Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma recently lost the presidential race of the ANC to Cyril Ramaphosa.
Her problematic choice in allies, constituencies and political positions in that campaign are part of
a broader narrative of the toxic and tortured path that South Africa has taken.
Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was the ninth member elected to the African National Congress’
National Executive Committee (NEC), the powerful body that recalled President Jacob Zuma.
When I first researched her in 2015, there were no books written on Dlamini-Zuma. There was a
flurry of news about the possibility of Dlamini-Zuma as the next president of the ANC and South
Africa. Reporters and analysts were beginning to debate her time as Minister of Health, Foreign
Affairs, and Home Affairs.
There was much, frequently sexist, discussion and reference to her being an ex-wife of President
Jacob Zuma. She was not being read as an intellectual, with ideas and principles of her own. As
such, I selected her as the subject of my intellectual biography submission in my History of
Africana Intellectualism course.
I concluded that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is a leader in an ANC and an AU that are struggling to
bearup under the weight of their own contradictions and the challenges in their respective jurisdictions.
Neither will be transformed under her watch. She is, however, a pragmatic and dedicated intellectual
who has been staunch in her pursuit of both a South Africa and an Africa that is “at peace with itself”
When I first wrote about her I had to dig for information. Since then many articles were published after
her presidential campaign began in earnest, as well as a single book, Woman in the Wings and the
Race for the Presidency, by Carien du Plessis. Yet Dlamini-Zuma’s backstory remains critically untold.
She was the young South African medical student who went into exile the year before completing her
degree, and then became the Minister of Health under whom free healthcare for children under six and
pregnant women was announced. She was the young Black Consciousness activist who escaped police
capture by moving from room to room in men’s university hostels and became the Minister of Foreign
Affairs who oversaw the formation of the African Union and the implementation of the African
Renaissance; the scholar who saw her history teacher humiliated because he was black and, as its
president, played a central role in drafting the final declaration of the United Nations 2001 World
Conference on Racism.
I had researched and written about her dual callings in exile – as a doctor and an activist in the ANC – and her career post-1994. One of the successes she achieved was when she pioneered and pushed through Parliament, against huge opposition, one of the most progressive pieces of anti-smoking legislation in the world.
In 2017, in stark contrast, Jacques Paauw alleged in The President’s Keepers that her campaign received contributions from cigarette smuggler Adriano Mazzotti. Carl Niehaus, an unofficial spokesperson for her campaign who himself resigned from the ANC eight years ago after confessing to fraud, denied that they knew each other. The Sunday Times has photographs of them together. The ANC’s Umkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association and the Women’s League were two of Dlamini-Zuma’s most ardent sources of support. They deployed divisive, destructive and vitriolic rhetoric in doing so. She embraced their support.
When I first researched Dlamini-Zuma she was chairperson of the African Union Commission. As a country we had just lived through the first wave of the #FeesMustFall protests. Personally, as a student, a young South African and a member of the Black Student Movement at the university currently known as Rhodes, I was disillusioned and furious with the people who claimed to be my leaders. It was my last submission, maniacally written in the two weeks after the national shutdown ended. And it was honestly inspiring - to remember that the current generation of national and continental leaders had a real history of struggle and activism, instead of wielding ‘struggle credentials’ as a weapon to silence the youth.
Nkosazana Dlamini was the oldest of Willibrod and Rose Dlamini’s eight children. Willibrod cared about education – he was a Catholic schoolteacher in KwaZulu-Natal. While he believed that it was important for all his children to be educated, Dlamini-Zuma told The Politician in 2013 that he told them that if he had to choose, the girls would be educated because inheritance traditionally goes to the oldest boy and, “Your education will not go to the eldest boy. It will be yours until you die.” As Dlamini-Zuma told a gathering organised by Poplar Women on the Frontline in Gauteng, “I don’t want my daughter to stay in a bad marriage for shelter and food.” Dlamini-Zuma has explicitly stated that growing up in a household where “women and girls were taken seriously” had shaped her life.
It was her father who persuaded her to become a doctor. She wanted to be a lawyer. As she says, “I never dreamed as a child of being in government or in Parliament because that avenue was not open to us.” She was sent to Amanzimtoti Training College where she was a prefect and a volunteer in a blood transfusion programme. A mission school that consisted of a high school, an industrial school and a teachers’ training college, it already had an impressive list of alumni including Reverend John Dube (who would become the first President of the ANC), Epainette Mbeki, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and Inkosi Albert Luthuli.
Previously known as the Amanzimtoti Institute and then Adams College, it was renamed Amanzimtoti Training College by the 1953 Bantu Education Act and the teacher’s training
college was shut down. Dlamini-Zuma has repeatedly described an incident of racism there that deeply affected her. She had black and white teachers, with a clear hierarchy between the two that tangibly manifested in uniform, staff rooms and crockery. A beloved black history teacher arrived in her class in tears. Dlamini-Zuma describes what he told them.
There were two staffrooms, one for Africans and one for white teachers, and they had different tea sets. But the person who was making tea was the same for both. In the African staffroom he was short of one cup but he knew in the white staffroom there were more than enough – so he used his logic in non-logical country – and went upstairs, took one of the cups, and served the teachers. When he had finished drinking a white teacher took the cup and smashed it and said he wanted to make sure it never made its way up to their tea room. He was a man we all respected, and he was humiliated because he was African.
Following her matriculation in 1967, she went to the University College of Zululand, a black institution which had only started in 1960 with 41 students, 25% of whom were female. Dlamini-Zuma attained her Bachelors in Zoology and Botany in 1971. She then registered for a degree in medicine at the black Section of the Medical School at the University of Natal. In 1976, Dlamini-Zuma was elected Vice-President of the South African Students’ Organisation, the first organized expression of the Black Consciousness Movement.
Life in the ANC
In the March 1977 edition of the Southern Africa Magazine, excerpts of an interview in her capacity as Vice President of SASO appeared that were set to appear in Sechaba, the ANC’s official journal. This is because Dlamini-Zuma was also a member of the ANC underground in South Africa. Dlamini travelled as part of a university ‘sports team’ to Swaziland. There she was recruited by Thabo Mbeki. In the Sechaba interview she says, “almost everybody who leaves the country looks for the ANC. They know where to go, they know who is going to give them the necessary skills to overthrow the regime.”
In an interview conducted in the late 1980s featured in Julie Frederikse’s The Unbreakable Thread: Non-racialism in South Africa¸ Dlamini-Zuma explains why she made the decision to join the ANC, having already been a part of the Black Consciousness Movement – “I think it was important for people inside the country to find something which could motivate and rally people and put confidence again in themselves as black people. But…there’s a limit to which BC can take you, and you had to find the next step up because it was very clear to me from the beginning that BC was not going to bring the government down…and there was no other alternative except the ANC.”
She describes her task as an underground ANC member: “They didn’t want us to talk overtly – that would have been disastrous. But they did want us to influence other people that we are in contact with, those who we thought had reached a stage in BC where they wanted something else, like us.” She goes on to clarify that when she speaks about meeting or joining the ANC it does not mean that “we didn’t have any reservations. Even after having
spoken to them and appreciating the problems they were facing, we still felt that they were a bit slow. But we felt that to make them fast we had to actually help them: join the ANC and try and put our enthusiasm into the ANC.”
Of primary concern to the BC activists that Mbeki was tasked with recruiting was the ANC’s relationship with the South African Communist Party and the admission of white people into the ANC since 1969. Before she travelled to Swaziland, Dlamini recalls being warned to be careful because “’these people are known to be ‘tomatoes’. And ‘tomatoes’ was meaning ‘red’, and ‘red’ was meaning communist I think that comes from the fact that South Africans – at least our generation – have never been allowed to know what communism is. We’ve been told how bad it is without being told what it is…It was ignorance and state propaganda.”
Mbeki’s response to these questions, according to Mark Gevisser’s The Dream Deferred, was to set the students reading as he realised “this was a group of intellectually hungry students who had never had sight of either banned Marxist literature or any detailed history of the South African struggle.”
Welile Nhlapo describes this process to Mark Gevisser as follows: “He let us find the answers for ourselves.” Lindiwe Sisulu describes wanting to act and when seeking direction from the BC leadership being told “It’s a secret.” In contrast, Mbeki said: “We have got a strategy. We've got people that we have to infiltrate back into the country, we are going to have an armed struggle and the armed struggle is going to bring about liberation.”
It was based on this recruitment and education in communism that Dlamini (she had yet to meet or marry Jacob Zuma) describes the attempt to “actually introduce the subject of class and an economic programme into SASO”. This was seemingly successful – in 1977 she tells Sechaba that “the whole theme of the last SASO conference was the socio-economic structure of the country.”
By the time of the interview, Dlamini was also in exile, having escaped South Africa in September 1976 after spending weeks avoiding capture by the police. She did so by moving from room to room in the men’s hostels at the University of Natal. The nationwide riots sparked by the brutal police response to the Soweto Uprising of 16 th of June 1976 led to a severe government crackdown. Under the recently passed Internal Security Act almost every anti-apartheid leader was removed from society. When she escaped, Dlamini was the only member of the Executive of SASO not in detention.
In 2006 Dlamini-Zuma described this experience to Margie Orford and Karen Turok for their book Life and Soul: Portraits of Women who Move South Africa.
“I was on the run before I decided to go into exile. That was my transition to adult life, to
independent life, I had no idea whether I would ever come back, whether I would ever see
my family again. I was entering unknown territory. It was 1976. I was in my fifth year of
medical school, so there was just one year left to qualify as a doctor. We walked across to
Botswana; then we went to Tanzania.”
As Dlamini-Zuma explained in that 1977 interview, “(I) knew if it came to the crux I would have to
leave the country. But there was no point in leaving what I had started just for a degree. Even if I passed the degree I would still suffer the same oppression. It was a feeling that to make something of an education – or anything else – there must be a complete political change.”
Unmade by choice
This research, which is not part of the public knowledge about Dlamini-Zuma, demonstrated a
terrible truth about someone who, despite losing the ANC presidential race, remains a powerful
political leader in South Africa. Dlamini-Zuma became the face of a campaign associated with
the continuation of the morally bankrupt and corrupt leadership of President Jacob Zuma.
This was not necessarily her choice.
However, it was made possible by her campaign choices – to embrace the Women’s League
and the MKMVA’s support despite their toxic rhetoric, and their leadership by people such as
Bathabile Dlamini who has been devastatingly dismissive of the millions of people whose lives
depend on her as Minister of Social Development, and to associate herself with corrupt people
such as Carl Niehaus. Dlamini-Zuma is therefore not just one more leader who betrayed the young
Africans and South Africans she claims to represent. She betrayed the impressive, young African leader she herself once was.