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Loyal activist who inspired Mandela to wear a bow-tie dies

Jessie Duarte Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso

Jessie Duarte Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso

Published Jul 18, 2022


By Marlan Padayachee

ON the eve of the birth anniversary of her beloved political guru Nelson Mandela, ANC loyalist Jessie Yasmin Duarte lost her long battle against cancer.

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South Africa woke up on Sunday to the sad news that the 68-year-old feisty ANC deputy secretary-general had passed away in the early hours of the morning.

Despite her crippling illness, Duarte shared with her liberation comrades that she wished to retire in a cottage by the sea front – but cancer dashed her dreams and her journey’s end was rerouted to her native Johannesburg, where she had made her mark as a strong anti-apartheid activist, and was later rewarded as a diplomat to Mozambique.

Her traits were that she was fair and firm, walked the talk, a hardliner, disliked mediocrity and laziness, and believed in getting the job done, always on the field campaigning for votes for the ANC in successive elections countrywide.

Amid glowing tributes, the prominent Struggle-era activist-leader, mother, grandmother and sister of a politically-linked family was accorded a semi-state funeral and buried at Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg, according to Muslim rites on Sunday afternoon.

Duarte had taken sick leave since 2021 at a tumultuous time at Luthuli House – a far cry from the 1990s where she had jealously guarded protocol over Mandela as the SA president-in-waiting, and advising Madiba whether to wear a bow-tie or suit and tie for the momentous public appearances.

But Duarte struggled in the later years with ANC factionalism, the ousting of strongman secretary-general Ace Magashule, and staff mutiny over non-payment of salaries in the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Unpredictable at most times, she spoke straight-faced to journalists on many of the controversial issues that confronted the governing party – including in her tenure as the only woman in the ANC’s Top Six leadership – the influential central committee that is the tug-boat of the government.

She remained close to the ranks of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) up to the funding issues of the liberation war veterans and internal staffing issues at Luthuli House, and she worked tirelessly on the secretariat for successive elective and other conferences in the past dozen years.

She became the face and voice of the troubled, cash-strapped ANC during and after the controversial, corruption-stained years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency and the state capture vice-like grip of the India-born Gupta brothers.

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However, tributes painted a significant picture of an extraordinary activist, whom President Cyril Ramaphosa described as a “strong and loyal” cadre – something of a dynamite daughter of the epic struggle of apartheid South Africa.


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