Picture: Mousse/Abacapress.com – The address by former president Thabo Mbeki at the memorial service of Jessie Duarte should not be taken lightly, says the writer.
By Bheki Mngomezulu
The address by Thabo Mbeki at the memorial service of Jessie Duarte should not be taken lightly.
The passing of ANC Deputy Secretary General, Jessie Duarte on Sunday 17 July 2022 left a void, not just in the ANC but in the country as a whole. She was one of very few disciplined members of the organisation who was not shy to stand for the truth and not allow anyone to derail her from what she believed in.
Duarte was an empathetic person who put other people’s needs before hers. During the heydays of apartheid, she played a significant role in raising funds to support the young cadres who joined the liberation struggle. These funds were meant to ensure that these youths were able to further their studies. She envisioned a future South Africa that would be free of racial discrimination and where education would open doors for the former oppressed masses.
Secondly, Duarte was the voice of the neglected women – both during and after apartheid. She always wanted to see women being accorded the same status as their male counterparts. Her argument was that the struggle involved men and women. As such, the newly found liberation had to benefit both.
In the new political dispensation, Duarte played a critical role in the ANC and the country. She was the first MEC for community safety in the Gauteng legislature. She also served as South Africa’s Ambassador to Mozambique. She served as Deputy Secretary General of the ANC – a position she held until her passing.
Importantly, she was the only woman in the top 6 of the ANC after the December 2017 national conference. Duarte was the voice of hope for those who were neglected within and outside the ANC.
Addressing the mourners at her memorial service, former President Thabo Mbeki did justice to this fallen heroine. He made a number of profound statements and was honest in his address. In this piece, I highlight a few of his submissions which are worth ruminating about.
Among other things, Mbeki emphatically and repeatedly stated that the ANC is right in identifying the triple challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment as some of the key issues that the country has to wrestle with.
Importantly, Mbeki made a frank and honest statement that as things stand, government has no plan whatsoever to address these challenges. He was right. If such a plan existed, it would have been implemented by now.
Expounding this point, Mbeki recalled the State of the Nation Address (SONA) that was delivered by the sitting president, Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2022. In his address, Ramaphosa made many promises, including the one on how government would address the challenges referred to above. Mbeki’s correct observation and assessment of the situation led him to the conclusion that such a promise has not been kept.
This was the best way to honour a person like Duarte. It was necessary for all the leaders to be honest about the current challenges that are facing the country as opposed to sugar-coating them with the view to protect those in government. For this, Mbeki should be applauded!
Another profound contribution made by Mbeki at Duarte’s memorial service was his call for South Africa to draw lessons from what has happened elsewhere in Africa and beyond. For example, he reminded mourners about the commotion or unrest that took place in Tunisia in 2011 – which became known as The Arab Spring.
Mbeki’s analysis was on point. He recalled that this historic episode in Tunisia’s history was triggered by what appeared to be a simple incident. The police attacked a street vendor and destroyed the goods he was selling. The vendor set himself alight and this caused anger among members of the public who went on a rampage against the government and eventually toppled it.
What was important in Mbeki’s recollection was that such an incident was bound to happen sooner or later. There were a number of concerns that had been raised by the public but were ignored by the government.
People’s lives had been negatively affected by the failings of the government. Each day, the problems were brewing. All that was needed was a spark that would ignite and cause an inferno. The issue of the street vendor became that spark.
Bringing this incident closer home, Mbeki warned that sooner or later, South Africa might face a similar situation. He said that the country has many problems which the government is failing to resolve. In his view, for as long as these challenges continue, pressure mounts on the government of the day.
Sooner or later, there will be a spark that will ignite and set the country ablaze. This is not implausible. If it happened in Tunisia, it can happen in South Africa too.
In fact, the timing of Mbeki’s speech was perfect. Just recently, the people of Sri Lanka took to the streets when issues such as constantly increasing fuel prises left their pockets empty. Eventually, they stormed the residence of their leader forcing him to resign. This was a culmination of events that had started simmering for some time until they reached boiling point.
Now, the question becomes: what would insulate South Africa from a similar situation?
The signs are already there. Not so long ago, there was a call from within and outside the ANC for the president to step down. The unrest may not have exploded now (partly because the number of people who were involved in it was small), but what will happen should the challenges enumerated by Mbeki remain unresolved?
Citing Solly Mapaila, the new General-Secretary of the SACP, Mbeki raised concern that Mapaila admitted that the leadership had failed to lead. He went on to lament the fact that in Mapaila’s view, South Africa is on an autopilot. In no time, the plane might crash.
Only then will the leadership wake up. By then, it will be too late. Mbeki’s point about the country’s challenges needing a spark is very critical. In 2021, South Africa had a taste of that. Inequality, poverty and unemployment have been with us for some time.
The incarceration of former President Jacob Zuma became the spark that caused ignition in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. In the process, over 300 people lost their lives, infrastructure was completely destroyed and many businesses collapsed – resulting in job losses.
This should have served as a warning shot to the country’s leadership. We were lucky in 2021 because in the main, the unrests were confined to the two provinces. However, there is no guarantee that another spark will not cause an inferno and shake the entire country.
A number of questions were triggered by the 2021 unrests. One of them is: how did we get here? In other words what led to the unrests? Secondly, did we as a country have no way to avoid this situation? Thirdly and most importantly, are we ready for a bigger unrest that might engulf the entire country if the challenges enumerated by Mbeki remain unresolved?
These are very critical questions. Mbeki should be commended for using his address at Duarte’s memorial service to warn the country about a potential untenable situation. Sounding this warning when the nation was mourning the passing of a figure like Duarte was indeed appropriate.
The passing of Duarte is a sad moment and a loss both to the ANC and the country. The best way to honour her is to advance her cause. This means that her comrades in the ANC and the Alliance partners have to go beyond making mere statements. They should act on the advice made by Mbeki.
Beyond the ANC, South Africa as a nation should take Mbeki’s warning seriously. The reason for that is very simple. South Africa does not belong to the ANC alone. The ANC is simply the governing party. It is holding this position on the mandate given by the people of South Africa through the ballot – a mandate which could be taken away in 2024 if the party fails to deliver on its promises.
Therefore, Mbeki’s address was directed at the ANC as much as it was directed to South Africa as a whole. There are certain things that we need to do as a nation in honour of the late Duarte.
As I conclude, another issue which featured prominently in Mbeki’s address reflected on one of Duarte’s main concerns. That issue is race and racial divisions. Different speakers recalled that Duarte was opposed to racial profiling and racial divisions in the country. She despised racial segregation that kept her away from her ANC comrades just because they were not classified as Coloured.
Zooming on this issue, Mbeki looked at the audience and concluded that there was no racial inclusion. If race adds to the triple changes referred to above, what would it do to this country if left unresolved?
Mbeki’s address should not be taken lightly. Should we as a country ignore it, we shall be doing that at our own peril.
Mngomezulu is professor of political science and deputy dean of research at the University of the Western Cape.