders have been on the receiving end of the wrath of the ANC-led municipality, says Gumede, a widow of a taxi boss, is a “gangster” who has informal alliances of taxi bosses, tenderpreneurs, MK vets, business forums or construction Mafias and other criminal networks to “keep herself in power and threaten her opponents”.
Little by little, greater numbers of eThekwini residents have had to put up with poor service delivery and mismanagement. Tenders to build RDP houses are rigged. The RDP houses are sold by “comrades” in ward committees before they are completed.
It is not uncommon for city residents to go for weeks on end without water and electricity, or both at the same time. It is not uncommon for residents to go for weeks without refuse being collected. It is not uncommon for leaking water and sanitation pipes to go unfixed for months. Verges are left unattended and so are parks, sport fields and other communal facilities. Motorists have to dodge huge potholes in roads.
Anyone complaining is accused of hankering for the apartheid past or is accused of being in the pockets of “white monopoly capital”. These critics are told to “shut up”, or even better, dance to the tune of “our liberators, our leaders”.
Now that Gumede and the RET forces are back “in charge”, it remains to be seen what they will do next. The last time they were in that position the ANC was firmly in control of the eThekwini Municipality.
At the 1 November local government elections, the ANC received just more than 42% of the vote in eThekwini.
It held on to the municipality by a thread, heading a shaky coalition government cobbled together with controversial businessman Philani “PG” Mavundla’s Abantu Batho Congress (ABC). The coalition retained ANC’s Mxolisi Kaunda as the mayor and elected Mavundla his deputy.
The ANC’s eThekwini leadership elections coincided with heavy persistent rain hitting the province, leaving a trail of destruction and death that the country and its leaders are still trying to determine the extent of.
If the new eThekwini leadership removes Thabani Nyawose, the council speaker who lost to Gumede in the weekend’s vote for provincial chairperson, and Thanduxolo Sabele, the eThekwini head of human settlement, who lost his bid to be elected regional deputy secretary to RET-favoured Nkosenhle Madlala, there is no guarantee the RET replacements will be able to win enough votes.
The fragility of the ANC-ABC coalition was tested and found wanting last week, when Mavundla voted with the opposition to block the ANC’s chosen candidate for city manager, one Max Mbili. The post is still vacant as behind-the-scenes horse-trading takes place.
Limitations of RET forces beyond KZN
Zuma and the RET are firmly in charge and calling the shots in KwaZulu-Natal. Ramaphosa can expect hostility from now on. If he is elected ANC leader in December, he will have to contend with a hostile province.
Read in Daily Maverick: Cutting Zuma loose would clear the decks for the eThekwini and KZN ANC to move forward
How far the influence of Zuma and RET extends beyond KwaZulu-Natal is unknown. Zuma relied on the absolute support in his heartland and the help of surrogates in other parts of the country to mount his own leadership contest for the ANC presidency – and to sustain him for 10 years thereafter.
In the Free State he had Ace Magashule, now facing legal challenges of his own having been charged with fraud, corruption and money laundering pertaining to a multimillion-rand asbestos roof-replacement tender. Magashule was forced to step aside from his position as ANC secretary-general.
In Mpumalanga, Zuma had David Mabuza, who is now deputy president of the country but has lost his influence in his province, which opted for a pro-Ramaphosa leadership a few weeks ago.
In North West, Zuma’s backer was Supra Mahumapelo, who was forced out of the premiership office and had his provincial executive disbanded.
In Eastern Cape, Zuma didn’t have full control over the provincial leadership of Phumule Massaule. When Massaule was replaced by Oscar Mabuyane, the province shifted to the Ramaphosa faction. Mabuyane is likely to be challenged during the upcoming provincial elective conference but, either way, the province is unlikely to fall into the RET camp.
In Limpopo, Zuma once had Cassel Mathale, but he seemed to listen more to Julius Malema, then ANC Youth League leader, than Zuma. Mathale was discarded and that province is now firmly in Ramaphosa’s sphere of influence.
In the Northern Cape, Zuma had John Block. But his usefulness ended when he was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for corruption in 2015. His successor, Zamani Saul, is a Ramaphosa man.
The ANC is worried about losing power in the 2024 general election, having suffered a blow when, for the first time in post-apartheid South Africa, it received 46% of the vote in the November local government polls. It is unlikely to elect a leader who will not enjoy the goodwill of the South Africans.
An RET-led KwaZulu-Natal ANC would be hard-pressed to convince other provinces that theirs is not an ethnic chauvinistic project.
Another challenge facing the RET brigade is that it has tried, but failed, to find a candidate to take on Ramaphosa and stand a chance of winning. The name of Duduzane Zuma, the former president’s son, was bandied about, but didn’t fly. Then it was Magashule, but he is damaged goods.
Zweli Mkhize, once a Zuma confidante and former premier of KwaZulu-Natal, would have been a perfect fit. But his brand was damaged by the Digital Vibes contract awarded to his associates while he was minister of health.
Lindiwe Sisulu, although coming from an ANC “royal family”, does not enjoy the full trust of the RET forces and her campaign has not attracted the desired traction in the vital organs and structures of the party.
The situation is so desperate for the RET faction that some are even considering trying to persuade uBaba himself to stand against Ramaphosa. Both his supporters and detractors alike would agree that uBaba – who turned 80 this month – is still influencing the politics of South Africa. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.