Game for change: Bantu Holomisa plays with a group of children before talking to a waiting crowd at Reeston in East London. The United Democratic Front leader has made it his goal to change the negative image SA has as a result of corruption. Picture: MARK ANDREWS
Game for change: Bantu Holomisa plays with a group of children before talking to a waiting crowd at Reeston in East London. The United Democratic Front leader has made it his goal to change the negative image SA has as a result of corruption. Picture: MARK ANDREWS

BANTU HOLOMISA: The Game ChangerEric NakiPicador Africa

The title of Bantu Holomisa’s biography was not idly chosen. The "general", as he is often referred to, who has led coups and survived them as well as several assassination attempts, wants to change "corruption perpetrated at the highest level" in SA.

To this end, he is calling for a national convention, like Codesa, of all parties, and civil society, "to extricate the country from the quagmire it is in and change the negative image it has as a result of corruption".

Holomisa and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) that he leads, have already held a preconvention meeting, attended by nearly all the opposition political parties.

The ANC was invited but did not attend, "as the party was embroiled in its own leadership contests and political squabbles", says the peacemaker.

His biographer, Eric Naki, writes "it is clear that Holomisa’s strength lies in bringing people together. He has mastered the art of consultation."

Naki, a journalist with more than 30 years’ experience in print and broadcast media, has written this authorised biography in close collaboration with his subject. Yet he does not hesitate to point out Holomisa’s flaws, because the president of the UDM does not shy away from self-criticism — neither in our interview nor in the book.

In 57 pages of appendices, we read a document entitled The Rise and Fall of Bantu Holomisa. It was produced by the ANC and extensively circulated locally and internationally — for Holomisa had a high public profile — after the governing party had expelled him.

Jeremy Cronin, the former first deputy secretary of the South African Communist Party, authored it and admitted in it that Holomisa, "emerged as one of the most popular of our [ANC] leaders". Cronin has since publicly regretted his role in the document.

Holomisa did not hesitate to hit back with his own exposition, called Comrades in Corruption. That was in 1996 and 21 years later, his words — "dark and ominous clouds are lurking on the horizon, signifying the worst intolerance this country has ever experienced" — were remarkably prescient.

This is particularly so when you consider that Nelson Mandela was president and our rainbow nation was basking in the glow of a negotiated (Codesa) settlement and the iconic international status of its leader.

But, if there is one word that sticks in Holomisa’s craw, it is corruption. He knew it existed in the ANC.

It was his submission against the ANC’s wishes to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — in which he wrote about former Transkei prime minister George Matanzima’s acceptance of a R2m bribe from hotelier Sol Kerzner for exclusive gambling rights — that got him expelled.

When Holomisa and his generals discovered that the new prime minister, Stella Sigcau, was also bribed, she too was asked to resign and was removed, like her predecessor, in a bloodless military coup. Holomisa recounts that when he came to power, he "personally pursued Sol Kerzner and his associates". He asked the apartheid government to extradite Kerzner, but Pretoria refused  to do so.

He writes, "some top ANC politicians were bribed into silence too". Proof of this, he says, lies in president Mandela’s government withdrawing the (bribery) charges against Kerzner after he had "contributed heavily to the ANC’s election campaign funds".

The pain and humiliation of Holomisa’s expulsion in 1996 was underscored "when the ANC government suddenly decided to keep my retirement pension but gave it to all the other homeland leaders".

Holomisa struggled to make ends meet for his family, could not educate his children and his insurance policies lapsed.

His suffering was all the greater because the relationship between him and Mandela was so close that the icon referred to him as "my son".

Some top ANC politicians were bribed into silence too. Proof of this, he says, lies in president Mandela’s government withdrawing the (bribery) charges against Kerzner after he had 'contributed heavily to the ANC’s election campaign funds'

 Holomisa writes about visiting Mandela at his Soweto home after he was released from prison. Mandela’s wife at the time, Winnie, worried about his safety, so Holomisa dispatched two members of his Transkei Defence Force as bodyguards.

He accompanied Mandela on overseas visits and was sent abroad on missions for him. When people asked why Mandela had so much confidence in him, part of the reason, writes Naki, was Holomisa’s trustworthiness, "and his frank and honest opinion".

Holomisa became Madiba’s "battering ram" at the Codesa negotiations. When the National Party made proposals "that Mandela disliked, he would let Holomisa deal with it".

At a time when hostels were sites of brutality, the violence between migrant workers from KwaZulu-Natal and Soweto residents, often alluded to as Inkatha against the ANC, "was also being fanned by the apartheid security forces".

Holomisa talks about an extraordinary meeting between himself and a retired senior member of the South African Defence Force who was disillusioned by the apartheid government. He handed Holomisa an envelope detailing evidence of a third force, which he gave Mandela, "who read it repeatedly and asked for more files", says Holomisa.

When the latter suggested handing them to Jacob Zuma, who at the time was involved in negotiations between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party in an attempt to find a solution to political violence in KwaZulu-Natal, "Madiba said ‘no, no, no’.

"I don’t know why he was so emphatic", says Holomisa. "But as a military man, I knew what he meant." The files were later handed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Holomisa’s upbringing is instrumental in the book’s depiction of him as an independent-minded, moralistic young man. He was schooled in a special college for the sons of chiefs. It allowed free debates, the reading of banned literature and letting radical activists such as advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza teach there.

After his education, he joined the Transkei Defence Force in which he rose rapidly to the top. After the first coup against Matanzima, his fellow generals insisted he become Transkei head of state.

Under him, the "bantustan" over the years followed its own independent trajectory, unbanning organisations banned in SA, welcoming the ANC and its armed wing uMkhonto we Sizwe and allowing it to train there. He became friends with Chris Hani, the chief of staff of uMkhonto we Sizwe.

Holomisa accompanied Mandela, at his request, to the SABC where his famous speech, in an exceedingly dangerous time after Hani’s assassination, quelled talk of riots and war.

Today, the firmly spoken, humble Holomisa holds no grudges besides his outspoken conviction that Zuma must go.

"But it is not enough for Zuma to fall," he says. "We need  a new and lasting solution to SA’s problems."

He talks of education of the population, about its constitutional rights, about water, land and housing management.

Shoddily built houses due to corrupt tenders, incense him.

"Villagers must ask for reasons for this."

He believes that SA "as a country, lacks patriotism — because its leaders lack it. Why would you want to partner with a foreigner to loot your own country’s resources? That’s sabotage," he says.

If Holomisa becomes a game changer and manages to get South Africans, no matter their political persuasion, around a table, everyone will want to know more about this friendly, self-effacing man who makes his cellphone number available to all who ask for it.

This clearly written book, in language all can understand, is enlightening, intriguing, rich in South African history and bristling with determination.

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