Former presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk are flanked by the members of South Africas first democratic cabinet.

Cape Town - In May 1994, 30 people got the call of a lifetime: a call to be part of South Africa’s first democratic cabinet.

Nineteen years later, former president Nelson Mandela’s ministers have scattered: nine are politicians, with three serving as cabinet ministers, four are in business, one is an academic, one is a social activist, seven have retired and eight have died.

“There was pride to serve in the first democratic government in South Africa, and then the additional pride of serving under the iconic leadership of Nelson Mandela,” said Jay Naidoo, who was tasked with delivering RDP housing. “Mandela represented the hopes of not just our country, but of oppressed, marginalised and the poor in the world.”

Tito Mboweni, then labour minister, said the new ministers knew there was a lot of work to do: “I’m not sure we were prepared for it.”

For Chris Fismer, then minister of constitutional development and provincial affairs, said it was an exciting time, “a mixture of emotions: being privileged and the realisation of the enormous responsibility”.

Michael Morris, who was a journalist for the Cape Argus, remembered a “crazy kind of optimism” that was shared by ordinary people.

“There was also a chronic misappreciation of the enormous task that was facing the newly elected cabinet,” he said, adding that the world was watching South Africa to see if the new cabinet could keep the economy afloat and address the grievances of the past.

FW de Klerk was demoted to deputy president alongside Thabo Mbeki. NP ministers as well as IFP representatives had to be incorporated into the largely-ANC cabinet in order to embody a government of national unity.

“No one expected miracles, but they wanted transparency and accountability,” said Naidoo. “They wanted to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Mandela had promised visible progress on the RDP project within the first 100 days - an ideal which could not stand up to the practicalities of rebuilding a nation.

Housing minister Joe Slovo immediately appointed a director-general and set up the finances and policy to begin building.

Kader Asmal in the Department of Water Affairs swiftly moved to reform the water board and set up community programmes.

Justice minister Dullah Omar waded into the task of setting up the Constitutional Court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with steady determination.

But not all of Mandela’s ministers covered themselves in glory.

The critical area of education was left languishing in minister Sibusiso Bengu’s ill health and squabbles over director-generalship; welfare and population development minister Abe Williams was jailed after a scandal involving missing pension funds; and Joe Modise was posthumously implicated in the arms deal scandal.

And when one former cabinet minister decides to leave politics, he has a potential career as a Ray Charles impersonator.

Mangosuthu Buthelezi became an internet sensation when he was mistaken for the musician at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.

Cape Argus