Guest Column

Chabane 'a no-nonsense straight talker'

2015-03-19 09:23

Mathatha Tsedu

Collins “General” Chabane was as unconventional and informal as he was a straight talker.

He was unconventional in that he was as much at ease on stage belting out some complicated mbira music, as he was in front of a battery of microphones marshalling the logistics of the world’s biggest funeral, that of for Nelson Mandela.

He was casual in that while he would be smart in a suit and tie, you would also find him comfortable in his casuals, looking ordinary, with no airs about being a cabinet minister. He was comfortable in his African skin and proud to be so.

But he brooked no nonsense. Around June 2011 I led a South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) delegation to see Chabane, then minister in the presidency in charge of Government Communication Information System (GCIS), among other things. Sanef had requested the meeting to discuss controversial pronouncements by the then GCIS CEO Jimmy Manyi.

Manyi had said the government was going to centralise all advertising through GCIS and added that placement of government advertising would go to media houses that “are helping us to ensure the content gets to where it must get”.

He had added for effect: “I see my boss, Mr (Collins) Chabane, has been well reported, so keep on doing that, then we will be friends.” A storm had broken out following these statements.

It was a difficult meeting and Chabane, after listening to our complaint, asked Manyi to explain in his own words what he had meant.

When Manyi was done, Chabane told him in our presence that by Manyi’s own account, our interpretation of his statement was correct. But Chabane went further, giving Manyi a dressing down and indicating that the explanation he had just given was a misrepresentation of the cabinet decision to centralise advertising.

He told Manyi the government was not about to use its advertising muscle to interfere with the editorial independence of media. Manyi left GCIS just over a year after that meeting.

Of course, the fact that Manyi is back at GCIS speaks more about the difference in approaches between the present minister in charge of GCIS and Chabane.

I had known Chabane in the late 1970s when he was a student at the University of the North (now Limpopo). He was part of an activist student group that included Ngoako Ramatlhodi, Oupa Molema and Iggy Mthebule (who disappeared and is believed to have been killed by apartheid forces).

During the forced removals in Botlokwa, Chabane was part of the Save Botlokwa Campaign, together with other students who would go into the community in minibuses mobilising resistance.

A few years ago, as the Limpopo government was preparing to take over the budget of the Road Agency of Limpopo (RAL) through Julius Malema’s On Point Engineering, I wrote a column bemoaning that a credible and working institution was being decimated to allow politicians to get their hands on the more than R7bn budget for RAL.

In trying to counter my argument, then MEC responsible for RAL, Pinky Kekana, produced a newsletter in which she accused me of writing lies to protect her predecessor Chabane, whom she described as my “brother-in-law”.

So I called Chabane and told him, as my wife was not his sister, it must mean that he is married to one of my three sisters, two of whom were widows. I asked him to identify which one and that since my father had died long ago, he would be owe me lobolo.

He laughed and told me he had also heard the rumour and was intending to call and ask me the same question and make the same demand about lobolo. Chabane and I were not related in any way.

It was on stage where Chabane would really come alive. It was no problem at all for him to knock off from being MEC in Limpopo and then go to practise and spend the weekend in jam sessions with local and foreign musicians, especially Zimbabweans, because his brand of music was much closer to the Zimbabwean tshingondo.

He was also unwavering in his political stance. For example, the debacle around Malamulele and its demand for a separate municipality sometimes took on a tribal tone. In this regard, as the majority of people in Malamulele are Tsonga-speaking like he was, there were some of the tribally inclined who expected him to support them.

Not Chabane. And for this his family had to be evacuated from their home after threats of attacks because he had spoken against the tribal connotation of the protest.

He would rather face the wrath of the “misguided” than succumb to their “nasty” arguments. For him, right was right and if there was an argument for service delivery at Malamulele, it should be made without resorting to ethnic cleansing.

It was the same attitude that saw him fight apartheid.

- Tsedu is the executive director of Sanef

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