Johannesburg – A wide smile covers Epainette Mbeki’s face. Her bright eyes shine through her spectacles. She grips the wooden armrests of the sofa.
She’s comfortable, but realising she will not be able to get to her feet quickly, she extends her right hand to greet us.
The inside walls of the Mbeki home, typically rural and modest, are painted in peach. Paintings, framed crafts and a picture of her son Thabo hang on the wall in the lounge.
“Welcome, welcome. Have a seat, please,” she says as she gives a firm handshake. Her smile has, however, already welcomed her guests without her breathing a word.
MaMbeki lives in Ngcingwane village near the market town of Dutywa, between Mthatha and East London in the Eastern Cape.
At 96, she still reads and knows her cellphone number off by heart, but she will not reveal how she seems to be slowing down the ageing process.
“I still go and queue at the clinic for treatment taken by most people of my age. I eat good food, pap and morogo, and the only time rice is cooked in my house is when there are visitors.”
MaMbeki believes she is the oldest person in the village, which has been her home for about seven decades. “That is why couples still come to my house with their problems and general family problems. I listen to all sides and give advice.”
She does not only advise her community but also her sons – the former president and his businessman and political commentator brother, Moeletsi.
“They call me whenever they have problems and I give advice. Thabo called me for advice when he was sacked and I told him to shut his mouth and he did just that.
“I want to make it clear once again that I am still a Cope member and the ANC is aware of this but (the ruling party) still comes to me for advice.”
She reveals that President Jacob Zuma once sent people to invite her to a function, but she turned the invitation down.
“How does he expect me to attend his function when he has fired my son?”
Asked for an opinion on the ANC leadership race, MaMbeki says she prefers Zuma as the candidate to lead the ruling party again.
“[Deputy President Kgalema] Motlanthe is more dangerous, though, because he will impose his ideas and do what he wants whether you like it or not.
“Zuma is not right because he doesn’t have ideas that are his own.
“He accepts advice from anyone and allows their opinion and is bound to make wrong decisions because of this.
“Zuma is bad, but could be better – if he can make up his mind as a president and not allow confusion from people who want to use him to their own advantage. For reasons I don’t know, he allows them.”
She says Zuma must be “independent and do what he personally feels is best for the country”.
MaMbeki, whose late husband, Govan, was an ANC and SACP stalwart, says she still loves the ruling party, but “the ANC of today is a different one”.
“[Govan] should be feeling very uncomfortable where he is. I’m quite sure he never imagined the possibility that things will be this bad in our democratic government where people don’t even have access to the councillors.
“Our ANC was the people’s ANC, but the present one is not the people’s party. People don’t know who to turn to, where to go and who represents them and how to get hold of them.”
She strongly feels the ruling party is disconnected from people. “Leaders don’t know what we want and they feel like they don’t owe us any explanation or that they are compelled to report to the people.”
For her the ANC is a “big party which is in bits and pieces” and people are not happy with it.
“Maybe they’re right when they said the ANC will rule for ever because it is a big party and no matter what [is wrong with it] people love it and will vote again just for the name.”
Her ideal democratic SA would be one in which “people choose their own leaders, from the president to the councillor”, she says.
“Those chosen should also advance a mandate based on community needs given to them by the people, and not the party mandate as it is today in the ANC.
“We have today a party government which decides on who will represents people at grass-roots level without involving those people in the process.
“That’s not proper because a party is a conglomeration of people with different ideas seeking to serve their own interests.”
“The ANC needs to come back to the people. Service delivery protests wouldn’t be so prevalent if there was better engagement between government, officials representing communities and the people at grass-roots level.”
“It is for this reason that development is very slow in rural areas because no one wants to come down and listen to us and understand our needs.”
While she was one of the political stalwarts who stepped up in support of Cope in its infancy, MaMbeki believes the party was formed at “a wrong time for wrong reasons because of this Thabo thing” – referring to when Mbeki lost the ANC leadership battle to Zuma in Polokwane in 2007.
“Cope is struggling, but efforts abound to build it.”
MaMbeki, who reads newspapers daily and enjoys television news, says she is watching from the sidelines.
“I hate this toyi-toyi business and especially when people burn schools where future leaders are being prepared.
“Protests should not be there in the first place, but it won’t stop unless political leaders change their way of running government and come back to the people.”
MaMbeki is most at peace overseeing sewing, beadwork, arts, crafts and food garden projects.
“I couldn’t fold my arms and expect government to help my community empower itself.
“These projects keeps me busy since I have retired from running my store. We’re hoping to grow these community projects into sustainable businesses to benefit the village.”