Nwabisa Makunga: Tough task, but first show up

In September 2008, Nqaba Bhanga wrote to this newspaper, bemoaning the state of the Eastern Cape. He was particularly concerned about the exodus of skilled professionals, talented leaders and activists who had left our province to grow the economy of Gauteng and the Western Cape.

“The irony about this is that the Western Cape and Gauteng are highly regarded as the best-performing provinces,” he wrote.

“This is both in the public sector and private sector. (Yet) you will find that people at the helm of this success are from the Eastern Cape,” Bhanga wrote.

He went on to list men and women from this part of the world who he believed were visionaries successfully leading their respective sectors at the time.

(With the benefit of hindsight, I found it an amusing tidbit that the list included Danny Jordaan and one Linda Mti.)

Nonetheless, just nine months before his letter, Bhanga had been expelled from the leadership of the ANC Youth League in the metro.

The reasons were debatable. To a degree, they were about the factional politics which placed him on the Thabo Mbeki side of the ANC’s factional divide at a time when the Jacob Zuma tsunami was on steroids.

A 31-year-old at the time, Bhanga was a firebrand who demonstrated a healthy dose of political ambition. In fact, the signs were there as far back as the early 2000s when many of us on campus knew him as a student leader and rabble rouser SRC president who became as much a thorn in the side of his fellow comrades as he was in that of the then PE Technikon management.

His subsequent expulsion from the youth league leadership, therefore, would only mark the beginning of his divorce from the ANC – the party which shaped his ideology.

But it was certainly not to be the end of his political career.

Bhanga would go on to join COPE, which opened the door to parliament, where he was eventually lured by his now mentor and friend, the DA’s Athol Trollip.

Fast forward to last Saturday. In front of a 500-strong crowd of DA members and supporters at the East London ICC, Bhanga was announced as Trollip’s successor and the first black leader of the party in the Eastern Cape.

The moment was historic and politically significant for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that it ushered in a new chapter for the DA in the province and possibly new dynamics to its leadership.

Only, Bhanga was not there.

For over an hour following the announcement, DA aides ran around looking for him while the party’s leadership was left red-faced.

Despite being asked repeatedly, he would not say where he was, only that he had been scared to come out.

Bhanga is a familiar face in the local party scene.

When he eventually showed up on Saturday, journalists in the room could smell on him what they believed was alcohol.

From this alone, it is not unreasonable to believe that his lateness stemmed from the events on Friday night.

Let me make this point: Bhanga is an adult. His recreational activities, like anyone else’s, are his business.

However, Saturday’s incident raises questions about his ability to comprehend the context of his election.

Fair or not, the reality is that unlike fellow candidate Veliswa Mvenya – who he beat to the position – Bhanga has a lot to prove both inside and outside the party.

Having joined the DA three years ago, he was considered by critics in its fold as a newcomer who had not yet earned his stripes as a leader.

This is despite his role in the growth of its Port Elizabeth Ngqura constituency.

It is despite his role in the campaign team which grew the DA’s support by 6.5% at the polls last year, ultimately placing it in government.

Bhanga’s critics are yet to be convinced that he can hold his own as a leader. Their assessment of him, fair or not, is stinging. Some view him as a proxy for Trollip’s continued power grip on the provincial leadership.

Others suggest that not only was chairman Andrew Whitfield the actual drawcard in Bhanga’s team, he brought along the strategic legitimacy which Bhanga lacked on his own.

We must, of course, be mindful of the potential prejudices that underpin such criticism. I will not attempt to unpack them today, suffice to say that regardless, Bhanga’s unexplained disappearance on Saturday morning did not assist his cause.

When he eventually showed up, he was unprepared. He failed to deliver a convincing assessment of the task ahead.

He appeared overwhelmed and fumbled from one cringeworthy statement to another in his eagerness to show his deep appreciation of Trollip’s friendship. He lost the moment and placed himself further on the back foot.

The next two years will arguably be his toughest so far.

He must lead his team to champion the DA’s goal to increase its voter base ahead of the 2019 election. His rhetoric is that he plans to lead the party to victory in 2019. To do that, the DA must jump from its 16.2% of the vote in 2014 (19.7% last year) to over 50%.

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that Bhanga fully comprehends, perhaps more than most, how deeply troubled the Eastern Cape is.

This is based on conversations with him.

However, unlike his 2008 letter to the editor, his task does not end with assessing the gravity of our problems.

His success will ultimately be judged on his ability to lead the DA to convince enough people that it carries their dreams and aspirations.

He must do that in the context of an increasingly difficult political climate as well as scepticism about his own legitimacy as a leader.

How he does it is up to him. But first, he must show up for the moment.

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