A phone call to ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte is one of the most nerve-racking for any young journalist to make. Her sharp tongue quickly shreds confidence and blurs a list of memorised questions.
“I was fine before you called me. What can I help you with?” she replies to the usual “Hello, how are you ma’am?” pleasantries.
Duarte’s dislike for the media is an open secret, except of course for (formerly) Gupta-owned media outlets ANN7 and The New Age.
In the early years of her career, Duarte was once in close proximity to the media when she worked in the publishing sector. Now she can barely tolerate journalists, many of whom she accuses of deliberately reporting negatively on ANC leaders such as President Jacob Zuma.
“I’m not a very forgiving person,” she says of herself as she lists a series of Mail & Guardian articles she says have caused her a lot of pain and destroyed close relationships. She was referring to an article published in the M&G in 1998, which claimed that she had used taxpayers’ money to pay for an overseas trip for her alleged lover.
After detailing what she says is a “long and painful history” with the M&G, she declines the request for a profile interview. It was expected.
Surprisingly, she is open, patient and almost motherly during the brief conversation, in stark contrast to the petite, stern-looking woman often seen shooing journalists out of her way at ANC events.
ANC Women’s League secretary Meokgo Matuba laughs when she reflects on the angst a conversation with Duarte can induce.
“Yes, she’s somebody who, when you talk to her, you must really line up your facts correctly. And when you speak to her, you don’t take things for granted. When things are wrong, she will not go behind your back — she will tell you straight,” she said.
When told of Matuba’s description of her, Duarte lets out a lazy giggle.
Today one of Zuma’s most vocal supporters, Duarte’s history in the ANC dates back to her recruitment by Albertina Sisulu in 1979 at the age of 26. After that, she played a key role in setting up women’s league structures across the country.
The former high commissioner in Mozambique, Duarte also worked as a personal assistant to Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990. In 1994, she served in Gauteng’s first democratic government as MEC for safety and security.
She was chief operations officer in the presidency, but resigned in 2010 after alleged tensions surfaced between her and Lakela Kaunda, who headed Zuma’s private office at the time.
A member of the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) since 1999, Duarte was elected party deputy secretary general in 2012 — taking over from Thandi Modise, who had supported Kgalema Motlanthe’s losing faction at the Mangaung conference.
“To be honest, she was elected as a compromise candidate,” said an ANC member who was at the 2012 elective conference. “Consensus was reached around her name; it’s not like she was genuinely nominated from the branches, regions, provinces up until the conference.”
At this month’s ANC conference at Nasrec in Soweto, Johannesburg, however, 357 branches across mainly Mpumalanga, North West and the Free State have nominated Duarte to continue serving as deputy secretary general should Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma win the party presidency.
Duarte’s home province of Gauteng has not nominated her, however, and has instead chosen former ANC Youth League secretary Vuyiswa Tulelo for the position.
For the women’s league, which has also called for her re-election, Duarte’s advancement of women’s issues in the ANC is why its members want her to remain in her position.
After the 2014 general elections, Duarte lambasted the party for appointing only a single woman premier and not prioritising the representation of women in executive leadership positions.
Despite this outspokenness, the women’s league has chosen to nominate her for a role that essentially serves as a support function to the secretary general. It has nominated Free State Premier Ace Magashule to be ANC secretary general.
Matuba said the league did have hopes of having Duarte as secretary general but realised that it would have to choose between having a woman president or a woman secretary general for now.
“Strategically, we want to take the position of president. And comrades were saying you can’t take them both. They said to us: ‘No, it can’t be. Let it be step by step,’” she said.
The president of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association, Kebby Maphatsoe, praised Duarte’s abilities and said she played the role of a unifier in the ANC.
“You know we’ve got factions in the ANC, but comrade Jessie will always be firm and principled on organisational matters. And I think she has been a pillar to the SG [secretary general] because he [Gwede Mantashe] cannot work alone. That is the best DSG [deputy secretary general] that I have ever seen since I’ve been in the NEC,” Maphatsoe said.
But another ANC member said Duarte should not be considered for the position of secretary general because she was not impartial and was openly biased towards Zuma.
She is seen as Zuma’s last remaining confidante among the ANC’s top six officials.
In May, Duarte was reported to have got into a screaming match with Mantashe after Zuma was booed at Cosatu’s May Day rally in Bloemfontein. She reportedly criticised Mantashe for sending Zuma “out to the wolves”.
When members of the party’s top brass — including Mantashe, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and treasurer general Zweli Mkhize — distanced themselves from Zuma’s midnight Cabinet reshuffle in March, Duarte did not join them.
“She is openly biased,” said the ANC member. “In all honesty, Gwede does not show everybody he is biased. We know he is sympathetic to CR [Ramaphosa] but he is not a secretary of a faction; he is a secretary of the ANC. Therefore, his bias stays in his house. Unfortunately, uMam’ Jessie is not doing that.”
Some party members in the Free State have also accused Duarte of playing a role in the mess that the province finds itself in ahead of the national and provincial elective conferences. They claim she has emboldened the ANC’s Free State provincial executive committee (PEC) to continue to preside over party processes despite its expired mandate.
“Remember, we went to court to try to dissolve the PEC. They [the PEC] were proactive; they asked Jessie to write a letter stating that the NEC is giving an extension to the provincial executive committee,” said the Free State party member.
“We all know that letter was simply a tool that was used to prevent the court from taking a decision, so that that court can say: ‘But here is a letter from the DSG, so why do you guys want to disband the province?’”
These allegations can’t be put before Duarte, who has already decided that she won’t discuss them.
Instead, she reveals another aspect of her complicated history with the M&G. In the 1980s, while working for Ravan Press, a publishing company co-founded by Beyers Naude, she helped to raise funds to keep The Weekly Mail, later renamed the M&G, afloat. That seems to be the only affection she has left for the publication. Final pleasantries are exchanged and the nerve-racking conversation ends.