Sat, 27 Feb 2021

OBITUARY | Jackson Mthembu: A giant has fallen

22 Jan 2021, 14:40 GMT+10

  • Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu died on Thursday after contracting Covid-19.
  • He was hospitalised on 11 January, after visiting the Military One Hospital to get medical attention for abdominal pain.
  • Mthembu had an easy-going, jovial demeanour, which made him easily relatable to the media.

"They are human, too" - this was the among the last public words from Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu, 10 days before he died of Covid-19 complications.

After announcing that he had tested positive for Covid-19, a Twitter user commented that "the same people who tell us to wash hands and wear masks every day are contracting Covid-19".

Mthembu responded to this by saying that politicians are also human.

"As a people, we must overcome Covid 19," he tweeted before the news came that he had tested positive for Covid-19.

Mthembu was the face of the government's communication during the pandemic, where he would chair press conferences and field questions to the executive about decisions and regulations related to its fight against Covid-19.

On 29 December, Mthembu chaired his last media conference of the National Coronavirus Command Council, where he thanked South Africans for heeding the government's call to help curb the spread of Covid-19.

That briefing, which would be his last, was no different than many other media briefings he chaired: blending a serious, no-nonsense approach with his signature laugh.

Mthembu's cheeky smile was hard to miss and so was his laugh.

His easy-going, jovial demeanour made him easily relatable to the media he frequently engaged with, civil servants and politicians who worked with him, and those on the opposition benches.

It was not uncommon for him to share banter with opposition MPs, scold a journalist during a televised briefing or tease a minister for taking too long to answer questions.

Minister in the Presidency

Mthembu was appointed Minister in the Presidency by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019. Prior to this, he was the chief whip of the ANC between 2014 and 2019.

He notably had a difficult job of cracking the whip against ANC MPs and the executive during the tail-end of former president Jacob Zuma's reign.

READ | Jackson Mthembu dies of Covid-19 related complications

He was instrumental in the establishment of the ad hoc committee of the SABC, and did not shy away from holding his peers accountable.

Mthembu had the difficult task of leading the ANC caucus in its defence of Zuma against a litany of motions of no confidence, until 2018 when Mthembu said the party would vote to boot out the then president should he not resign.

As ANC chief whip, he was well-liked by the Parliamentary Gallery Association and was very approachable to journalists within the parliamentary precinct.

His cooperative approach to the media came from his days as ANC spokesperson, where he was the mouthpiece of Luthuli House between 2009 and 2014.

'Don't buy City Press, don't buy'

He did not, however, always have a cordial relationship with the media.

In 2011, he famously led the chant "don't buy City Press, don't buy" - in defence of Zuma.

In the ANC, Mthembu was initially an avid supporter of Zuma, but that relationship soon soured.

In the run up to the ANC's Nasrec conference, he was Ramaphosa's most vocal supporter and remained a strong ally of the president until his death.

In announcing his death on Thursday, Ramaphosa said:

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

He is known to have cut his political teeth in student politics in the 1970s, where he was a student leader at Elukhanyisweni Secondary School in Witbank during the 1976 student uprisings.

His anti-apartheid activism continued as a student leader at the University of Fort Hare, which led to his expulsion.

Mthembu was active in the trade union movement as well as the United Democratic Front (UDF).

According to the Presidency, after the unbanning of political parties in 1990, Mthembu was entrusted with the responsibility of leading the Witbank branch of the ANC.

Between 1990 and 1994, he worked full-time as ANC spokesperson in Mpumalanga and participated as ANC staff component at the Codesa negotiations.

It said in a statement:

"Since the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, he has served in several strategic roles, including as a member of the ANC Mpumalanga provincial executive committee. He has been part of the ANC national executive committee (NEC) since 2007."

The statement continued: After the first democratic elections in 1994, he was part of the first ANC Members of Parliament contingent deployed in the then Senate (now NCOP), where he contributed to the crafting of our democratic Constitution in the Constituent Assembly then under the able leadership of Honourable CR Ramaphosa, MP, the current President of the Republic. He was later appointed as MEC in Mpumalanga Province for Public Works, Roads and Transport, serving under the successive Premierships of Matthew Phosa and Thabang Makwetla."

Mthembu was also spokesperson of the ANC under President Nelson Mandela from 1995 to 1997 - a job he would later take on again under Zuma in 2009.

Personal life

Ramaphosa said on Thursday his thoughts and prayers were with Mthembu's family at this time of loss.

"He was a much-loved and greatly respected colleague and comrade, whose passing leaves our nation at a loss."

In 2019, Mthembu opened up about the pain of finding his 25-year-old daughter's body after she had committed suicide in his Pelican Park parliamentary village home in Cape Town.

"I've said to my wife, Thembi, that I would not wish for anyone to walk into the room of your child and see your lifeless daughter hanging from the rails of curtains," said Mthembu during Nokhwezi's funeral.

He later, in an interview, said that he blamed himself for his daughter's suicide.

"It made me realise that depression is still something we need to educate ourselves about," he said.

READ | Jackson Mthembu confirms his eldest daughter has died

In 2011, Mthembu opened up about his son's addiction to drugs and the devastation that came with it.

He disclosed how, despite trying to help him on many occasions, his son would relapse.

Once, in a light-hearted moment in Parliament, Mthembu introduced his daughter, Thuli, who was sitting in the media gallery.

He jokingly warned her that, if she sees anyone in a red beret, in reference to the EFF MPs, she should run.

On social media, Mthembu often praised his wife, Thembi, a practising nurse in a public institution in Nelspruit.

Mthembu was hospitalised on 11 January after visiting the Military One hospital in the capital to get medical attention for abdominal pain.

After medical tests, it was confirmed that he tested positive for Covid-19.

Mthembu was 63 years old at the time of his death, and is survived by his wife, his children and comrades in the ANC.

Hamba Kahle Mvelase. May your soul rest in peace.

Source: News24

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