The truth about the Xhosa Nostra

Largely because of the early spread of missionary activity in the Eastern Cape, Xhosa-speakers gained an advantage.

Any realistic discussion of contemporary politics in South Africa has, pretty quickly, to confront the question of the widely perceived primacy of Xhosa-speakers -and the equally undesirable fact of that group's internal divisions. Largely because of the earlier spread of missionary activity in the Eastern Cape the Xhosa-speakers of the area gained an educational edge over other black groups, a factor which also helped the Xhosa elite take the political lead on several fronts. By the late 1980s it was not unusual in some quarters to hear South African politics described (wrongly) as a struggle between Buthelezi's Zulus and the Xhosa ANC.

Famously, all three of the ANC's ruling troika of Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu were Xhosas, as were the party's two rising stars, Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani. Similar head-counting in the contemporary sports world, ranging from the minister of sport through the national sports council and the rugby, soccer and Olympic committees, has led to much talk of a Xhosa Nostra.

In fact, all of this is too simple. It is true that the IFP is an overwhelmingly Zulu party, but it has the support of not much more than half the Zulus of KwaZulu-Natal and less still outside the province. The ANC manifestly contains many other groups besides Xhosas and in any case the PAC also takes its roots from the Xhosa-speakers of the Eastern Cape, a fact which has sometimes produced bloody conflicts there between the two parties. It would, of course, be foolish to pretend that ethnic and clan politics are wholly without significance in any African country, South Africa included. Recent conflicts within the PAC have a clearly ethnic base with some Eastern Cape branches refusing to accept the replacement as party president of Clarence Makwetu, a Xhosa, by Bishop Stanley Magoba, a Tswana. Similarly, there is audible muttering within the ANC about the predominance of Ngunis (effectively, Xhosas and Zulus) and Asians within the Cabinet.

Dissident figure

Our recent national opinion survey (see Focus 6 and 7) showed that the identification of Xhosa-speakers with the ANC was strong enough for there to be a suspicion among many other South Africans that they are the principal beneficiaries of ANC rule.

Whites and Asians were the most likely to state such a view overtly though anecdotal evidence suggests that this politically incorrect view is privately held by many Africans too. Strikingly, however, the survey also showed that in the Xhosa heartland of the Eastern Cape it was the dissident figure of Bantu Holomisa who emerged as the voters' leading presidential choice (with 25 per cent support).

The ANC was sufficiently rattled by this finding to mount a propaganda campaign against Holomisa, distributing in enormous numbers a special pamphlet aimed at destroying the general's reputation among the party faithful. For what our survey had revealed was that the ANC's great voter bastion of the Eastern Cape was now deeply divided and that Holomisa had also picked up substantial support among the Xhosa population living in the huge squatter camps around Cape Town. The effect was to focus attention as never before on the Xhosa vote.

To understand how one got here one must start with the determination of the Verwoerd government to deal with the problem of the politicised Xhosa by making the Transkei the first self-governing bantustan. The result was to create a historic split among the territories of the chiefly families and thus an intimate crisis for the ANC whose leaders were closely associated with them. Nelson Mandela's cousins, the Matanzimas, sided with the Sigcaus and the Madikizelas (Winnie Mandela's family) in favour of self-government, while the Tembu chief, Sabata Dalinyebo, led the opposition to the move. Ultimately the two Matanzima brothers, Kaiser and George, both became prime ministers of the Transkei, the Pondo paramount chief, Botha Sigcau, became its first president and Winnie's father, Columbus Madikizela, became a cabinet minister in the Transkei government. Dalinyebo resisted bravely but was finally forced to flee into exile, dying tragically in Zambia. When his remains were brought back for burial at the Great Place of the Tembus, the Matanzima government swooped on the body the day before the burial and interred it elsewhere.

Stella Sigcau, Chief Botha Sigcau's daughter, became one of the longest serving ministers in the Transkei government but was forced to resign by Kaiser Matanzima in I 977 because she was unmarried and pregnant. Returning to government in 1980 she nonetheless had a troubled relationship with George Matanzima and when the latter was forced out of office in a welter of corruption charges in 1987, Stella was accordingly chosen to succeed him because she was seen as his opponent. However, when the Alexander Commission revealed that amid the general corruption she had accepted R50 000 from the R2 million bribe paid to Matanzima by the hotel magnate, Sol Kerzner, she was deposed by her indignant defence force chief, General Bantu Holomisa - for Holomisa and his cadre of young officers had supported Stella's accession to power as part of an anti-corruption drive and were outraged to discover that she too was tainted.

For tine next seven years Holomisa ruled the Transkei. The son of a chief himself (his nephew, Pathekile Holomisa, is the leader of the Congress of Traditional Leaders (Contralesa). Holomisa restored power and prestige to the chiefs who had suffered under the Matanzimas but, anxious not to create further dissension among the chiefly elite, was careful to leave the Matanzimas alone: neither man went to jail and both continued to collect pensions from the Transkei government. But in a major gesture of redress, he also had Dalinyebo's body disinterred and reburied in its rightful position at the Great Place.

Holomisa took an extremely bold stance against the National Party government and by the time the ANC, PAC and SACP were legalised in 1990 he had achieved considerable popularity among black radicals, though he was careful not to join any party organisation. In effect he offered a home to both ANC and PAC, so both Umkhonto and APLA bases mushroomed within the Transkei. In particular Holomisa became close to Chris Hani, whose MK soldiers even saved Holomisa from an attempted coup.

Hani spent most of his time in the Transkei, building up both MK and his own regional base there. He, too, was not above occasionally flattering ethnic pride, claiming that Xhosas had been Umkhonto's bravest fighters - a claim which produced bitter allegations of Xhosa favouritism within MK. Hani, alone among the ANC exile leadership, went to great lengths to gain a sympathy and understanding of the African grassroots sentiment from which his sojourn in exile had distanced him. Even today many ANC activists there feel that only Hani really knew and understood the Transkei. Certainly, the contrast between Hani and his leadership rival, Thabo Mbeki, was striking: their pre-election strategies could not have been more different. Mbeki set out to charm the white business community, attempted to get the ANC to abandon economic sanctions, distanced himself from the communist party just as Hani was electing to take over as its leader, and was soon appearing in photographs driving his BMW and carousing at his birthday party with Sol Kerzner.

Succession struggle

The Holomisa-Hani alliance was inevitably a threat to other Xhosa politicians, for it threatened to upstage them all. Hani's new regional base, added to his MK and SACP leadership and his popularity among the youth, made him the virtually certain successor to Mandela. By supporting Hani, Holomisa was in effect taking the anti-Mbeki side in the succession struggle; it also meant that he was quickly being touted as the next minister of defence. The ANC, conscious of Holomisa's popularity and worried that the PAC might take as much as 30 per cent of the Eastern Cape vote, wooed him hard and promised him a leading list position. Whatever criticisms the ANC may have of Holomisa now, the fact is that they were happy to overlook them then.

But Holomisa repeatedly turned down such invitations, apparently keen, as a Xhosa-speaking leader, to keep in touch with both the ANC and PAC, enjoying support in his locale and showing more concern for provincial matters. He gave his implicit support to the idea of a tenth, Kei province, consisting of the Transkei and the border area (the territory from the Fish River to Umzimkulu) and, when that failed, supported Umtata's claims to become the Eastern Cape's capital. The old Transkei, with its four million people, had been ruled almost exclusively in the interests of its 30,000 civil servants and the small clique of chiefs and businessmen linked to them. This group rallied behind these demands and, increasingly, began to look back on the period of Holomisa's rule as the good old days. In the new Eastern Cape province the civil servants would be less important, might have trouble hanging onto their fat pay increases or even their jobs altogether. The chiefs, for their part, disliked the rival pretensions of the civic association activists grouped under the Sanco banner. Before long members of this Transkei old guard were trekking over to the president's retirement home at Qunu to lobby Mandela against these unwelcome changes -and against the new communist provincial premier, Raymond Mhlaba.

Holomisa, whom Mandela treated almost as a son and who became the virtual guardian of the Qunu retreat, could have expected to become the premier either of a new Kei Province or of the Eastern Cape -but he made no move to consolidate his position or advance his claims, only finally giving in to pressure to join the ANC just before the 1994 election. Stella Sigcau, by contrast, had taken care to reintegrate herself into ANC structures and was elected chairperson of the Transkei section of the ANC women's league in July 1993. She was duly nominated as premier of the Eastern Cape. So was Steve Tshwete, who had similarly developed a base in his native border region. But the communist party was solid behind Mhlaba. This was decisive and Sigcau cannily withdrew in his favour.

When the government of national unity was formed in 1994 there was widespread surprise that Sigcau should be given a full cabinet position as minister for public enterprises. Some saw this as a gesture by Mandela towards the Transkei chiefly elite in general, others as a more specific attempt to heal the split in that elite going all the way back to Transkei self-government in 1963 - and there was an almost universal assumption that the appointment could not have happened had not both Mandela and Sigcau been Xhosas. Almost equally striking was the fact that Holomisa was only deputy minister for the environment ("deputy minister of rubbish" as Transkeians put it). From the first tension between the two was patent: Sigcau could never forgive Holomisa for having deposed her, while he clearly felt that the reasons which had led him to depose her still applied. From the first they sparred publicly and ANC MPs were grateful that the Opposition seemed too sleepy to notice a parliamentary speech from Sigcau attacking Holomisa, her government colleague, as an agent of military intelligence.

Holomisa took dramatic revenge by appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and testifying about Sigcau's acceptance of the R50,000 bribe from Kerzner. She took umbrage and complained to Mbeki, who apparently failing to realise that the R50,000 bribe was an old and established fact, decreed that Holomisa be disciplined. It was a fatal error, for it meant that by attempting to punish someone for what he had said before the commission, the ANC had put itself in the wrong, and therefore had continually to change the basis of its complaint. Holomisa was, in any case, one of its most popular figures - he had been elected top of the entire list by party delegates at the ANC conference of 1994. The lack of enthusiasm among Africans within the ANC for the role of prosecutor against Holomisa was reflected in the way this dirty job was handed to non-Africans (Asmal and Alec Erwin - with Asmal rescuing himself when he got the chance). Holomisa, for his part, burnt his bridges by public attacks on Mbeki (whom he saw as responsible for bringing Kerzner to the ANC), Tshwete, Tokyo Sexwale, Zola Skweiyia and others. The mess was completed when the case against Holomisa came apart with Mandela's admission that the ANC, all previous denials to the contrary notwithstanding, had indeed received R2 million from Kerzner.

This fact that this intense battle was viewed by other groups as essentially a fight among Xhosas (Mandela, Holomisa, Skweiyia, Tshwete, Sigcau, Mbeki) did not inhibit a broader feeling among such groups that the government was tipped too far towards Nguni interests, with a ministerial predominance in the two major Nguni groups (Zulus and Xhosas) cemented by the IFP's all-Zulu ministerial representation on the one hand and Mandela's care to bring in ANC Zulus such as Mrs Zuma, Jeff Hadebe and Sibusiso Bengu on the other. The position of the cabinet's Zulus was, however, seen as far weaker - they were politically divided and half belonged to the anathematised IFP - and attention centred on the notion of Xhosa favouritism.

A long list of grievances fed this charge. The appointment of Sigcau, a veteran of a corrupt homeland regime, was criticised even by the Weekly Mail as suggesting that the rules were somewhat different if one was a Xhosa princess. The way in which the Matanzima brothers were allowed to enjoy their retirement in peace was contrasted with the way Mangope, Cqozo and even Buthelezi were pursued and harassed. Zola Skweiyia's control over the public service was seen as placing this key patronage post under Xhosa control with a consequent pro-Xhosa bias in civil service appointments: the up-market civil service suburb of Centurion (the former Verwoerdburg) was said to be filling up with Xhosa newcomers.

Perhaps the heaviest symbolism of all, however, lay in the fact that the ANC's 1994 election list, carefully avoiding the all-Xhosa (Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu) line up of the past, had read: 1. Mandela (Xhosa) 2. Ramaphosa (Venda) 3. Mbeki (Xhosa) 4. Lekota (South Sotho), with Tokyo Sexwale the highest placed Northern Sotho. In short order Ramaphosa was marginalised, Lekota sacked and Sexwale apparently squeezed out, leaving a Xhosa-to-Xhosa succession once again. The fact that the ethnic groups of the Northern Province, the most solid ANC redoubt of all, were so weakly represented was a persistent grievance and has perhaps contributed to the rise of Tito Mboweni (Shangaan), the retention of the ineffective Sydney Mufamadi (Venda), the return from purdah of Peter Mokaba (North Sotho) and the touting of Joel Netshitenzhe (Venda) as a possible deputy president. Perhaps the most striking thing about such figures, however, is that all of them are, for the moment, still second or third rank players. There is no real heavyweight to replace Ramaphosa or Hani.

Powerful Asians

The paucity of representation for Tswanas and North and South Sothos has not been made more palatable by the large number of powerful Asians in the government, a fact noted with equal asperity by Coloureds who have just one representative in the cabinet (Trevor Manuel) and who have now seen Cheryl Carolus passed over for the top ANC post and talking of quitting politics entirely. Indeed, the best refutation of the hypothesis of a new Nguni hegemony lies in the fact that, as Africanists are quick to point out, the most over-represented group in government is neither Xhosa nor Zulu but Asian, with five full ministers - Asmal, Jay Naidoo, Mac Maharaj, Mohamed Valli Moosa and Dullah Omar and two others, Aziz and Essop Pahad who are full ministers in all but name.

Almost as remarkable as this over-representation of the million-odd Asians is the preponderance of Muslims, themselves a small minority within the Asian community. It is alleged by their opponents within the ANC that many recent foreign policy decisions have been taken by an all-Muslim, all-communist group consisting of Asmal, the two Pahad brothers and the deputy-director general of foreign affairs, Abdul Minty- which, if true, may well explain such strange gambits as the Syrian arms deal.

The allegations of a Xhosa Nostra at the heart of government are off target in other ways too. For a start, as the Dalinyebo-Matanzima, Hani-Mbeki and Holomisa affairs all show, Xhosa-speakers have generally been a badly divided group. Secondly, no part of the country has fared worse in the new South Africa than the Xhosa heartland of the Eastern Cape. The region is in an utter shambles, with corruption and waste on a huge scale. No baseline accounts yet exist for the Transkei and Ciskei even for 1994. Records have been destroyed and even the most elementary statistics are lacking - no one knows how many schools there are or how many children in them.

The number of state employees has risen from an estimated I 22,000 in 1994 to some 145,000. Many of them are supernumeraries, that is they get paid but have no jobs, but others are clearly phantoms, allowing the payment of double salaries. The region is now being run for the benefit of its civil service elite even more than it was under apartheid and the province has been reduced to finger-printing its civil servants in order to discover how many of them there really are.

Disaffected Xhosas

Hence, while our survey showed that large numbers of non-Xhosas believe that Xhosas have been the favoured children of the new South Africa, Xhosas themselves took an almost violently opposite view. Indeed, among African voters who had supported the ANC in 1994, Xhosas were by far the most

dissatisfied, critical and disaffected group. And, however well the Xhosa elite may do, their grassroots were bitterly divided. Mbeki may be the Xhosa crown prince but his home support base was quite weak - and surprisingly large numbers supported Ramaphosa for president, showing an apparent disregard for ethnic loyalty. Similarly, talk of Holomisa sweeping the Eastern Cape is clearly wrong: at best he can hope to emulate Buthelezi, whose base is solidly ethnic and regional without attaining majority support in either context.

Thus while the political correctness which insists that ethnicity doesn't matter (and therefore must not be spoken of out loud) is clearly foolish, decoding the ethnic politics we have is no simple thing. Many other lines of fissure matter too - the tensions between exiles and 'inxiles', for example, not to mention religious, regional and racial differences. All these fissures are refracted through a complex prism of factional, party and governmental organisations. Like almost everything else in South African politics, it is a complex and fascinating tangle.