Man of the province and ‘absolute distinction’ — EC’s longest-serving member bows out

Man of the province and ‘absolute distinction’ — EC’s longest-serving member bows out
Bobby Stevenson of the DA. (Photo: Deon Ferreira).

Bobby Stevenson has politics in his blood. He has been in the Eastern Cape legislature for a quarter of a century and is respected by all. 

When the leader of the DA in the Eastern Cape legislature rose last week for his final speech after 25 years as a member, all his colleagues, in an unusual occurrence, rose with him in a standing ovation.

“He served under Makhenkesi Stofile, he served under Nosimo Balindlela, he served under Mbulelo Sogoni, under Noxolo Kiviet, under Phumulo Masualle and finally continued to serve under Oscar Mabuyane,” said the ANC’s Mlibo Qoboshiyane, the deputy speaker of the legislature.

“Indeed, a legend. Such an impeccable man of the province,” he added.

In the Eastern Cape, Stevenson is known as Dubulirhamba — “he who kills the powerful snake”.

This is the end of a chapter in his political life, but Stevenson, who became involved in politics in high school, said this week that he hoped to continue serving the DA and mentor future leaders.

“You know, in 1976, when I was in matric at Sacs High School, I invited Colin Eglin [former leader of the Progressive Federal Party] to speak.

“When we talked afterwards, I asked him: You first got elected in 1959, and then you lost your seat in 1961. How did you stick it out until re-election in 1974?

“I will never forget what he told me: ‘Politics is the art of the long haul,’ he said. ‘Always stick to your values and principles, and you will be a winner.’

“That has stuck with me throughout my political career.”

Political legacy

Stevenson said he always had a need to stand up for justice and what was right. He spoke about how his Christian faith journey had become intertwined with his calling to stand for liberal values and democracy throughout his life.

He received a law degree from the University of Cape Town before being conscripted to the Military Academy in Saldanha, where he was known as the Engelsman (Englishman), and had to do translations and run the café.

It was here that he first learned the courage to speak out. Called on to organise a debate about whether it was a privilege to do military service, Stevenson could not find anybody to speak against it, so he did.

“I argued that in an atmosphere where obedience is tempered by fear, where you can never feel free, you can never have privilege. I argued that it was a sacrifice.

“I will never forget their faces. I could see on the faces of those listening that they thought, what is the donnerse [damned] progressive going to say next?”

Sitting at his dining room table, Stevenson, who also makes a really good cup of coffee, rifles through scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and pictures detailing his career. The first thing he picks out is a clipping from 1985, about the death of a boy in Steytlerville.

“His name was Johannes Spogter. He was 15 years old. The security police killed him for taking part in a UDF [United Democratic Front] demonstration. That day, I attended his funeral with [anti-apartheid activist] Molly Blackburn. I looked at the faces of those rural women sitting there in mourning. I saw their expression, and I knew. Change will come.

“I still remember Molly’s phone number to this day: 5531212. I phoned her so often.”

Working for the Progressive Federal Party at the time in what was then Port Elizabeth, he always sold himself as a man of action.

As a councillor, if he heard about a problem, he would write to the town clerk every day until it was resolved.

Speaking about his early days in the provincial legislature, Stevenson said it was a privilege to serve with the “giants of the ANC”.

“It was a much different environment. The issue of tenders and corruption, maladministration and jobs for pals wasn’t so much up in the forefront.”

Although he is loved and widely respec­ted in the legislature, Stevenson also had some trouble when he felt he “could not stay quiet”.

“I had to appear before the ethics committee once when we accused the ANC of misusing public funds for the local government elections. They went crazy and said they wanted me to go to the ethics committee. I said look, I can prove it, and I took out the pictures. They never came back to me.”

When Stevenson felt that a colleague was prevented from discussing a topic in the legislature, he argued that freedom of speech should be upheld and that the ANC was blocking it.

“I was told to withdraw and I refused. I said it was unconstitutional. I was told it was my last time to withdraw. I said no. The speaker then said: ‘We know what to do with you now.’ But she forgot to ask me to leave first. There was nothing they could do.”

You have to defend freedom of speech, he said. “You must constantly be on your guard. Freedom of speech is a very powerful tool.”

His greatest victory in the legislature, he said, was managing, along with Eastern Cape civil society and a group of concerned family members, to stop plans to move frail-care patients from Life Healthcare’s Esidimeni centres to a group of NGOs hastily organised by the Department of Social Development. The move was ostensibly to cut down on costs.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Life Esidimeni – reflections on an amoral and dysfunctional health system

“I felt that this was a completely inhuman act,” he said. “We fought it with all the weapons we had.

“I am retiring from the legislature now, but I still plan to be active in the DA and local politics. There has been a huge deterioration in how municipal councils conduct themselves. You have to be fuelled by a dream, not just by plans and policy. There must be a passionate dream.”

Feeling of hopelessness

He believes there is a general feeling of hopelessness: politicians just make promises. “What one needs to do is to give people hope that society can change for the better. That is the job politicians need to do. People must believe their vote is worthwhile.”

He is still a political evangelist, but politics is exhausting.

“Throughout my career, I travelled a lot. I was constantly dealing with complaints. You don’t have a predictable life. You are constantly living with uncertainty.

“I return every single phone call that is made to me — missed calls, WhatsApps and emails. Because I was away so much, I haven’t always been as present as a parent should be. Now, thankfully, I will have more time for that, although my children are now at university. I hope to be a better grandfather,” Stevenson said.

Tributes paid

DA leader John Steenhui­sen said: “Bobby Stevenson is a person of integrity with a deep care and love for South Africa and the people of South Africa. I think that has always shone through in everything that he has done in the political sphere — he led with absolute distinction.

“He is without a doubt the most enthusiastic person I have ever met in my life. Even when the chips are down and things look bleak, Bobby will find the silver lining.

“I wouldn’t be standing where I am today, and I doubt our party would be where it is today if we were not standing on the shoulders of giants like Bobby Stevenson, who kept the flame and the dream alive and who nurtured our party through tough times,” he said.

Helen Zille described Stevenson as a “rare politician”.

“With Bobby, it is the cause, not his ego that motivates him. That is why he is prepared to step up to any task the DA needs to do, and he is a very safe pair of hands. Diligent, principled, determined and very strategic. He has also nurtured and mentored many young people who want to enter politics, embedding a sense of purpose into their work, rather than just striving for ‘positions’. We could do with many more people in politics who share Bobby’s values and staying power,” she added.

But it was the late Helen Suzman who summed it up when she signed a copy of her biography for Stevenson: “To Bobby,” she wrote, “who has been part of it all”. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    We need more good honest committed people in government – men ( and women) that share the same principles as Mr Stevenson. Good people in politics are hard to find these days – hopefully that will change before it’s too late.

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