Back with a vengeance

2008-02-28 00:00

JESSIE Duarte is back. The former MEC for Safety and Security in Gauteng, who left public life 10 years ago with her credibility in shreds, is newly ensconced at Luthuli House.

She has replaced Smuts (“I didn’t join the struggle to be poor”) Ngonyama as the ANC’s spin-doctor-in-chief.

Diminutive Duarte (54), is less genial than her predecessor.

Her smile is quickly replaced by a steely-eyed belligerence when questions are not to her liking. She used to have a reputation as a bit of a bully, and it doesn’t take long to see why.

For the past eight years Duarte has headed a section in the Department of Foreign Affairs dealing with the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad).

The AU has been entirely ineffective in brokering peace on the continent and especially in Zimbabwe. Shouldn’t it have done more, I wonder conversationally, as a way of easing into the interview.

“The AU’s position is that if a region deals with a matter then they allow that region to deal with the matter,” she says.

But SADC has not dealt with the matter, has it, I ask.

Duarte’s smile vanishes and her face becomes taut.

“Can I ask you to switch that off for a moment if you don’t mind?” she says, pointing to my tape recorder.

I’d rather not do that, I say.

“I’m going to ask you to do that,” she snaps. “I think you’re putting me in a very difficult position and I’m not going to allow that.”

She sounds affronted when I ask if she’s as tough as people say.

“When women are assertive, it’s always good to call them tough and pretend that they have no other values to add except toughness. I think I’m an assertive woman, I think that I have a right to be assertive, like every other human being.”

Duarte grew up in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the country, a “coloured” suburb called Newclare in Johannesburg, where crime and gangsterism were rife. She was one of nine children and her mother worked in a factory making underwear most of her life to support them. Later she became a trade unionist.

On her father’s side, Duarte is related to Nelson Mandela’s old friend Amina Cachalia, who was involved in the Transvaal Indian Congress. By the time she was 15, Duarte was in the thick of the struggle against apartheid. She and two of her brothers were detained on several occasions.

She was banned under the first state of emergency in 1985 until the unbanning of the ANC. “They called it a restriction order but really it was a banning order.”

She found employment with Beyers Naudé’s Ecumenical Advice Bureau, running a scholarship programme for young people training in public administration. In 1990 the ANC returnees’ committee asked if she’d be interested in working with Mandela as one of his special assistants.

She worked at Shell House (now Luthuli House) until he became President of South Africa. Then, at the age of 40, she was thrown into the deep end as provincial MEC for Safety and Security in Gauteng. Suddenly she was the boss of the people who had arrested and detained her and made her life hell. Some were openly hostile, others overly friendly in a way that stuck in her gullet.

“I struggled with the fact that here was a person who was being very friendly now, and when they had detained me were not, and had been quite brutal.”

Did she hate them?

No, she says. She “passed that point” when working with Mandela. “The attitude that he brought was, ‘Listen, you’ve got to move on’.”

She says she is an atheist but has “a spiritual side of me, and you’ve got to learn to find that spot”.

Transforming a brutal, white Afrikaner male-dominated police force and at the same time fighting an avalanche of crime would have tested the most seasoned professional. Duarte was nothing if not committed and hard working.

But her life had been as a political activist. Running a government department called for administrative skills she patently did not have.

It was felt at the time that the only thing stopping Premier Tokyo Sexwale from firing her was Mandela, who had a soft spot for her.

Then she was caught doing things she shouldn’t have. She lied to protect herself.

The opposition and the press pounced. She fought her corner viciously, attacking the press, playing the race card, bullying her underlings, generally behaving like the street fighter those who knew her said she was.

She appointed a consultant at R280 000 a year, way above the going rate. He had no qualifications for the job and had been dismissed by a previous employer for suspected credit card fraud. If he had been white, spat Duarte, “his qualifications would not have been an issue”.

She took a friend to Portugal at taxpayers’ expense. Duarte said the trip had been paid for by the Portuguese government — until records showed that her department had paid. Then she said her friend was a government consultant, but the press exposed him as a full-time executive in a private company.

“Vintage Jesse-speak,” sighed those who knew her.

Then came the knockout blow. Her official car was in an accident with her behind the wheel — and she did not have a driver’s licence.

Several versions were put out by her department. She was not driving the car, her bodyguard was. Nobody was driving the car, it was stationary when another car bumped it. Strong-arm tactics were used to get the transport officer in her department to sign a fraudulent letter supporting Duarte’s version.

“The only thing that I did do which was wrong was I drove a car without a licence,” she says. “It was a huge mistake.”

Surely the bigger mistake was lying about it? “I didn’t tell a lie.”

Didn’t she say her bodyguard had been driving? “It was people in my department who issued that statement.”

She says a commission of inquiry cleared her of fraud and corruption. Well, yes and no.

What the commission actually said about that was: “A suspicion, even a strong one, does not amount to the quantum of evidence we require.”

It did find that her department was “dysfunctional”. She blames her staff: “You inherit people.”

Eventually she resigned.

Duarte has clearly not forgiven the press for its role. “There was a huge media wrecking of my life,” she says.

The new Zuma-led ANC has proposed a media tribunal answerable to Parliament. Duarte is all for it, although she claims to support self-regulation. “We need a mechanism in the country whereby the media can also be held accountable.”

Can she explain the ANC’s indecent haste to eliminate the Scorpions when there are so many other priorities to worry about, I ask.

“Eliminate is a strong word.”

Act against? “We’re not acting against them either.”

Integrate them into the South African Police Service?

“It’s a priority, yes. You really do need independent prosecutorial services in South Africa. We come from a history where prosecutorial services were not independent.”

I overlook her cynical attempt to align the Scorpions with the apartheid era.

Isn’t the current setup a reason that their success rate is so high?

“If it were that high we would see some of the bigger crime bosses that are out there being busted.”

Clearly, Glenn Agliotti does not qualify.

As for the apparent urgency — what urgency, she asks. A decision was taken at the ANC conference in Stellenbosch six years ago to deal with the Scorpions.

The ANC, she says, is belatedly implementing that decision.

Wasn’t the Khampepe Commission, which decided not to integrate the Scorpions into the police, the response to Stellenbosch?

“We can disagree with her [commission head Judge Sisi Khampepe], and we do,” she says.

What about the inference that the ANC is merely acting to protect its own? “The discussion about the Scorpions did not begin with the Jacob Zuma issue, it began at Stellenbosch six years ago,” she repeats.

How can the ANC profess to be against corruption when it includes the likes of Tony Yengeni on its executive? “You seem fixated as the media on Tony Yengeni,” she says angrily. “You have decided that this human being is not fit to live. And we don’t believe that.”

In a previous incarnation as a champion of women’s rights, Duarte attacked the media for “misogyny”. Women’s mistakes were not tolerated but men’s were excused, she wrote. “A man who makes mistakes is considered to be on a learning curve.”

And so I’m interested to hear her take on Zuma’s rape trial.

“I think any woman would have been uncomfortable with that particular rape trial,” she says.

But “he’s a man of his time. All men, South African men, have similar views.”

I cock an eyebrow.

“Many South African men.”

They don’t have his other qualities, she says. “One must look at JZ from the perspective of all the qualities that he possesses; don’t measure him only on that one instance in court.”

Here too, it seems, the press is to blame. Its treatment of Zuma was, “frankly speaking, quite incorrect”, she says.

“The media has to do its job, but what concerns me is when it becomes degrading to a human being, when it becomes completely just atrocious.”

During the commission of inquiry into her behaviour as MEC, Duarte is alleged to have wagged her finger at a black member of the then Democratic Party and said, “Jy sal kak.” (You will suffer).

Maybe her day has come at last.

— Featurenet.

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