Zola Skweyiya: An honourable, gentle politician

2018-04-15 22:54

Zola Skweyiya might not have been as dramatic as other outspoken ANC party leaders, but he spoke his mind honestly, especially about the issues he cared about.

He cared deeply about the party and he was passionate about the task the government had given him to look after the most vulnerable in society who rely on grants.

I accompanied him in the early 2000s, with then deputy president Jacob Zuma, to an imbizo in the Free State.

In a township outside Mangaung, while visiting households door to door, Skweyiya walked into the home of a deaf-and-mute person whose disability grant had been stopped ostensibly because the provincial social department wanted him to come and “prove” that he still qualified for the grant.

This outraged Skweyiya who told government officials on the spot to make sure the man’s disability grant was restored.

“What proof must this man provide that he is disabled?” he asked in exasperation.

Officials scrambled immediately to correct the anomaly.

When I met him for an interview in 2008 Skweyiya told me Zuma had assured him that Zuma would serve only one term as president and then allow someone else to take over.

This was a year after Zuma won the ANC presidency over Thabo Mbeki at the Polokwane conference.

But tellingly, Skweyiya was much more keen to talk about a subject that was not part of the interview.

He talked about how the social grants were reaching more people than before, making a difference so that not one family went to bed with nothing to eat.

But he also emphasised it was not fair to expect the government to look after every single individual.

He told me how he had been to his rural home, only to be disappointed that lots of land in the rural areas was lying fallow and people were not tilling it.

“It breaks my heart to see people struggle so much. There are things that people can do for themselves.”

Born in the Eastern Cape, Skweyiya joined the ANC in Lusaka in 1965 after having been a student activist at the University of Fort Hare.

He was sent to the German Democratic Republic to study law, where later he obtained an LLD (doctor of law) degree from the University of Leipzig.

On completion he was employed by the ANC in various capacities that required his legal acumen. Fours years after his return from exile, he became an MP in 1994 and was appointed minister of public service and administration from 1994 to 1999.

After that then president Thabo Mbeki deployed him as minister of social development for 10 years.

He was responsible for growing the numbers of citizens the government looks after with social grants.

Skweyiya was elected on to the ANC’s national executive committee, but he never projected himself for any leadership positions.

Although he initially got along with Zuma, he would later express misgivings about the former president.

In our interview, while I worked for the Mail & Guardian, he told me Zuma had assured him that he would make way for then deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe after serving only one term as president.

Motlanthe was removed as deputy president at the 2012 elective conference in Mangaung.

Skweyiya said he had raised concerns with the ANC when Zuma first told him in 2006 that Zuma intended standing for the party’s presidency.

“I said we must be careful that other ethnic groups must also feel that they can produce leaders. We should manage our affairs to ensure the Ngunis should not be the only ones leading the ANC.

“I feel strongly that we have not solved the national question – not just between whites and blacks, but among ourselves as Africans. I know this is not a popular view, but it’s a fact. So I pointed this out to JZ and he assured me; he said no problem, he would run for only one term. He said he had spoken to Kgalema [Motlanthe] to take over after him.”

But Zuma did have another term and flatly denied he had ever made such an assurance. In recent years Skweyiya was part of the ANC veterans who were quite critical of Zuma’s style of leadership and the endemic corruption and wanted him to resign.

When he died, Skweyiya was no longer occupying any positions in government or in the party.

Skweyiya was born on April 14 1942. Saturday would have been his birthday.

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January 20 2019