The domestic worker’s son

2008-10-29 00:00

Some people pack so much into one lifetime that it can be tiring just to listen to them talk about it.

A life like that surely deserves to be recorded.

Someone who has lived such a life and is, indeed, writing a book, is Siphiwe Gwala, the uMgungundlovu District Municipality strategic executive manager: community services.

Gwala was born in 1948, the same year as the Nationalists came to power and created their notorious apartheid policy. He smiles proudly when he mentions several other well-known figures born in the same year: King Goodwill Zwelithini, Premier S’bu Ndebele and the Speaker of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature, Willies Mchunu. Unlike the racist doctrine, Gwala has not only survived but gone on to thrive and make his mark in fields as diverse as local politics, health, sport and the prison service.

Gwala’s life is summed up by how he wants to be remembered: “As a person who came from a humble background and worked for the nation as an activist in social and political life.”

Like so many of his and previous generations, Gwala became an activist in response to his experience of racism. He has many stories to tell of discrimination, like being banished from the “white” section of the Wembley bus and, as a young adult, eating leftovers and sleeping in the back of a van while white colleagues stayed in hotels.

Gwala says his political education only really began at high school. Born in KwaMachibisa, Edendale, he was the only surviving child of a single mother, Minah, uMaZuma, who was a domestic worker earning £3 a month. Their life was “nomadic”, moving from one rented back room to another, with young Gwala attending several schools. At one stage he lived with his grandmother, uMaZondi, in Esigodini and later with the family of his late uncle, Anton Mbeje, in Sobantu.

In spite of this constant moving, and running away from school when he was 10, Gwala managed to pass his junior certificate (Standard 8) when he was 17, and won a merit bursary from the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) to study at a college of his choice. He attained his matric at Inkamana Roman Catholic Mission High School in Vryheid in 1967. It was there that he learnt about the freedom struggle from some of the more worldly-wise pupils from Swaziland and Johannesburg. Their discussions occurred on a neglected tennis court in the short break between supper and study period every evening. Gwala became “imbued with enmity towards white South Africans. I remember being excited that year when I heard that Verwoerd had been stabbed. And then in 1972, I met Baba Harry Gwala [no relation] and my formal political education began. I used to spend a lot of time with him, one-on-one, and he taught me and conscientised me, especially about communism.”

His antagonism to whites only dissipated in 1988 when he realised that “all races were suffering, not just blacks. I imagined what it must be like to be a white child cared for by a black domestic worker, like a foster mother, until adolescence came. And then suddenly you are told that blacks are devilish and dangerous. That must make white children suffer psychologically. Maybe we were suffering, but white young people of our age were brainwashed to believe in racism.”

After school, Gwala was unable to study medicine because he had not studied maths, so he opted for something as close as possible. He concedes that it was an unusual choice for a young Zulu male, and admits he was sometimes laughed at when asked what he did and he answered: “I am a psychiatric male nurse.” He qualified with a certificate in psychiatric nursing from Madadeni Hospital College in Newcastle in 1971. He worked in this field for 10 years, before an experience changed the course of his career.

Gwala becomes quiet as he recounts the story: “Because you work with psychiatric patients, you develop preconceived ideas and assumptions about them. We had a patient who kept vomiting and complaining of pain, but we did not believe he was ill, just pretending. Eventually he died of stomach cancer, an unnecessary and preventable death. This had a great impact on me and I decided to switch to general nursing.” He completed a diploma in general nursing, arts and science in 1983 at Edendale College of Nursing.

This career change saw him find his way into the prison service in 1985 to work in the hospital in the old Pietermaritzburg prison in Burger Street. He tells of the kind of discrimination he encountered there: “To go to the ‘non-white’ toilet I had to walk a long way, when the whites’ toilet was right next to the hospital. I had an illegal key cut and the very first time I used the toilet, the colonel walked in and found me. He threatened to discipline me if I didn’t hand over the key.”

Gwala describes his move to the prison service as “infiltration”. “Many detainees were held without trial in the prison, so the ANC gave me the job of ensuring that they were well treated. I used to carry messages between prisoners and the outside. I was never caught, although I think the authorities began to suspect something by the late eighties.” He was also a founder of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) in 1989 and worked with Gregory Rockman, Zwi Mdletshe, Russell Ngubo and others.

Gwala talks proudly of his family life, which, although not without difficulties, has given him great pleasure. He became a father in 1965 at 17. Angry, his mother refused to pay for further education and made him go out to work before he discovered he had won the SAIRR bursary. The mother of his daughter became his first wife, with whom he also had three sons. They divorced, and in 1983 he married Thembi Ngcobo, a senior professional nurse at Fort Napier, who was medically boarded in 1998. They have two children, Thuthuka and Nandi.

Like that struggle icon Nelson Mandela, Gwala was also a keen boxer. He started to box at the Edendale YMCA in 1963 under the late champion Joe “Axe Killer” Ngidi. He fought 131 amateur fights and represented Natal in the lightweight division at the SA Games in 1970 before qualifying as a professional boxer in 1971. However, he was forced to choose between nursing and boxing, so he gave up fighting to manage other professional boxers.

Gwala prides himself on being “a perpetual student”. He holds a postgraduate diploma in marketing management and completed an Honours degree in criminology from the University of South Africa (UNISA) earlier this year. He is also a keen vegetable gardener, but that story will have to wait for his book.

He is busy with the first chapter of his memoirs, which have the working title A Cadre with Hidden Commissars. He plans to write five chapters. However, given how much he has already crammed into his life, by the time he comes to write chapter five, he will have done so much more that another whole chapter will probably be necessary. Perhaps even two.

Political life

Siphiwe Gwala is perhaps best known for his involvement in local politics. He was one of the first people elected as a municipal councillor in 1995 and served as Mayor of the Pietermaritzburg-Msunduzi Transitional Local Council from 1997 to 2000. The ANC then deployed him as Speaker of the Umgungundlovu District Municipality from 2000 to 2003. He took up his current post in 2003. Since December 2007 he has also been the South African Communist Party Provincial Treasurer.

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