A few months before the 2014 general elections, President Jacob Zuma and United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa met at the presidential residence in Pretoria.
For two hours, Zuma pleaded with Holomisa to fold his small political party and rejoin the ANC to help campaign.
However, during an interview at a restaurant in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, Holomisa conceded that convincing all opposition parties to work together in 2019 would be a difficult task given the tensions caused by the ructions in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro.
When he was asked how a 2019 coalition would work, Holomisa struggled to hide his anger with the DA, which removed UDM councillor Mongameli Bobani as deputy mayor.
Zuma was wary of a new political threat – the EFF, formed by expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.
At the time Malema was crisscrossing the country attracting throngs of supporters, especially in the inland provinces.
Zuma must have planned to parade Holomisa ahead of the elections to counter the damage Malema was doing to the ANC’s support base.
Holomisa may be in charge of a small, regional party with minimal growth prospects, but he remains influential in South African politics and commands immense respect, even in the ANC.
Bringing him on board would have restored the ruling party’s dwindling credibility and public trust.
But Holomisa had other ideas.
He is now the mastermind behind an opposition plan to unseat the ANC at the next general elections by co-ordinating talks of a possible coalition of opposition parties.
He has called for a national convention to seek solutions for the country, from the economy to the land question and education. Even if the ANC snubs such a gathering, Holomisa wants the combined opposition to adopt its outcomes as an election manifesto for 2019.
“Maybe what we should be doing is to seriously look at the rules and regulations, and have a bible which is approved by parliament as to how the coalitions should operate,” said Holomisa.
“We need that urgently because others think smaller parties owe them something.
“They can’t even raise a question. If you won elections through a coalition, decisions must be taken through consensus. There is no other way. You can’t just be a bully,” he said in reference to the DA’s behaviour in Nelson Mandela Bay.
“If they continue with the attitude of using other people, it won’t work.”Holomisa was an asset for the ANC before he was expelled in 1996.
No wonder the ANC has repeatedly tried to convince him to return “home”.Holomisa revealed this week that Zuma was not the first ANC president to try to lure him back to the ANC fold.
In 2001, Nelson Mandela made a similar plea.
“I told Madiba. I said: ‘No. I now have a small party called the UDM,'” Holomisa recalled, staring at the Mandela statue in front of us.
“Madiba said: ‘You can leave the United Party. You are ANC. Thabo Mbeki needs strong leaders like you.’
“I said to him: ‘UDM members found me in political limbo. Going back to the ANC will be tantamount to selling them out. What if I mess up again and you expel me?’
“I said: ‘It won’t work, Tata. Let’s talk about co-operation.’ I said: ‘On matters of national interest you can wake me up any time.'”
Mbeki also tried. First he sent Makhenkesi Stofile, then Mosiuoa Lekota. Both came back empty-handed.
But Holomisa delivered his promise to help the ANC by lending his party’s support in KwaZulu-Natal after the 2004 elections.
“The ANC would have never ascended to power in KZN in 2004 had we not helped them,” said Holomisa.
The ANC won just short of 47% of the vote in the province while the IFP took 38.6%. The UDM’s minuscule number helped the ANC to rule.
In the early 1990s, Holomisa was one of the most popular leaders in the country and revered for collaborating with the liberation movements despite being a bantustan leader.
He formed bonds with ANC leaders, especially Chris Hani, and made the Transkei a haven for MK combatants and activists while he presided over a homeland where he’d seized power in a coup.
It was not surprising when the ANC recruited him soon after the end of apartheid.
“I never asked to join the ANC. The ANC sent a delegation to me. I said to them they must go to the soldiers,” said Holomisa, then still a military commander in the Transkei.
Holomisa recalls that the generals were suspicious of the ANC’s intentions.
“They said: ‘It is not our wish for the general to enter politics. We thought he was going to assist with the integration of armed forces because of his experience and training and so on. We are worried that once you have a fallout with him you’ll ditch him.'”
That is what happened.
In 1996, Holomisa appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and his testimony irked some ANC leaders when he revealed that he had led the Transkei coup to oust the premier, Stella Sigcau, because she and her cabinet had accepted R2-million from casino magnate Sol Kerzner.
At the time of his testimony, Sigcau was in Mandela’s cabinet.
Mandela demanded an apology from Holomisa, who refused. It cost him his ANC membership, but liberated Holomisa from ANC control.
“I trusted them, but they attacked me on a trivial issue … because I was not at the TRC to say I have come to report corruption.
“I said: ‘Please, Bishop Tutu and commissioners, can you compensate the families of the deceased soldiers who were killed in an aborted coup in 1990 – sponsored by Pretoria on the request of Sigcau and [Kaiser] Matanzima to remove us forcefully after we had removed them from power for dividing R2-million among themselves.’
“That thing was known in the public. Why would they jump and say I’m accusing Stella of corruption?
Holomisa felt betrayed by the expulsion, but he later realised the decision had unshackled him from the party’s rules and protocol.
“When I was expelled it might have been painful, but when I look back I say thank you for this liberty.
“In fact, in hindsight, one must confess and say one of the reasons I refused to go back when Madiba was pressuring me was because I looked at the liberty I am enjoying. To say now, all of a sudden, I must go and be parked at a bay there, and Zizi Kodwa or [Gwede] Mantashe, or people like them, are going to speak on my behalf. No. Sorry.”
Although Holomisa does not regret joining the ANC, he suggests that he felt guilty for participating in the party’s election campaign in 1994. This week Holomisa said that whole campaign, which was led by Mandela, Mbeki and other party stalwarts, was based on lies.
“Madiba gave me a manifesto that was talking about free education, jobs for all, housing for all. Now when I look back I realised that we lied. Me too; I lied. When you witness students being beaten up by police and shot at for something we promised in 1994. In 1994 we had more or less a two-thirds majority. We could have changed anything. But we had cold feet.”
When the UDM was formed, Holomisa was joined by former National Party cabinet minister and constitutional negotiator Roelf Meyer, and controversial ANC KwaZulu-Natal leader Sifiso Nkabinde.
Images of Nkabinde, who was regarded as a warlord, replayed in my mind as I asked: Do you regret involving Nkabinde in the formation of the UDM?
Holomisa paused and stared at his meal.
Big rally in Richmond
“I met Sifiso Nkabinde when I was still in charge in the Transkei. He worked with [Harry] Gwala, Jeff Radebe, Zweli Mkhize, Bheki Cele and Senzo Mchunu. Those were the faces of the ANC in that area [KwaZulu-Natal]. I don’t know the likes of Blade [Nzimande]. They are newcomers.
“Nkabinde took exception to my expulsion. He organised a big rally in Richmond. That’s when he was targeted. They discredited him. The same way they discredited me by claiming I was an apartheid leader after I was expelled.”
He rejected allegations that Nkabinde was a warlord, saying in a war situation it was hard not to find someone who did not fit that description.
“I also didn’t have a problem with Roelf Meyer because he was popular among the white community and within the ANC.
“He remains popular. That’s why, when he resigned from the UDM, the ANC used him in their international negotiations trips … He’s an asset.”
Twenty years later, Holomisa says his party has achieved a lot: repeal of the floor-crossing legislation and exposing corruption that led to the removal of former Independent Electoral Commission chairwoman Pansy Tlakula.
Its biggest achievement, he says, was to help remove the ANC from theNelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane metros.
He now has his eyes on crafting an opposition strategy to unseat the ANC in 2019.
However, Holomisa is frustrated by the conduct of the DA and its policies, especially in addressing the inequalities from the past.
“The DA will have to change its ways because right now they are accused by all these small political parties of adopting a unilateral approach.
“The DA think they can govern on their own. If they are to work with other parties at national level beyond 2019, it has to be clarified, equality of life for all is still a problem. And therefore the state still has to play a major role in intervening in those instances.
“Whereas they believe in their own policies … I still believe in that original agenda I campaigned for in 1994 under the ANC. We believe the challenge of our time is that the government must do more. Government can’t pass that responsibility to the private sector.”
Despite his party’s failure to live up to expectations since it was formed in 1996, Holomisa is optimistic about the future.
Intimidation… the killing
According to him, the political climate in the 1990s and early 2000s was not conducive to smaller political parties making inroads in ANC strongholds because of the intimidation that was accompanied by violence.
“If you look at the amount if intimidation … the killing of our members; the assassination of our secretary-general [Nkabinde]. He was assassinated in broad daylight by bodyguards of the mayor of Richmond. Thank God they were sentenced. There were many other incidents that were not given airtime by the SABC – they were cut and closed completely.”
But Holomisa’s optimism is not based on any proof that his party is capable of growing. He mentions the 2016 results and says it was only his party and the DA that registered significant growth. The UDM received a total of 167611 votes last year, compared with 184636 in 2014. The 2014 results earned the UDM four seats in the National Assembly while the EFF sent 25 MPs to Cape Town.
He is peeved at the comparison with Malema’s EFF and says the two can’t be compared.
“I didn’t fail. The environment is conducive for them [the EFF]. Another thing, Juju started on a national footprint. He left [the ANC] with party structures. I only took my briefcase with me. Juju left with regional and provincial structures. They are not being threatened with violence, while our situation was different.”
Holomisa has been president of the UDM for the past 20 years and has no plans to step down.
“The idea of retiring has not even crossed my mind. I don’t want to lie. I have no reputation as a liar. I haven’t thought about it especially when I see political dinosaurs – 68-year-olds who are campaigning to be president. Then I’m still young.”