The late Jackson Mthembu. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
The late Jackson Mthembu. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Jackson Mthembu, one of the ministers at the forefront of communicating the government’s strategy on the Covid-19 pandemic, has succumbed to the virus. He was 62.

The minister in the presidency died on Thursday morning, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement. Mthembu was the sixth member of the executive to contract the virus since the pandemic took hold in the country in March 2020. It has claimed 40,000 lives so far and devastated the economy.

"He was a much-loved and greatly respected colleague and comrade, whose passing leaves our nation at a loss," Ramaphosa said.

Mthembu wrote on Twitter last week that he had visited a military hospital in Pretoria to get medical attention for abdominal pain and had tested positive for Covid-19. He thanked those who had wished him a speedy recovery.

His passing comes at a time when the country is in the midst of a second wave of infections, prompting Ramaphosa to tighten restrictions and move the country into level 3 of lockdown regulations. The government has been embroiled in controversies over the restrictions, such as the closure of beaches and the prohibition of alcohol sales, while it has faced intense criticism for its failure to procure vaccines.

On Thursday, parties across the political spectrum were united in their tributes.

The IFP said Mthembu was a "giant and patriot". DA leader John Steenhuisen, who served as the opposition party’s chief whip when Mthembu held the same position in the ANC, said while they were adversaries, they were also friends. The EFF said SA had "lost a powerful force who [dis]charged his responsibilities with passion".

Parliament’s presiding officers, led by National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise and National Council of Provinces chair Amos Masondo, said SA had lost a "fiercely vocal" freedom fighter.

"He was a patriotic South African and a strong defender of constitutional democracy. He was a dependable reservoir of knowledge and wisdom, particularly on the workings of the legislative arm of the state, which he served for years at provincial and national levels in various capacities," they said.

Mthembu was appointed minister in the presidency responsible for planning, monitoring & evaluation by Ramaphosa in 2019 after the general elections.

Since the start of SA’s lockdown in March, he had become one of the most high-profile ministers, often given the responsibility for communicating cabinet decisions.

Before joining the cabinet Mthembu served as the ANC’s chief whip in parliament from 2016 until 2019 and previously served as ANC national spokesperson during former president Jacob Zuma’s first term. Mthembu did a two-year stint as ANC national spokesperson from 1995 to 1997, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

His ANC career was not without controversy and he was accused by opposition parties of using his position as chief whip to shield Zuma from accountability. In 2017, he ordered ANC MPs to toe the party line and not follow their conscience in a motion of no confidence against Zuma.

However, as the political tectonic plates started to shift ahead of the governing party’s Nasrec conference in December 2017, Mthembu’s rhetoric started to change as well, telling Reuters that whoever became ANC leader should tell Zuma to go as president of the country.

‘Great courage’

Business Unity SA president Sipho Pityana said Mthembu was a "reliable social partner". Even in dealing with the controversies of the Zuma era, he had shown "great courage" under difficult circumstances.

"As with all those who have lost their lives to Covid-19, the greatest tribute we can pay is to embrace and enact the advice minister Mthembu provided at every media conference and public engagement: we must wash our hands regularly, observe social distancing, wear face masks in public and use government’s Covid-19 app," Pityana said in a statement.

Mthembu, who hailed from Emalahleni and was referred to as Mvelase, his clan name, cut his teeth in politics as a young student in the 1970s.

"Comrade Jackson died with his boots on working for the people of this country," said ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, who worked with Mthembu at the ANC’s headquarters in Johannesburg.

The death toll from Covid-19 in SA, which has been the worst hit on the continent, has almost reached 40,000.

The pandemic has killed several politicians in Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe’s foreign minister, Sibusiso Moyo, who died this week. Last week, the disease killed two senior cabinet ministers and two other senior political figures in Malawi.

Update: January 21 2021
This article has been updated throughout.

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