South Africa's issues of governance, a rise in opposition rhetoric, and a president and ANC under fire have all coalesced in the National Assembly. Speaker Baleka Mbete is at the centre of the game with stakes so high that something might have to give. But Mbete, the poet and veteran leader, is making things worse on her own.
born with each determined kick and move with each ripple on my stomach like the anger of my people Mould of life come join us Together we must hunt the fascist down
“For my unborn child” – Baleka Kgositsile
The poet left South Africa in 1976. She was a teacher, linked to activities of the Black Consciousness Movement and her brother was already detained on charges of treason. When it was her night to go, she hid from her mother to save her from police questions. The 26-year-old crossed the Swaziland border at 3a.m. wearing all the clothes she had – four pairs of underwear and two dresses.
With the ANC in exile, she wrote about about joining politics and being forced to leave behind her two children, of being arrested and separated in custody from her baby by an oppressive system – “Our life, our future, mowed down by bullets from the guns of the Boers”.
Born Baleka Mbete in 1949, she married fellow poet Keorapetse Kgositsile in 1978 while working for the ANC. Mbete, divorced from Keorapetse, who was also Mbete-Keorapetse before returning to Mbete, has an impressive history. It's now marred by her role as Speaker in the National Assembly, where so many of South Africa's problems are coalescing.
You heard the news We three in one Midwife womb child Of truth will triumph South Africa will be free.
“That land will be free” – Baleka Kgositsile, dedicated to the MK comrades who attacked Sasol's Secunda plant in May 1981
The poet's father had worked both at Fort Hare as a librarian and for the Communist Party underground. According to Mbete, former President Nelson Mandela said he used to get books from her dad. Her writing in exile is both confronting and inspirational. And during the 15 years she was away in Swaziland, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, Mbete woked for Radio Freedom, the Medu Arts Ensemble, the ANC's women section, and as a member of the executive committee in Lusaka.
“It's very traumatic coming back after years of exile,” she said in a 1991 interview when she returned to SA after the unbanning. “You are looking at friends of yours that you left, and they are way ahead of you. They've got their houses that they own and you have to start from scratch. And you have to continue to struggle at the same level with the same vehemence as before. It's not very easy.”
But Mbete became leader of the ANC Women's League, joined the party's National Executive Committee, and was a member on the panel of chairpersons in the Multi-Party Negotiating Process. She was an ANC spokesperson during the 1994 elections, became an MP, was a member of the Constitutional Committee, served on the panel to short-list candidates to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and has even worked with UNESCO. She served as Deputy Speaker of Parliament for eight years, Speaker for another four, briefly served as Deputy President under Kgalema Motlanthe, and was elected the ANC's first female National Chairperson in 2007, a post she still holds, before returning as Speaker after the 2014 elections.
According to the write-up in the O'Malley archives, Mbete “made her mark as a logical, reasonable and persuasive negotiator who would not, however, yield on the party's bottom line”.
What, then, happened? There have been scandals. In 1997 it was revealed she received her driver’s license improperly; she apologised, claimed no wrongdoing, and was not charged. She was also involved in the Travelgate scandal, but paid back the money. Mbete, while Speaker, was one of the ANC members who marched Tony Yengeni to the gates of Pollsmoor Prison after he was convicted of defrauding Parliament, the institution she presided over. Her previous tenure as Speaker was hardly as controversial as this one, but she did throw a DA member out for asking if a former ANC minister had been guilty of theft. Her own R25 million stake in Gold Fields has also caused contention, with allegations of bribery, but she was cleared by Parliament's ethics committee because she wasn't an MP when the deal was made.
“I haven’t taught for so long,” Mbete told The New Age in 2012 before looking at politics as an act of educating. “In politics your life is an ongoing process of teaching. We are constantly involved in setting values, ideas and ideals that we have to pursue through communication. We also impart philosophies and with that, I think, I am still teaching.”
If Mbete is still teaching, it's with the rod. She's a veteran and has played her cards right, remaining where so many others have disappeared. But she finds herself in Parliament as both referee and player, with extreme pressure on both roles. The ANC and President Zuma are under fire over both governance and Nkandla and the Economic Freedom Fighters are set on challenging Zuma and the party in the chamber. The Democratic Alliance has raised its rhetoric to keep up.
Honourable members you are not going to block the State of the Nation Address
“SONA” - Baleka Mbete
With these words, last week the Speaker presided over one of the most shameful events in parliamentary history, the forceful removal of a party by police in the House. EFF members were forcefully and arbitrarily removed, before they caused much of a disruption, by police dressed not as police, and the strategy, clearly organised, was not broadcast on the parliamentary feed while attempts had been made earlier to block other signals coming from the National Assembly. Worse, the EFF was asking questions about allegations against Zuma, Mbete's boss in the ANC.
Then, on Saturday, the poet who has said she is ready to be president if asked by the party, goaded and gloated. “The president finally delivered his address after we have had actually a beautiful opportunity to deal with those irritants,” she told an ANC meet according to Mail & Guardian. “If we don’t work we will continue to have cockroaches like Malema roaming all over the place.”
It might be funny, perhaps outrageous, if it weren't so dangerous. Already in Mogale City, cases have been opened in the days after SONA by both the EFF and ANC over a brawl between the parties. The theatrics and violence at the national level descends to the local, while Mbete, having to protect her leader and party while dealing “with those irritants” in red, clings to the poetry of revolution while she should be promoting Parliament's rules and peace among the parties.
Is there a poetic license in this, that the poet herself dominates the ugly discourse country has found itself in? That soon there may be incidents of political clashes that lead to people being killed, or killing, for being recognised as allies to the 'cockroaches'? That the person whose job is constitutionally designed to bring people, ideas, forces of politics and wisdom of the old, under a one representative dome, happens to house one of the most divisive minds the country has produced in decades? Such is South Africa's luck, many times over.
But perhaps only history will respond to what is probably a critical query: Is Mbete in the centre of SA's political maelstrom by design or by chance? DM
Photo: Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete (R) and National Assembly Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli field questions from journalists at a news conference at Parliament on Friday, 14 November 2014 following raucous behaviour in the House culminated in fisticuffs and scuffles. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA