Zola Skweyiya: A tribute

Vusi Madonsela on the life and work of the late former Minister for Social Development


By Vusi Madonsela, former Director–General of Social Development (2003-2012), current Director-General of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development

Mama Thuthukile Skweyiya’s telephone call, which reached me at about 06h00, on the morning of that fateful day, April 11, 2018, in which she informed me that she had been invited to come to the hospital that instant, gave me much consternation. When she went on to ask me to ask two men of the cloth, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana and Reverend Sydwell Mokgothu, to join her at the hospital, I felt like I had been on that path before. That notwithstanding, I still hoped for the best.

Her subsequent telephone call, which came at about 07h15, in which she solemnly informed me about the state of affairs in relation to Dr Zola Skweyiya, unleashed a thunderbolt of shock, which was hallucinatory in its intensity as to render me numb for a while. I sought to convince myself that I did not get her message right. However, the media announcements which quickly spread through various platforms, confirmed the evil tidings which have now deeply afflicted us all: “Dr Zola Sydney Themba Skweyiya, a venerated ANC Stalwart and decorated Veteran of Umkhonto WeSizwe; an unpretentious political colossus and a true servant of the people, departed this world, shy only three 3 days for the completion of the 76th year of his age.”

For the purposes of this tribute, I shall remain a characteristic public servant and have deferred to Dr Zola Skweyiya’s contemporaries; his comrades in arms to detail his illustrious political contribution to the struggle for the liberation of our motherland. In this tribute, therefore, I shall confine myself to how my former colleagues and I, while working at the Department of Social Development, experienced him in his official capacity as Minister for Social Development; a position he held from 1999 to 2009. In the course of this tenure, I had the distinguished honour to serve under him as Director-General of the Department of Social Development for a period spanning over 7 years.

Without any equivocation, I am reliably advised that it was upon his bounty and beneficence - his passionate recommendation in 2003 that Cabinet, under the leadership of former President Thabo Mbeki, preferred me for elevation to the highest echelons of the public service, much to the chagrin of some of my FOSAD colleagues at that time. I am personally indebted to Dr Zola Skweyiya and his Cabinet colleagues of that time, and subsequent Cabinets, that I have had, thus far, the prodigious honour of serving our country for a cumulative 15 years of uninterrupted service as Director-General, in 3 distinct government departments.

Accordingly, I write this tribute, principally from a profound conviction that it is the performance of a duty which is incumbent upon me to fulfil. Though, even on this ground, I may not successfully appeal to your forbearance as its readers, I trust you will permit me to allude to a peculiar difficulty I have experienced in writing this tribute, especially as it pertains to aspects of a personal relationship I developed with Dr Zola Skweyiya.

Suffice it to say that over many years since, Dr Zola Skweyiya had become a father figure to me. In the premises, I trust you will all appreciate that to give to the world the details of a private life and relationship not intended for public consumption, though it may occasion no injury to the fame of writers or speech makers, who, by habit tend to be careless folks; who are often excitable and careless, it is far otherwise in the case of those about whom such details are concerned. In this case, it would be about Dr Zola Skweyiya; a man who had made it a cardinal rule of his life never to have shared publicly anything about him that was not carefully measured, strenuously laboured, and minutely finished. I therefore trust that you will forgive me if such details do not find their way into this piece, despite a view that many people might hold about the eulogistic merit of such particulars.

On 18 April 2018, the most mournful and lamentable passing of Dr Zola Skweyiya called together to the memorial service, many distinguished personages from many walks of life, including representatives from civil society formations, academia, professional bodies, religious networks and ordinary folk, whose lives Dr Zola Skweyiya has so deeply touched. In addition, the occasion has also drawn from retirement many venerable Veterans and Stalwarts of our struggle, some of whom fought side-by-side with Dr Zola Skweyiya in the trenches; men and women we all so much respect and honour. These Veterans and Stalwarts, to whom Dr Zola Skweyiya was so much attached, who returned that attachment with all the uncommon ingenuousness and enthusiasm of fearlessness, political commitment and ardent deep-rooted minds, were there to manifest their own sense of severe deprivation, as well as their admiration of the bright and shining political example which they have so much loved to contemplate; an example, let me say to them, and let me say to us all, as a solace in the midst of their sorrows, which death hath not really touched and which time cannot obscure.

The mournful occasion also brought forward multitudes of current and former staff members of the Department of Social Development, who, for many years, worked their tails off, to deliver on Dr Zola Skweyiya’s 10 Point plan to transition the vision and mission of the Department from Welfare to Social Development.

Several former Social Development colleagues, including Lumumba Mthintso, Mbulelo Musi, Lakela Kaunda and Tiro Holele, have written numerous tributes which have chronicled various aspects of the 10 points and more, some of which I had included in the original text of this tribute, which, on account of time constraints, I could not deliver in full at the memorial service. I will here only highlight some of the Points, which leap fondly to mind:

1. Building strong families and communities to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

For Dr Zola Skweyiya, the acid test for the development of any nation is how it takes care of the most vulnerable in society, being children, the elderly and people with disabilities. He strongly believed in: “Putting Children First” – “Abantwana Kuqala.”, which became the battle cry in most of our campaigns. To this end, he commissioned the drafting of the Children’s Act to protect their rights and interests.

2. Building a Comprehensive Social Security System for the country.

In this regard, the Taylor Committee of enquiry into a Comprehensive Social Security System for South Africa, which he had appointed, made firm proposals on the content and architecture of the system.

The output thereof resulted in Cabinet adopting a Framework of Comprehensive Social Protection system for South Africa, which would enable the country to respond to multi-dimensions of poverty, including but limited to Income, Services, Assets, Capability and Special Needs. It was in the context of that framework that Dr Zola Skweyiya advocated for the expansion of coverage of the child support grant to children up to their 18th birthday.

That framework, especially as it relates to income and services poverty, catapulted government’s thinking and approach to job creation and public employment programmes, by extending beyond the typical confines of infrastructure and construction. The new approach broke fresh ground by categorizing the social services sector as an area of possible public works expansion in order to render much needed social services to communities, while at the same time tackling individual and household income poverty.

This is what gave birth to what is today known as the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), which then started with a primary focus on Home - Community-Based Care (HCBC) for the infirm and those living with HIV and AIDS, and Early Childhood Development (ECD) as a means to give children a head-start, as part of the overall strategy to stem the tide of inter-generational poverty through education. It was in the midst of these important developments that, as I recall, former President Thabo Mbeki seized the moment to introduce new diction into the English lexicon by coining the word: “massification”.

3. Welfare Services Transformation and Integrated Community Development;

These two elements also featured prominently in the 10 Point Plan, which enabled us to contribute significantly to new developments, both at home and abroad, including but not limited to the consolidation of the negotiated text of the Madrid Plan of Action on active ageing and the subsequent equalisation of the age of eligibility for the Old Age grant.  

4. Building of a New Cadre of Social Development Workers.

This is perhaps the single most important pillar I dare not omit to mention, which was fundamentally about cultivating a new work ethos in the Department. Dr Zola Skweyiya advocated for the creation of new categories of Social Service Professionals to provide care and support to the most vulnerable in society. In the same vein, he managed to persuade Cabinet about the shortage of social workers and the need to the importance of declaring social work as a scarce skill as the developed world was continuing to plunder this cadre of social service professionals. He successfully lobbied for the creation and funding of a Social work Scholarship Programme to send more young people to university to be trained as Social Workers.

Later, with the support of the Department for International Development of the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, he established a collaborative and very fruitful relationship with the University of Oxford to train new South African entrants and academics in the field of applied social policy as a discipline of study.

There are many anecdotes to share, but time constraints will not permit me to share them all, nor is it desirable. Dr Skweyiya insisted on managers being properly dressed. Of course, he himself possessed a decided air of fashion, naturally reinforced by Mama Thuthukile Skweyiya’s discernible sense and taste of dress. He was of the strong view that working with or for the poor did not mean that we must look unkempt.

Dr Zola Skweyiya was too punctual for scheduled meetings, in and out of the office. Often did we find ourselves arriving at an external venue, long after he had even completed the recognizance, despite our being there ahead of the commencement time of the scheduled meeting. He required managers to do field work rather than sitting in the posh and air-conditioned offices. He demanded of us maximum exertion. He built and kept an excellent relationship with civil society formations, for he understood that these organisations were better placed to extend the reach of government in communities situated in the most remote areas.  

He collaborated with Traditional leaders in efforts to bring services to the poorest of the poor in the rural areas. He also put together a Programme for Queens and Spouses of Traditional wives of Kings and Traditional Leaders, to care for the most vulnerable in their areas of jurisdiction. He got many people I knew in the public service to want to work for the Department of Social Development; a Department that was once considered the skunk of government.

Today, one sentiment pervades us all. It is that of the most profound and penetrating grief, mixed, nevertheless, with an assured conviction, that that persevering man, whom we cherished, is yet with us and in the midst of us. He hath not wholly died. He lives in the affections of friends and kindred, and in the high regard of the community, especially those whose lives he has touched with the social policies he has championed and implemented. He lives in our remembrance of his social virtues, his warm and steady friendships, and the vivacity and richness of his conversation. He lives, and will live still more permanently, by both his spoken and written words of wisdom, by the results of his vast deeds and attainments, by his palpable and imperishable social protection initiatives, and by those social policy disquisitions which have stamped his name, all over the world, with the character of a commanding authority.

Fellow South Africans, there are consolations which arise to mitigate our loss, and shed the influence of resignation over unfeigned and heart-felt sorrow. We are all penetrated with gratitude to Providence that Dr Zola Skweyiya lived as long as he has, although we wished he could escape death even by a single day; that he lived less for himself, but more for his family, his friends, his comrades, the country and the world; that his lamp went out, at last, without unsteadiness or flickering. He continued to exercise every power of his mind without dimness or obscuration, and every affection of his heart with no abatement of energy or warmth, till death drew an impenetrable veil between us and him. Indeed, he seems to us now, as in truth he is, not extinguished or ceasing to be, but only withdrawn; as the clear summer sun goes down at its setting, not darkened, but only no longer seen, keeping its lingering warmth throughout the night, until the next morning when it rises again.

This calamity is not confined to the African National Congress, former Cabinet Ministers or government departments he has been associated with. It is being felt by millions of South Africans, both young and old, throughout our motherland. It will be felt still more widely, for his reputation had a still wider range, in the United Nation’s Commission for Social Development, UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations programme, in the Houses of Parliament, in recent years, in the Diplomatic circles in which he mingled, and in the many learned universities, both at home and abroad where he gave inspiration.

In the above regard, his passing is a blow that comes near, especially to the Department of Social Policy and Intervention of the University of Oxford, where an annual lecture series was launched in 2011 in recognition of his work in South Africa. In that circle, this calamity will be severely felt by every eminent social policy expert. To be sure, it will with conviction be acknowledged that a great luminary has fallen from the firmament of the public discourse on applied social policy.

There is no purer pride of country than that in which we may indulge when we see South Africa paying back the great debt of gratitude to Dr Zola Skweyiya remaining true to the legacy of the Comprehensive Social Protection framework he has helped build. In this high return of heart for heart, mind for mind, light for light and soul for soul, in this inspiring reverence and esteem between the many intellectuals of nations, Dr Zola Skweyiya was destined by Providence to act, and did act, an important part.

Acknowledging, as I trust we all do, our obligation to the keep our social policies intact, we must to commit to ensuring that in our generation, in our lifetime, bountiful and constructive streams shall turn and run backward to replenish their original fountains, and give a fresher and a brighter green to the fields of South Africa’s Comprehensive Social Protection system.

Human development is the great interest of humanity on earth. It is the ligament which holds all open-minded beings and enlightened nations together. Wherever a sanctuary stands, and so long as it is duly honoured, there is a foundation for social security, general happiness, and the improvement and progress of humanity. And whoever labours on this edifice with usefulness and distinction, as Dr Zola Skweyiya did; whoever clears its foundations, strengthens its pillars, adorns its decorations, or contributes to raise its stately dome still higher in the skies, connects himself or herself, in name, and fame, and character, with that which is and must be as durable as the frame of human society.

We all know the pure love of country which animated Dr Zola Skweyiya, and the zeal, as well as the talent with which he explained and defended the interests of the poorest of the poor, the vulnerable and marginalised. His earlier work on our country’s Constitution is one of his most eminently successful labours, which later assisted him in advocating for the course of applied social policy in South Africa. But all his writings, and all his deeds, and the whole influence of his character, public and private, leaned strongly and always to the support of sound principles.

Compatriots, this is not the occasion, nor is it for me to consider and discuss at length the merits of applied social policy interventions Dr Zola Skweyiya introduced. The performance of that duty, with which schools of social policy and development studies will no doubt charge themselves, must be deferred to another opportunity, and will be committed to abler hands. But in the homage paid to his memory, one part may come with peculiar propriety and emphasis from ourselves, which is that South Africa would have been poorer without his social policy interventions and that our society’s income inequality index, over the years, would have been much worse.

Many can testify that in all his life pursuits and employments, in all his recreations, in all his political dealings, and in his intercourse with the circle of his friends and comrades, the predominance of his political moral character was manifest. He never forgot the political responsibility with which he was entrusted.

Being the Minister of Social Development; the Social Conscience of the People’s Government; the quintessential servant of the people, was the great picture which he kept constantly before his eyes, and to a resemblance of which all his efforts, all his thoughts, all his life, were devoted. We may go the world over, without easily finding a man who shall present a more striking realization of the real and truly beautiful conception of true patriot that Dr Zola Skweyiya proved to be.

As I conclude, I salute in sombre attention this True Man of the People. I end with the XXVIII quatrain of Omar Khayyam, a Persian Polymath who lived in the 11th century, which reads:

“With them the Seed of wisdom I did Sow,

And with my own hand labour’d it to grow:

And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d –

‘I came like Water, and like Wind I go’ “

Hamba Kahle Mkhonto!

Lala Ngoxolo Leta! Libele! Mtakwenda!