Newsmaker – Sadtu man goes to war

2014-06-08 15:00

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Mbuyiseni Mathonsi is every inch the political knuckle artist as he grips the podium and tears into City Press, dissident union members and the department of education at a media briefing on the sixth floor of the Saantha Naidu Group’s garish Coastlands conference centre perched on Durban’s ridge.

Mathonsi, KwaZulu-Natal secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), lives up to his reputation as a street fighter as he puts the boot in.

More at home leading marches than teaching pupils, the flamboyant 44-year-old full-time site steward is expected to stand for a third term at Sadtu’s KwaZulu-Natal congress next month.

Right now, he’s enraged by City Press’ revelations about an alleged jobs-for-cash racket run by Sadtu members in the education department.

The stories, he rants, are part of a racist agenda by the newspaper to undermine the transformation of education.

“To City Press and its white leading journalist, only white promotion processes should be considered credible.

“This journalist is yet to investigate the real corruption in the promotion processes in white schools where principals are being parachuted from as far away as Cape Town, just because they are white males and can play rugby,” he roars.

Mathonsi also puts the “chaotic and unprofessional” department of education “on terms”.

He is promising a mass-action campaign from next week over a list of demands, including the payment of Grade R teachers who have been unpaid since last December.

Turning his attention to dissident Sadtu members from the Eastern Cape who threatened to march to Sadtu headquarters at Matthew Goniwe House in central Joburg, Mathonsi issues a somewhat chilling warning.

He says he and Sadtu KwaZulu-Natal, the union’s biggest province, will be “patiently waiting for them with a view to defend our head office, our union and our constitution”.

He stabs the air with a beefy finger as he drives home each point.

The former deputy principal, who is also the KwaZulu-Natal SA Communist Party treasurer, comes with a reputation as a serious political brawler.

He is known by his enemies on Cosatu’s provincial executive committee as a “bulldozer’’ for the pro-Zuma faction in the labour federation.

A provincial leader of another Cosatu affiliate says: “Mathonsi’s a bulldozer for [Cosatu president] S’dumo Dlamini in Sadtu and in Cosatu.

“He’s clumsy and can say anything, but is very good at pushing what they want.

“Mathonsi is a bulldog.”

A Sadtu branch leader from eThekwini south, Mathonsi’s current region, describes the provincial secretary as “brilliant” in the manner in which he has consolidated control of the union during his tenure.

“Nobhala (which means secretary) is a master at making sure his people are in a position to vote at the right time and that his opponents are dealt with.

“The man runs a very tight operation. He is a very charismatic, very charming leader who will do whatever he has to do to get his way,” adds the Sadtu leader.

The coming weeks might see Mathonsi take his membership on to the streets again to enforce Sadtu’s demands, a route it has taken frequently during his six years in office.

Mathonsi’s move to provincial secretary followed a stint as the chairperson of eThekwini south, one of Sadtu’s most powerful regions.

He missed the cut for the ANC’s 2014 intake for the provincial and national legislature despite making the consolidated list, a nomination he told City Press this week he had “never asked for”.

In an interview after the briefing, Mathonsi is unapologetic about playing the race card.

“How would you have responded?’” he asks.

The Dannhauser-born University of Durban-Westville graduate is also coy about his ambitions for a third term.

He says he will only decide on his “availability” if he is nominated by a caucus.

Mathonsi, with Durban lawyer Comfort Ngidi, is a frontman for Concerned Lawyers and Educationists for Equality before the Law, the lobby group that plans to go to court to challenge Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s findings against President Jacob Zuma over the security upgrades to his Nkandla home.

He has also led Sadtu marches in defence of Zuma.

In 2011, Sadtu was ordered to pay R80?000 and issue a written apology to Amanda Burdett, the former programme manager at the Moses Kotane Institute, who took Mathonsi and the union to the Durban Equality Court for likening her to apartheid chemical weapons expert Wouter Basson.

In a letter to then KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize, Mathonsi accused Burdett and the institute’s head of academics, Terry Davies, of poisoning black children with expired juice and said they were racist.

Magistrate JV Sanders found Mathonsi guilty of hate speech, but held the union, and not him, financially responsible.

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