Jessie Duarte, a brutally honest fighter who never ever gave up
The ANC’s longest-serving member was strong, powerful and, above all, a fighter. That came through in interviews so often. If you attacked her movement, or criticised her movement’s leader, you would feel the lash of her tongue. As I did many times. But Jessie had a warmth underneath it all, a humanity that often revealed itself.
The passing of Jessie Yasmin Duarte, for so long a woman of such importance to our society, marks the end of an important era. She led a long, well-lived life. To the end, she was consumed with making the country a place better than she found it.
For some of us, she will also leave personal memories, of her thoughts and conversations and, above all, her honesty.
There can be no doubt of the reputation that Jessie had among journalists as being a fighter. She grew up and operated in a time when women of her generation, and particularly women of her stature, who expressed themselves were often called “feisty”. That would be an injustice to Jessie.
She was strong, powerful and, above all, a fighter.
That came through in interviews so often. If you attacked her movement, or criticised her movement’s leader, you would feel the lash of her tongue. As I did many times.
But she had a warmth underneath it all, a humanity that often revealed itself.
For many journalists, including myself, she was someone who was part of the ANC, and someone who had done interesting things until the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference. It was after that conference that she was suddenly a person I spoke to several times a day.
She was the day-to-day face and, more importantly for me as a radio reporter, the day-to-day voice of the ANC. It was a complicated time — the Zuma ANC was still sort of taking over from the Mbeki ANC. In the years before Polokwane, the voice of the ANC was often Smuts Ngonyama, as the head of the presidency and communications for the party.
There was a clear move in the opening months of 2008 by the “new” ANC to be more open, more available. Jessie was a key player in this.
Often she would answer my call and do a quick interview, and there was always time for a quick comment or gossip.
In that year it emerged that then DA leader Helen Zille was having botox, something that was still relatively new then. Once, when I called Jessie, she answered the phone, and claimed to be having her hair done. But, she said, “Stephen … don’t worry; I’m not doing botox!” and started laughing.
This was part of the human side of Jessie.
It was the year that Barack Obama became president of the United States. For an African liberation movement, it was an important moment to see someone with heritage from our continent being elected to the world’s most powerful job.
The week before, I had upgraded to a state-of-the-art Nokia phone that could record phone conversations for radio broadcast (this was a long time ago). I told everyone I knew about it.
As Obama started his victory speech, Jessie phoned me and said, “Now Stephen, I will be busy later. I know you will want a sound bite from me, so use that fancy new phone you’ve told everyone about and let’s go.”
It showed how aware of journalists she was and how she took the trouble to know what people needed.
Also, during this time, 702, the radio station I worked for, ended up in a minor dispute with the ANC about the hosting of a press conference. Jessie held a briefing of her own on the steps of the station’s entrance, going on the attack. While the cameras were still rolling, I asked her if she agreed that “people could disagree on the definition of a major announcement”.
She looked me in the eye, picked up my olive branch, and ran with it, using the opportunity to make peace, to bring some calm to the situation.
It was not the last time she would do this.
This happened during a brief period when the nation, even the media, was willing to give then ANC leader Jacob Zuma a chance to govern, to see what he would do. He had given the impression that he would be a reconciler, even giving ambassadorships to three DA leaders.
It was, perhaps, a much easier time to be an ANC spokesperson than it is these days.
As the evidence of Zuma’s corruption mounted, tensions started to rise. And, in some ways, Jessie’s relationship with journalists started to change. It is a dynamic that other spokespeople have had as well — it is not unique to her, and can sometimes be beyond the control of the person concerned.
I remember so well in 2012, sitting in a mobile radio studio in the Mangaung’s December sun, headphones on, as the nominations for the ANC’s top six leaders were read out. There was a faint smile on my face when it was announced that Jessie had been nominated to the position of deputy secretary-general uncontested. It was a foregone conclusion that she would be elected to the post.
No hidden agendas
Despite her elevation, she was still accessible; she would still take calls and often do interviews.
In December 2013, on the morning after Nelson Mandela died, I arrived in the newsroom at around 5am. It was a Friday, and I remembered two key things: Jessie had been his personal assistant during a crucial time in our history; and she had once told me years ago that she was always awake and at her desk by 5am.
I called her, and she answered immediately. I remember feeling so bad for calling when the news would still be so raw. And yet she was so kind, and immediately agreed to do a quick interview. It was one of those moments where you felt that someone was sharing a part of themselves with you, and with the nation.
There were other moments like that. There was nothing grandiose or posh or artificial about Jessie; if she had a view of you, you knew it.
This extended to how she lived her life. For a long time, she lived in Observatory, just a few blocks away from where I had grown up. This meant that she voted in Bez Valley, a place never known for its poshness.
As the Zuma years ground on, the scandals mounted.
In 2014, 702 spent a day where a beeping sound was broadcast every four minutes as a reminder of the statistic that every four minutes a woman is raped in South Africa. It was brutal to listen to, and brutal to broadcast through.
As part of it, I spoke to Jessie on the Midday Report. Halfway through the interview, I asked her whether the continued presence of Zuma as a leader of the ANC played a role in the patriarchy of our society.
She was furious, giving me the benefit of her both barrels, telling me, on air, words to the effect that “I knew you would do this Stephen Grootes, you and 702”.
And yet, there were still moments of warmth between us. Because Jessie, as combative as she could be, never held a grudge. There was nothing secret, no hidden agenda with her.
I was reminded, during a brief interview during the ANC’s National General Council in 2015, of how good a communicator she could be.
Instead of falling into the trap that so many spokespeople collapse into, she did not just defend. Instead, she took the listeners on a brief journey of why certain policies were being implemented. It was clear, it was concise, and it showed that she understood the real prize of being a communicator is to change the views of the audience, not the interviewer.
It was, perhaps, Jessie at her best, and it helped that she was providing fantastic radio at the same time.
It was also before what was perhaps the defining moment of Zuma’s presidency, his sacking of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene in December that year. After that, much changed in our politics — and in the ANC.
There were many depths to Jessie. She did not talk about the past much. I certainly did not fully understand the importance of her family and where she came from for many years.
She did once lift the veil in an important way. And it was, of course, to correct a lie in the historical record.
In 2017, during the inquest into the 1971 murder of Ahmed Timol, a former police officer called Seth Sons claimed to not be able to remember being involved in the torture of ANC members.
She tweeted her own memory explaining:
“Seth Sons has a politically expedient memory. He forgot that he made me kneel next to my brother Achmat as his goons from the SB searched our house for 6 hours… He refused my grandmother on the same day entrance to the toilet and she wet herself. He slapped my mother when she wanted to hug her sister who was handcuffed.”
— Jessie Duarte (@ANCDSGDuarte) August 16, 2017
It was a reminder of her own role during that time.
It is, of course, impossible to describe someone who led the important life that Jessie led in just a few words. For me, the word ‘fighter’ is important. She fought for her movement, and for her people, and never ever gave up.
Perhaps that was why the news of her passing, as I received it via WhatsApp on Sunday morning, was such a shock. She was someone who surely could not be beaten, would not accept defeat, was afraid of nobody.
But I think, as time passes, I will probably remember her for something else. For her honesty. In an era marked by lies and dishonesty, defined by “fake news”, Jessie stood out for her honesty, for telling the truth. Even if it was brutal, it had to be told, because it was the truth.
Jessie, you and I fought. Many times. But you never held it against me. You were always human, you were always willing to talk. Our society has lost so many people during the pandemic, so many who are not being remembered properly.
But you are one of those who I will remember the longest. For a long life. A well-lived life. Of struggle. And Struggle. And for never ever giving up. DM