Fezeka Nkomonye- Bayeni arrived first and early for our interview. A rare gesture by government officials. Sworn in as the youngest MEC for Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture in May 2019, nine months later, Khuthala Nandipha finds out why the province is infatuated with this 38-year old from Lusikisiki.
Q: Oscar Mabuyane has been commended for choosing a group of young women to lead very critical departments in the province. At 38, what does it mean to you be so young and be an MEC of Arts, Sports, Recreation and culture?
A: There has been a shift to include fresh blood and young minds. Siphokazi Mani (Social development) and I are the first of our generation to be given this responsibility. We have a big responsibility to keep the door open for those coming after us. We have to work very hard to show the elders, and the movement that these departments are in the right hands and we can be trusted. I am getting a lot of support, I am being exposed by the community to opportunities that will assist me in doing my work better.
Q: Were you shocked when you were appointed as MEC?
A: Yes, I did not expect it. The ANC does not owe me anything. The work that I have done within the government in my previous posts, I have never felt that it means I am owed a senior position.
Q: What was the first call of duty on your first day at the office?
A: I had to stand in for the Premier at a preparatory meeting and funeral of a former MEC’s provincial funeral, a first of its kind. It was not fun, it was emotional, a heavy responsibility. I felt ready to honour those that came before for us.
Q: In 2019, Eastern Cape arts and sports came to the spotlight, do you believe in signs, energy, the universe conspiring?
A: I am a communist and a spiritual one too. I believe in the alignment of the universe. My mother says I was born covered with a membrane (umntwana wesingxobo), which in our culture is believed to carry a level of ancestral connection, which aligns nicely with the universe. It is not a coincidence that my first year in office was the year of firsts. First Idol, first black captain to lift the Rugby World Cup, first Miss SA without a weave and first black Miss SA to win Miss Universe. All I am trying to say is; they all waited for me. I didn’t even have to do much. Whatever I come into contact with, wins.
Q: You went to welcome Mdantsane boxer Zolani Tete at the airport after he lost a fight, why was it important to be there?
A: It was a spare of the moment decision; my team and my security intel did not know. I just drove myself. We always want to associate with the ‘victory’, but I knew that Last born is a champion that lost a fight, but he is a champion, in life, he has a bigger purpose. I felt it would matter to him if I reached out to him at his lowest. I told him to get up and fight.
Q: As a member of the SACP, how do you view its role within the tripartite alliance?
A: The Communist party is the vanguard of the working class, so it is still relevant. I am aware that the alliance with the ANC and Cosatu is under scrutiny. The SACP believes that everyone should get a share in the country’s wealth. Doing good so we can all live happily, through sharing. What the ANC believes in is developing the poor, but it also allows for capitalists, the poor, the religious and atheists. They believe in a national democratic revolution, striving towards a free and non-racial democratic society. The SACP says there must not be a system where the other is exploiting the other. Communism rejects capitalism.
Q: How strong is the SACP as an alliance member?
A: Our membership is pretty low and this will cost us although we believe in the concept of ‘few but better’. When I joined, getting membership was not as easy as filling in a form, and paying a membership fee. You were observed to see how caring you are for others, how do you carry yourself among your fellow humans, do you exploit people and how is your leadership style. Within the SACP now, anyone can join and go on to lead without fully grasping its principles. It’s diluted.
Q: Would you call yourself a politician?
A: I made that mistake last year while sharing the stage with former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, he corrected me to say, ‘you are not a politician but rather you are politically inclined’. I do not know what the definition of a politician is even, although I studied political science. I have always thought a politician is someone who uses power to influence but you may have power, but fail to influence people. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is wrong to have power and want to force your influence on others. Politics play a major role in society, they influence the state of the economy and how our daily lives are run. To be influential, it takes a certain degree of power, one’s conduct and the support of others. I am not a politician then, but rather a political activist.
Q: What role does your department play in a community such as the Eastern Cape?
A: For five years I played an oversight role in this department, which gave me an idea of what is going on. I am an athlete but I did not have strong views on cultural affairs before, as much as I do now. The past seven months in office have shown me how powerful sport, arts, and culture is in our society, in instilling discipline and influence on other people to be aspirational. Siyamthanda Kolisi cannot deliberately do something wrong now because he is a role model, and that helps keep him focussed too. Cultural affairs and heritage are very critical especially for our identity and the economy. As a province, we have not done well in the preservation and capitalising on our heritage for the financial betterment of the society. During the Springboks celebration we identified with ourselves so much in the province, we took pride in our people, their role in the victories and celebrated as a unity.
Q: Institutionalised heritage and formalised history does not fairly represent achievements of all races in the EC. What role will you play in addressing this?
A: Museums carry the story that white people are Gods who are super innovative and are discoverers of great things. The story of black people’s resistance to a system that tried to find comfort within violations is a compelling one. The Eastern Cape is the most fortified area in the country with about 85% of political prisoners coming from this province across the political spectrum. At a national discourse, there is talk of having a resistance and liberation heritage museum. I think we should connect the dots rather, use the institutions we already have, add sections, present information casually in various spaces where people can access it. Do not have tourists in mind, talk to the young generation who have to learn from our past so they do not repeat our mistakes. Those that have the knowledge will die without us writing down the details of our history. This must be done. During my term, a foundation will be laid, that is a promise. We are digitized, so knowledge does not necessarily take up space.
Q: Swimming facilities are much sought after for rural and township children for recreation and the safety of citizens. What is the department’s plan for such infrastructure going forward?
A: We opened a community swimming pool in Butterworth in early 2020. Earlier in 2019, Khanyisa High School in Mthatha built its own Olympic size pool that is open to the public. The mindset is shifting, people want more than being glorified for boxing, netball, and soccer. Black people are aspiring to become a major part of the elite international codes, formerly accessible to the majority of non-blacks. Schools are the best place to harness the talent, get children into water polo, canoeing, swimming while still at school. The District Development Model is about availing adequate facilities to promote and nurture sport. It is our responsibility.
Q: What can we expect for the future of Border Rugby, men, and women?
A: The SABC says we are the nursery of rugby. We have transformed rugby, how society looks at the sport and who participates. The Border Rugby Union caters for six districts, with the majority being the rural areas. If it dies, as a province we will stop producing the talent we are renowned for. Together with the South African Rugby Union (SARU), the political leadership of the Buffalo City Metro, we are finding solutions for BRU’s financial problems. In the next season, we want the play to resume.
Q: Are you playing any sport competitively?
A: I am a long-distance runner. I am doing the Comrades 2020, as the first MEC in the province. I will finish. I used to be a sprinter (100m and 200m). In 2019 I switched to long-distance and I am enjoying having control over my mind and the feeling of achievement when I cross the finish line. The benefits are, seeking to improve, becoming disciplined, planning, training, changing eating habits and restraining yourself. This helps me in my work also. I work every day, there is not a single commitment that I do not honor, no matter how tired I am.
Q: Fezeka Bayeni in five years?
A: I will not be here. I will be the facilitator of development, producing excellent athletes, changing the lives of the impoverished worldwide, starting with the country, but in the background. When I wake up every day, I think to myself, I want to change someone’s life.
Q: Do we have people in the current government that share a vision like yours?
A: Yes, we have a lot of hardworking people but they have not come up in the ranks. We need them to push through, and not despair. People say ‘what is the point? But let us keep pushing.