South Africa has entered into a period of mourning on Thursday afternoon, after Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu was confirmed dead. President Ramaphosa confirmed this awful news a short while ago. After coming down with COVID-19 just 10 days ago, Mthembu has ultimately succumbed to his illness.
His tragic passing, aged just 62, marks a bleak moment in the battle against coronavirus. Just last week, KZN MEC Bheki Ntuli was struck down by the disease. It has been followed by another harrowing development this afternoon.
Jackson Mthembu was born on June 5th,1958 in Witbank. He grew up in Kromkrans in the Transvaal, where he went with his grandmother Sarah Mthembu to work in the mealie fields. He was aged just seven when he first rolled up his sleeves and had his first taste of hard graft. His grandmother and uncles raised him during his formative years.
And what an outstanding job they did. During the 1976 Soweto uprising, Mthembu was a student leader at Elukhanyisweni Secondary School in Witbank. On many occasions during school, he was “chucked out for not being able to afford school fees, uniforms, books”. But he never lost sight of the cause he was fighting for.
He went to the University of Fort Hare but was later expelled, and started working at Highveld Steel as a training officer. He worked his way up to become a senior steward at the Metal and Allied Workers Union in 1984, before eventually becoming the chair of the Witbank Education Crisis Committee in 1986.
Mthembu was charged with treason as he fought fearlessly against the apartheid regime, and was acquitted between 1986 and 1988. During the 1990s, he made another giant stride forward in his political career, after he was appointed the ANC spokesman in Mpumalanga. He served the province diligently, working as an MEC and Speaker for the House.
He became Chief Whip of the party in 2016, before accepting a role in the ministry to work alongside Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ultimately, we can judge Jackson Mthembu on his character as well as his work in office. You just knew when he dropped a ‘by the way…’ in a press conference, the world was being put to rights. Ultimately, he cut a friendly and welcoming figure, and exuded genuine warmth in his dealings with both the press and the public.
The man was funny. Make no bones about that. He had the odd one-liner that could turn a few heads. Even during a time of great trauma, he found a way to make us laugh – albeit inadvertently. Last May, he suggested hospitals were in desperate need of ‘vibrators’, rather than ‘ventilators’. Mthembu laughed it off, somewhat uproariously, making his moment of misfortune one of joy for the rest of us.
His passing is the type of news that can remove the air from your lungs. Mthembu was a man of decency, and a proud South African. His loss will be felt sharply across the entire country. We send our deepest condolences to his friends, family and colleagues. A true giant of the political arena has left the stage, after having his time cut short.
RIP Jackson Mthembu. You will be missed…