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An Arsenal fan, the teacher and the pupil, writes Khaya Sithole. 

“Mr Gwala, what I would like you to talk about is the dialectic, taking in the objective contradictions, that accounts for the demise this season of the Arsenal football team,” – and so began John Carlin’s interview with Harry Gwala in 1992. These days, Harry Gwala is long gone – and the fortunes of his beloved Arsenal are as disappointing as they were back then.

Yet it is the self-directed implosion of Gwala’s other love – the African National Congress (ANC), that would disappoint him more than the demise of the Gunners. Gwala’s influence on the current state of the state remains largely misunderstood; but as a teacher by training, he would appreciate nothing more than educating the current crop of citizens and civilians; about what the ANC once represented.

Gwala was a great teacher – and one of his students was the revolutionary Moses Mabhida. But it was far from the classroom and deep into the solitude of a prison cell that Gwala’s most important lessons were imparted. As a prisoner on Robben Island, Gwala shared a cell with a young and poorly-educated cellmate. That cellmate had traversed an extraordinary path to Robben Island. His father, a policeman, had taken two wives and died when Gwala’s cellmate was still young.

His mother – in a spirited attempt to make ends meet had moved away from the family to try and secure work as a domestic worker. Burdened by these twin icons of disinheritance, the young man took on piece jobs in order to raise funds for the rest of the family.

Read more: Dr Zweli Mkhize, The “Accidental” ANC President

Naturally, the first thing he sacrificed was his own schooling. Strangely, even once the dream of formal schooling had disappeared, he sought permission from his elders to attend classes in the evenings when possible. By the time Gwala ended up in Robben Island, his reputation as the political teacher was well established.

And in a strange twist of fate, the apartheid government decided to pair him up with a cellmate regarded as too illiterate to absorb anything from Harry Gwala. Unfortunately that turned out to be a miscalculation of sorts as Gwala decided to teach his cellmate how to read and write in English. We now refer to that cellmate as Jacob Zuma.

Gwala was eventually released from Robben Island in 1988 and moved back to the Natal Midlands. Once on the ground, he revitalised the ANC as a credible and direct threat to the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). His most famous protégé – Sifiso Nkabinde – became a living icon in Richmond, thanks in large part to his passion for ending the lives of other people. What distinguished Gwala from other Robben Island prisoners was the simple fact that he and Govan Mbeki rejected the idea of the rainbow transition that Nelson Mandela had in mind. As a result of that, Gwala became the irritating dissenting voice within the ANC. At the same time; the political landscape in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) was very different to the rest of the country – thanks to the IFP.

As 1994 loomed, Mandela’s biggest problem was the fact that Gwala might just take charge of the ANC in KZN and destroy all hopes of a rainbow reconciliation. As a strategy towards neutralising Gwala, the ANC deployed Gwala’s former student – Zuma – to run as the chairperson of the ANC in KZN.

One of the important departures between Gwala and Zuma related to their approach to negotiations with the IFP. Gwala – adamant that the IFP had been too cosy with the National Party had little appetite for negotiating with Frank Mdlalose. Jacob on the other hand, decided to play the patience game and wore out the IFP brigade through sheer tactical mastery. By the end of 1994, Jacob Zuma had wrestled control of the soul of the party from Gwala and Nkabinde.

The Problematic Protégé

But Sifiso Nkabinde was no ordinary human being. Born in Richmond in 1960, Nkabinde had a rather bizarre relationship with his parents. His father was an IFP leader who disowned him when he joined the UDF and the ANC. Later on, once Nkabinde tried to convince his mother that the IFP was no longer the party she should support – and his mother disagreed.

So Nkabinde did what any reasonable son would do – he simply ordered his followers to assassinate his mother and his sister in 1989. Luckily for them, they managed to escape and only their huts were burnt down. His mother would only return to Richmond in 1992 after Nkabinde had found new targets for his political activism.

The relationship between Gwala and Nkabinde defined the history of Richmond. As the chairperson of the ANC in the Midlands, Gwala was the de facto leader of the radical wing of the KZN ANC, his only counterpoint – the moderate Jacob Zuma – was the chairperson of the Southern Region of the ANC in KZN. Nkabinde on the other hand, was the ANC deputy secretary general of the Midlands region under Gwala.

Nkabinde and Gwala maintained an extraordinary stronghold over Richmond. Such was Nkabinde’s power in those days, police could not enter Richmond without his permission and anyone who opposed him would be labelled as an informer and then summarily tried by Nkabinde’s court and – predictably killed. Over time, Nkabinde became a massive liability for the ANC and it became clear that a solution needed to be found to deal with his growing influence. Enter the former student of Gwala, Jacob Zuma.

The Nkabinde defiance

It is most extraordinary that Jacob Zuma rose to the head up the intelligence unit of the ANC. And that is a story that deserves its own book. But what is becoming clear is that whilst his elevation to the presidency might just turn out to be accidental, his mastering of the intelligence structures of the ANC is unparalleled. And it is this type of problem the ANC needs to make peace with. Zuma’s great achievement is actually fostering peace in KZN. This he did through the patience and courage of negotiation. As a result, the 1994 elections were far less violent than they could have been in KZN.

Zuma – alongside Nkabinde and Gwala, made it to the first post-democratic parliament in KZN. And then something happened soon thereafter that altered the course of history. The first was the 1994 ANC conference in Bloemfontein (more on that later).

The second alteration in the fabric of history was the death of Gwala in June 1995. His natural successor was of course Nkabinde. But having worked so hard to reach some form of peace settlement with the IFP, the last thing the ANC needed was the rise of Nkabinde again – and they sought to ensure that this did not happen.

Firstly, Nkabinde decided to run against Sipho Gcabashe for the post of provincial secretary general. But since he already had another post as an MPL, Luthuli House issued an instruction that Nkabinde would not be allowed to run against Gcabashe. Nkabinde ignored this instruction and ran anyway – and still lost to Gcabashe. But then he was elected to the provincial executive committee on the same day – and Thabo Mbeki was furious.

Read more: Downfall Of Mbeki: The Hidden Truth

Of the people who opposed Nkabinde running for the secretary post, one was indeed Zuma under instruction from Luthuli House. The reason advanced – that Nkabinde already had another post – was obviously rubbish; because Zuma himself occupied multiple roles in the ANC at that stage. Fast forward over 20 years later – and a young man called Andile Lungisa tried exactly the same thing – and had the support of Zuma in this case. Because that is how political amnesia works.

The Nkabinde saga pissed off Nelson Mandela more than Mbeki. Zuma famously declared “The ANC, I am sure, knows what to do.’’ So from the end of 1994 to the middle of 1997, the primary focus was on finding a way of getting rid of Nkabinde from the ANC. But it turned out to be a bit more difficult than originally imagined.

Read the second part of this article tomorrow