Committed ANC member Bonginkosi Madikizela told Helen Zille he would never join her party. Now he’s the DA leader in the Western Cape. Sue Segar traces an extraordinary political journey.
Some time back in the mid-2000s, bruised by his internal battles with the ANC – his political home since childhood – Bonginkosi Madikizela, spent a couple of hours with DA stalwart Helen Zille. He came out of that meeting convinced the DA was the party for him.
“She shared with me the DA’s principles and vision. That conversation, and seeing how seriously the DA took service delivery, and the freedom to express your views without censure, was important for me, as I speak my mind,” Madikizela told Noseweek in an interview.
Today, the DA’s newly-elected leader in the Western Cape stands in pole position to become the province’s new premier in 2019. As leader in the only province which the DA currently governs, he’s highly aware of the critical role he plays in the party and in the greater political landscape.
Naturally, Madikizela’s key focus will be on getting the DA to knock the ANC’s national support to below 50 percent in the 2019 poll, and he’s determined to grow the party’s black support base in the Western Cape.
“The DA will lead South Africa. It’s not a question of whether it can,” Madikizela said. “As leader of the only DA-governed province, I’m required to lead a team that makes the maximum contribution to our target to be the government in 2019.”
Sitting in the Wale Street office which he occupies as MEC for Housing, the single father in his early 40s spoke openly about his childhood in KwaZulu-Natal, during which he lost two brothers to political violence, his own inevitable involvement in politics, his ambitions – and some of the controversies linked to his name.
A long-time ANC member, Madikizela’s political turning point came in 2005 when he led a group of disgruntled Khayelitsha ANC members who supported Ebrahim Rasool in his leadership struggle with Mcebisi Skwatsha for the position of ANC chairperson in the Western Cape. The ANC in the province was divided between the two, with Skwatsha as provincial secretary challenging the incumbent, Rasool. (See Box story.)
Skwatsha won the battle – and the group’s support for Rasool led to them being sidelined and overlooked as ANC candidates in the 2006 local government elections. Madikizela and a few others decided to contest the local government elections as independent candidates. When the results of the local government elections came out, the ANC got just over 39 percent of the votes and the DA over 42 percent. The DA formed a coalition government, the ANC lost the city of Cape Town and Zille became mayor of Cape Town.
After a short stint with Bantu Holomisa’s UDM as the party’s Cape Town Metro secretary, Madikizela got a call from Zille asking him to work in her office as stakeholder relations manager “in her capacity as mayor and not as a leader of the DA”. It was while working in this position that Zille convinced him to join the party. He later became MEC for Human Settlements under Zille’s premiership.
“It didn’t take me long to realize that Helen and I had the same agenda to improve the lives or our people. Our hearts were in the same place,” said Madikizela. We didn’t have time to play politics. I gave my job my all and that’s what I saw in her as well, I realised I could work with a person like this.”
In October this year, Madikizela beat former Western Cape police commissioner, and DA member of the provincial legislature, Lennit Max, in a contest for the DA Western Cape leadership, by 16 votes. There’s no love lost between the two and Max’s supporters claimed there had been irregularities in the elections.
Madikizela believes he’s in a prime political position to assist DA growth. “Firstly, I understand the political dynamics of the country better than many. I understand the importance of growing into new markets, particularly the opposition stronghold.
“The biggest issue we face in the opposition market is trust. My understanding of this market, because of my background, puts me in a good position to convince them to come over to this blue machine. I understand their fears and am able to break that barrier.”
Madikizela believes SA is “still grappling with colonialism and apartheid. As a South African who was affected by apartheid, I understand where most South Africans come from. The country is very racially polarized because many South Africans are still marginalized, and are uneducated, poor and not part of the mainstream economy. We need to unite South Africa across racial lines, to grow our economy, create jobs and create political stability.
“While it’s important to acknowledge the past, we also need people preaching the message of progress and the future – it’s not going to help us as a country to dwell in the past. I bring a message of hope, a message of unity, a message that talks more about the future than the past. That message resonates with many people.”
As the new DA leader in the Western Cape, his four-point plan, besides growing the party in opposition strongholds, includes rebuilding trust with loyal supporters, building the DA’s auxiliary structures and building trust with farm workers.
Farmworkers hold a special place in his heart “because I was born on a farm and we’re not doing very well in the farming communities. The perception is that the DA is more for farmers than farmworkers. Farmworkers must feel that we care for them, that we’re a party for all”.
Madikizela told Noseweek he believes one of the biggest challenges facing the DA is the perception that it is a white party. “Perception in politics is reality. We must avoid doing or saying anything that feeds into that perception. To grow, we must walk the talk and be seen to be doing what we say we are.”
Madikizela conceded the DA might have been a party just for white people 15 years ago. “But if you go to any DA gathering you’ll see it is no longer the case. We currently have only one white provincial leader out of nine provinces and that is Jacques Smalle in Limpopo. In the four metros where we are in government, we only have one white mayor, Athol Trollip. We have black mayors in Joburg and Tshwane and a coloured mayor in Cape Town.
“Also, in this province we are in government in 29 municipalities where only ten mayors are white. The perception that the DA is a white party is not true.”
What fascinates Madikizela is the way South African voters are maturing. “In countries like the USA, it took them years. In 23 years, if you look at the changes in patterns of how people in SA are voting, who would have thought we’d progress to where we are now – that people would be in a position to now vote for a different political party on the basis of issues and policies. In many countries, the soft issues lock people into perpetual loyalty to liberation movements, but in SA we are breaking that barrier and moving to real issues. People are voting on the basis of ‘what a party is going to do for me to change my life’.”
This political maturity, he believes, can be ascribed in no small measure, to “the things SA did right” by ensuring a progressive constitution, a number of chapter nine institutions and structures that put checks and balances in place to avoid abuse of power.
“The more people realise their power as individuals because of these checks and balances, the more they understand they can exercise their democratic right. We South Africans can pat ourselves on the back for this.”
Madikizela says the DA is making a mistake by ignoring “soft issues” affecting ordinary South Africans. “Yes we focus on growing the economy and creating jobs, but we must never underestimate the emotional connection that many blacks have with parties like the ANC. We miss that point completely. We have to understand that it’s not just about hard and visible issues. Many South Africans vote with hearts, not their heads, and our message must resonate with that.
“We mustn’t under-estimate the scars that were caused by apartheid and focus on everything wrong that the ANC is now doing. We need to tread carefully and strike a balance between those soft issues and what we need to do as a country to move forward.”
What disturbs him the most about SA today is “the rate of corruption, the lack of accountability of some leaders and the fact that SA is so poor despite its massive potential.
“We are rich in mineral resources, and should be able to provide for our citizens. The good thing coming out of this political instability and the rate of looting is that South Africans are becoming mature voters.
“The quicker we can get people to understand that they are the bosses of politicians and not the other way round the quicker we get to a situation where people understand the power of ‘if you don’t deliver, I vote you out’.”
Madikizela believes the biggest challenges facing the Western Cape today are gangsterism, alcohol abuse, and abuse of children and women.
“These have become a permanent feature of this province, and keep me awake. There are no easy solutions. It will take us time to restore the moral fibre of our province and our country … and to restore the most importance values of society. Most of these things happen because parents have abdicated responsibility.
Madikizela said the highlight of his tenure as Human Settlements MEC is the impact he has made in improving many people’s lives. “The most rewarding thing is when I give a house and a title deed to the most deserving individual, like an elderly person who was directly affected by apartheid, or to people living with disabilities and child-headed households.”
On the negative side: “We sometimes raise unrealistic expectations. Many people who qualify for free subsidized state houses are not the most deserving. The sooner we change that the better. We are entrenching a culture of dependency and entitlement in a country with a shrinking fiscus and growing demand. We need to unleash the potential of our people by creating a conducive environment for them to be active participants in housing delivery, instead of passive recipients.”
Madikizela has been criticized for being overly close to Premier Helen Zille, and for being a lackey of a conservative group in the DA. He supported Zille during the aftermath of her contentious tweets on the virtues of colonialism, and lodged a complaint against former DA Youth leader Mbali Ntuli for posting ‘like’ when somebody called Zille a racist on Facebook.
But, during our interview, he scoffed at this perception, saying “I am my own man”, and that the ANC is on a mission to tarnish the image of black DA leaders. His track record in working for poor communities, he says, should speak for itself.
Madikizela was also criticized – and the ANC called on Zille to fire him – for comments, in September 2010, that “unfortunately” there was no influx control to regulate the movement of people into the Western Cape.
“This comment was taken out of context. I was not born in the Western Cape and here I am, so why would I suggest migration of people from other areas should be controlled? Comments like that from the ANC don’t deserve a serious response. This is a party that has lost its moral compass. It uses every opportunity to play the race card. That’s why it’s disintegrated in the Western Cape.”
On accusations by the Mandela Park Backyarders that he broke his promise to give residents houses in new Mandela Park developments, he says: “This was another twisted story by people who wanted to hold me to ransom by forcing me to give them houses without following due processes and the principle of first come, first served.
“I met them several times and they made these unreasonable demands, until it was no longer necessary to meet them.”
On what his role in the Western Cape’s pending water crisis is, he said: “As the leader of the ruling party in the province, I have an important role. There were different choices and decisions to make based on the information at our disposal at the time. Drought is a global phenomenon which has affected 130 mega cities in the last seven years, due to climate change. Government is always faced with difficult choices in these situations. It’s also unfortunate that experts did not make the right predictions about the amount of rain we were going to get.
“Perhaps people have a right to blame the government, but if you are faced with a choice to either deal with immediate social challenges or with long-term perceived challenges, and you have very limited resources – the obvious choice becomes the first one. We are now doing everything to deal with this problem, from water recycling, aquifers, water-saving and desalination plants.
”This multi-pronged approach will help us deal with the problem. The DA didn’t mess up. Water is a national government competence. The DA has been asking for necessary assistance from national government but unfortunately without luck.”
His long-term ambitions, he said, are “to grow the party in the Western Cape, break the barriers in opposition strongholds and contribute to our goal of becoming the national government. I believe in doing the work first – only after achieving those goals will I decide on the next step for me personally.” n
From township to leadership
Bonginkosi Madikizela was born in 1975 in Murchison, Port Shepstone. His father, Magabishane Madikizela, a farm worker and chief, hailed from Mbizana in the Eastern Cape. Bonginkosi’s mother, Nyabuzana, was Magabishane’s first of eight wives and Bonginkosi the last of eight children – four sons and four daughters. His mother died when he was seven; his father when he was 11.
Bonginkosi’s grandfather and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s father and were brothers, but while Winnie was part of the family, he did not see her much.
Madikizela began his schooling in Murchison aged ten and, after his father’s death, was left in the care of his older siblings. This was during the mid-1980s, at the height of the war on the ground in KZN between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party.
It was inevitable that the teenage Madikizela would became involved. “I didn’t join the ANC, the ANC joined me! We were Madikizelas in KZN, so by association we were ANC. I knew I had to fight Inkatha.”
He became part of a group of young boys who went to camps and slept in the bush, returning home in the early hours to go to school. “Then, at school, we’d hear gun shots and run away. That was our life.”
In 1988 when Madikizela was 13 he and his oldest brother Moses were attacked by IFP supporters and Moses was hacked to death. The young Madikizela went to live with his second eldest brother, Amos, who was killed in similar circumstances in 1991, when Madikizela was 16.
“Then they came after me,” he says.
After Amos’s death, Madikizela moved to Durban to live with a sister, a domestic worker, in the Welbedacht squatter camp near Chatsworth. “That shack, made from neighbours’ discarded materials, was our home for years. The holes in the walls were so big you could count the stars.”
When political tensions worsened, he moved to Mbizana, Eastern Cape, to live with an aunt and uncle, and matriculated with university exemption from the Ntabezulu High School, before returning to Durban. There he worked for an RDP housing company and studied housing policy for a year at the University of Natal.
Madikizela moved to Cape Town in 1994, living in Khayelitsha while working for a construction company and studying at computer school. He also enrolled for a B.Comm in Human Resource Management with Unisa. In 2000, he moved to Durban to be with his third brother Mdu who had become ill, and who later died. There he worked for Stats SA, continued with his IT studies and became involved with NGOs and youth organisations.
He returned to Cape Town in 2002 to work as a computer teacher. Now back in Khayelitsha, he became involved in fighting corruption around a new mall development in Macassar. He found himself back in politics and active in the ANC, and was soon elected as secretary of the ANC’s Macassar branch. In 2003, while working in HR at the Ravensmead police station, he was elected as secretary of the Khayelitsha Development Forum (KDF). A year later he became an executive member of the KDF.
In the election year of 2004, Madikizela was at the forefront of campaigns for the ANC in his ward. The ANC did well and Ebrahim Rasool became premier of the Western Cape.
Then Madikizela became embroiled in the debate about who to support in the next elections, between Rasool and Mcebisi Skwatsha, who was provincial secretary. “Rasool had not done a bad job but some believed the ANC must be led by black people. I had always known the ANC as a non-racial party. That was when I started seeing their true colours. There was a big split among ANC members, Rasool lost and a witchhunt began against those who had supported Rasool.
“Unbelievable things were going on in our ward conferences. People were imposed on us. A close friend, a councillor who supported Rasool, was hit on the head with a brick and was in hospital for weeks. It left a bad taste. You’d go to a meeting, but be given a brief to toe a certain line, and told that you couldn’t speak your mind. I said I couldn’t be part of that. I decided I was not going to take that nonsense.”
Madikizela became the face of a campaign to stand as independents to contest the ANC in the elections, starting in January 2006. He received numerous threats as well as phone calls from ANC leaders telling him to stop what he was doing. A week before the elections (2006) he even had a call from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. “She shouted at me, saying she would send a delegation to talk some sense into me. And she did. Mandela's own praise singer, Zolani Mkiva, came to deliver a message from my family and the royal family, to stop what I was doing because it was hurting the ANC.
Madikizela had first met Helen Zille in 2003 in Khayelitsha and, while meeting with people to raise funds for his cause, he went to visit her. “In politics there are trade-offs. I said, ‘Helen, you’re leader of the DA and we are now campaigning against the ANC … and this will hurt them. Help us.’
“She said, ‘what’s in it for me,’ and we said we would take a lot of support from the ANC, and she said, ‘how do I know I can trust you’ and I said, ‘you just have to take my word for it’. I think she appreciated that kind of honesty. We went to campaign and we hurt the ANC big time.”
The ANC lost the city of Cape Town and the DA formed a coalition government in the city. According to Madikizela, the last thing on his mind was to join the DA. He spent a short stint with the UDM after the elections “because I needed a political home but it was not for me.
“The rest is history. Not long after Helen was inaugurated I got a call from her, asking me to work in her office as stakeholder relations manager.
“I said you must understand I will never join your party. She said she wanted me to work with her as mayor and not as DA leader and I began working with her in June 2006. She put me on probation and I soon realised we were both in politics to improve peoples lives”. In 2007 they had a conversation that changed things. “It was about the political environment and the role of the DA and the role she saw me playing as part of the DA.
“She described why it was important to have people like me in the DA to get political realignment in SA.
“I called my sisters who said they’d support whatever decision I made.”
Two days later, Madikizela joined the DA, and became part of the provincial election team. “We were crisscrossing the province, campaigning, and we got more than 51 percent of the votes in 2009. Madikizela became an MPL for the first time. “I was very nervous, there was a lot to learn.” A day before Zille announced her cabinet, she called him and asked him to be Minister of Housing.
“I said, ‘are you insane?’ I accepted reluctantly and hardly slept for six months, learning everything about this department.” He was reappointed minister in 2014.
“It has become my passion and I don’t believe I have done a bad job.” Of Zille he says: “I don’t think there’s anybody who challenges her as I do, yet I don’t think there’s anyone who has shown as much faith in me as she has. She engages and is prepared to change her mind. She doesn’t pretend to know everything and gives you the space to do your job. She only intervenes if you mess up. You don’t find that in many leaders – most lead with their egos.”
Another woman he admires is Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. “I’m not suggesting she’s a saint, but to go through what she did and stay standing inspires me. I didn’t have an easy life growing up. People like her made me realise it’s a jungle out there and only the fittest survive. Those traits and values have got me where I am today.”
Madikizela is a single father to a son Sihle (17) and daughter Mihle (7). “There are values I’m determined to instil in my kids. When I compare their lives with how I grew up, I can say I am rich, but my kids don’t get everything they want. I’d like them to experience some of the difficulty I went through so they appreciate what they have.”
Other people he deeply admires and who helped shape him are his four sisters, Agnes, Princess, Flora and the late Mildred. “My sisters made me who I am by showing me love and compassion, and I’ll be indebted to them till the day I die.”
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