‘I am no foreigner’
On Thursday afternoon, a throng of journalists gather at Ruth First House in Saxonwold, Johannesburg, for face-time with the newly announced mayoral candidates for the ANC in Gauteng. It is packed, almost as if the president himself might make an appearance.
Tshwane mayoral candidate Thoko Didiza certainly looks presidential, dressed in a black coat with pearls in her ears and draped around her neck. She is regal, denying that the chaos of the week wore her down.
Didiza finds herself at the centre of a controversy after the governing party deployed her as a “compromise” candidate.
At the press conference, the provincial executive committee of the ANC in Gauteng, along with national executive committee member Aaron Motsoaledi, are at pains to convince everyone that once the people of Tshwane know who Didiza is, they will embrace her.
When she is introduced and all eyes are on her, she waves her hand and keeps a serious, dignified look. But seemingly changing her mind at the last minute, she flashes a smile and everyone suddenly laughs, including her.
Do the apparent rejection and subsequent protests in Tshwane stem from the fact that she is a Zulu from KwaZuluNatal? Or that she is a woman? Or perhaps that she is not current mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa? These are all claims that have been thrust her way. As Joburg mayor Parks Tau rambles on about the “corridors of freedom”, Didiza grips the back of Premier David Makhura’s chair as if for support.
Finally, Tau is done and Didiza steps up. If she is freaking out, she is betrayed only by a thin sheen of sweat on her upper lip.
Her voice strong and authoritative, she tells journalists that she has never – in her 25 years in Gauteng or 19 years in Tshwane – felt “alien or foreign”.
After the press conference, the mother of five, who loves to cook (she once ran a catering company in Tshwane called Thoko’s Kitchen), tells City Press that she doesn’t see local government as a “lesser sphere of public service”.
She speaks warmly, often about her grandmothers, who raised her when her parents were away at work (she uses the word “matriarch”), and her about 85-year-old mother, who lives with her and has been her pillar of strength.
“My mum has been a pillar because when I went to Parliament in 1994, the three kids were in primary school. The other two came when I was already in Parliament and I would see them over the weekends. She nurtured and supported them. The kids have not felt that mum is away, but I have tried to make sure that when I’ve got an opportunity to be home I take it, especially during school holidays. I drive them to school and pick them up, look at their homework and see what I can do.
“My parents always supported whatever I believed to be my calling, which made for a good relationship. Except for when I wanted to be a journalist, then my dad said over his dead body because he thought of them just as abantu abathanda izindaba [people who like gossip].”
She has a master’s degree in higher education management, which she completed last year.
After speaking about her family for some time, she bursts out laughing and says in isiZulu: “You are making me do something I have never done before,” referring to speaking about herself outside of the ANC, where she has served in the executive for almost 15 years.
“I love my football, so dad and I would occasionally go and watch soccer,” she says abruptly, as if suddenly remembering.
“I support Kaizer Chiefs.” ANC Women’s League founder Charlotte Maxeke is a leader she has always looked up to. She believes the late former president Nelson Mandela paved the way for her as a female leader in a male-dominated party.
“President Mandela was exemplary, in my view, because he appointed women in areas of responsibility that would ordinarily not have been seen as positions that women would hold if they were in the executive,” she says.
When asked which of the ANC women she leans on in stressful times, she says: “Comrade Baleka Mbete is one of those women under whom we have grown. Sometimes when there are difficulties, you are able to go to her and Thandi Modise and say: ‘Hey, what now?’”
Of her time in Parliament, she is almost reluctant or undecided as to what she will miss there, but finally settles on “the friendship, the camaraderie and the collegiality we have built over time, regardless of our differences”.
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Thoko Didiza during the ANC’s announcement of its Gauteng mayoral candidates