By: Clyde N.S Ramalaine
A whole human to the end betrothed to her convictions
The past week was one of the toughest some of us lived through. Excruciating because not one but two exigent and uncompromising leaders I shared relations transitioned a day apart. Interviewed on Newsroom Afrika and Salaamedia, I attempted to make the point that perhaps our discourse warrants engaging how individuals of the calibre such as Yasmin ‘Jessie’ Duarte and Donato Mohammed Omaruddin Mattera be eulogised in funeral settings. I submit that leaders of this type who long transcended all artificial borders of race, class, religion, ethnicity, gender, language, tribe, and ideology belonged to all of us. They, therefore, cannot be celebrated in a one-dimensional sense.
Hardly ten days ago, I was in conversation with a senior ANC leader, Cadre Nomvula Mokonyane. In such a conversation, I concluded by asking her to relate a message to DSG Jessie Duarte. It was a simple message: Tell her I am praying for her and hope to visit her soon. Little did I know that two days after my message, the Sunday morning of July 17, would break, finding me very early on the road and receiving notices that the ANC’s DSG had transitioned. Saddened by the news, many moments of interaction, contact, meetings, and time spent flooded my mind. The adage goes that dynamite comes in small size. Jessie defined this adage perhaps to the fullest.
I was privileged to see and encounter Comrade Jessie in different shades and distinct spaces in one-on-one and group settings. These ranged from interactions with some of us as clergy and in our other spaces of vocation and activist lives. Other moments of a more private designation in which she sought my counsel. This musing aims to share some of those moments and encounters in the most honest of ways.
Our first interactions date back to probably the early 90s. It was not in any ANC meeting but in a community setting, perhaps the first point I want to make about the Jessie I knew. A community activist means someone who knew where she came from, someone not detached from her upbringing, who never forgot the soil she was raised. Seeing her in Riverlea, Westbury, Eldorado Park even Reiger-Park was not accidental; she simply belonged in these spaces as her apartheid identify classification defined her. Yet Jessie was a community activist not in the narrowness of an apartheid classification and identity marking. She could never really be confined by the heresy of the draconian system. Everything about her defied, challenged, and dared that system until she suffered the fullness of its hatred.
The pint-sized Duarte was a very grounded person. Grounded leaders lead not from knowing everything but from an internal compass of conviction on what defines the just cause. In a society where many fluctuate and vacillate, a steadfastness borne from a sincere conviction that refuses to wilt is rarely found among ANC leaders. Duarte was ideologically grounded in what I would call a socialist left-leaning. Yet it was not an ideology in choked construction but in her own philosophically developed but practically lived intrinsic persuasion of what our people need. Her groundedness was not an add-on, but it was naturally observable and self-evident when you sat with her and engaged in a state of anger or laughter.
Duarte was a centred human being endowed with a deep sense of compassion. She was compassionate towards her fellow humans. I dare assert that her activism was saturated with compassion for the people. And her heart for people saw her passionately professing and working for the ideals of the ANC. Ideals are best understood in its articulated spheres of democracy, non-racialism, and non-sexism. These were not slogans for Cadre Jessie, who sought to remind all and sunder of them all the time. It was as if she knew the ANC itself was in its worst danger of undoing its own ideals since the demons of racism, patriarchy, and chauvinism did not escape her beloved movement.
Jessie did not fear being vulnerable. Leaders are not robust because they are immune to pain or vulnerability. One such moment of vulnerability was on the occasion of the death of Professor Keorapetse ‘Bra Willie’ Kgositsile. Kgositsile was a dear friend and cadre to Duarte. It was a time when the high-tide waves of factionalism rolled in the ANC, where some were demonised, and others deified a sponsored and scripted campaign led by a lusty section of the SA media. I received a call around 11h40pm. It was DSG Jessie. From the tone of her voice, which sounded brittle, I could hear she was afflicted and disappointed. She shared that she received the news. I am not sure who in the Kgositsile family apparently told her she was not welcomed because she was part of the corrupt ANC leaders and that Bra Willie’s funeral could not accommodate those. This was arguably the moment I saw the vulnerability of the ANC DSG as she cried and reached out for my spiritual counsel at that moment. After 25 minutes of talking, counsel, and prayer, she felt better. This moment had me pen a piece about how funerals moments of unity are in this season, detailing moments of division. I stood the other night at Oom Don Mattera’s burial. I could not help but observe that those who denied Jessie to attend the funeral of Bra Willie failed because they literally lay from each other two graves apart with Oom Don in the middle, meaning they are probably talking about how silly some living ones can be.
Comrade, Jessie, like all of us, could lose her cool and go off on you, and yet she could apologise when shown the error of her ways. I vividly recall how in 2012, at the passing of Cadre “Oom’ Awie Williams, originally from Noordgesig and later Riverlea. Oom Awie was a veteran in the ANC, our time dating back to Chris Hani’s funeral in April 1993. The march of mourners from Riverlea to the FNB stadium on the day was led by Oom Bill Jardine, Oom Awie Williams, Comrade Patrick Flask, Trevor Manuel, and myself. We would walk again together at the funeral of Oom Bill Jardine, poking fun as to who was next.
Now Oom Awie and Aunt Faye were like parents to many of us. Lynne and I, as young pastor-couple based in Eldorado Park, would spend many Sunday afternoons visiting the elderly couple. Aunt Faye could bake the most delicious sponge cake, so my sweet tooth could not stay away. Over time their children and grandchildren adopted us as part of the family. Aunt Faye first died and later Oom Awie. Oom Awie’s funeral was held at the URC-Riverlea congregation, conducted by Rev. Reggie Nel, where many attended expressed grave disappointment with the ANC. Because I arrived late from the Cape Town flight, the Williams family asked that I say a few words at the gravesite. It was self-evident that many were upset with the ANC. When given time to speak, I attempted to distinguish between the ANC as an organisation and people in the ANC who may have failed the likes of Oom Awie.
On my way back to the airport, I received a call from Jessie. She was highly irritated and went off on me. I allowed her to vent and then equally corrected her, reminding her how I brought the case of Oom Awie, Oom Georgie Du Plessis, and Aunt May’s ANC pension to her. I corrected her and concurred that she and others failed the apartheid-classified Coloured elders by not ensuring they get the pensions others get. Anyone who knows me knows I, too, will not be silent. That call ended abruptly. About fifteen minutes later, the phone rang again, and it was again Jessie. This time she was calling to apologise unreservedly for having lost her cool. She said Comrade, I was wrong. I also apologised that I responded to her yelling. We concluded our conversation. As the proverb goes, we kissed and made up.
Another moment of personal reflection with Jessie dates to the questionable SACC “state capture” unburdening announced exercise. Comrade Jessie wanted to clear her name and rightfully took strong exception because she was tagged with corruption. In her discussions with me on this subject, she requested that when the SACC calls her, she wanted me accompany her. She would refer to me as her pastor. Comrade Jessie was pained that her children were drawn into the factional attacks on her. Like any mother, she was very protective over her children and did not want them associated with that, which was wrong.
The Jessie I knew was a caring soul that could share in one’s joy. On August 28, 2015, I received a call from DSG Duarte; she sounded so excited and happy. She informed me that the Deployment Committee of the ANC had just concluded, and I was one of five people approved for ambassadorial posting. She supplied me with the number of the Minister of DIRCO at the time, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, to call and arrange for my training. What struck me was how excited DSG was to relay this news to me. It was the culmination of a process that started when SG Mantashe and I spoke one Sunday night, and he asked for my resume. Mantashe asked for a meeting the Monday before the NOB meeting. He was sincere, and I remember how disappointed he was that the appointment was not finalised, urging me to check with DSG on why I am not yet deployed. I extended several calls to Nkoana – Mashabane, who, until this day, never returned or acknowledged any call. No hard feelings. This is politics, and nobody is guaranteed anything. Jessie was excited to share the news with me, and I felt her sharing my joy, and that was the caring soul she was. I would later ask her Comrade Jessie is the reason for me not being appointed and the fact that I did not support CR17? To which she replied comrade, you know…
Shall we forget the May 1, 2017, COSATU Workers-Day rally where some ANC leaders booed in typical factional practice? It turned out crowds booed President Zuma and Duarte and others in what was clearly an orchestrated plan, while the likes of Ramaphosa and Mantashe were not booed. This incident left a nasty taste in the mouth of Comrade Jessie and was the heart of a dispute and disagreement with SG Gwede Mantashe. The divide between the two was tangible, clearly loaded with other unknown-to-me-office controversies. I remember speaking to both of them about the incident and the impasse. Mantashe and I agreed to meet to clarify some misconceptions and aid the peace-making initiative. I requested that such meeting takes place not at his office but my preferred venue of Killarney Mall Mugg- Bean. Mantashe and I had always shared healthy relations since we regularly discussed many issues. Sometimes he would ask my opinion other times, we would engage on what I had written, and he would disagree. Always with mutual respect. My meeting with Mantashe lasted for more than two hours, in which we discussed the impasse with DSG and other ANC issues since there was also a vote of no confidence to be conducted in parliament.
I agreed with Cadre Jessie to meet with her after meeting with Mantashe. The meeting with Mantashe was productive since we agreed that the ANC was more significant than all individuals. Jessie’s big gripe, which she shared, was that Mantashe said when she gets angry, she behaves like a typical Coloured woman. We spoke about this issue and other things of an ANC that speaks of non-racialism but is often very tribal and sexist in living expression.
Comrade Jessie called me in July 2017 to inform me that President Zuma wanted to meet with me. I recall being at UJ in a meeting, and when I turned my phone on, I saw I had missed several calls from her. Upon enquiring from her about why the President wanted to see me, she said I do not know. He just said I must arrange a one-on-one meeting. The first meeting between myself and Zuma took place at Luthuli House on August 14, 2017, and the second in October at Mahlamba Ndlopfu.
I called Comrade Jessie when Cadre Marius Fransman reached out to me while taking Mantashe and the ANC to court. Fransman, whom I served for a very short stint as a strategic advisor while Deputy Minister of DIRCO, approached me and sought counsel. I asked Marius what counsel he wanted and did he want me to regurgitate what he wanted, and he said no, I like your honest and usual straightforward counsel. I advised him to do five things. One of such was to withdraw the case and allow for a mediation process in which someone external to him could facilitate his behalf. He expressed a desire for me to be the mediator, and based on that, we agreed on the terms for such facilitation. I called Jessie, and she told me bishop, we are tired of Marius, but for your sake and based on your integrity, I am willing to engage further on this matter towards reconciliation. The same night she contacted Mantashe, who was ready for my call when I called. Mantashe expressed the same sentiments of an obdurate Fransman but agreed that since I was asking and the case was withdrawn, they were willing to give it a chance. I am trying to say Jessie believed in giving people second chances. True leaders know how to give others a second chance.
Comrade Jessie would engage in the hypocrisy of many ANC loud mouths pretending they were clean when they were financially dry-cleaned by white monopoly capital. She talked of those who would borrow money from the Guptas and others who would sell meetings with Mandela to people for money.
I recall how on the eve of Ramaphosa’s first cabinet appointment, Cadre Jessie was disturbed that Deputy President David Mabuza called seeking answers from her as to why his name was on the list to appear before the Integrity Committee. She revealed how he was threatening to speak with her on the subject. Yet Jessie was not a tiny person, so she stood her ground, and everyone who encountered her or crossed swords with her knew she was no walk-over.
Yes, as already indicated, I also disagreed with Jessie and was able to tell her that. While the ANC social media policy for its members and leaders was clear, leaders often slugged it out in Twitter wars. There was a time it appeared DSG Duarte was obsessed with acting as a social media police officer on behalf of the ANC. Key of these were Derek Hanekom, Fikile Mbalula and Carl Niehaus. Jessie would reprimand Niehaus but, if ever, rebuked Derek Hanekom, who often pretended he had the unique privilege of NEC members. Usually, the Twitter wars between him and Niehaus were started by Hanekom. Having noticed this, I engaged Duarte and asked her to be fair because it was not right to reprimand Niehaus constantly.
In the end, Cadre Jessie left us, and many communities she served are poorer today. Her beloved contradictory ANC is also poorer because the one who resembled its non-racial identity and kept reminding it of its ideal of non-sexism in voice and deed is now physically absent. We who knew her and whom she interacted with, and I am not fooled to think I was the only one, will miss a whole human whom we embraced and came to love as a bigger sister.
Rest well, Cadre Jessie. Your work is done. We will guard your ideals to keep the ANC accountable to its ideals and remind them of how you fought despite the abuse. Indeed a whole human to the end betrothed to her convictions.
*Clyde N.S. Ramalaine
Political Analyst and Writer