May 18, 2021

Read story of first black democratic Secretary Featured

The autobiography of the first Secretary of the democratic Parliament, Sindiso Mfenyana, tells a fascinating story of exile, but leaves you wanting the next instalment of this man’s life.

True, as Mfenyana himself told Notes from the House, this book aimed only to explain to his family and friends where he had disappeared to for 29 years as one of the first underground ANC cadres to go into exile for training.

Fascinating as his account of a lifetime in exile is, it leaves the reader wanting more.

After his return in 1991, Mfenyana was to become the first and for a while only black person employed at senior management level in Parliament, as Under Secretary to the National Assembly and then as Secretary to Parliament.

A book worth reading to be reminded of the values and principles that once underpinned the liberation movement.

Astonishingly there really were no black Africans employed or represented in the apartheid Parliament, in any capacity. As the first black Secretary to Parliament he became a game changer, and he took up one of the institution’s most important posts at a time of immense challenge and change.

But that’s where the book ends, with just seven pages dedicated to those early days in Parliament.

This is still a book well worth reading, even if for no other reason than to be reminded of the values and principles that once underpinned the liberation movement. It’s also frank and includes episodes that the ANC may prefer to leave unwritten. All of that makes it an important addition to the ANC-in-exile historiography.

But perhaps Mfenyana should get on with the next book because when he talks about his ten years spent in South Africa’s democratic Parliament a second story emerges and that too is an important chapter of South Africa’s history that needs to be recorded.

It illustrates how much Parliament has changed over the years of democracy, and in what ways it has not changed at all. Just as his autobiography tells of an ANC that no longer exists, the Parliament he writes about, albeit very briefly, is probably unrecognisable to anyone familiar with the South African Parliament of today.

Speaking to Notes from the House soon after the release of his autobiography, Mfenyana said that what he encountered when he first entered Parliament in 1992 was an institution with a shared goal of serving the people of South Africa.

Required to work closely with the defeated Old Guard, former symbols and guardians of racism, oppression and tyranny, he found them to be apparently as committed as he was to making the democratic Parliament work.

He was “mentored” by the then Secretary to Parliament, Robin Douglas, and senior staff – Chris Lucas, Kaspar Hahndieck and others ‑ who he describes as solid civil servants who had embraced the changes that the negotiations and the pending 1994 elections were about to bring. He also singled out Kobie Coetzee, then head of the Senate, as someone who “proved to be very helpful”.

“They were very prepared to be as helpful as they could,” he said, describing a moment in history that shows up today’s political parties’ shenanigans as self-serving and self-defeating.

“When I got there I found civil servants who were prepared to serve whatever government or administration was in power. That is how they were trained.” They welcomed him, even though “they didn’t know what kind of a person to expect.”

His first step was to introduce regular board meetings of the heads of parliamentary sections and “it was really in the course of those meetings that they came to appreciate what kind of person I am”.

With the Speaker at the time, Frene Ginwala, they introduced a Human Resources department into Parliament for the first time. “Parliament was not very modern. It was a secluded institution”.

Possibly the very first challenge Mfenyana faced was to dismantle apartheid within the institution by opening it up for the first ever appointments of black African staff. It was decided that Parliament should aim to mirror the demographics of the country.

Coloured and Indian staff of what used to be the Houses of Representatives and Delegates were integrated into the institution. Advertising for black Africans began before the first democratic election. Panels were set up to shortlist and interview for posts, many of which drew hundreds of applications. The target was mainly African citizens and between the swearing in of new Members and the inauguration of the President, numerous posts were rapidly filled.

New staff had to be brought up to scratch without delay. It was understood that they had no previous experience in governance and there was not enough time for them to make their way up the institutional ladder. Parliament had to meet targets and complete a speedy transformation.

New appointees, many of whom had never before set foot into Parliament, would be expected to develop skills on the job. “They were brought in sideways,” said Mfenyana.

Mfenyana himself and eight others, including representatives of Azapo, the Pan Africanist Congress and business, were sent for public service training in the UK and the US in preparation for taking up their senior roles in government.

Possibly his most useful “training” was provided in the last months of 1993 by four members of what was then the Progressive Federal Party who defected to the ANC, before the party had even won a seat. Possibly Parliament didn’t really know what to do with them, and they were put to work giving Mfenyana a crash course on the inner workings of Parliament.

There were others who made every effort to smooth the transition, Mfenyana said. “The people who remained understood that we have to make this thing work and the only way to make it work would be if we assisted each other. So the spirit was that it is in our interests on both sides to have a working government and a working Parliament. They were very positive.”

How then did that model of cooperation and collaboration become a Parliament that 23 years later has at times been paralysed by conflict?

And what does an ANC veteran with more than 50 years of experience make of these changes? Mfenyana concedes that a lot of time has passed since then and points out that not a single party in the world has maintained the policies and principles it started out with.

That said, he believes divisions became evident a long time back when the returning exiles, the freed political prisoners and what Mfenyana refers to as the “inziles” were incorporated into one organisation under one leadership. That was when the wrestling for power and position first began, he said.

The ANC also made a “real mistake” in its decision to dissolve the UDF, he added. Although much of the UDF membership overlapped with the ANC underground and came out in support of the ANC after its unbanning, he believes dissolving the UDF broke the ties its leadership had with the grassroots.

“In later years the weaknesses of [being] an ANC that was in exile or underground began to make themselves felt. We missed the knowledge and the contact with the people on the ground which the UDF had.” The ANC generally agrees that the result has been a weakening of ANC branches.

He also traces current weaknesses in the ANC back to the Mafikeng elective conference in 1997 where a resolution was passed, in response to a demand from the ANC Youth League, permitting members to take up leadership positions from the age of 18. Before that, Youth League members were not permitted to occupy national leadership posts.

This, he said, “killed the Youth League. It was meant to be the training ground as well as the recruiter of members...the youth were expected to prove themselves through the work they did mobilising support for the mother body.

“The youth stopped thinking about the youth league [and] began aiming only for positions on the mother body. They had no record of activism, couldn’t tell you what they had done and achieved in the interests of the mother body. As far as the youth was concerned there was only one target left, and that was to be in positions of leadership.”

He also criticised the youth for the role they played in driving older people from the ANC. At Polokwane, veterans across the country said they were being discouraged from attending branch meetings. The Veterans League emerged in response, but that not only removed the older members from the rest of the membership. It also meant their experience and long-held values were lost to the party as well.

Mfenyana said current MPs believe their role in Parliament is to heckle the opposition and support anything said by the leadership of the ANC. Unqualified Members are appointed as Committee Chairpersons and “a gradual deterioration is now making itself evident”.

He was disparaging about ANC declarations of “self correction”. This is what they are “mouthing” he said, “but there has been no evidence of self correction”. Instead, the President has continued to “sell the whole country to a group of Indian entrepreneurs”.

But he is adamant he is still ANC, “just not a Zumanite. That man has no interest in the ANC. He has more interest in running a hareem than running a country”.

Mfenyena warned that in December “if we are stupid enough not to see through that, then we deserve [the leadership] we will get” at the electoral conference.

Moira Levy                                                 

Last modified on Thursday, 01 November 2018 17:49

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Notes from the House is an independent online publication that tracks and monitors Parliament’s role in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to improve the lives of South African citizens. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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