Collins Chabane: A man of many parts

2015-03-22 15:00

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A rural Limpopo boy grew up to touch so many lives in SA and became more than just a politician. Xolani Mbanjwa looks at the man, the musician, the father, the husband, the revolutionary and the great leader

The National Leader

During his first three days as the new minister in the department of public service and administration in June last year, Collins Ohm Chabane went to all 13 floors and introduced himself to each staff member.

A picture of a committed public servant emerged as staff members, who were in shock over his death last weekend, recount how humble and fuss-free the man they knew as the “Cool Guy” was.

This is what set him apart from his predecessors in the department. This is also why officials in the department’s Pretoria headquarters vowed to work their hands to the bone to help achieve Chabane’s vision.

Shortly after being appointed to the department last year, Chabane told City Press of his passion to professionalise the public service and why President Jacob Zuma, with a heavy heart, redeployed him to the department.

Then, Chabane spoke about the tightrope he had to walk when he introduced a practice where new ministers would have to work with staff who were already employed in departments rather than appoint their own preferred candidates.

Five years earlier, in 2009, Chabane had been entrusted with establishing a new ministry within the presidency that would be responsible for performance, monitoring and evaluation. The task was a “heavy” one, Chabane said, and one he had to do well.

As the head of a new department in the presidency, Chabane spoke about the long hours he spent with his new team just to get the department off the ground.

“I was always anxious, and I didn’t want to wake up a year later and have the president ask me what I had done – I’d have to start explaining that I had to first look for office space and find a director-general, no one would understand that explanation. Nobody would have accepted that.

“So you try to hit the ground running, even though you don’t have the instruments to deal with that. That’s why we need departments to move as quickly as possible, but in dealing with that, you need to make sure that you’re not breaking the law because once you start by breaking the law when setting up an institution, that may be a precursor to a lot of problems.”

But his time as a member of Parliament in the National Assembly had prepared him for the biggest role of his life – being a Cabinet minister.

Selaelo Selota performs during a function in Limpopo to honour Collins Chabane

The Musician

Chabane put as much energy into his music as he did into political office, kwaai-jazz maestro Don Laka said.

Although Chabane was born for political leadership, his first love was music, said Laka, who met Chabane 15 years ago, and with whom he performed and shared a deep love for indigenous South African music.

While serving time as a prisoner on Robben Island in 1985, Chabane discovered and learnt to play the harmonica.

Ironically, both his musical and political interest peaked during that time. He pursued both interests upon his release from prison.

“He went to great lengths to learn the music and played with some of the great musicians, including Zimbabweans Thomas Mapfumo and Bezel Makombe. By showing that kind of interest, it tells you that he was a true musician. You could tell he was a great musician by his stage presence. He came alive on stage,” Laka said.

Laka believes Chabane’s music – released on two of his own albums and four other CDs with his band The Movement – would have been well-known in South Africa if broadcasters did not favour international music.

Hailed for his skill of listening and being a frank talker without being emotional, when on stage Chabane was a different person.

Laka said Chabane’s love for both politics and music was illustrated in 2010, when the minister made time in his busy schedule to leave an ANC lekgotla and go to Laka’s house, where Laka and his band were preparing to perform ahead of an album tour.

Laka said that he and the band were getting ready to go on stage, all dressed formally in suits, but Chabane – who was also in a suit – sent his driver back to the car to fetch his “day-to-day” clothes.

“He got into his red jumper top and jeans and then turned to us and said: ‘Jah, you guys can look like politicians and I will look like a musician.’ He stood out that night,” said Laka.

The Provincial Leader

When a 30-year-old Collins Chabane was released from Robben Island in 1990, after being confined with the likes of Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and Ahmed Kathrada for five years, he had no idea he would one day become a national leader.

That year, Chabane found himself among stalwarts of the apartheid struggle who were elected to the ANC’s highest decision-making body, the National Executive Committee (NEC). He remained a member of the NEC until his death in a car crash on the N1 near Polokwane in the early hours of Sunday morning.

This made Chabane one of only a handful of ANC leaders who served the 86-member committee for 25 years.

As provincial ANC secretary during the 1994 elections, Chabane led the party to one of its strongest provincial victories to date, pulling in 92% of the vote – a feat that has yet to be repeated.

After a three-year stint as an MP, where he served on four committees, including defence and intelligence, he was appointed as MEC in the then Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo), in former premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi’s cabinet in 1997.

Ramatlhodi and Chabane met in Turfloop in the late 1970s and developed a friendship that would later lead to Ramatlhodi sending Chabane into exile in 1980 for military training with Umkhonto weSizwe.

“When he left Robben Island, he never thought that he would reach the heights of political office that he did. But we knew he was made for it,” said Ramatlhodi.

Tsakani Lia Cecilia Chabane with her father at an event. Picture: Tristan McLaren / Facebook

The Father and Husband

In an emotional tribute to their father in Pretoria on Thursday, Tsakani and Matimba described Chabane as the “best friend we’ve ever had” and the best father “we could have asked for”.

Matimba shared fond memories of a man who, while placing his party and his country at the top of his list, had a close relationship with his children in spite of the hectic work of government.

“My father taught us to be appreciative of the small things we had; to be appreciative of the small and big things; to be appreciative at all times,” said Matimba.

Chabane grew up in a large family. He was the seventh of his mother Elizabeth’s 11 children. His father had 11 more children with his second wife, Johanna – which meant Chabane had 21 siblings.

Matimba said his mother, Mavis, was the “rock” of the family, looking after everyone even when Chabane was visiting far-flung areas on government business.

“To my sister and I, he was everything. He was a colleague we aspired to be. He was a friend who we dreamed of having, based on his friends commending him on his loyalty. He was a husband who we aspired to be, based on how much my mother loved him,” said Matimba.

He said that his family was still coming to grips with the shattering loss.

“My heart has not stopped weeping since Sunday,” said Matimba, as members of the Chabane-Mhinga royal family sat among 4?000 mourners at the Tshwane Events Centre.

The Revolutionary

By the time Chabane enrolled at the University of the North (Turfloop) in 1979, he was already politically inclined. He had previously been expelled from high school for organising political gatherings, which were outlawed at the time.

But it was when he joined Ramatlhodi at the university’s drama department, where they used drama to portray apartheid injustices, that Chabane came to life.

“We were using the forum to conscientise the young people at the university about apartheid and brought some of them into the underground ANC movement. He was a natural actor, and you could see it when he was on stage that he was used to the stage,” said Ramatlhodi.

Seventeen years after Ramatlhodi sent Chabane into exile in Angola, he called on Chabane to help him effect changes in the Northern Transvaal’s administration under trying circumstances.

“I relied heavily on him at the time, and on other MECs. We were going through tremendous changes in the administration at the time, and I knew he would help me effect the changes we wanted – and he did just that. I’d venture to say he was one of our finest in terms of the dedication, discipline and intellectual capacity. He had it all,” said Ramatlhodi.

In political meetings, where Ramatlhodi was ANC provincial chairperson and Chabane the provincial secretary, Chabane had a knack of winning political disagreements.

“He had this ability to listen to arguments and then rebut or support them. He was very gifted in that, and that made him a very good political organiser who would get consensus from all. He was exceptionally brilliant, very clever,” said Ramatlhodi.

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