Jessie Duarte was a grumpy bully

Andrew Donaldson remembers the ANC DSG as she was, not as her party now wishes her to have been


SOME confusion here. Was there another Jessie Duarte? Were there two of them? Judging by what my newsfeed has been throwing up, it would appear that the Jessie Duarte who passed away at the weekend was a lovable person, a cuddlesome bundle who was kind to animals, considerate and caring to friend and foe alike, and went out of her way to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate than her. 

Consider Cyril Ramaphosa’s message at her funeral service on Sunday. He reminded mourners that Jess was a champion of honesty, integrity, selflessness and service; as ANC deputy secretary-general, she was a “unifier” who fought against factionalism in the ruling party: “She stood firm against those who would sow division, who were interested only in personal advancement, who pursued narrow interests to the neglect of the needs of the people.”

The nation is bereft and now in mourning, the flags fly at half-mast and a memorial service is on the cards. Only a churl would begrudge Squirrel’s fervent prayer that we all emulate lovable Jess’s example. Little wonder, then, that there were scenes of great emotion at the service as colleagues and comrades expressed their sadness and paid their tributes. 

Much of which we needn’t go into, what with the Potemkin weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth and stuff. But mention must be made of tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu. 

According to one report, the ANC presidential hopeful was quite beside herself with grief as she revealed that a desperate bid to get poor Jess the muti that may have saved her had alas all been in vain. “I was invited to Russia,” she told journalists, “and while I was there I tried to get medication for her. I succeeded but arrived home too late.”

Damn. But seeing as Jess had informed colleagues of her cancer diagnosis some eight months previously, was Sisulu not a wee bit tardy in placing her order with the Moscow apothecary? Had she done so in November or December, let’s say, and not, like, just last week, would Jess still be with us, teaching the world to sing?

The regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), meanwhile, say it is a good thing Sisulu did not make it to her dying comrade’s bedside with her cache of Rasputin-styled remedies. 

This column has already reported on the specialist treatment Vladimir Putin allegedly receives in his bid for eternal youth, so it’s maybe a blessing that, in her last moments, Jess was spared the indignity of reindeer antler blood baths and allowed to step on that rainbow not dressed up as a Siberian stew. 

The other Jessie Duarte, meanwhile, was a grumpy bully. 

Let’s not kid ourselves; this is the Duarte that many of us will not miss. Mired in corruption and notoriously short-tempered, she behaved as if she was suffering from an abscessed jaw. She loathed journalists and their “rubbish lies”. They brought out the werewolf in her, and she would counter their inquiries with some interesting questions of her own:

How dare you ask me why the Guptas bought my son a business class ticket to India? What business is that of yours? And why do you want to know how many times ministers and other officials met with the Guptas? Why do you persist in this rubbish? Do you not know your place? Do you read? Are you a racist? What impertinence is this, asking me why I believe comrade Tony Yengeni is innocent and received a raw deal by having to go to jail? Why are you people so obsessed with what we did under the Zuma administration? Is it a race issue? Do you know that you are just a journalist? And not even a human being?

In the run-up to the 2009 elections, Duarte was questioned by the BBC’s John Humphrys about corruption in housing in Alexandra and she accused him of having a “colonial mindset”. Shortly after that, a colleague at the Sunday Times, Philani Nombembe, approached her for a straight-forward report he was compiling on online campaigning. He had wanted to know whether Jacob Zuma ever responded to posts on his election blog. Duarte didn’t even wait for Nombembe to finish his question, and exploded in typical fashion:

“I mean, how can you ask me a question like that? ‘Does the ANC president actually read?’ Good God, can you guys just get a life now? You must get a life, your newspaper must get a life, you’re terribly classist, and if you were not black I would say you were a racist but, well, I suppose you could be a racist even if you were black like me, but you’ve got a very bad attitude, your newspaper has, and seriously speaking now, this man, whether you like it or not, is going to be the next president of the country, and actually we’re not so concerned about what the Times thinks…”

Unsurprisingly, Duarte was a keen supporter of the ANC’s plans for a Media Appeals Tribunal, and firmly believed that the press had squandered their right to freedom of expression by portraying Accused Number One in a negative manner.

It is not difficult to portray Duarte in a similarly negative fashion. She was the inaugural Gauteng safety and security MEC, a position she was subsequently forced to quit following allegations that she had covered up a car accident while driving without a licence. At more or less the same time, she was accused of taking her lover on a trip to Portugal at the taxpayers’ expense, thus sparking an early furore on the misuse of public funds. 

She then became a diplomat and served as ambassador to Mozambique from 1999 to 2003. 

It’s not clear whether this was regarded as a form of punishment or not, but her tolerance of government corruption never wavered. In April last year, she came out in support of uBaba’s claims that the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture was largely a sham exercise. 

And with good reason: the commission heard that both Duarte’s ex-husband, John Duarte, and her son Yusha, allegedly benefitted from dodgy tenders. 

In May 2019, it was reported that Combined Private Investigations, a company that scored contracts worth millions of rands from state-owned enterprises, diverted money meant to fund supplier development programmes to Duarte’s family in return for assistance in gaining further state business. It has admitted paying more than R40-million over a two-year period to a group led by Gupta associate Salim Essa that included Duarte’s family members. CPI was previously found to have spied on journalists and politicians, among them Peter Bruce, Rob Rose and Trevor Manuel.

One final comment. In November 2019, Duarte accused the ANC of being “racist” and “tribalistic” towards party members and voters who are not black Africans, but coloured. “I don’t like the term coloured people,” she was quoted as saying, “I never refer to myself as a coloured, ever in my life and I never will.”

Fair enough. Duarte may rest assured, wherever it is that she rests, that this will not be the term that comes to mind if and when we next consider her legacy.

Clash of the minnows ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

We met a Liberal Democrat at the weekend, Mrs Donaldson and I. His name was Dick, and he seemed surprised that we should have been surprised by the encounter. “It may not seem like it,” he said, “but there really are quite a few of us Lib-Dems about. A lot more than you think. And we’re not doing so badly at the moment.”

Which is true. The Lib-Dems gained more than 220 new councillors across England, Wales and Scotland in May’s local elections — the biggest net gain of any party. But, Dick continued, the perception of British politics as a conflict solely between Labour and the Conservatives endures chiefly because of Westminster’s first-past-the-post electoral system. “If we had a system of proportional representation, rather than a winner-takes-all situation, there would be lot more Lib-Dems in parliament.”

The problem with proportional representation, we said, was that the public have no idea who they’re voting for and MPs are invariably these remote strangers who have no contact with voters. This is how it is in South Africa, we continued. We don’t get to vote for individuals, we vote for parties. Because the parties select the candidates, the real political campaigning, the jockeying for positions on candidate lists, is not a transparent process but an internal matter. And, we added, in the case of the ANC, it is often a deadly business.

“It’s the same here,” said Dick. “Look at what we’re seeing with the Tories right now. All that backstabbing and treachery…” 

Cue sidelong glances between the Donaldsons. Who would be the first to explain that, no, there really was no comparison; that we literally meant murder? 

Perhaps we could have pointed Dick to the withering portrait of deputy president David Mabuza that appeared in the New York Times in August 2018? Mpumalanga, where Mabuza was premier, was revealed “as one of South Africa’s most dangerous [provinces]. Nearly 20 politicians, most from inside the ANC, were assassinated in the past two decades, some after exposing graft in public works projects.” 

Perhaps the pithy observation in William Saunderson-Meyer’s recent column that death threats from rivals within the ANC are not lightly dismissed would have also done the trick; in the past seven years, he wrote, there have been 213 political assassinations, more than half of them in KwaZulu-Natal.

In the end, though, we said nothing, and prattled on about the weather. These people have no interest in our affairs. 

But, seeing as Dick mentioned it, a few brief comments about the Tory leadership struggle may be in order. As I write, the list of hopefuls has been whittled down to three: former chancellor Rishi Sunak, “unknown” contender Penny Mordaunt and clueless foreign secretary Liz Truss. By the time you read this, gentle reader, there will be but two…

Mordaunt is the contest’s dark horse. Commentators have said unflattering things about her hair, which is fairly big, and that she once gave a speech to MPs about poultry for the sole purpose of saying “cock” in the House of Commons. This following a bet she made with her naval reservist chums. According to the Observer, her biggest mistake thus far was to feature Oscar Pistorius in her campaign video. Truss supporters, among them the Daily Mail, have gone to great lengths to portray Mordaunt as being a bit light in the pants.

Truss is the bookies’ favourite and, happily, the opponent Labour wants. A die-hard Boris Johnson loyalist, she has sought to recast herself as the late Margaret Thatcher, even copying the outfit the latter wore in her 1979 televised election broadcast down to the last detail, including the distinctive pussy bow blouse. The result is perhaps not death warmed up, but definitely wooden dummy. She has made some bold tax-cutting commitments—including a pledge to scrap a planned increase in corporation tax. (Tories love that.)

Sunak, the front-runner in the leadership race, has also been channelling Mrs T, and has claimed the Iron Lady would have approved of his economic plans. Perhaps—but not many BoJo supporters would share the sentiment. In recent days, they have labelled the former chancellor a “rat”, a “slimy snake”, a “little weasel”, a “backstabber”, “Judas”, a “sly assassin”, a “Tory wet” and the leader of the “coup” against Johnson. 

Unlike his opponents on the right, Sunak has stressed he won’t be cutting taxes—at least not until he has brought inflation under control. This, he has said, is a sign that he is willing to be unpopular for doing the “right thing”. As a result, both Truss and Jacob Rees-Mogg have called Sunak a “socialist”—possibly the worst insult in a Tory leadership selection.

The weird thing, though, is that all these candidates have campaigned against their own record in government. Go figure.