The story of Thando Mthembu is sad, but emblematic of the descent and contamination of South Africa’s politics.
Mthembu is a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), an organisation he rejoined after a brief flirtation with the breakaway National Freedom Party (NFP). In the run-up to last year’s local government elections, which took place on August 3, he received a call from a former colleague, who had joined the NFP with Mthembu but had opted to remain there.
She requested an urgent meeting with him. At first, Mthembu was reluctant as he felt he had nothing to discuss with her. The last he heard, she held a high position in the NFP.
But after some persuasion, he agreed to meet her at Davenport Square, a mall in Durban.
What transpired when they met was the last thing he expected. The former colleague, a well-known individual, said she had joined the ANC and was living the good life.
She boasted that she was always on planes, flitting between Johannesburg and Durban, and stayed at fancy hotels.
He, too, could have this life if he crossed over to the ANC and performed some tasks, she said.
Mthembu was given the assignment of destabilising IFP and NFP structures on the south coast by aggressively recruiting their members to the ANC ahead of the elections.
Another former senior member of the IFP and NFP, who had defected to the ANC, was put on speakerphone and dangled sweet carrots in front of Mthembu.
There was lots of pressure from this individual, who was also once a prominent leader in both parties. She dangled even more carrots over the next 24 hours.
Sensing a more comfortable life ahead, Mthembu eventually agreed. He moved out of his Umlazi hostel and into a motel in a Durban suburb.
In addition to a car, he was given bodyguards to protect him from potential danger from the parties he was destabilising. He set about working hard, convincing IFP and NFP branch members about the virtues of the ANC.
Mthembu, who prides himself on being an excellent organiser, claims that in the weeks he was on assignment, he was able to deliver on his mandate.
By the time the Siyanqoba rally was held at Moses Mabhida Stadium on July 31, he delivered a dozen taxis full of enthusiastic new ANC supporters.
The handlers were pleased.
What was to happen next shocked him more than the first approach. A few days after the August 3 elections, he was given R1 000 “cooldrink” money to thank him for the great job he had done up to that point.
Further compensation would be discussed at a follow-up meeting over the coming weekend. But instead of that meeting, he was told he had to move out of his motel. The cars and bodyguards were withdrawn.
He was told for his own safety to leave Durban and move to his rural home of Izingolweni on the south coast until further notice.
Once he was in Izingolweni, his “handlers” did a vanishing job. His phone calls went unanswered and messages were not returned.
Exasperated, he turned to the ANC’s provincial leadership who, he had been told, had mandated his mission.
A senior provincial leader heard him out and asked for his CV. Then he, too, disappeared.
Mthembu is now languishing in his rural homestead, jobless and without a political home.
There is no prospect of going back to his previous employment and little chance of his being taken back by the IFP.
He has become the laughing stock of his former IFP colleagues and members of other parties. His “recruits” have turned on him, accusing him of misleading them and being untrustworthy.
“My dignity is impaired. It is painful. This has traumatised me and destroyed my faith in politics,” he says.
Mthembu has tried laying official complaints and exploring the legal route in the wake of this breach. But with no money or contract signed, and nothing in the way of a paper trail, he has almost zero prospect of success. He is at a dead end.
The betrayal of Mthembu is no different from the story of Gauteng businesswoman Sihle Bolani, who is chasing a R2.2 million payment from the ANC for services rendered during the election.
She, too, was used and dumped once she was no longer of use. Her relationship with the ANC was such that there was enough space for plausible denials by party bosses.
Their predicament is similar to many others who are recruited into political activity through patronage networks.
This is what happens when politics is gutted of ideology and principle.
It is what happens when all that matters is numbers rather than ideas, hard work and improving the lives of the people.
After dumping Mthembu like old chewing gum, the handlers probably moved on to other victims. They probably blew the money that was earmarked for him on themselves.
During the course of this year, there will be many such missions as efforts to swell numbers ahead of the December elective conference get under way.
There will be dirty money flowing around which may or may not reach the intended recipients. Promises will be made and, in most cases, not fulfilled once December has passed.
Meanwhile, Mthembu will be trying to repair a life that was shattered by South Africa’s contaminated politics.