Humble leader with a common touch

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 6, 2021

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Professor Sipho Seepe

This book is an attempt to stitch together the various commentaries, speeches and outpouring of grief and emotions that were expressed in the wake of the untimely passing of the former Minister Edna Bomo Molewa.

While there were many memorials held countrywide, this collation of speeches contained here is limited in the speeches that were delivered at a hurriedly organised memorial by the Department of Environmental Affairs in her honour – a mere two days following her passing.

Unbeknown to the department, this was an inspired decision. The department’s memorial was followed by similar memorials throughout the length and breadth of South Africa. Due to the parliamentary schedule, the ANC caucus was to hold its own memorial after her burial.

Not a single day passed for two weeks without a memorial or two being held in one of the provinces. This placed a heavy toll on the family as the family was required to parcel family members to grace each memorial with their presence. The family was only able to find a breathing space the Thursday before Minister Molewa's remains were brought home on the eve of her burial, the Saturday.

This book, a professional portrait of the late minister, is not intended to be the last word. The speeches were carefully selected and restricted to her professional life through the eyes of her staff and colleagues. Indeed, this may well be the first among a few books or booklets that will celebrate Molewa's contribution to her community, party, parliament, country and the rest of humanity.

Having served as MEC, Premier and traversed various ministries, Molewa had an understanding of government and its complexities, from governance to policymaking and how these impact on the ordinary people.

She was fond of reminding officials that their policies, rules, plans and projects must find expression in making life better for those who are in the margins of society. If they didn't, officials would be sent packing to revise their plans and projects. It was precisely because of her understanding of government that she was asked to serve as Acting President on a number of occasions.

Molewa was at ease with the world. She was able to consort with the best in the scientific world, able to critique their work in an effort to advance social and environmental justice in the world. She was unfazed in the presence of scientific excellence and intellectual brilliance.

Even so, she made it her goal to highlight that science and technology are meaningless unless it is used to advance and resolve the challenges of ordinary people.No task was too big to handle or too complicated to comprehend and to master. For her, it was a case of being both hands-on and brains on.

She straddled the capitals of the world, addressing world leaders and experts in places such as United Nations General Assembly in New York, Paris, China and Russia. Just a few days later, she would move effortlessly and find comfort with the poorest of the poor in the country's far-flung areas, the wretched of the earth. She made good citizenship and visionary leadership worthy of the effort.

This book was probably long in the making. Many that spoke had always desired to tell her story. The story of an extraordinary human being with a big heart. The book attempts to do justice to that yearning. It captures personal reflections, and to a certain extent, the heartfelt anguish of those who have worked closely with the late Minister Edna Bomo Molewa.

The collection is also a celebration of a supremely gifted person. Minister Gwede Mantashe, who has had various engagements and disagreements with her, first in his capacity as Secretary-General of the ANC, and later as a colleague in Cabinet, opined that even if you disagreed with Minister Molewa, one thing you could not take away from her is "intellectual content of her arguments".

As if to amplify the point, Mantashe asserted: “I found her to be very intellectual in content, reading, understanding issues, (able to) persuade people by the force of argument and logic and not impose ideas on anybody.”

Molewa was a dedicated servant that approached every task with a missionary and revolutionary zeal. In paying tribute to her, Nosipho Ngcaba, the Director-General in the Department of Environmental Affairs, had this to say: “Minister was a breath of fresh air. She liked to empower women. She was a leader that always stood for justice. She was passionate about each and every area of the environment. She knew the functions of all the branches, including administration and finance”.

Molewa always took the side of the weak, be it in society or government. Fellow female ministers affectionately called her Queen Bee. This was in recognition of her having made it easy for them to have a safe landing in Cabinet. She always reminded the newly appointed that there are no senior ministers in Cabinet and thus should stake their positions without fear.

Molewa lived long enough to see her work being recognised and celebrated. Among the litany of awards, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Science by the Vaal University of Technology. Following closely on this was her appointment as the first Chancellor of a newly minted Sefako Makgatho Health Science University of Southern Africa.

The honour by the French government is perhaps one of the finest in global terms. She was bestowed with the Officier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (or Officer in the French Legion of Honour), the highest award that is bestowed to a foreign national. The honour was in recognition of “Minister Edna Molewa’s commitment to South Africa, the struggle for freedom and democracy, women’s rights and the fight against climate change sets an example for us all. France will always be grateful for your contribution.”

Forever humble, she dedicated the award to her “work in the environmental sector, but also for my role in the struggle for democracy and for women’s rights to Mama Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu: a woman who dedicated her life to the betterment of her people.”

For those of us that had worked closely with her, the portrait that was being painted came as no surprise. It confirmed all that we knew and said about her time and again.

She was a true democrat, always willing to accept the outcomes of a democratic process. This is an attribute that is sadly missing among those who proclaim to be democrats. She supported former president Thabo Mbeki in the historic political contest in Polokwane. But unlike her fellow travellers, who have not recovered from that humiliating defeat, she moved quickly to support and embrace the democratic and electoral outcome.

A perfectionist that she was, she did her best to prepare those that were close to her for her impending departure from this world. Indeed, had we listened carefully to her, we would have heard her. Everything she said and did, indicated that she was in a hurry to complete her tasks on earth. She told us where she wanted to be buried. An environmentalist to the end, she specified the kind of wood to be used in crafting her coffin.

Only now, when we put the pieces together, do we realise that she had long tried to prepare us for her ultimate passing. We were perhaps blinded by this closeness. In terms of bigger tasks and plans, none was left unattended.

* Professor Sipho Seepe is Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Support at the University of Zululand. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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