Jackson Mphikwa Mthembu was a Minister in the Presidency of South Africa and parliamentarian for the African National Congress (ANC).
Mthembu was born on 5 June 1958 in Ackerville, Witbank, Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga Province). Raised by his grandmother, Sarah Mthembu, and his uncles, he grew up in Kromkrans, a reserve for Black people between Hendrina and Carolina in the then Transvaal. Hard work was introduced to the young Mthembu early on as, from the tender age of just seven years old, he would accompany his grandmother to go work in the mealie fields.
During the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Mthembu was a learner at Elukhanyisweni Secondary School where he dipped his feet in politics for the first time, becoming a student leader. However, his poor background meant that on many occasions during school, he was "chucked out for not being able to afford school fees, uniforms, books", but this did not deter Mthembu who never lost sight of what he was fighting for.
His activism continued when he enrolled at the historic University of Fort Hare, resulting in his expulsion in 1980, which in turn triggered the beginning of his involvement in the trade union sector. Mthembu played a significant role in the formation of the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU) – the predecessor of the National Union of Metal Workers (NUMSA) – where he became a senior steward at Highveld Steel Corporation working as a training officer from 1980 to 1984 and was later promoted to be one of the first few Black steel production foreman in the industry from 1986 to 1988. Furthermore, Mthembu was chair of the Witbank Education Crisis Committee from 1980 to 1986, as well as a leading member of the eMalahleni Civic Association.
During the dark years of the 1980s, the State of Emergency saw him in and out of prison as he was subjected to constant harassment and intimidation by the apartheid security police. His home was petrol bombed, he was subjected to various forms of torture at police stations, and he spent several months in detentions without trial, mostly in solitary confinement. Between 1986 and 1988, Mthembu was charged with sabotage, treason, and terrorism. He was tried with thirty other activists from Witbank in what came to be known as the Bethal Terrorism Trial. Ultimately, he was acquitted of the charges. However, his acquittal did not stop the security police from continuing with their harassment, eventually forcing Mthembu to move away from his home in Witbank to find refuge in the townships of Soweto and Alexandra in Transvaal (now Gauteng), which disrupted his family life.
Mthembu was elected Deputy Regional Secretary of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the Gauteng region from 1988 to 1990 under the leadership of the late Albertina Sisulu. He went on to become the media officer for the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and it was through his involvement with the SACC, under the leadership of Reverend Frank Chikane, that Mthembu joined the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) solidarity campaign. The solidarity campaign comprised numerous civic groups under the banner of the UDF, such as the religious community, business, and taxi associations. Through this, Mthembu was part of the leadership collective which supported SWAPO’s election campaign by providing, amongst other things, minibus taxis to transport voters during the inaugural democratic elections in 1988, in what was then South West Africa (now Namibia). SWAPO won the elections, which led to Namibia’s liberation from apartheid South Africa in 1990.
Following the unbanning of political parties in 1990, Mthembu held various positions within the ANC. After the party was unbanned, Mthembu was entrusted with leading the Witbank branch of the ANC and served as the ANC spokesman in Mpumalanga. Between 1990 and 1994, Mthembu participated in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiations as part of the ANC staff. After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Mthembu was part of the first ANC Members of Parliament contingent deployed in the Senate (now the National Council of Provinces – NCOP). This is where he played a part in crafting the country’s democratic Constitution. Later, he was appointed as Member of the Executive Council (MEC) in Mpumalanga for Public Roads and Transport from 1997 to 1999, during which he was criticised for spending R2.3 million on ten BMWs.
From 1995 to 1997, Mthembu was the ANC national spokesman under President Nelson Mandela (a position he held again in 2009 until 2014). He was speaker of the Mpumalanga Legislature from May 2006, and he was part of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) from 2007.
While based at Luthuli House, one of the structures Mthembu chaired was the ANC Caster Semenya Support Committee (which boasted Winnie Mandela as one of its members). The role of this committee was to provide practical support to Semenya who was subjected to abuse, discrimination, and inhumane treatment at the hands of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF).
He chaired the Portfolio Committees on Local Government, Education, Sport and Recreation, Arts and Culture. He was the Chief Whip of the ANC in the National Assembly from 2016 to 2019 where he worked tirelessly behind the scenes in an attempt to persuade the party’s caucus to stop its blind defence of former President Jacob Zuma and to publically acknowledge its mistake in doing so. This helped Mthembu earn the respect of other parties who admired his no-nonsense and straight-talking character.
On 28 November 2017, Mthembu was criticised by some of his ANC colleagues who said he intentionally "colluded" with the Democratic Alliance (DA) to schedule a debate on state capture in Parliament. Mthembu was seen to have deliberately defied Zuma and his colleagues in the ANC caucus who had already called for a more inclusive process to investigate state capture.
Following the 2019 national and general elections, Mthembu was appointed as the Minister in the Presidency under President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Minister Jackson Mphikwa Mthembu died on 21 January 2021 following COVID-19 related complications at the age of 62. He is survived by his wife, Thembi Mthembu, and five of his children. His eldest daughter with his late wife Pinkie Selolo, Nokhwezi Mthembu, committed suicide in March 2019 when she was 25 years old.
Upon the news of his passing, President Cyril Ramaphosa shared:
Minister Mthembu was an exemplary leader, an activist, and life-long champion of freedom and democracy. He was a much-loved and greatly respected colleague and comrade, whose passing leaves our nation at a loss (Hoffele, 2021).
Besides his contribution to the liberation struggle, Mthembu leaves behind a legacy of an unwavering determination to defend the country’s Constitution as well as a persistent commitment to repairing some of the divisions that have plagued the ANC post-apartheid.
Davis, G. (2021). Obituary: Jackson Mthembu, a deft politician and defender of the constitution, [online], Available at: https://ewn.co.za/2021/01/21/obituary-jackson-mthembu-a-deft-politician-and-staunch-defender-of-the-constitution. (Accessed on 21 January 2021)
Head, T. (2021). RIP Jackson Mthembu, 1958 – 2021: The ‘fearless and friendly’ minister, [online], Available at: https://www.thesouthafrican.com/opinion/rip-jackson-mthembu-what-age-cause-death-obituary-tribute-biography/. (Accessed on 21 January 2021)
Hoffele, L. (2021). Minister Jackson Mthembu dies from COVID-19 related complications, [online], Available at: https://ewn.co.za/2021/01/21/minister-jackson-mthembu-dies-from-covid-19-related-complications. (Accessed on 21 January 2021)
Isaacson, M. (2009), ‘A pedigreed spin doctor’ in The Sunday Independent, 4 October, pg 11, [online], Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackson_Mthembu. (Accessed on 21 January 2021)
The Presidency. (n.d). Minister Jackson Mthembu: Profile, [online], Available at: http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/profiles/minister-jackson-mthembu%3A-profile. (Accessed on 21 January 2021)