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Minister Mthembu: A great leader has fallen

Written by Allison Cooper

The nation mourned on 21 January when Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu (62) passed away from complications related to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).

On 11 January, he announced that he had tested positive for the virus after seeking medical assistance for abdominal pain. “I want to thank the many South Africans who have wished me a speedy recovery,” he said.
His death 10 days later was another grim reminder of the realities of the pandemic and the need for South Africans to unite against this common enemy.

The Minister was very involved in government’s fight against the pandemic and was at the forefront of its COVID-19 communications.

“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, whose passing leaves our nation at a loss,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa shortly after Minister Mthembu’s death.

A humble servant

South Africans from all walks of life united in paying tribute to the statesman, who was described by many as a humble servant of the people who was known for his dry sense of humour.

“He died with his boots on, at the forefront of the fight against the invisible enemy. It is not a surprise that he was deployed in the Presidency. We are very saddened by his passing,” said North West Premier Job Mokgoro.
Born and raised in Emalahleni in Mpumalanga, Jackson Mphikwa Mthembu was an anti-apartheid activist who was part of the student movement in the 1970s, both at high school where he was a student leader and later at the University of Fort Hare, from which he was eventually expelled because of his political activities.

The Minister was part of the establishment of the metalworker unions in South Africa. While at Highveld Steel Corporation, he was one of the first black steel production foremen in the industry. 

He continued his activist work and during the state of emergency in the 1980s, he was detained without trial by the apartheid government. During this time, he was mostly kept in solitary confinement. He faced much persecution, including the petrol bombing of his house in Witbank, being repeatedly tortured at police stations and being charged with sabotage, treason and terrorism.

He was among the 30 accused in the Bethal terrorism trial in the late 1980s and although he was acquitted, the harassment continued. Eventually, Minister Mthembu left Witbank to live life in ‘internal exile’ in Soweto and Alexandra, away from his family and loved ones.

While in Gauteng, he served in the United Democratic Front under the leadership of the late Mama Albertina Sisulu.

After the unbanning of political parties in South Africa in 1990, he played increasingly prominent roles in the ANC. In the early 1990s, he was the ANC spokesman in Mpumalanga and later became the province’s Public Works, Roads and Transport MEC.

The Minister helped lay many of the building bricks for South Africa’s democracy. He participated in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa negotiations and was part of the team that helped draft the Constitution in the Constituent Assembly.

In 1995, he became the national spokesperson of the ANC under then President Nelson Mandela. He resumed this role over a decade later, serving from 2009 to 2014.
The Minister was part of the ANC National Executive Committee from 2007 and served as the Chief Whip of the ANC in the National Assembly from 2016 up to the end of the fifth term of parliament in 2019, when he was appointed as the Minister in the Presidency. 

Kind and generous spirit

Minister Mthembu, whose family home is in Mbombela, leaves behind his wife Thembi and five children.

“A giant tree has fallen. A communicator par excellence and an even better man. He was always friendly and shall be missed for his kind and generous spirit,” said Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, adding that the Minister was determined that people understand what is going on with COVID-19.

In October, Minister Mthembu was quoted as saying: “Let us join hands as a people to usher in a period of a caring and more just society, free of poverty and inequality and to defeat not only the COVID-19 pandemic but the social ills that we confront, like corruption, as we build a better life for all.”

“Minister Mthembu was an exemplary leader, an activist and life-long champion of freedom and democracy.”