David Smith
David Smith

In praise of an ex-dictator

I have been listening to Bantu Holomisa speak for the past 21 years. On Thursday night I heard him again at the University of Johannesburg. Attendees were told that the Major General would deliver a lecture on his initiative to include a question about citizens’ views on constituency representation in the election manifestos of political parties as well as the realignment of opposition politics and the implications of violence from the ANC.

It didn’t sound like it had the makings of a riveting evening, but I knew better. Holomisa is not a man who minces his words, and the roughly two hours spent in UJ’s brand-new council chambers passed, for me, in any case, as fast as a new James Bond film, with a similar feel-good factor tagged on at the end.

Although recognising that his chances of becoming president next year are to the left of zero, Holomisa, with his characteristic eloquent simplicity, put forward solutions, as he sees them, to some of the current ills facing South Africa. He’s not a proponent of complex plans to retool the economy and create commissions of inquiry into how globalisation is preventing honest workers from affording food to put on the table. No, it’s much simpler than that — put the right person in the right job in both the government and the private sector, a person with the skills to do the job. If the skills aren’t available, train them.

On crime, the needs are similar — the people in charge of policing and security need to come from a background that has nurtured them in these very skills. If police are proud of what they do, and can look up to senior management for guidance and with respect, it is more than likely that the same respect will filter down to the people on the ground who desperately need their services.

And how about food production? I don’t need to tell you how every trip to the supermarket digs a deeper hole in the pocket. Yes, rising petrol prices are partially to blame, but so is government policy. Providing his audience with a lightning-speed course in economics 101, Holomisa pointed out the need for more, not fewer, subsidies to farmers. He correctly reminded us that pro-free-trade Americans are still providing big subsidies to farmers across the US, as are many European countries, especially France. Since farm subsidies have been cut in South Africa, vast tracts of agricultural land have been turned into game farms, Holomisa argues. It’s not hard to figure out what that does to prices in your local fruit and vegetable shop.

The man speaks common sense. He’s a no-nonsense guy, and I’ve listened to and watched from the sidelines long enough to know that he means what he says and does what he says he will do. If only he were in a position of greater power!

I’m not trying to write an anti-ANC sort of piece. I’ve always thought that Bantu Holomisa represents the best of what I believed the ANC was created to be and is supposed to be. It didn’t work out for him within the party but he has remained true to his principles throughout.

Allow me a moment for a flashback.

The first time I heard Holomisa speak was in December 1987, the day he overthrew then Transkei prime minister Stella Sigcau. I heard him speak that day because I had him at the other end of a telephone line. The Major General, undoubtedly still wearing military fatigues, was in the Botha-Sigcau building in Umtata. I was in the newsroom of the now-defunct Capital Radio in the bowels of what had been the Milpark Galleries shopping centre in Johannesburg (today what was the newsroom is part of an underground parking garage for a new apartment complex across the street from the 44 Stanley shopping precinct).

My job was to call up the new military leader and ask him why he did it. What Holomisa may not have known at the time of the phone call was that he had just inherited the radio station to which he was giving the interview. But that’s another story.

On the phone, in a style similar to Graham Greene, Bantu Holomisa is a man of few adjectives; he got straight to the point: “I took over in Transkei to rid the homeland of corruption and racism and to prepare the ground for reintegration into the rest of South Africa.” Or at least they were words to that effect. The rest is history; but a history worth remembering.

Before De Klerk unbanned the ANC, Holomisa, true to his word, created what could be called the first liberated zone in South Africa. He unbanned the ANC and the PAC, and provided both organisations with material and logistical support.

Jump ahead to last month and Bantu Holomisa is the master of ceremonies at the 90th birthday celebrations of Nelson Mandela at Madiba’s Transkei home in Qunu. It was this so-called outcast of the ANC who, he told us, brought Mbeki, Zuma and Madiba together under the marquis for a rare moment of peace on what was predominantly a day of joy, where political differences were, for the most part, checked at the gate.

I’ve watched Bantu Holomisa work for a better life for all in South Africa for more than two decades. I am sceptical and suspicious of most politicians — not just South African politicians, but politicians full-stop. However, it’s nice to pull out a cliché every now and then — there are always exceptions to the rule