The late Minister in the Presidency, Jackson Mthembu, has been hailed as a gentle and humble public servant, who committed his life to serving the nation.
These were among the glowing accolades attached to the life of the Minister during a virtual memorial service on Monday. The Minister was buried on Sunday in Emalahleni after succumbing to COVID-19 related complications last Thursday.
In a eulogy, Deputy President David Mabuza said Mthembu’s death was not only the passing of an individual, but a “premature departure” of a representative of the great generation.
“Our country is in the deep throes of pain. Death keeps striking. In this instance it struck in the Cabinet. The likes of Minister Mthembu…pass this way once. In their wake, they leave us the gifts of liberty and freedom. In their commendable journey, they leave footprints of a well-fought struggle against apartheid and a well-trodden journey to build the foundations of democracy in South Africa.
“It falls upon a special generation to fight for freedom and achieve it. He belongs to this eminent group and deserves to be cherished,” Mabuza said.
He saluted Mthembu for, despite having suffered personal tragedies in recent times, having demonstrated great ability to overcome pain and use his own experience to inspire hope in others.
“As we gather to celebrate him, it is not lost on us that [he recently] survived a robbery where he almost lost his life, and the pain of losing his eldest daughter and mother. This was a man always willing to meet anyone and everyone, regardless of their social standing. This was a man full of empathy and compassion, committed to the values of human solidarity and servantship.
“Having overcome this and many threats on his life as an activist, tragically, we [have now] lost him to this invisible enemy,” Mabuza said.
The Minister’s passing, he said, was a “tangible” reminder that life knows no sense of occasion.
“Just as it gives, arbitrarily in birth, it also takes indiscriminately, taking away the steady shoulders of giants. It shakes the ground that we stand on and exposes that we are but mere mortals,” said the Deputy President.
He described Mthembu as a paragon of unrivalled ethical leadership, saying the country has been robbed of a champion of social justice for the stigmatised and destitute.
The Deputy President used the address to urge the public to play its part in curbing the spread of Coronavirus, as well as support efforts to find scientific solutions.
A champion of equality
Deputy Minister in the Presidency, Thembi Siweya, who was the programme director, said the department has lost a great and jovial leader, who supported young women.
Speaking on behalf of the South African National Editors’ Forum, Eyewitness News editor Mahlatse Mahlase, described Mthembu said a “gentle soul”, whose death has cut deeply in the media fraternity.
“As the media, we have lost a communicator par excellence, a gentleman who spoke to us no matter what. The relationship between politicians and journalists will forever be a tricky one, but he took the punches, not personalising issues… He never insulted us and never took it personally.
“He was accessible… He understood he was being held accountable. He understood [media and politicians] needed each other, albeit for different reasons,” she said.
In his honour, Mahlase called for government and the general public to commit to having a sustainable and independent media.
Mthembu’s chief of staff, Musi Sikhosana, said the ministry has been dealt a significant blow by the Minister’s passing. Mthembu’s loving and caring attitude, he said, was epitomised by the working relations fostered with the ministry, entities and department staff.
“He supported everyone… he came across. The entire ministry staff will dearly miss the Minister and the times shared with him… The news of his passing has caught us off guard and it has not sunk in.”
Consoling staff, Sikhosana called on them to find time to mourn the passing of the man whom he described as a father figure, “who knew us all by name, not as staff members, but as family”.
Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke, speaking on behalf of agencies that reported to the Minister, said the country has lost a dignified servant, who was committed to serving the nation with humility.
“We were comfortable working with him. We are used to a world where authority is feared. We comfortably referred to him by his first name, not to undermine him, but as brother. We had jovial banter. We told stories. He [made us] laugh but not forgetting the job at hand,” said Maluleke.
Mthembu, he said, drove home the message of humility for those who reported to him.
“He wanted the message of serving with pride to transcend in all of us. He made technocrats flourish in their duty. This is a person whom we never wanted to disappoint.”
Despite his prominent position, Maluleke said the Minister accepted the he was not beyond reproach.
“He would always appreciate [correction] when he made a mistake – that was his humility. He… never took anything personally,” said Maluleke said.
The Statistician-General likened Mthembu’s death to a soldier losing his life in war.
“It gives us more responsibility to fight this (pandemic). Let us, in his memory, save as many lives as possible. We will do all we can to support government to achieve this.”
MP and former Finance Minister, Mondli Gungubele, reminisced about Mthembu’s professionalism in the National Assembly chambers, even as he interacted with opposition party MPs.
“He was consistent. He respected the right of other parties to exercise the role for which they were elected, and their right to express their views. He never wanted to personalise issues. He made sure that Parliament is a chamber where great ideas are contested.’
Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said government has been inundated by comforting words from all corners of the world.
“They’ve said Jackson was a servant of the people, excellent communicator and a unifier. We want to thank all those who have spoken, written and unleashed the tapestry of Minsiter Mthembu’s beautiful life.”
Public Service and Administration Minister, Senzo Mchunu, said Mthembu was a leader many should seek to emulate.
“He was honest, truthful and a good listener. His unwavering fight against corruption is commendable and his legacy is one that must be kept alive.”
Justice and Correctional Services Minister, Ronald Lamola, hailed Mthembu for being at the forefront of government’s fight against the pandemic and for being a guiding light for the youth in the ANC.
International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Naledi Pandor, said her colleague’s passing has left cabinet poorer.
“His nature was that of optimism, courage and sincere enterprise, and had strong ethical opinions stated without fear — that was his political badge. He was a premier spokesperson. He would mesmerise media practitioners like no other.”
Family spokesperson Teddy Gomba said although the family has been dealt a severe blow by Mthembu’s death, they have found solace in that he had made a contribution to South African society. “For that, we’d like to thank his party and the people of South Africa for giving him that opportunity.”