The mayor of Zumaville

2012-08-11 17:58

It’s all business for the president’s eyes and ears in his hometown

The unofficial mayor of “Zumaville” admits that he lobbies government departments “hard” for money.

But he’s no bully, says Deebo Mzobe of himself as deputy chairperson of the Masibambisane Rural Development Initiative.

Masibambisane is in the limelight over a R2 billion project on the doorstep of President Jacob Zuma’s homestead at Nxamalala, Nkandla, dubbed Zumaville.

The project has attracted criticism in the past two weeks from Zuma’s opponents, who accuse him of using a private initiative, funded mainly by government departments, to develop his hometown and win support ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in December.

Mzobe, who has managed to stay out of the limelight, agreed to be interviewed by City Press this week.

“I’m always trying to stay behind the scenes, in the background, avoiding you guys,” says Mzobe (40).

The overalls and wellies seem a million miles away as Mzobe, all designer jacket and shirt, whipcord pants and pointy biscuit-coloured BEE shoes, traces the history of Masibambisane.

“We lobby hard, yes. What is wrong with making sure somebody keeps their promise? We lobby business (Patrice Motsepe and Old Mutual are among Masibambisane’s benefactors) as well. That is what we do.”

A distant relative of Zuma’s (the president’s mother is also Mzobe), Mzobe started off selling wood in Eshowe before moving to Durban and getting involved in “a lot of things” and eventually entering the construction industry, “which feeds my children”.

Like the head of state, Mzobe believes in polygamy and plans to marry his three fiancées next year.

Something of an ideas man whose history nobody in KwaZulu-Natal political circles seems to know much about, Mzobe can also talk for hours without giving anything away – another trait he shares with Zuma, whom he says “has me working 24 hours” to get development projects off the ground.

Masibambisane (loosely translated as “working together”) is a non-profit organisation founded in Nkandla by Mzobe, Zuma and traditional and community leaders to lobby government and business and channel development funding into the community.

Zumaville, its latest brainchild, has sparked fresh controversy.

The Masibambisane model, Mzobe says, comes from his own family experience, based on the Zulu tradition of ilimo, where community members pitch in and put together resources to build, plant, weed or harvest, eventually servicing every homestead.

Although Mzobe lives in Mbongolwane (which falls under Umlalazi) Zuma heard about what he was doing, liked it and wanted to know more.

Mzobe says that after explaining the model, Zuma asked him to present to nine amakhosi (chiefs) at Nkandla who already were part of a development forum and replicate the model.

“We have been pushing development, getting funding, lobbying government departments. We will get funding from the private sector for tractors, government will put something in and amakhosi put in land on behalf of communities.

“This way we can produce food for people and animal feed from the byproducts. People can have food and make some money if we (go through the) process.”

Mzobe says he was asked by the department of agriculture to give a presentation on the model, which was accepted and which government wants to roll out elsewhere.

“Rural communities hear about this and they want it. I am all over the place – Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga – being asked to assist and accommodate people. This is hard work. It costs me business as I don’t have the time to deal with my own business interests,” he says.

Zumaville, he says, came from the realisation that locals were spending the little money they had up to 50km away – at Eshowe, Melmoth or Kranskop – and that services needed to be consolidated and improved.

“We started talking about this and got funding for a consultant to assist with a plan and a feasibility study. We took the plan to rural development and they liked it. We’re now chasing investors. We need to make sure that the project is kept busy, that there is activity to sustain it,” Mzobe says.

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