Radebe told The Star in an exclusive interview on Monday that the scandal was a regrettable moment of weakness.
The Sunday Times revealed that Radebe, 64, had exchanged several improper text messages and emails with a Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) photographer, 29-year-old Siyasanga Mbambani.
The paper reported that Mbambani had exposed the texts between her and Radebe to prove that she was being victimised by her superiors at GCIS, because she was “improperly close” to senior officials at the Union Buildings.
In March, The Sunday Independent reported that Mbambani was suspended at GCIS following a series of sexual harassment complaints against her boss, Elmond Jiyane. She accused him of being sexist when he asked that she dress properly when covering the Presidency.
She alleged at the time that Jiyane had on several occasions falsely accused her of making sexual overtures towards President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa by being scantily dressed and flashing her “full bums” and breasts at the pair while taking their pictures during events.
She denied the allegations.
The revelations were contrary to the impeccable image Radebe has built in an illustrious career in the government.
But on Monday, the longest-serving cabinet minister and ANC head of policy acted swiftly and took responsibility for his actions.
“I sincerely regret engaging in the text and email conversations, which are improper for a married man,” he said. “However, beyond those exchanges, there was never a relationship and the communication was never acrimonious,” said Radebe.
He added: “I apologise for the embarrassment caused to Ms Mbambani, to my wife, my family, all South Africans and my movement, the ANC. I should have known better and I take full responsibility for my actions.”
On Sunday, Radebe was summoned to the Soweto home of Struggle stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to explain his actions. Accompanied by his wife Bridgette, Radebe met with Madikizela-Mandela, where he apologised. The family also received counselling from her .
On Monday, Radebe, who attended an ANC national working committee meeting, apologised for his conduct before his comrades.
Madikizela-Mandela told The Star she had been disappointed by the revelations, but held Radebe in high esteem and believes he did well to own up.
“This is the kind of leadership we require,” she said, speaking by phone.
“We all make mistakes and we must take responsibility for them. It takes a real man to apologise, and Jeff has done that. I have known him from when he was a young boy, before he left the country to go into exile.
“He’s an outstanding leader of our movement and we place great hope in him. He played a critical role in exile, and when he returned he served in government since 1994 with distinction and humility.
“Jeff is a highly respected man and one of the surviving cadres of the OR Tambo era (and) what’s left of the Lusaka leadership, who were selfless. In him we see a future. But we all have our flaws.”
Sixolile Mehlomakhulu, chairperson of Alfred Nzo, the second biggest ANC region in the Eastern Cape, said Radebe had apologised at the Saartjie Baartman region, where he addressed cadres and leaders on Sunday.
“He has done a noble thing to apologise. That’s very rare in our politics. That’s the mark of a good leader, the kind of leadership we badly want in the ANC and in the country. Comrade Jeff is receiving unwavering support from us.”
Former mayor and chairperson of the ANC Tshwane region Kgosientso Ramokgopa also came out in his defence. He told The Star he had read the story in the context of the ANC succession race.
“But we accept his apology.
“These things happen even to the best of us. Jeff is our policy guru, he always takes leadership. He is calm and measured. He is the kind of leader we want to see lead our movement,” he said.
This is the first time Radebe, who has served in the cabinets of presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma, has been embroiled in a controversy. But he is the first to act swiftly and without reservations, and to take responsibility.