Obituary: A leader with backbone


Zola Skweyiya (1942-2018)

Zola Skweyiya and Chris Hani moved in parallel through the struggle. Both were born in 1942, both went into exile in 1963, both rose to powerful ANC office in the 1980s.

But in other respects Skweyiya was nothing like the flamboyant Hani, as Mark Gevisser observed in a profile of Skweyiya published in this newspaper in 1996.

“Hani — perhaps because of his early death — is freedom’s Peter Pan, perpetually youthful; Skweyiya, on the other hand, possesses the dour mission-school gravitas of those who went through Lovedale and Fort Hare a generation before him — the Tambos, the Mandelas, the Govan Mbekis.”

Former ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize said this week that Skweyiya was a “voice of reason” and “always demonstrated maturity and depth of understanding of the complexity of our political situation”. Former Constitutional Court justice Albie Sachs hailed him as “a thoughtful, organised and creative intellectual combatant”.

These impressions of Skweyiya might suggest that he was boring but his comrades remember his sober presence as being leavened by a flashing temper and a warm, sharp wit. This week, the United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa recalled how Skweyiya would tease him after his expulsion from the ANC: “Aaahh kwedin’, we chased you away, neh!” For Skweyiya, camaraderie went beyond party lines.

But his gravitas was deep and real — and it was underwritten by an imposing collateral of concrete service and transformation. Historians may struggle to pick his greatest political legacy, because there are several contenders.

Skweyiya was born in Simon’s Town in 1942, and his family was forcibly removed from the naval town soon afterwards. “If I had stayed in South Africa,” he says, “I would have landed up in jail or a drunkard, like everyone else I grew up with,” he told Gevisser in 1996. After matriculating from Lovedale School and studying at Fort Hare University, he went into exile in Tanzania as a 20-year-old. In the 1970s he studied law in Leipzig, East Germany — and experienced the ugliness of authoritarian communism at point-blank range. The experience made him a committed and self-described social democrat. “I don’t like people telling me what to do,” he told Gevisser.

In the 1980s, he represented the ANC at the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa before moving to Lusaka to chair the ANC’s constitutional committee, where he helped to crystallise the movement’s vision for a democratic state.

That task was a walk in the park compared with Skweyiya’s first Cabinet gig as minister of public service and administration. From 1994 till 1999, he oversaw the fusion of apartheid departments and Bantustan administrations into something like a unified public service. “It was the most ambitious endeavour in the history of South African state formation,” says Ryan Brunette, a researcher at the Public Affairs Research Institute.

“By Friday 13 May 1994, as the Cabinet transition left much of national government in confusion, Skweyiya was also one of the first ministers at their desk, spending the day locked in meetings to organise the transition,” says Brunette.

Later that year, the new Public Service Act brought about the political control of appointments and promotions. “Skweyiya immediately set about addressing racial and gender imbalances in the new administration, mandating the filling of vacancies and establishing over 1 000 new posts to ensure a more representative administration,” he says.

For trade union federation Cosatu, the pace of reform was too slow. In 1996, Skweyiya was attacked for being too protective of white civil servants. Even so, he was the architect of cadre deployment. That phrase is now a political swearword but in principle it was strategically sound at the time, says Brunette.

“Politicisation, which was necessary to assert control over a potentially resistant apartheid administrative class, is now the public service’s biggest challenge. Critics would argue that transformation moved too rapidly, with voluntary severance packages, intended to reduce redundancy, instead used by mainly white, scarce-skills professionals who quickly formed a class of expensive state consultants. Nevertheless, this transformation was probably Skweyiya’s greatest achievement,” says Brunette. “He put South Africa on the road to a nonracial public service, a necessary condition for any efforts to build the state.”

His next task was just as momentous: as minister of social development from 1999 to 2009, Skweyiya was central to the expansion of the welfare net.

University of Johannesburg political scientist Steven Friedman said this week: “Skweyiya decided to try to ensure that everyone who was entitled to a social grant received one. He and his officials reached out to schools, churches and any other social organisations which might have been able to identify people who qualified. So he may have done more than any other politician in this country’s history to fight poverty.”

As an old friend of Thabo Mbeki but also a nonpartisan figure, Skweyiya was tormented by the rise of Jacob Zuma. He offered this prescient remark to the Mail & Guardian in 2007, on the eve of the Polokwane conference: “Individuals come and go, but the principles of the ANC will always be there … Whatever decisions are taken now will be on our conscience forever.

“At the moment, people are worried about state resources and who controls them. What has been worrying me is what happens the day after the conference. I wonder if it will be the same ANC with the same outlook, concerned with the unity of our movement.”

In 2009 he became high commissioner in London, winning acclaim for his tenure. After his retirement, freed of his duty to be diplomatic, he decried the arrogance of the “so-called leaders” of the Zuma-era ANC national executive committee. “You see how they react in general to the ANC as a whole,” he told eNCA. “They are very hostile actually. They want to show you: ‘Today we’ve got power. Who are you?’”

No matter what project you pick as his biggest gift to our democracy, one thing is certain: Skweyiya was not a “so-called” leader. He dealt in the hard, flawed work of making freedom tangible, not in the glib theatre of office. He marched through the forest of the possible. ― Carlos Amato 

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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