Newsmaker – Annette Combrink: Tlokwe's Iron Ouma

2013-07-07 14:00

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Mayor Combrink is every bit the matriarch who commands authority

Heads turn in the streets of Potchefstroom when its unlikely second-time mayor, DA councillor Annette Combrink, drives past in her battered grey Volkswagen Passat.

She refuses to use the new mayoral R800 000 Mercedes and drives herself in her nine-year-old car.

Speed bumps and gravel roads slow the car down in the formerly black and coloured areas of Ikageng and Promosa, and Combrink is greeted with terms of endearment – shouts of “tannie” (auntie), “ouma” (grandmother) and “ke mama wa rona” (our mother).

Some even call her “oumies” (old madam), while her detractors in the ANC sometimes call her by the more derogatory term “miesies”.

She claims the ousted ANC mayor, Maphetle Maphetle, cannot drive in these areas without getting his luxury car stoned.

On the pavement of Die Bult, the old academic part of Potchefstroom, white people stop to congratulate her or ask her advice. They call her “Prof”.

Combrink is every bit the matriarch who commands authority.

She was left with three young children after her first husband died. Her second husband, who died last year after 29 years of marriage, came with five kids of his own.

Some of her children now live with her in a family compound of sorts on a smallholding just out of town, next to the Mooi River.

Many of her former English students – she lectured in the subject for three decades at Northwest University – say they feared her. Somewhat surprised, Combrink admits she never had trouble with discipline in her classes.

“I asked my daughter about this the other day and I said to her, ‘but I never gave you hidings’. But she said to me, ‘Ma, it was the way you looked at us – with hairy eyeballs’.”

Combrink went into what she thought was a retirement job at the university’s international office as Director: International Liaison and Institutional Advancement after a five-year stint from 2004 to 2009 as the university’s rector on the Potch campus. It was the highest position a woman has held in this former bastion of Christian National Education.

She joined the DA after she retired and got a position on the Tlokwe council after the 2011 local elections.

She never imagined that she would become mayor.

Last year, when the possibility of ousting Maphetle was first discussed, the DA caucus decided she would be the party’s mayoral candidate because she had a high public profile. “I agreed because it was so far in the realm of the improbable,” she said.

Late last year, she wasn’t even at the council meeting where she was voted in as mayor for a three-month stint with the help of rebel ANC councillors.

The councillors were later reined in by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and President Jacob Zuma, but this week they rebelled again when suddenly faced with disciplinary action and the threat of being axed.

Although Combrink can see the humour in the current situation, which she said was carefully plotted in Die Akker, a student restaurant on Die Bult, she is very serious about her task.

“We hope that the DA will be in power here until (the next local elections in) 2016 and that we will win the elections then,” she says.

The opposition currently has 22 of the 52 seats in council and needs only five to dominate, something that could happen if the fired ANC ward councillors are re-elected in by-elections as independent candidates.

They have vowed to side with the opposition.

Aged 68, Combrink is as energetic as her party leader, Helen Zille, six years her junior, but somewhat less of a party animal – in the political sense. It’s known in the party that Combrink and Zille have had their differences in the past.

Although Combrink agrees with the DA’s principles and policies, she says, “For me it’s not so much about the DA as it is about Potch”, a city in which she has lived for 50 years.

Combrink always held liberal views. Out of defiance against the apartheid system, she did not vote until 1994.

In 1989 she was one of a group of academics who met with the ANC in Lusaka at a time when this was frowned upon by conservative Potchefstroomers.

This struggle background now works in her favour. When asked whether he thought her a capable mayor, one of the rebel ANC councillors sheepishly admitted she was acceptable, despite being from the DA because “she’s from the struggle underground”.

Combrink says it feels strange to be mayor, but she’s already planning ways to improve the town – and she seems to have support on the ground.

She proudly tells the story of how a pedestrian interpreted the number plate of her modest car. “The other day a black guy stopped me in the road and said to me, ‘You know what FGG stands for? It’s for good governance’.”

Combrink says she hopes to live up to his and other residents’ expectations.

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