Stone Sizani. Picture: HETTY ZANTMAN

Stone Sizani. Picture: HETTY ZANTMAN

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WHEN ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe pulled Stone Sizani out of an ANC caucus meeting in parliament to inform him that the ANC was going to name him as the party’s new chief whip, Sizani’s first reaction was that he didn’t want the job.

The main reason was that the appointment came with one overriding directive — to restore discipline among the 264 ANC MPs. The ANC is worried about the way it has lost connection with voters and wants a marked improvement in the way its MPs function inside and outside parliament before the 2014 elections.

Sizani accepted the job because, he says, “that’s what disciplined cadres of the ANC do”. But some ANC MPs believe he was given this dirty work to do in return for supporting former president Thabo Mbeki in the battle against Jacob Zuma at the ANC’s dramatic 2007 conference in Polokwane.

“Nobody is here to be popular,” says the 59-year-old Sizani, who points out that, at the time of the leadership battle between Zuma and Mbeki, he was ANC leader in the Eastern Cape. The province gave him a mandate to support Mbeki and he carried this out. Mbeki lost in a democratic process, which is why Sizani says he then threw his weight behind Zuma.

However, Sizani did pay a price for backing Mbeki publicly, though it wasn’t as high as that of the Mbeki supporters who were marginalised immediately. Sizani was given a position in parliament as an MP and chairman of the rural development & land reform portfolio committee.

Cynical ANC MPs argue that this is “how Zuma works”. He keeps some of his detractors close enough so he can use them for jobs that no-one else wants, as and when these crop up.

Regardless of the party chatter, Sizani is philosophical about what he might achieve during his tenure as chief whip, saying that the party is likely to appoint a new person after the 2014 election and that eight months (before the election) is not enough time to achieve anything except put proper systems in place to manage MPs.

Just two hours after Sizani accepted the post of chief whip, the lack of discipline in the party’s parliamentary caucus and the way this weakens the ANC’s considerable majority in the legislature was demonstrated publicly. The official opposition in parliament, the DA, which has 67 of the 400 seats, was able to stop the legislature passing the controversial Labour Relations Amendment Bill by taking advantage of the empty seats on the ANC’s side of the house. The DA MPs left, leaving fewer than 201 MPs present, which is the number needed to pass the law.

Sizani has set up a disciplinary committee to get to the bottom of the reason ANC MPs who were supposed to be present to pass the bill weren’t there. He chooses his words carefully in response to a question about what the consequences will be for truant MPs.

“Not everyone runs their diaries effectively and many are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. This can sometimes be interpreted as wilful negligence when it’s not always the case. However, it was also wrong for DA MPs on that day to abandon their responsibilities and sit in the bar, instead of formally registering their objections to the bill,” Sizani says. He has put a system in place to ensure that the ANC whippery and MPs are informed, and then reminded, about when and where the party needs them to be. The system is extended to constituency offices, where MPs are supposed to move to during recess periods so they can report back to voters.

“This [MPs working in constituencies] is a huge concern, not only in the run-up to an election, but all the time. The ANC can’t afford to lose connection with its voters. MPs need to know how seriously the party takes this,” says Sizani.

Discipline and always being presentable was a nonnegotiable with his parents when he grew up, no matter how little money there was in their rural Eastern Cape home. “I sometimes thought I must be adopted because of all the chores I was made to do in the house,” says Sizani, who was recently able to buy his 91-year-old father a four-bedroomed house in Alexandria in the Eastern Cape.

There was one other nonnegotiable in the Sizani household during his youth in apartheid SA — education.

“My father told us that education was the only way out of poverty, the only way to make a name for yourself, to gain respect and standing. You had to offer the world something, a skill. This meant getting a paper degree and not just acquiring knowledge on a subject,” says Sizani.

He became a member of the United Democratic Front and, as a result of his politics, was forced to leave three high schools because headmasters were under pressure by the apartheid regime not to be associated with activists like him. Before he could finish high school Sizani, then 24, was arrested and sent to Robben Island as a political prisoner, which meant he got his matric during his 12-year incarceration.

Several years after being let out of jail, Sizani decided to leave his job at the Kagiso Trust to get the “paper degree” his father had always insisted on. He cashed in his pension and set off to the UK to study, eventually obtaining a master’s in rural development. When he came back to SA in 1994 he owed seven months’ instalments on his house. But he had a degree and prospects in the ANC.

“My father is proud. He would say I was one of the ones who listened,” says Sizani. But his amiable tone shifts when asked whether the fraud charges his wife, Pankie, faces will dent the credibility he needs to drive his discipline campaign in parliament. Sizani has stood by his wife, who faces charges of money laundering in her position as head of a local government early childhood development unit in Port Elizabeth.

“My wife is her own person and she will answer these charges. They have nothing to do with me. But what has happened to the rule that people are innocent until proved guilty?” Sizani asks. He is keen to keep his private life out of the limelight. Asked how many children he has, for example, he refuses to say. “I have many, and I treat each one as the only one.”

Opposition MPs who were members of his portfolio committee agree that Sizani is forthright, rational and fair. But former DA MP Athol Trollip, who has left parliament to lead the DA in Sizani’s home province, says Sizani knows when to play to the gallery.

“He does have a tendency to become less reasoned and more populist when he is on a public platform. He toes the party line,” says Trollip.

Sizani doesn’t hide his disdain for the DA’s confrontational style of politics, which is likely to lead to a more hostile positioning between the two parties in parliament, especially as the election draws near. While opposition parties have had a lot to say about the ANC’s shortcomings, the ruling party has expressed concern about poor-quality leadership in its ranks, especially pointing out how this has hampered service delivery and anticorruption drives and fuelled public protests. What does Sizani think? He gives a political answer.

“I’m not saddened by this. I’m not worried. If you know why we have these problems you know what can be done. Look at those kids who grow up in Manenberg and Eldorado Park. They don’t choose to get involved in gangs and drugs, they get trapped into it by circumstance. People rape and destroy because of the system that they come from [apartheid]. People are still broken, and we need to address this,” he says.

He is definite that he won’t ever leave the ANC to join another party.

What’s next for him then? Early retirement or, thanks to a successful stint as chief whip, bigger and better things in the party?

In reply, what he offers is the well-trodden party line that ambition “is not part of the picture in the ANC”.