OR POWER BROKER?
In her home town there is only admiration for Dlamini. No one doubts they will still receive their much-needed grants
Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini was feeling the heat long before Parliament’s public accounts MPs started grilling her on Tuesday morning. Dlamini had been running about 20 minutes late for her much-anticipated meeting with Scopa, where she was to account for the grants crisis.
Wearing a blue floral dress, she briskly walked through the corridors of the Old Assembly building, rushing in to the venue on the fourth floor of the old wing, with a protector just a few steps behind her.
She greeted this City Press journalist, who was on the way to the same meeting, and together we waited for what felt like forever for the lift to take us up.
In the lift, Dlamini continuously fanned her face with her hands and repeatedly stated, rather randomly, that she needed tissues. She also needed water and her handbag.
As we reached the fourth floor, she eventually directed the protector to bring her these items.
Outside the meeting venue, there waited about eight to 10 social development officials for her arrival.
Inside, the committee was packed with MPs, journalists and civil society members. Black Sash members quietly and patiently waited for Dlamini.
“Nimeleni? [What are you waiting for?],” she asked her departmental and Sassa staff, as she stormed past. The chief financial officer whispered something in her ear…
The committee meeting was the latest attempt to extract from Dlamini a little more information than provided by her standard assurance, that the social grants would be paid on April 1.
In the meeting, she warned against those saying that the government would not pay grants after March 31. This, she said, was akin to “removing the government in the eyes of the people”.
Dlamini has had South Africa on tenterhooks for some time. Despite her assurances, she is yet to sign a deal for the grants to be paid, and must still convince the Constitutional Court to accept what is currently an illegal deal.
But despite her having frustrated MPs, the media and her own government officials with her lack of details, she still seems a hero in her home town, Matshensikazi.
Isaac Mdletshe was unperturbed by the pouring rain as he marched up the tarred road to where it ends, outside the embattled Dlamini’s family home at Matshensikazi village, on Thursday afternoon, to collect his cattle from the hill where they were grazing.
Mdletshe (67), a retired welder who, like his wife, is dependent on a R1 500-a-month state old age grant for his survival, seems equally unruffled by the prospect that he and his wife might not receive their grants, courtesy of the payment crisis caused by Matshenzikazi’s most famous resident, come April 1. “I’m sure we will still get it,” says Mdletshe. “I’m sure government will step in and make sure we are paid.”
Mdletshe has adult children who are unemployed and also depend on the grant money, which he routinely collects at the Sassa office in Nkandla town, about 20km away.
“This is just a small mistake that has happened. She is good at what she does. She should keep her job after this problem is fixed,” commented Mdletshe.
Pointing to the Dlamini homestead – a neatly fenced smallholding, complete with a well-tended maize patch and a herd of healthy-looking cattle, where the minister lived before moving to Pietermaritzburg’s Imbali township, Mdletshe describes her as a “girl who loved school”.
“She was a very good child who loved her books,” recalls Mdletshe with a smile. “I know her since she moved here when she was a child. Since she took this position she has helped us a lot. She even built this road,” he adds.
Other Matshensikazi residents were either equally supportive of Dlamini or simply pleaded ignorance of the current grants payment crisis.
A teacher at the Matshensikazi Primary School, where Dlamini completed her primary school education, is angered by the presence of City Press in the area.
“So you’ve come to get her fired,” he says, before his rural sense of hospitality takes over and he offers us directions to the Dlamini homestead. “Yes, she did school here and we are proud of her.”
After completing her schooling at Matshensikazi, Dlamini moved to Imbali township, Pietermaritzburg. Here she attended Msinga High School, where she became the leader of the female students’ boarding house.
Dlamini was among those who were forced to leave the school in 1982 – her matric year – after they had been attacked by vigilantes brought in by the principal to break a student boycott over poor teaching and bad living conditions.
Mzwakhe Sithebe, a former Dundee mayor and ANC MPL and now a civic activist, was also forced to leave Msinga High after he was injured in that attack.
“Comrade Ba’tha played a very instrumental role in organising and mobilising the female student body, until we were attacked by vigilantes. She was the kind of person who would take no nonsense,” Sithebe said.
“She was able to organise, despite the fear of being attacked, when most of the female students were afraid and submissive.”
S’phelele Shongwe, now a nurse at Msinga’s Church of Scotland Hospital, was a member of Msinga High’s choir, along with Dlamini, whom she described as “having a beautiful voice”.
“We sang together and we were in the Student Christian Movement at school.”
Dlamini was influenced politically by Midlands ANC firebrand Harry Gwala from the time she had become involved in the Imbali-based Indlangamandla Youth Organisation.
She then rose through the ranks of the ANC Women’s League after being deployed as part of the team which relaunched the body in 1991.
In 1998 she was elected as secretary general, a post she held for a decade, before becoming the league’s president in 2015.
Deployed to the National Assembly in 1994, Dlamini served on the corrections and social welfare portfolio committees, but was found guilty of defrauding Parliament’s travel scheme of R254 000, fined R120 000 and slapped with a five-year suspended sentence.
Her banishment to the political wilderness did not last long, and by May 2009 she was back as deputy social development minister, appointed by President Jacob Zuma, whose lean years coincided with Dlamini’s.
In 2010, Zuma appointed her as social development minister, a position she has held since.
Dlamini has openly professed support for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to become the next ANC president.
A former ANC KwaZulu-Natal provincial leader, who asked not to be named, says it was her unstinting support for Zuma, coupled with the support she had built up in the Women’s League, which kept her in the political game.
Nozibele Mfunda, now a teacher from East London, had shared a room with Dlamini at the University of Zululand where she studied social work at the time, for two years. Mfunda says Dlamini, who was a year ahead of her, helped shape her political consciousness.
“That woman groomed me,’’ says Mfunda. “I was from a rural area and I had nothing. When her parents brought her food from Imbali, she shared everything with me.
“I would wake up and find her studying at 2am. That woman still got an honours with all the politics…”
Mafunda is outraged by claims that Dlamini is a drunkard.
“I hear all this talk about her being a drunk. That woman never took liquor for reasons that I know. She hates liquor,” Mafunda says.