Mcebisi Ndletyana | The Eastern Cape’s leadership problem

Premier of the Eastern Cape province, Oscar Mabuyane and VWSA’s Chairman and Managing Director, Thomas Schaefer launched the conversion of an old component plant into a 4000-bed temporal field hospital for Covid-19 patients in Port Elizabeth. (@GCIS_ECape).
Premier of the Eastern Cape province, Oscar Mabuyane and VWSA’s Chairman and Managing Director, Thomas Schaefer launched the conversion of an old component plant into a 4000-bed temporal field hospital for Covid-19 patients in Port Elizabeth. (@GCIS_ECape).

The collapse of governance in the Eastern Cape has been a long time coming in a province not known for its accountability, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana 

The Eastern Cape's leading hospitals seem to be losing the fight against Covid-19.

Livingstone Hospital and Dora Nginza Hospital are falling apart. Both are located in the province's metro, Port Elizabeth, and neither have beds nor linen.

Patients sleep on the floor. Ventilators are in short supply, so doctors have to make the cruel decision of who to keep alive and who to leave to die. Local politicians who have contracted Covid-19 are even refusing to be hospitalised in the province. Patients are more likely to die than heal in those hospitals.

The chaos is not as a result of a refusal of funds or being in a remote location. The province received its share of the Covid-funds.

The leaders are the problem, especially Premier Oscar Mabuyane and his Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba.


Gomba has been the subject of ridicule and an example of incompetence. She first gained notoriety when she whispered to a colleague that she was fed-up, 'andidikwe', during a media briefing where all of government had gathered to update the country on the state of Covid-19. She apologised the next day and said while it appeared she was fed-up with the briefing, she was instead fed-up with the clothes she was wearing. 

The comment, however, still added further stain onto what was increasingly emerging as an incompetent figure.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize had earlier queried the inconsistency between the number of deaths and the rate of infections in the province. Gomba had no clue what was happening in her own department. The situation has become worse, even attracting international attention.

Now the department has opted to buy R10 million worth of "ambulance" motorbikes, saying they're better suited to navigate the rough terrain of the countryside. Mkhize not only dismissed the motorbikes as a health hazard, but has since become more involved in the provincial response to the health crisis. He has lost confidence in Gomba.  

Mabuyane, however, retains his confidence in Gomba.

To an onlooker this is understandably odd.

Only those who are competent in their jobs should enjoy the confidence of their superiors. Competence in politics, however, especially in the case of this coastal province, is measured differently. Technical competence doesn't count for much.

Gomba should never have been MEC for Health.

Knowledge of health is often considered a requirement when appointing one to such a position.

Most provinces have followed that path. It's highly unlikely that, for a province with three universities, that they can't find a medically trained local to serve in the provincial government. That, however, was not uppermost in Mabuyane's selection process. He was looking for a loyal ally who would be useful towards non-technical ends.

Besides her misfit for the health portfolio, Gomba was a controversial appointment from the onset.

Fraud allegations 

Back in 2013, she was amongst Buffalo City politicians and ANC officials accused of defrauding the municipality of close to R6 million.

They were aiming for R10 million, but officials raised suspicion. They had pretended that the funds would be used towards Nelson Mandela's funeral. Gomba was a councillor then. The criminal charges cost her a reelection into council in 2016.

While regional politicians feared that Gomba's notoriety would alienate voters, they didn't think that made her unfit to hold public office. They tried to get her into the board of the Buffalo City Development Agency.

Board members protested for the obvious reason that her scruples were in question. But, her allies were undeterred and continued looking. Mabuyane agreed to appoint her into one of the most demanding position in his provincial government.        

Frankly, Gomba's appointment is not an aberration by political standards in that province. That's just how things are done.

Consider, for instance, the case of her comrade and co-accused, Pumlani Mkolo. Then secretary of the ANC in the Dr WB Rubusana region in the Buffalo City municipality, Mkolo was the kingpin who orchestrated the fraudulent scheme to defraud the municipality.

Mkolo was reelected regional secretary in November 2015, long after headlines of corruption had been swirling around him.

The ANC's Integrity Commission, chaired by Andrew Mlangeni, found that Mkolo was possibly a crook. He had amassed unexplained wealth, and was boastful about his lavish lifestyle.

Mlangeni concluded that Mkolo was indeed the mastermind behind the fraud, and urged an investigation into his lifestyle. In the meantime, Mkolo was to be suspended, prohibited from speaking on behalf of the ANC or getting anywhere close to party activities. Mlangeni considered him a disgrace to the ANC.

ANC members still elected Mkolo despite suspicion that he was a chiseler.

They were not alone in their approval of him to lead them.

Gwede Mantashe, then secretary-general, also didn't think there was anything untoward with a potential con artist leading the ANC. Mantashe enabled Mkolo's re-election.

Mlangeni's report was hand-delivered to his office on 10 April 2015 - some six months before the November regional conference.

Mantashe just sat on the report and only revealed it three months, or so, after Mkolo's re-election.

Had Mantashe acted on the report, as the Commission told him it was urgent, Mkolo would not have stood for re-election.

The only possible reason for Mantashe's connivance with Mkolo is that they were allies. Mkolo contributed to Mantashe's support base through both members and ill-gotten money. This absolved Mkolo of his moral infraction in Mantashe's eyes.

Public attention

Public attention did, however, force Mkolo's suspension in 2016.

After all, he was accused of stealing money intended for the funeral of our saintly founding father. Something had to be done. But, that too was a fuss. As soon as public attention shifted, it was back to normal.

While still on suspension, Mkolo availed himself for election in September 2018, for an even higher office, that of chairperson.

He stood against the then chairperson and mayor, Xola Pakathi - a roundly admired figure because of his decency, ethical leadership and work ethic. Objections that Mkolo's continuing suspension disqualified his candidature were simply ignored.

Mkolo, a suspected con artist, had to be elected over a man of conscience, Pakati. And, Mkolo won. He was exactly what Buffalo City ANC members sought in their leader - a man of an unrestrained instinct to abuse politics to gain wealth for himself and his supporters.

Mkolo's counterpart at Amathole, Teris Ntutu, as if vying for the prize of the most unscrupulous of regional leaders in the ANC, started to attract unflattering headlines of his own.

Together with Sive Nombembe, a businessman and the municipal manager Sindile Tantsi, Ntutu were charged in 2017 with fraud at the Mnquma municipality. Nombembe had won a R10 million tender for supplying the municipality with refuse bags.

The problem was that the bags were over-priced - 10 times more than the normal price - and Ntutu used to his political office to get it approved.

Both Ntutu and the Tantsi got a share of the award.

When the fraud was uncovered and prosecution began, both Nombembe and Tantsi turned state witnesses.

And, now both the issuer and recipient of the fraudulent tender have died from car accidents. Dead men don't talk. The case has subsequently stalled, and Ntutu is still secretary of the Amathole region.

Gomba's incompetence is nothing unusual within political circles.

She's in good company. Don't expect Mabuyane to fire her. She's doing exactly what he expects of her, and we may soon hear much more of what she has been doing.  

Mcebisi Ndletyana is associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg and author of Anatomy of ANC in Power: Insights from Port Elizabeth, 1990 – 2019. HSRC Press, 2020.

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