Zweli Mkhize: Doctor, farmer … storyteller

2009-04-05 00:00

Consummate storyteller is another notch that Dr Zweli Lawrence Mkhize, ANC provincial leader and Finance and Economic Development MEC can add to his long list of accomplishments. Finding out about the man behind the politician made for riveting listening.

There I was, late on Friday afternoon, ensconced in the corporate splendour of the KZN Trade and Industry boardroom.

In an hour that seemed too short, I imagined myself sitting under an acacia tree being regaled by stories of colourful characters, of extraordinary strength in the face of adversity and of family love.

All of this peppered with a good dash of humour at the absurdities of growing up in apartheid South Africa.

Mkhize, the fifth child in a family of seven, grew up in a family of labour tenants in Willowfountain, Pietermaritzburg.

His is a typical South African story, but extraordinary intelligence and the sacrifices of his older brothers saw him accomplish what was denied to many of his generation. He had a chance at a formal education which saw him graduate as a medical doctor from the University of Natal.

The rule was that families were given a piece of land to keep their cattle on — in exchange they had to work for the farmer for part of the year or else pay rent.

As soon as the boys in the family reached the age of 14, or appeared tall enough, they had to spend six months working on the farm.

This was the fate of Mkhize’s two elder brothers who, despite being away from their classrooms for six months in the year, still managed to come out top in their classes.

However, the family’s fate was sealed when one of the brothers, through careful mathematical calculation and the help of friends, managed to outwit the farmer over the digging of a trench.

Even though the entire trench was dug to the correct depth in a much shorter space of time, the farmer refused to be outdone and insisted that his trench digger sit it out and wait for the time he allotted to lapse.

This lead to an altercation that saw the family having to pay rent.

Mkhize’s father ended up working in the Pietermartizburg Corporation parks department and the brothers, who were working by now, decided that their younger sibling was not going to share their fate and become a farm hand.

He was sent off to school in Sobantu where he ended up in the classroom of that matriarch of the village Vera Sikhosana.

In her life story published in The Witness in 2000, Sikhosana recalled that of the hundreds of pupils who passed through her hands, Mkhize stood out as one of her brightest students.

Reminded of this, Mkhize’s face lit up with a broad grin remembering Sikhosana’s reputation as a strict disciplinarian. “She was one of my favourite teachers, I loved her,” he said.

Discipline was a keystone in Mkhize’s upbringing. His parents, with no formal education, were considered community elders whose advice was often sought.

“My father was a descendant of the Mkhizes of Nkandla where, in the 1830s, my great grandfather was considered one of the heroes of the clan. Mindful of this legacy, my father always insisted on us respecting others and living our lives with humility and integrity.

“He used to tell us that these values were more important than any riches.”

Given the chance to complete his high school career at two prestigious schools, Ohlange in Vryheid or Dlangezwa in Zululand, Mkhize chose the latter because he found out they had no initiation rituals there.

It was a choice he does not regret, because it was there that he met his future wife, Dr May Mashego. He quickly adds that they were friends then and keen competitors, and that May managed to beat all the boys in the class hands down in most tests.

They both ended up in medical school and so began a lifelong partnership and friendship. They served on many committees together and were on the SRC. Today, Mkhize considers talking to his wife at the end of a long day his best form of relaxation.

Just as Mkhize’s story settles into a steady pace, he throws in another delicious morsel.

The reason he became an activist was because of the extraordinary antics of one of Pietermaritzburg’s most colourful eccentrics, the late D.C.O. Matiwane, who was a perpetual irritant to the local police and their special branch unit.

Matiwane often arrived in town dressed in a well-worn suit that was pinned with pamphlets and press cuttings from back to front and down the sleeves. He conducted his own one-man protests and was arrested more times than anyone could count.

He would end up in court where he would conduct his own defence and, according to Mkhize, was one of the few individuals who managed to win a lawsuit against minister of Police, Louis le Grange, and was awarded the princely sum of R5 000.

Matiwane spoke the Queen’s English like an Oxford don and spoke Latin as if it was his second language.

“Did you know his full names were David Cecil Oxford Matiwane,” said Mkhize, “and whenever he saw us he would sprout the Latin saying Vita sine libris mors est — life without books is death. He adapted it to ‘the life of man without education is death’.”

Mkhize recalls Matiwane being charged with distributing political pamphlets: “He told the police he was engaged in earnest prayer with his eyes firmly closed, so how could he be blamed if people were helping themselves to his belongings”.

However, for an impressionable youth growing up in Willowfountain, one of the most powerful sights was seeing Matiwane being transported home by a convoy of police vehicles after one of his many city centre protests.

“The dust had hardly settled on the retreating backs of the police cars when Matiwane would hop onto the next bus and head back to town, Mkhize recalled.

This courage of one’s convictions, unstinting belief in a cause and the old stalwarts sharing his love for books and reading remains a defining, life-enriching experience for Mkhize.

He may love the past, but he says his three children keep him firmly grounded in the present. They have introduced him to the interactive website Facebook and fostered a love for modern music by rising young stars like Ringo, Simphiwe Dana and Siphokazi.

Mkhize’s eldest daughter, Naledi, who studied journalism at Rhodes, is completing a doctorate in history at the University of Cape Town.

His second daughter, Nokulinda, who has a politics degree, is also a qualified sangoma, and his youngest son, Dedani, who was born while the family lived in exile, is studying a business management course.

Mkhize has managed to engage his children in his many activities and they are active advisers in his electioneering campaign, reminding him of what young people want.

Mkhize still nurtures a love for medicine and misses the one-on-one interactions he had with patients.

However, politics and making South Africa a better place remains his passion and when he feels it is time to retire he will take on his next best love — full-time farming. “I can’t wait,” he says, “I want to spend my time in the thornveld, breeding nguni cows and goats.”

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