I’M AS TOUGH AS THE NEXT MAN

A pas­sion for pol­i­tics & a de­sire to fix the ANC

DRUM - - Front Page - BY GABISILE NGCOBO PIC­TURES: MARTIN DE KOCK

RIDICU­LOUS. That’s what she thought when peo­ple first started sug­gest­ing she throw her hat into the ring and en­ter the race for ANC pres­i­dent. She wasn’t go­ing to do this, she told her­self. She’d just buried her hus­band and, with very lit­tle time on her hands, a cam­paign trail was the last thing she needed.

But as time went by the idea of hav­ing a woman at the helm of the rul­ing party be­gan to ex­cite her. “I think we’re ready for it,” she says. “South Africa is the kind of democ­racy that would take eas­ily to a woman pres­i­dent.”

Lindiwe Sisulu is sit­ting in the liv­ing room of her min­is­te­rial res­i­dence in Pre­to­ria, a stone’s throw from the Union Build­ings. It’s a home as stylish as the fash­ion-for­ward min­is­ter of hu­man set­tle­ments, adorned with bowls of flow­ers and fam­ily pho­to­graphs.

Sisulu her­self is as groomed as ever in a linen suit, black polka-dot stock­ings and gold-plated stilet­tos. She’s just re­turned from a trip to Cape Town and her as­sis­tant serves her a cup of tea (with two teabags) but she be­comes so en­grossed in con­ver­sa­tion she doesn’t lift the cup once.

The 63-year-old mom of five has been out­spo­ken in her crit­i­cism of the rot within the ANC and sur­prised many when she came out in sup­port of out­spo­ken MP Makhosi Khoza’s de­ci­sion to leave the party she’d ded­i­cated her life to.

Khoza lamented the “klep­toc­racy” within its ranks and said the cur­rent ANC felt “alien” to her.

“I wish she hadn’t re­signed,” Sisulu com­mented at the time. “I feel guilty I couldn’t of­fer her the sup­port and com­fort she needed. I wanted to, but I’ve been too caught up in my own sit­u­a­tion. We’ve lost a strong per­son who would be able to stand up to power and say, ‘not in my name’. It’s peo­ple of courage who are able to tell us when we go wrong. It’s peo­ple of courage who brought the ANC to where we are.”

It was Sisulu’s pas­sion for the ANC that spurred her on to ac­cept­ing the chal­lenge of run­ning for pres­i­dent – this and the fact a prom­i­nent ANC vet­eran in­vited her to his home and added his voice to those urg­ing her to en­ter.

“There was no way I could’ve said no to this par­tic­u­lar per­son,” she says. “It dawned on me that it wasn’t in­di­vid­ual choice but up to those who love the ANC to try to re­store it.”

Her de­ci­sion wasn’t wel­comed straight away by ev­ery­one though. Her brother, for­mer par­lia­men­tary speaker Max Sisulu, was wor­ried about her.

“His at­ti­tude was, ‘Oh, my lit­tle sis­ter, this is a rough game’. But then he thought, ‘She’s a tough one’.”

And it’s true, she says. “I’m as tough as the next man.”

THE ANC is go­ing through “a rough patch” and South Africans need someone “who’ll re­store it to what it meant to the peo­ple”, Sisulu says. She has an im­pres­sive port­fo­lio: she’s been in gov­ern­ment since 1996 and has served in many min­istries, in­clud­ing in­tel­li­gence, hous­ing and pub­lic ser­vices and ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“The only time I’m re­minded I’m a woman is when someone says first fe­male min­is­ter of this or that.”

She an­nounced her can­di­dacy in July and has been on the cam­paign trail since, preach­ing unity and heal­ing. Sisulu con­cedes peo­ple have been hurt by the ANC, which is why the party suf­fered at the polls dur­ing the lo­cal elec­tions last year.

It’s not easy be­ing a can­di­date and “it takes a lot of sac­ri­fices”, she says. “But I de­cided I’m go­ing to count among those who say, ‘This isn’t the ANC we fought for’.”

The Gupta Leaks email scandal re­volv­ing around al­le­ga­tions of state cap­ture made her de­spon­dent. “I thought, ‘We should be dealing with this as the ANC – we shouldn’t have to wait for the pro­cesses of law’.”

She’s dis­heart­ened by how cor­rup­tion has be­come the norm and likens it to an in­sid­i­ous dis­ease. “By the time my hus­band [Pro­fes­sor Rok Ajulu] died of [pan­cre­atic] can­cer in De­cem­ber last year, the dis­ease was so ad­vanced there was lit­tle that could be done to re­verse it.

“I un­der­stand now why they call cor­rup­tion can­cer – be­cause it spreads so fast. This is why I don’t re­gret tak­ing up this great re­spon­si­bil­ity. Some­body has to clean this mess up.”

SISULU still has faith her bat­tered party can pull to­gether and cham­pion change and she’d love to see an econ­omy that pro­duces more jobs, the re­dis­tri­bu­tion of land and free health­care for all. But for this to hap­pen a change in lead­er­ship is sorely needed. Sisulu was once one of Zuma’s back­ers but she wants him to go now. “The ANC needs to be rein­vig­o­rated and if we don’t change it now we would’ve missed a golden op­por­tu­nity.”

She’s one of about seven can­di­dates vy­ing for the ANC pres­i­dency, the race cur­rently be­ing led by Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

It’s good that there are so many can­di­dates, she adds. “We don’t want peo­ple to set­tle for the least there is but the best.”

There’s no bad blood be­tween her and the other can­di­dates. “For me, they’re all my friends al­though some are closer than oth­ers. Some­times I find my­self lis­ten­ing to some­body and I think, ‘Hey that’s what I said the other day’.”

Sisulu’s kids – Ayanda, Nt­siki, Olindi, Che and Mitchelle – have grown used to shar­ing their mom with her ca­reer.

“They do throw a tantrum now and again and say, ‘Mommy, you haven’t called, you’re not here’ and I’m like, ‘Sweetie, I love you from here to eter­nity’.”

As the child of strug­gle stal­warts Wal­ter and Al­bertina Sisulu, she knows what it’s like hav­ing par­ents who are wed to pol­i­tics. “But this coun­try wouldn’t be free if it wasn’t for peo­ple like them. In sac­ri­fic­ing me, they lib­er­ated all of us.”

When she does have the rare free mo­ment she reads, goes to the mall or walks around the es­tate. But mostly she works. It wasn’t easy los­ing her hus­band last year and she thinks be­ing on the cam­paign trail is a bless­ing in dis­guise. “I’m busy and it’s good.”

She de­scribes her late hus­band as life it­self, an ex­tro­vert who was “louder than thun­der”.

“There wasn’t a sport he didn’t ex­cel in – he was an ex­tra­or­di­nary man, an in­tel­lec­tual, a good cook.”

Sisulu will be eter­nally grate­ful that, be­fore he breathed his last, he en­cour­aged her to try for the ANC pres­i­dency.

Go for it, he told her. “You’d be good at the job.”

RIGHT: Min­is­ter Lindiwe Sisulu lost her hus­band, Rok Ajulu, in De­cem­ber last year.

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