Jackson Mthembu. Picture: Freddy Mavunda
Jackson Mthembu. Picture: Freddy Mavunda

On January 11, 10 days before he died, minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu tweeted: "I want to thank the many South Africans who have wished me a speedy recovery. As a people we must overcome Covid-19."

It was a clarion call by a minister who played a critical role in enhancing the co-ordination and integration of government efforts in the fight against the pandemic, even as he was fighting Covid-19 himself.

There is, therefore, no more fitting tribute to Mthembu than to fight, and defeat, Covid-19.

The pandemic offers a tangible reminder that life knows no sense of occasion — just as it gives arbitrarily in birth, it takes indiscriminately in death, removing the steady shoulders of giants. It shakes the foundations upon which we stand tall, and exposes that we are mere mortals.

Mthembu succumbed to Covid-19 after surviving an armed robbery in which he almost lost his life, as well as the traumatic loss of his mother and eldest daughter.

Despite these personal adversities and tragic moments, he demonstrated an amazing ability to overcome pain, and to use his own experiences to inspire hope.

He was always willing to meet anyone and everyone, regardless of their social standing. He was a man of empathy and compassion, committed to the values of human solidarity and servant leadership.

SA has been unjustly robbed of a champion of social justice for the marginalised and destitute. For him, public-service leadership meant that in everything we do, we must never stray from a relentless pursuit to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable communities.

Mthembu’s commitment to freedom, human rights and democratic governance was beyond reproach. He stood for the truth, and nothing less.

His untimely passing is a great loss to his family, and grief is shared by many, from diverse political formations and ideological orientations, who simply admired his humanity.

It is not surprising to find leaders from different sectors of society and in the media fraternity standing undivided in commending his personal and professional attributes.

To them, he was an exceptional bridge-builder — a moulder of consensus across the political divide and a model of selfless public service.

SA has been unjustly robbed of a champion of social justice for the marginalised and destitute

More recently, in the sixth administration, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, such attributes guided his exercise of executive authority in overseeing a diverse portfolio of communication-related entities.

Mthembu was a fitting person to lead these entities, for his life was always about giving meaning and effect to basic rights such as access to information for all, media freedom for all, and freedom of expression without censure.

As a minister in the presidency, he inspired all staff, regardless of rank, and he respected them equally. He worked actively with administrative leadership in the institution to build an agile, responsive and fit-for-purpose presidency that provides leadership at the apex of government.

He was always preoccupied with realising the ideal of a capable and developmental state. This is important, now, in fighting the second surge of Covid-19, with the strength of our health-care system being tested.

As the cabinet spokesperson, he put his talents to great use in ensuring that, as government, we build a coherent machinery that is able to translate people’s aspirations into tangible programmes, and to simplify complex policy propositions in a way that people would understand and to which they would relate.

As we continue where he left off, in building a united, prosperous nation, we celebrate the life of this gentle giant; a decent, upright leader who saw the occupation of public office not as a vehicle for the pursuit of selfish interests but for the advancement of public good, the transformation of society, transparency of the state and democratic governance.

Mthembu has done his part and served as a role model, to his colleagues and to the youth of our nation. In honouring his life, it is incumbent upon all of us — from labour, business, academia and civil society, as well as inter-faith and traditional institutions — to come together in the fight to save human lives and livelihoods and, finally, defeat the pandemic.

Jackson Mthembu passed on in the line of duty; to the very end he was in the service of others. Lala ngoxolo Mvelase.

*Mabuza is deputy president of SA

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