Stern warning against Covid greets Mthembu’s death

A stern warning about the deadly nature of Covid-19 greeted tributes after the death of Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu, who succumbed to the virus on Thursday

ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, on behalf of the governing party, warned the country that the mooted arrival of more than a million vaccines at the end of January was not a panacea for eliminating the virus and that people should take responsibility for their health. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who appointed Mthembu to his portfolio in 2019, confirmed the late minister’s passing.

Take responsibility

Duarte, who had tears in her eyes at a briefing, used Mthembu’s death to warn the public not to be complacent about Covid-19. 

“We hope that, as we go on in the next couple of days, we will find a way to heal ourselves. But to [also] understand that the real issue here is that we all need to mind the period that we are in,” Duarte said. 

“Covid is not playing with anybody. Unless we take matters into our own hands, and we are careful, and we wear our masks, and have social distancing, and we do not attend gatherings at all; we will be losing many, many more valuable South Africans,” Duarte added. 

Responding to questions about the government’s mooted procurement of vaccines, she said the country should be assured that delivery would happen. 

“The reality is that the vaccine on [its] own is not the solution; the solution lies with us in keeping ourselves safe,” she said.

“We can only reiterate the call that we make every day for people to adhere to the regulations; to cease and desist from the conspiracy theories, and to understand that it doesn’t help you to make up a story about the vaccine [controlling] your mind,” Duarte added.

Tributes pour in

Mthembu, a former United Democratic Front (UDF) activist from Witbank, Mpumalanga, was born and raised at Komrans, near what was then Hendrina, where he had to work in the maize fields along with family from the age of seven. 

During the 1976 uprising, Mthembu was involved in protests as a student leader, which continued when he left school.

After being expelled from the University of Fort Hare for his political activities, Mthembu returned to Witbank and began working at Highveld Steel as a training officer. He became a shop steward in 1984. 

Mthembu, a former ANC spokesperson, was appointed as Mpumalanga MEC for roads and transport in 1997 under the first democratically government. 

During this time he came under fire for allegedly spending R2.3-million on 10 BMW vehicles.

Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen said the DA wanted to extend its condolences to Mthembu’s family and the ANC.

“You have lost a generous man with a big heart and an even greater sense of humour. During the time that we served opposite each other in the National Assembly, I came to know him well, and I saw a side of him that explains why he was such a revered figure in the ANC,” he said.

Steenhuisen said Mthembu was a man of integrity, “someone who managed to see the bigger picture and the greater cause”.

United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said Mthembu was a man who stood by his principles.

“He was a strong leader who stood for what he believed in. He had a good sense of humour,’’ Holomisa said.

Dedicated, committed activism

Duarte enthused about how Mthembu had been a dedicated, committed activist with “an unbelievable work ethic” who was meticulous about his work and believed that the democratic project could work.

She said Mthembu had a great sense of humour and an “amazing” ability to interact with people.

‘’We have lost a person who put the country first, at all times. For us who have lost a brother and a friend, this is a very great loss. He leaves a legacy of honesty and integrity,” she said.

“We will always love him, and we are going to miss him deeply.”

Kebby Maphatsoe, president of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association, likened the lives lost to Covid-19 to those that were lost on the battlefield in Angola. “It was normal that, when we’d go out, we knew that we would not come back together,” he said. 

“This situation with Covid, it is like that one in Angola. And we will learn to accept it, even though it is painful.”

Maphatsoe said the ANC is losing seasoned comrades at a time when the party “is fighting for unity”. 

“And when you lose those cadres who should be playing that role of uniting the African National Congress and the country at large, it is very sad.”

Mthembu died “serving the people of South Africa”.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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