Baptised in politics

It’s a story of strife and struggle, of solitary confinement and strength in brotherhood, a story of a fight for freedom and empowerment


It’s a story of strife and struggle, of solitary confinement and strength in brotherhood, a story of a fight for freedom and empowerment. It’s a story I had the privilege of listening to. Yet above all, it’s a story of leadership and the nature of life and its limitless possibilities.

“It wasn’t nice to be in prison, a place where one was secluded and put in solitary confinement. You had no interaction with any person all day and night. Apart from the warders, there was no other person you could speak to. This was all meant to break you down, meant to make you yearn to go out of prison and forget about the cause against Apartheid, because if you continued you would then be subjected to this continuous torture. It was cruel and excruciating. Staying alone hours and hours on end, sleeping alone, with no outside interaction. This was, detention without trial. I was subjected to such detention episodes in Witbank, Middelburg, and also in Bethal.”

Humble beginnings

Jackson Mthembu was born in 1958 in Mpumalanga. He was a student leader at Elukhanyisweni Secondary School in Witbank during the June 16 Soweto Uprisings in 1976. His activism continued when he was a student at the historic University of Fort Hare, resulting in his expulsion in 1980.

He contributed to the establishment of the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), now known as the National Union of Metal Workers (NUMSA), in which he became a senior shop steward at Highveld Steel Corporation where he worked as a training officer and was later promoted to the first group of black foremen in the steel industry.

During the state of emergency in the 1980s, he was subjected to relentless persecution by the Apartheid government, resulting in several months of detentions without trial mostly in solitary confinement.

Mthembu was charged with sabotage, treason and terrorism between 1986 and 1988, but was later acquitted during a trial known as the Bethal Terrorism trial that included 30 activists of the United Democratic Front from his hometown of Witbank.

He then moved to Gauteng (the then Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vaal region) after his house in Witbank was petrol bombed by the Apartheid police. It is during this time that he was elected as the Deputy Regional Secretary of the United Democratic Front (UDF). One of the notable activities he engaged in, was volunteering to form part of the elections campaign of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) to win the elections that led to the liberation of the people of Namibia from Apartheid South Africa in 1989.

After the 1994 democratic breakthrough, Mr Mthembu became an ANC Senator in the South African Parliament and at the same period served as the ANC National Spokesperson under President Nelson Mandela.

From 1997 he served as MEC in Mpumalanga Province for Public Works, Roads and Transport as well as many other capacities in the provincial legislature. He also served as the National Spokesperson of the ANC from 2009 to 2014 and returned to Parliament in 2014 and was appointed Chief Whip of the Majority Party 2016. After the 2019 National and Provincial elections, Mr Mthembu was appointed Minister in the Presidency, a position he currently occupies.

Mthembu’s history is ripe with political detail and alludes to an individual who has had the very best guidance in leadership.

Lessons from Madiba

Besides a wide-ranging experience and rich history, Mthembu’s political career ensured he worked directly with the great Nelson Mandela from 1995 to 1997. An experience he feels helped him grow as an individual and in politics.

“More than growing in politics, working with Madiba was quite empowering. Having worked with such an icon and seeing him giving you respect taught me a lot.

“He taught me that to be respected you need to reciprocate by showing respect to others. That was the greatest lesson I learnt from Madiba. Those will forever be unforgettable times for me. Working with such a wonderful human being was humbling, a human being who loved humanity and was down to earth notwithstanding his popularity both in the country and in the international domain. Madiba was always there for others, particularly those who were poor and worse off. From those years I learnt the value of assisting those who are worse off than I am.

“We learnt from Madiba that whatever you do in life—even in politics—you do it to serve. Madiba taught us that you don’t occupy whatever positions you are elected into for the sake of occupying those positions but you do so with one intention in mind, that being to serve our country in their various stations, particularly the poor, the marginalised and the down trodden.”

Minister in the Presidency

With just over 100 days as Minister in the Presidency, there is still a lot that needs to be done. “As the Minister in the Presidency, I have to ensure that the Seven Apex Priorities that the President has declared during his first State of the Nation Address for this 6th Administration are realised, chief among them is growing the economy and continuing to build a capable and ethical developmental state.

“The President has reiterated that we have to ensure we build a capable state which means all our state institutions need to be functional. I therefore interact with ministers, departments, the various clusters and cabinet committees to ensure that there are capacities to take forward the mandate that we carry as this ANC government as expressed in our elections Manifesto.

“As Minister in the Presidency, I am also responsible for government wide planning, monitoring and evaluation. Through the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, we have crafted targeted indicators for the 5-year period of this administration that will guide the work of government informed by the seven priorities, the National Development Plan and the electoral mandate we carry. We have received inputs from all government departments regarding their portfolios as informed by the planning tool and this is being consolidated into a Programme of Action (POA) for the 6th Administration between 2019 - 2024. It is then this government-wide POA that will inform the Performance Agreements to be signed by all Ministers, Premiers and Directors-General with the President in October. It will be our duty as the Minister in the Presidency to assist the President in assessing the perfomance of all those who have signed the agreements on a bi-annual basis.”

Mthembu believes a government that doesn’t plan properly cannot achieve its
objectives which is why they are the authority in planning. “Assisted by the National Planning Commission (NPC), we ensure that there is long-term planning and clear targets set to be achieved by all spheres of government. There are also other entities that I am responsible for in the Presidency, they include the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) meant to transform the media space; Brand South Africa (Brand SA) which is tasked with the promotion of the country in the international arena; Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) which is responsible for government-wide communication; Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) who provide official Statistics for the country.”

Leadership principles

Mthembu believes the lessons he has learnt in the past have prepared him well for his current role in government. His philosophy has been moulded by the experiences he has had from great leaders of the past like Madiba.

“One thing I have always said to people is that we must always be available to give guidance to those who work with us or who work for us. We should always be there to give whatever help that those who work with us or for us need. We should be available to assist where we can. And I think it’s a principle that makes people believe in one as a leader. Simply because they know that even if they make mistakes you will be there to assist them in correcting those mistakes.

“That is my style of leadership—when people see you they must not want to disappear and act like a lion is on its way. They must know that you are just one of them. And their achievements are your achievements.”

Mthembu’s mantra is if his team is doing well then he too is doing well. Collaboration is a key cog of his leadership philosophy.

“I believe when people around me are doing well in their roles then we are progressing. We can solve any issues—complex or simple—by sitting down, taking ownership and eventually carving out solutions. We all take ownership of the outcome as well, it is not an outcome that comes from the leader but it’s an outcome that has been deliberated on and scrutinised in an open forum facilitated by me as a leader. We are not here to just listen to one person who is a leader and do as we are told, instead, we are here to make our contributions and also own up to whatever outcomes that we have crafted. That is my style of leadership,” he says.

A harrowing past

As a young anti-Apartheid activist, Mthembu was arrested, tortured and detained many times without trial for his links to the ANC. A period he describes as not only difficult but also very frightening.

“We were seen as terrorists trying to make the country ungovernable. It was a difficult time. Being in solitary confinement was the worst part. The security branch police would from time to time, in the middle of the night, take us to different places for torture, either at their own offices or at times in the veld, just for them to torture us and the question was consistently the same,” he says.

“‘How did you get in contact with the ANC and who are the ANC people you have spoken to? That is the information we want. If you give us this information we will stop beating you up.’ In the 1980s the ANC was a banned organisation, what the police wanted was evidence that I had been in touch with it and once they got such evidence they put it before the courts. The minimum sentence one faced was ten years imprisonment for being a member and/or interacting with or fulfilling the aims and objectives of a banned organisation. That is what we were subjected to.”

Mthembu and others involved with the ANC would always take the default position of denying ever engaging with anyone from the ANC, which was untrue but only made the beatings and torture more frequent and even more brutal.

“They wanted to know if we had travelled outside the country. ‘Have you been to Lusaka? Have you been to London? Where have you been and on what business?’ The harassment and torture would intensify as we would claim ignorance. Of course, in most instances we were lying because we had met with the ANC underground and we got instruction from leadership on what to do in the townships to make them ungovernable,” he explains.

“At times we had even been to serious meetings with the leaders of the ANC who had come into the country unannounced and unnoticed and also left the country unnoticed. These leaders are the ones who gave us instructions on what to do. Where we were not able to meet with our leaders, some form of communication would be devised and reach us from our leaders both in exile and in prison on what needed to be done to make Apartheid ungovernable.”

Withstanding torture, solitary confinement, beatings and harassment were not easy and some of Mthembu’s comrades would crack under pressure while some paid the ultimate price with their lives. However, the fight for justice and the promise of a better future kept him going.

“We refused to tell the enemy that we had received instructions from our leaders. Yes, we were interacting with our movement, our banned organisation, including our glorious people’s army uMkhonto Wesizwe, we would keep all those things to ourselves and suffer for that, be tortured for that but still not say anything. Of course, there are some of our comrades who would not be able to continue to hold the information because the going would be too tough. Some, as you might know, would become state witnesses at trials but—again, I don’t blame them. I know what they went through. The obvious fact is real fear would come to grip any person faced with such a situation. What counted at that moment was whether you were prepared to die? If you were prepared to die you would not give in. So some would give in, some would not give in. However I will not at any stage be judgmental because those were very, very difficult times,” he explains.

The hope of a better tomorrow and the presence of other brothers in arms and senior leaders in prison drove him on and ensured he survived the difficult times. “At the time when some of us as youngsters went to prison, we were detained without trial. It was simply the norm and meant to break us down. One would spend six months detained without trial then after that ended, would again be subjected to another six months without trial and so on.”

“What made us resilient? I think it was just a greater commitment to wanting to see our people free and bring an end to Apartheid in our lifetime. What was also helpful to some of us was that we were not alone in prison, we had our leaders who were in prison with us. This simply told me that being in prison in itself for the cause I was fighting for meant that indeed, I was doing the right thing.

“If Madiba was in prison for fighting on our behalf and he had been there for so many years then why would we not be able to withstand it all? Madiba had been tortured like us and if he could not breakdown then who were we to breakdown? So to some of us, Madiba wasn’t only an inspiration after his release, he was also an inspiration for us while he was in prison,” he explains.

Unfortunately, Mthembu’s story was not the same for all comrades. Some lost limbs and some were murdered in prison. Luck and fate he concedes were on his side. “Perhaps some of us are very lucky because we did not die, lucky because we were not maimed. Many cannot tell this tale now, they are no more, they lie buried somewhere in graves both in our country and in faraway lands.

“They suffered greatly and they paid the highest price. We are fortunate that we did not. We are fortunate that we are still here. We are fortunate that we can tell the tale. But we owe our freedom to them and the ultimate sacifices and price they paid.”

Personal life

With a very busy life dominated by constant travel, meetings and various site visits Mthembu has to juggle a busy political life with fulfilling family time. This is not always as simple as it should be. “I think this is a question that we need to ask all political animals. During the struggle, we spent a lot of time away from our families, because we would be in prison, exile or detained in police stations. Even now it is a choice we have made that we have a bigger family out there and that bigger family is the family of people who have nothing and who depend on us to create an environment where they will have something through government policies and government delivery programs, this why I hardly spend much time at home,” he explains.

“My wife is a head nurse working in Nelspruit. My children stay with me and the oldest girl has just graduated and will be starting her Master’s degree sometime next year. This has given me a lot of joy. Earlier this year, my eldest daughter Khwezi took her own life due to depression. This was one of the most difficult times of my life as one had thought one had done everything to raise a young lady, take her through school and university. At the time of her departure, she had started working for over four years and was doing pretty well at work. This incident caused great sadness to the family. A sadness emanating especially from not understanding the illness called depression. Nothing prepared us for this. We can only rely on time to heal our wounds. As an individual in public service, we are fixated on solving people’s problems. Unfortunately sometimes at the expense of our immediate families. I believe that is the answer most activists have with regards to what drives them, it is to see all South Africans have a better life,” he explains.

“So it is this drive that ultimately takes time away from our immediate families, it’s this drive that takes us to different places where we need to change the lives of our people for the better— either in political meetings, as NEC members in visiting branches of the ANC or government meetings. Meetings that ensure we are serving our people in the best way we can while aiming to consistently improve their lives,” he says.

“We have just crafted a mechanism where we will be going to all 44 districts and the 8 metros in SA with the President to see whether the projects that are laid by the government are indeed changing the lives of our people and if not then we will have to look at ways to intervene. On 17 September, the first district the President will visit is the OR Tambo district in the Eastern Cape. That will be the start followed by a visit to Waterburg in Limpopo and eThekwini Metro in KwaZulu-Natal. All with one purpose in mind, are the projects and programmes we have in government changing the lives of our people for the better? So it is a very delicate balance between my family life and my political life and my government life but again if we were to say would you want to live this life again I will say without any equivocation that yes I would like to Sir,” he explains.

Future leaders

South Africa as many other countries has a massive youth population. The unemployment rate in SA rose to 29% in the second quarter. Hope, it seems is not at its highest. However, Mthembu believes there is a reason for optimism and there is much to do. “I can confidently say a better tomorrow is possible with the democratic architecture that we have crafted because there is no young person who can say that they cannot actualise their dreams. Particularly in a country where you can go to primary school and university with the state assisting you. The youth have the tools to be able to actualise their dreams,” he says.

“Of course things are difficult, people go to primary and secondary school, they go to universities and they come out then there are no jobs notwithstanding the support that they have received from their government to get to university. It’s one area that we are dealing with now, that’s what we will say to our young people. But they must not just wait for jobs. We must also try and be entrepreneurs ourselves so that we create the jobs for others. There are many institutions of government willing and ready to assist the youth, like the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) where young people can go to get assistance to build their businesses.”

“There are also government programmes that the Minister of Small Business Development is seized with to create an enabling environment for young people to start up their own business and cooperatives. Ultimately we have all these possibilities but, of course, with all these possibilities we also have the difficulty of an economy that is not performing optimally, all of us must be alive to that. But we are saying to our young people don’t stop trying to make a decent life, go to NYDA, go to the Department of Small Business Development. We have the arts and creative sector, sporting sector and other areas of interest that the youth can explore instead of drowning themselves in alcohol and drugs.”

Mthembu believes the presence of young entrepreneurs blazing new trails in the country is evidence of the opportunities the country has to offer today to previously disadvantaged youths.

“There are some young people who have crafted names for themselves in the private sector, owning companies, something that was never thought of 25 years ago, that you could have a young person doing very well in business and earning billions.”

Government performance

It has just been a little over 100 days in office for the 6th Administration and Mthembu believes strides have been made in the right direction though there is still more to be done. However with only 11 years remaining until the National Development Plan (NDP) targets are realised, the new administration will have to move faster to achieve the set targets.

“At this point, I believe there are two different elements to this issue. The socio-security side and the economy. From the socio-economic angle, I believe we have done reasonably well. Through our social grants architecture which supports millions of our citizens, we have been able to keep hunger away from many households. We have ensured our public health sector is functional and through the introduction of the National Health Insurance (NHI) including the poorest of the poor, we will be able to access quality healthcare,” he explains.

“A lot of developing countries envy us because many of our young people are able to go to school from basic to tertiary level assisted by the state. In effect, we have state-sponsored education in our country. At the last count we had built over four million houses since 1994 and we are still building, we are going to build
one million in the next five years. These things are appreciated by our people. Even where we have not built houses we have also regularised informal settlements and made provision for water and electricity, in informal settlements, whilst people are still waiting to get their own houses, so it is something we must be proud of in the past 25 years.”

Mthembu argues that the most difficult part has been rebooting the ailing economy.

“Where we have not done well is on the economic side. Yes, we still need to do more to create jobs, we need to do more to enhance the performance of our economy. That is our main focus in this 6th Administration. What is it that we need to do to enhance the performance of our economy? Any country that has its economic indicators levels standing at 0.8% cannot be proud, we are at 0.8%. “Any country that has serious levels of unemployment cannot be proud. We are standing at 29% of unemployment. These are challenges that we must fight and do everything to overcome, if we are to reach what we have spoken to in the NDP, 5.4% economic growth by 2030, we must do something, we must do something unusual and we cannot be keeping, doing the same thing over and over again and think that we will change the economy to perform better. We need to think out of the box and use our economic opportunities to our advantage, not think that we will do any other thing outside of what we have, so we, therefore, need to do something drastic around the economy,” he explains.

“It is madness to expect a different outcome while applying the same methods. Therefore there will be changes in approach in the pursuit of better economic outcomes. Though people criticise the NDP goals arguing that the bar is too high, I believe in aiming higher, we must work towards achieving those targets, because such growth would mean a lot to our people particularly as it results to lowering levels of poverty and the creation of much needed jobs.”

The first 100 days

The 6th Administration has been in office for just over 100 days, Mthembu is optimistic about the future despite the tough local and global economic outlook.

“The economic environment is tough at the moment; unfortunately it’s not just a South African phenomenon but a global phenomenon. We are hard at work trying to address the economic challenges we are faced with. A clear strategy to recalibrate growth in our economy has just been released by the National Treasury for public comment and government will then consider the various innovative ideas coming from South Africans on how best to ignite inclusive economic growth. However, if I were to look at where we are, from when we took office to present; I will say that – of course, there is room for improvement, we can improve, but what are some of these tangible things that we have done now?

“We have tried to revamp the way we operate to being more streamlined and solid as opposed to working in silos.

“One of this government’s priorities is an investment target of $100 billion over a preriod of five years. In 2018, the President hosted the Inaugural Investment Summit and of the R300 billion of investments announced at our Inaugural Investment Conference last year, just over R250 billion worth of projects has entered implementation phase. We continue to build a pipeline of investments, which will be showcased at the second South African Investment Conference to be held from 5 - 7 November 2019. It is this particular reason to attract investment that the President has sent envoys across the length and breadth of the world.”

He has also attended the various high level economic engagements such as the G7 and the G20 with one aim in mind, to make South Africa an investment destination. The World Economic Forum on Africa, an annual regional meeting to be hosted in Cape Town from 4 - 6 September is another platform for South Africa to showcase its huge potential for investment.

Mthembu also pays special attention to Government’s and the ANC’s progress in ensuring the minimum wage is upheld and that gender equality is getting close attention in the ANC and government.

“It has been of huge importance to us to ensure employers cannot pay less than R20 an hour to their employees. This is to curb exploitation. I am also proud to see that adherence and seriousness on gender equality has ensured we have over 47% of women in parliament and the ANC has brought in 50% women. The cabinet not counting in the President and his deputy has a 50% gender parity which is surely a point of pride,” he says.

“I am also proud that in this 6th Administration we are saying we are doing away with this notion that National Government will just be working as National Government, at some unexplained space called ‘National’, while Provincial Government will be working alone in some place called ‘Provincial’ space, then local governments will have all the difficulties of meeting people at their demands every day. Which is the unfortunate reality now. Through the District Delivery Model, we are bringing integration, collaboration and cooperation amongst all three spheres of government. This will do away with the mentality of all three spheres of government working in silos. They will now be working as a joint government. Working as National, Province and Local government, we will work together to optimise service delivery to the citizenry and ensure we pay close attention to all current projects and ensure that they are implemented on time and on budget,” he explains.

Mthembu is also proud of the progress made with regards the National Health Insurance (NHI) rollout, which he believes will change the health environment architecture while ensuring all South Africans have access to quality healthcare despite gender, race and class.

“I am quite excited by this roll out of the NHI in the 6th Administration. We now have the NHI Bill before Parliament which brings closer the reality of all our people having universal health coverage.”

In conclusion, “Everything we have said, points to a future that is bright where South Africans can feel confident that there is the political will to ignite the performance of our economy and create the much needed jobs despite the challenging economic circumstances.

“The configuration of the state and its downsizing is clear evidence that the 6th Administration will use public finances optimally and focus on service delivery.

“Our people can also look forward to a new NHI Regime that will ensure universal health coverage because a healthy nation, is a productive nation.

“Lastly, this administration is steadfast in its commitment to fight corruption wherever it rears its ugly head.”

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