“Minister Mthembu was an exemplary leader, an activist and life-long champion of freedom and democracy. He was a much loved and greatly respected colleague and comrade, shows passing leaves our nation at a loss.”
Mthembu (62) had tested positive on 11 January, according to a government statement. After complaining of stomach pains, he was admitted to hospital. His passing on Thursday has come as a shock and surprise.
“Comrade Jackson died with his boots on,” said ANC Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte in a hastily called briefing that underscores Mthembu’s standing in the governing party.
Mthembu’s life and career are intrinsically embedded in the ANC, and also the United Democratic Front (UDF) from his student days in the 1970s.
A former ANC national spokesperson from 2009 until May 2014, when he came to Parliament – first to serve as environmental affairs committee chairperson, and then from early 2016 as ANC chief whip.
Previously, he had served as Mpumalanga legislature chief whip while he served there as MPL, and also as MEC between 1997 and 1999. But Mthembu’s activism goes back to his youth in, as it was then known, the Eastern Transvaal, where he was spokesperson for the ANC from 1990 to 1994, but also served in the Detainees Parents’ Support Committee and UDF.
In his home province, he dabbled at one stage with trade unionism, but it was politics that held him. It was a life-long passion.
While ANC chief whip Mthembu made no bones about being part of the CR17 campaign in the run-up to the Nasrec ANC conference, which elected Cyril Ramaphosa as party president, paving the way to the top government office at the Union Buildings.
It was about restoring the ANC and resetting its trajectory, Mthembu told Daily Maverick in September 2017. “How do you restore credibility? Our credibility has taken a nosedive among our people on account of, amongst others, corruption, and that corruption comes through what is now called State Capture…”
It’s classic Mthembu – speaking frankly, but never rudely. Alongside with his approachability and a keen sense of humour with a ready laugh, is how he was known. And how he was respected across the floor.
Not fussed with the accoutrements of office, he worked hard. And Mthembu had the courage to stand by his convictions, even if his transparency and honest comments sparked sharp criticisms by comrades.
That’s not to say there were no lows. Mthembu’s drunk driving record was used by opposition parties to score political points in the often acerbic parliamentary debates.
However, that soon stopped; he became highly regarded among parliamentary opposition parties. As ANC chief whip, Mthembu proved his measure, able to reach across the aisle to bring together political parties in the interest of Parliament, and South Africa.
His life in politics, and the ANC, extracted a personal cost.
“I’ve not had time with my family. Some of my children have become what they have become because I have not been there… My first-born has been in prison and has been in and out of rehabilitation.” Mthembu said he can’t remember when last he was home with his wife,” Mthembu told Daily Maverick.
But Mthembu said he’d do it again – for the betterment of “my movement”.
And that’s the measure of the person and politician South Africa has lost. DM
* Jackson Mthembu born 5 June 1958; died 21 January 2021