Conscience from beyond

Although Zola Skweyiya has retired from Cabinet, he will always be a reminder to the ANC of its expected moral duty, writes Niren Tolsi

Outgoing social development minister Zola Skweyiya, who ended 15 years in the Cabinet this week by declining nomination for the National Assembly, looks set to retain his reputation as the ANC’s conscience, even from retirement’s rocking chair.

Skweyiya acknowledges that the ANC has attracted careerists and says there is insufficient political schooling in the party, leading to a loss of institutional memory.

“That is why we have so many problems,” he said in an interview this week.

Imbuing youth with “feelings of patriotism” and political education in the ANC Youth League will ensure that people stop concentrating on “the cars, the Mercedes, the BMWs and what shoes people are wearing”, he said.

“The youth need reminding that they are part of a greater number of people who they need to concentrate on serving—that is what the struggle was about.”

Considered a free-thinking maverick within the party he joined as a 14-year-old, Skweyiya has been the ANC’s conscience since 1994, especially during its more tumultuous moments.

He has broken ranks to publicly chide youth league president Julius Malema, especially for the “shocking disrespect” shown to Thabo Mbeki before he was removed as president last year.

Writing in the Mail & Guardian before the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference, he warned that ANC members appeared more “worried about state resources and who controls them”.

Skweyiya, who has retired for health reasons, said he took the decision last October after consulting ANC president Jacob Zuma and acting president Kgalema Motlanthe.

Initially he had hoped to retire after the 2004 general election but was convinced by Mbeki and Motlanthe, then secretary general of the ANC, to stay on until the South African Social Security Agency was established.

Skweyiya, who was born into poverty in Simon’s Town in the Western Cape, says he “is grateful that the ANC educated me. I am a product of the ANC from the beginning.”

The welfare of Umkhonto weSizwe veterans who “have not been properly reintegrated into society” remains a burning issue for him, as is the identification and maintenance of graves of fallen comrades around the world.

Even while he outlines his retirement plans, Skweyiya’s activist preoccupation with everything other than himself soon haemorrhages itself into an, ostensibly, personal discussion.
He trots out the usual clichés of reading, focusing on the family and travelling, before sharpening his focus: “I want to look up the homes and graves of fellow comrades who have fallen in the struggle—visit their villages and families. I looked at Chris’s [Hani] village while campaigning in the Eastern Cape,” he says.

“I’ve met many mothers who ask ‘Do you know so and so?’— This [closure] is an emotional issue that I think both the ANC and government could have handled better,” he says.

Skweyiya sounds like a bleeding heart. But in a country scarred by violence, and where the 270 000 jobs lost in the past three months are set to increase the number of those living in poverty, every bleeding heart helps. Over two terms in the social development portfolio he put his social conscience to good use.

Considered one of post-apartheid South Africa’s more successful ministers, he has turned around an often unsympathetic and dysfunctional department that now ensures that almost 13-million South Africans access social grants.

“In this process [of heading social development] I learned a lot about my people, South Africans in the true sense—I learnt the extent of the poverty that existed, and still exists,” he said.

Skweyiya’s advice to the Zuma government is to “concentrate on local government and ensure that all public servants and politicians, and I repeat politicians, serve the people. Also, illiteracy must be eradicated.”

“People are going into government to be exposed to state resources, especially at local-government level. I’m not saying that the other strata of government don’t have problems, but it is worst at local-government level; that is why the ANC must put its best cadres at that level.”

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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