AS A proud African traditionalist who has just built his own Great Place at Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma should be deeply concerned that the traditional leader of one of South Africa’s biggest tribes has become critical of him.
Most black traditional leaders in South Africa are meekly deferential to the government, as indeed they were to the old apartheid regime, which they served as paid administrators of the Bantustan system.
Since liberation, they have dutifully herded their subjects to the polls to vote for the African National Congress (ANC), in return for which the government has rewarded them by keeping traditional powers in their hands. For one of them to step out of line now must come as a shock to Zuma and the ANC.
Of course, the individual concerned, Paramount Chief Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo of the Tembu, has some clouds of his own hanging over his head.
He is well known to be a heavy dagga smoker, although that is more a tradition than a crime in our country. More seriously, he has a conviction of culpable homicide involving the death of a villager in his area awaiting the hearing of an appeal.
But that aside, Dalindyebo’s sudden emergence as an outspoken critic of Zuma’s leadership and the ANC in general poses a significant threat to the ruling alliance.
He is an influential figure as the king of the largest tribe among the Xhosa-speaking people of the Eastern Cape, which is the traditional heartland of the ANC, but where its support is now on the decline after years of maladministration and deepening poverty.
Depending on how Dalindyebo plays his cards — he has said he may vote and perhaps even campaign for the Democratic Alliance (DA) in next year’s elections — he could conceivably turn the Eastern Cape into a marginal province.
At the very least, his support would surely be enough to enable the opposition to win the province’s main metropolitan centre, the emblematically named Nelson Mandela Bay Council, which encompasses the city of Port Elizabeth, the nearby towns of Uitenhage and Despatch, as well as surrounding rural areas in the next local government elections in 2016. In 2011, the DA came within a hair’s-breadth of winning the council, gaining 49% of the votes to the ANC’s 51%.
Such a coup would be a huge psychological blow for the ANC.
What makes Dalindyebo such a potentially potent political figure is not only his status as the royal head of the Eastern Cape’s biggest tribe, but the fact that he and his forebears are the most closely connected of all traditional leaders to the ANC, which likens the king’s actions to the breaking of an umbilical cord.
Mandela is Dalindyebo’s great-uncle, while the king is in turn the political icon’s monarch. They are also near neighbours: the king’s Great Place, Bumbane, is a stone’s throw from Mandela’s rural home at Qunu.
More important still are Dalindyebo’s immediate family connections to the ANC.
His father and predecessor as king of the Tembu, Sabata Dalindyebo, was acknowledged by the ANC as a hero of the struggle against apartheid. This was because of a brave but ultimately futile struggle that he put up trying to block the government of Hendrik Verwoerd from establishing the Transkei as its first black “homeland”.
This eventually resulted in King Sabata fleeing the country and taking refuge with the ANC at its exile headquarters in Lusaka — where then ANC leader Oliver Tambo honoured him by making him an “elder” of the ANC.
Sabata took his young son with him to the ANC headquarters and gave him the name Buyelekhaya, which is Xhosa for “go back home”. Which the present king duly did to assume his father’s throne after liberation, Sabata himself having died in exile in 1986.
I knew Sabata well during his campaign against apartheid.
As political correspondent at the Rand Daily Mail, I travelled to Bombeni to meet him and later covered a session of the Transkei Territorial Authority at which he tried to defeat the government’s plans to put the Transkei on the road to becoming its first black Bantustan.
This brought him into conflict with his cousin, Kaiser Matanzima. As a Fort Hare graduate, Matanzima was the better educated of the two, but having been born of a lesser wife he was junior to Sabata in the tribal hierarchy — which galled him. He hated Sabata and sought to cut him down.
I watched them clash in that tribal assembly. It was a painful sight.
With Pretoria’s help, the artful Matanzima was easily able to outwit the brave but unequal Sabata, who became entangled and confused in the web of procedural trickery spun for him.
To reward their man for his victory, the government recognised a significant portion of the Tembu, called the Emigrant Tembu, as a separate tribe and made Matanzima its paramount chief — thus putting him on an equal footing with Sabata.
Sabata’s resistance to this erosion of his authority thrust him into direct conflict with the government.
Backed by Paramount Chief Victor Poto of the Western Pondo, he formed a political party to fight Matanzima’s plans for Transkei’s independence, but again he was defeated, and the process was duly completed in 1979.
Once Matanzima was president of the Transkei, he set out ruthlessly to crush Sabata. He had inserted a clause in the “homeland’s” constitution that made it a crime to “injure the dignity of the president” (ironically, very similar to the clause Zuma seems eager to have inserted into South Africa’s constitution).
When Sabata made a speech in 1979 attacking Matanzima for accepting Transkei independence on Pretoria’s terms, he was charged and convicted under this clause.
It was then that Sabata fled the country, taking his wife, Beatrice, and 13-year-old son with him.
So it was that Buyelekhaya grew up and was educated in Lusaka under the protective hand of the ANC.
This is the man who has now turned on the ANC, which he accuses of having betrayed the legacy of Mandela and become corrupt under Zuma’s leadership.
In a speech last week to Tembu chiefs, elders and clergy, that echoed the same themes as “sushi king” Kenny Kunene set out in his now famous open letter to Zuma, Dalindyebo berated the president for his relationship with the Gupta family, describing the ANC as “corrupt hooligans” who were eating out of the Guptas’ dustbins.
“You have been corrupted by rich people,” he said. He no longer wanted to be under the ANC government because of the credentials of its leader.
“If the ANC continues to govern the country for the next 10 years,” he told his Bombela audience, then you should know that your freedom will be compromised.
“They should be out of power within the next six years, if not at the next election. Let’s take them out democratically.”
This is astonishing stuff coming from the son of a man who was honoured as an “elder” of the movement for his role in the struggle.
And he is blaming Zuma — personally — for the corruption that has caused his disillusionment.
• Sparks is former editor of the Rand Daily Mail.