South Africa

South Africa

Enter Jackson Mthembu: The ANC’s 12th Chief Whip seeks a Parliament that’s ‘not a soapie’

Enter Jackson Mthembu: The ANC’s 12th Chief Whip seeks a Parliament that’s ‘not a soapie’

Jackson Mphikwa Mthembu is the 12th ANC Chief Whip in Parliament since 1994. The ANC on Tuesday confirmed his appointment after discussions at last weekend’s national executive committee meeting. Mthembu wasn’t around Parliament – it’s the Easter recess – and only when MPs return in early April will he be in his new office just past the framed sjambok with its handle in the ANC’s gold green and black, a tongue-in-cheek play on the “whip” in chief whip dating back years. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

On Tuesday Jackson Mthembu was busy in meetings and with interviews. It wasn’t the ANC’s preferred way, but news of his becoming Chief Whip broke after the NEC meeting. So before the traditional announcement and welcome in the parliamentary caucus, Luthuli House confirmed the deployment.

We get appointed to serve. I’ve served. I’m still ready to serve my organisation,” Mthembu told Daily Maverick. “We need to work, all of us, to create a Parliament that people can respect, a Parliament that is not a soapie.”

In Parliament since the May 2014 elections, which ended his stint as national ANC spin doctor, the environmental affairs committee chairman has played a low-profile but important behind-the-scenes role in the governing party’s parliamentary structures, particularly in recent months.

As the political overseer of ANC motions and members’ statements, he would have worked closely with the previous Chief Whip, Stone Sizani, and the ANC political committee at Parliament. The one-time Mpumalanga ANC Chief Whip and Speaker (for six months) was also part of the ANC’s strategic team in the national legislature.

Discipline is crucial, Mthembu said on Tuesday when asked about priorities in his new role, “so we are always there when legislation has to be passed and we are not found wanting”.

Slack attendance is a long-standing issue in the ANC parliamentary caucus. Walk-outs by the opposition have not infrequently scuppered the quorum needed to adopt laws, and embarrassed the ANC. It’s particularly a Thursday afternoon phenomenon when many MPs rush to catch flights home; seldom are there committee meetings on Friday, and Mondays are constituency days.

Mthembu is not known to mince his words, although he is seldom if ever rude. Perhaps that’s the result of being ANC national spokesman for five years from late 2009. Previously he was ANC spokesperson for what was then known as the Eastern Transvaal (today’s Mpumalanga) between 1990 and 1994, followed by a couple of years being part of the national team of what was known as the ANC’s department of information and publicity.

Last week, widely circulated was Mthembu’s tweet that he “believed” Deputy Finance Minister Mcibisi Jonas’s public disclosure he had been offered the finance minister job by the Gupta family, and that “@MyANC_ must deal with this arrogance of the #Gupta family once and for all!! Who the hell do they think they are!”.

Few if anyone can say Mthembu was not usually found at the end of his cellphone, regardless of the circumstances. And this included giving a 21-minute interview, apparently while in police custody after his arrest for drunk driving in Cape Town in March 2010, to defend then ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema for singing a controversial song at the University of Johannesburg, according to the Mail & Guardian. (Mthembu manned up, admitted guilt and paid a R12,000 fine.)

Aged 58, Mthembu’s political path has crossed those of many ANC leaders across what in today’s politics would be seen as factional lines. Between 1988 and 1990 he served as deputy in the United Democratic Front (UDF) PWV region, as Gauteng was known then, to Paul Mashatile (Gauteng premier, minister, part of the Mangaung Anyone but Zuma group, MP and now MEC). As part of his responsibilities then, Mthembu welcomed Nelson Mandela at Soweto’s FNB Stadium the day after his release from jail.

Mthembu had landed in Alexandra township, or as he calls it, “exile’, when his home in Witbank was burned down after he was acquitted of treason charges. At the time of his arrest he was working at a steel manufacturer, having started in 1980. Between 1984 and 1986 he was a shop steward for the then Metal and Allied Union, one of the trade unions which in 1987 joined to form the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

At the second house of the national legislature, Mthembu crossed paths with Govan Mbeki, the deputy president of the Senate until 1996 when it transformed into the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) under its first chairperson Mosiuoa Terror Lekota, who in 2008 became a founding president of Cope.

In 1997 Mthembu returned to his home province, Mpumalanga, to serve as roads and transport MEC until 1999 under then premier Mathews Phosa (also poet, businessman and ANC treasurer from 2007 to 2012). It was a controversial stint, not only for the acquisition of 10 BMWs at a cost of R2.3-million, but for a series of car crashes. In 1997 Mthembu narrowly escaped death when his driver crashed the official car after a tyre burst and, according to African Eye News Service, in 1999 he faced a police investigation for crashing a government Mercedes Benz, apparently without a licence. There was also talk of being sued by a rental company for writing off another luxury sedan. Today Mthembu doesn’t deny this, but shrugs that it was a learning curve.

His second stint in the same portfolio from 2008 to May 2009, when he became Speaker in the Mpumalanga legislature, passed quietly. In between these two spells as MEC, Mthembu was an ordinary member at the provincial legislature, becoming ANC Chief Whip there from 2004.

Hansard shows he was a frequent speaker in snap debates, whether on Human Rights Day, Youth Day or Africa Day, on poverty, or speaking on education, finances and farmworkers. In at least two Youth Day debates in 2001 and 2003, Mthembu argued that the Soweto youth uprising was not just about Afrikaans but also the legacy of the ANC and its anti-apartheid struggle.

From those Hansards it emerges that on 16 June 1976 he was “18 years and 11 days old” and at Elukhanyisweni school as one of the pupils from the rural areas. South African History Online says he went with his grandmother Sarah Mthembu to work in the mielie fields from the age of seven. Mthembu did attend Fort Hare University for a while, but was expelled and never obtained a degree. He is married to Thembi Mthembu, with whom he has six children.

On 30 October 2009, economic development MEC JL (Jabu) Mahlangu bade farewell to Mthembu as outgoing Speaker, saying his experience of working with him “paints a picture of a person who was and continues to be dedicated towards the noble course of our movement… It paints a picture of a selfless cadre who is at all times prepared to sacrifice his family’s time, to push the agenda of his political home.”

Shortly after arriving in Parliament in October 2014 Mthembu was shot and wounded by would-be robbers at an ATM at Witbank, but made a full recovery.

While environmental matters may seem an odd portfolio for a former spin doctor, Mthembu took to it like a duck to water. A committee report on rhino poaching made sure to underscore the importance of local communities’ economic empowerment as part of anti-poaching initiatives. In the run-up to last year’s international climate change conference, COP21, in Paris, Mthembu chaired one of the most comprehensive public hearings, including rural organisations, individuals representing community concerns or non-mainstream political views.

Mthembu’s first port of call after returning to Parliament after recess? A series of meetings with those who’ve been holding the fort over the past few weeks. ANC parliamentary caucus spokesman Moloto Mothapo confirmed there still would be a formal caucus introduction once MPs are back: “It’s a tradition. It’s the proper way to do things.”

With ANC chief whips clocking up an average stay in office of two-and-a-half years, Mthembu faces interesting times. DM

Photo: Jackson Mthembu in Mangaung, 2012. Photo: Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick

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