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Mixing business with politics: Mthunzi Mdwaba on why he joined UDM

In this article, renowned South African businessman Mthunzi Mdwaba explains to NOWinSA why he joined the United Democratic Movement (UDM).

Business people who formally enter politics can bring a fresh perspective into the public office. More so for a party like the United Democratic Movement (UDM) which has not only been in existence for more than two decades, and considering that its name is hardly ever associated with any controversy or corruption scandals, it can without doubt benefit greatly from someone like Professor Mthunzi Mdwaba, one of the most notable names in both the public service and the business world. After-all, we are talking here about someone known for ruffling feathers and speaking out against crooked politicians.

Of recent, Mdwaba made bombshell allegations saying three South African government ministers approached him for R500 million bribe related to a UIF tender awarded to his investment company, Thuja Holdings – a topic for another day.

To give a little background on his illustrious professional track record, Mdwaba is, in addition to Thuja Holdings, the founder and CEO of TZoro IBC business consultancy. He previously served as the Productivity SA chairman between 2015 and 2023, and holds a BA degree in African Politics and Industrial Sociology, as well as an LLB degree from the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS).

Back in 2017, Mdwaba made history as the first African to be appointed Vice-President for the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), where he served as a global spokesman for employers in the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Looking back at his colourful career history, it’s not so much about giving in to the lure of politics that caught many by surprise, but more about switching his political allegiance from the ANC to UDM.

As revealed during an impromptu press briefing officiated by the UDM President Bantu Holomisa at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria on Monday (19 Februar), Mdwaba is all set to help steer UDM “to a better place it deserves” he said, adding that he, together with the UDM, wants to become an agent of change on a big scale.

Answering questions from the media, he said that entering politics was not “a light decision” for him. However, a problematic track record – unexemplary behaviour and lack of structured implementation of programmes – pushed him to ditch the ANC, and subsequently join the UDM.

“Speaking for myself, I can tell you that I never take any decisions lightly. So when I made the decision, it’s because I have every intention of helping and putting my shoulder to the wheel, and making sure that the UDM gets to the level that it deserves as a political party in changing what has become a problem for our country,” he said.

“Today I’m actually symbolically leaving the ANC and would not want anything to do with it”- Mthunzi Mdwaba (left) boldly declared as he’s officially welcomed to the united Democratic Movement’s executive leadership by party leader Bantu Holomisa (right). Images: NOWinSA

For Mdwaba, to be specific, the elusive “Aha” moment occurred after he watched the Deputy President of UDM, Nqabayomzi Kwankwa, speak during the recent State of the Nation address “and I said ‘my God that’s what I’ve been looking for’.”

He added: “And all it did was I suppose trigger what had been in my psyche all along. For me it was ‘that feeling’ – based on 25 years pedigree as a business person. And when you look at things that have worked over time, and you try and decide whether something is just pure theoretical conjecture or on people being able to do something. Secondly, the behaviour during that time was important and it goes a lot towards that pedigree. In the short time that I had before I was able to call him (Holomisa) – within 48 hours – I couldn’t find any scandal. All of us, me included, have skeletons. If you’re an activist and have no scratches, you’re not an activist. But you know, you look for the big stuff, stuff that are worrying and I couldn’t find anything that would deter me or any young person – that being my child or somebody that would look up to me as I lead them into this new transitional phase of my life. I’m hoping to convince millions of young people to come with me.”

While not much was said about the axact position he’ll be taking up with the party ahead of its mafinesto launch at the Gallagher Estates in Midrand on March 2, he spoke at length about some of the tangible contributions he has up his sleeve. Mdwaba said he joined the UDM because it was the party that represented its constitutional values, with ending corruption among its top priorities. “The General (Holomisa) and the UDM together have been fighting corruption for a very long time,” he said making reference to Steinhoff international corporate fraud scandal. “And it’s in their policy, and their constitution; it’s what they want to do. So it means ‘the feeling’ that I got was right.”

Through his various roles as a entrepreneur, having built several successful businesses along the way, with an impressive record on industrial relations and collective baragaining – be it with governments, trade unions or other business organisations, particularly while based in Switzerland where he had the privilege of leading all the employers in an organisation (ILO) that is in 197 countries – Mdwaba strongly believes he has something he can contribute and be able to effect as part of the change and impact UDM desires towards a society that has social justice. This notably relates to three area of focus; Ending poverty (SDG 1), achieving zero hunger (SDG 2), and creating sustainable work and economic growth (SDG 8) through prioritising job creation for the multitudes of unemployed youths.

“For me they are the most pressing issues for us right now. From the human rights record, we would like to give the impression that as South Africa we do well. Yes, we do good things, we go fight for other people in some other parts of the world, and that is a good thing, and we must keep doing those good things and showing who we are.”

He added: “But you’re no good if you can’t fix your own backyard. The backyard is rotten, and it keeps rotting increasingly and incrementally everyday. And therefore my colleagues and I thought that rather than sit on the side, and talk a good talk and be known for the rhetoric, we want to roll our sleeves and do something to change this country for the better.”

Critical concern; Unemployment

Listening to Mdwaba’s long, impassioned speech, it’s not hard to see that the high rate of unemployment is his most biggest concern. “When you look at the rate of unemployment in the Unemployment Insurance Fund, over 700 000 people are on the database of the UIF. And you have a programme called the Presidential Youth Initiative that is completely useless, whose main design is to fool the eye … it’s for obfuscation (deliberately meant to confuse). For me it creates mental health problems because all it does is to create people that are trained for a year, and after that they must go and collect moneys from the UIF. That’s not a job, and it’s not sustainable…We need more sustainable jobs.”

He further added: “You have over six million people on the department of employment and labour database that are unemployed, 70% of whom don’t even have matric. This is a problem, a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

However, Mdwaba is adamant that the UDM is the answer many “confused and clueless” voters have been waiting for. “I believe we can be able to create something out of this opportunity with the vehicle that the UDM has. The UDM has for over 25 years stood on the right side of history, it has fought corruption and has quietly done its work. They’ve informed me that they write letters on a daily basis that appear on their website to fight for a normal man and woman on the ground. If you’re looking for ethical conduct and governance, this is the way to go.”

More notable names joining UDM

Set to re-energise this coming election cycle, Mdwaba joins influential figures – such as the former South African President and MK party-backer Jacob Zuma – who are set to influence the cause of the South African politics by switching political allegiance from the ANC for new or less prominent political parties.

However, he wasn’t the only notable, newest member to join the UDM. Trade unionist Tahir Maepa also joined the party. Maepa is the secretary-general of the Public Sector Commercial Union. Military veteran, Mlindeni Sibango, who served the Transkei Defence Force from 1981 and 1994 joined the party as an advisor on defence force, safety and security, while former journalist and public relations specialist, Phathiwe Ndleleni, takes over as the party’s media officer.

Other new members include Nava Naidoo, Zamokuhle Aja-Okorie and Letlhogonolo Noge-Tungamirai.

Other new members include Nava Naidoo (middle) and Letlhogonolo Noge-Tungamirai (right).

Holomisa said he was looking forward to the contributions of Mdwaba and other new members of the party.

“UDM looks forward to his contributions on the economy given his background on labour, job creation and business. I welcomed him and his colleagues after they knocked on UDM’s door, saying the UDM appears to he the most stable political party with their heads screwed on right.”

Tankiso Komane
Tankiso Komane
A Tshwane University of Technology journalism graduate, Tankiso Komane has a vast experience in print & broadcast media business and has worked for some of the country’s biggest daily newspapers, including The Sowetan, The Citizen, The Times, and The New Age. Through her varied work as a journalist, notably as a copywriter for SABC1 (On-Air promotions) and as a publicist for Onyx Communications, she has developed an in-depth understanding of the nature of the media business and how to use it for the purpose of exposure. Her expertise in journalism across various disciplines, coupled with a good reputation, has laid the foundation of a new kind "trust in Journalism" as the media ecosystem continues to digitally evolve.
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