Jackson Mthembu on healing after losing his daughter to depression: “It was so hard. I broke down and cried”

2019-12-19 14:41
Jackson Mthembu. (Photo: Misha Jordaan)

Jackson Mthembu. (Photo: Misha Jordaan)

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It’s been seven months since he stepped into his role as minister in the presidency. He’s still so fresh in his post that his desk at Tuynhuys at parliament is free of the clutter that usually comes with years in office.

He stands up when we meet, smiles and extends a hand.

“My mother, if she were still with us, would introduce me as the beautiful and handsome Jackson,” he says with a laugh before inviting us to sit.

Former ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu was sworn in as a minister in the presidency in May, replacing Jeff Radebe.

“It hasn’t been easy,” he says.

He’s had to get used to knowing what all the various departments are up to while also dealing with a family tragedy. Jackson got the job just a couple of months after losing his daughter, Khwezi (25), to suicide.

“It’s still painful,” he tells DRUM.

“It’s not something I would wish on anyone.”

On the day she died he got a call from his children that changed his life. “Papa Khwezi has killed herself.”

He rushed home and what he found broke his heart.

“Imagine seeing your daughter hanging from a curtain rail. It was so hard I broke down and cried.”

His daughter had been withdrawn on the days leading up to her death and he regrets not asking her what was going on.

“At times you don’t want to interfere.

“She would come home and go straight to her room. After she died, I blamed myself. I should have probed more.”

He’s consumed by thoughts of why she did it.

“If she was having financial trouble, we could have helped her. If only she’d told us what was going on.

“When you have a child that you’ve seen through school, then higher learning, then they start working for themselves and making their lives you think everything is okay. We really weren’t expecting this.”

They only found out after her death that Khwezi had depression and was seeing someone for it. Jackson and his family have been to therapy to deal with the trauma.

“It made me realise depression is still something we need to educate ourselves about.”

The pain of losing his eldest child is still raw. He had images of seeing her married.

“That’s the next step you think of as a father. That one day you will see her starting a new life with someone.”

Khwezi’s death changed the relationship he has with his children, he says. He asks them about everything.

“I’ve opened up to them and told them that I didn’t ask their sister Khwezi what was wrong, that’s why I need to know everything that’s happening in their lives.”

They received a lot of support from the country, the ANC and opposition parties, which he’s grateful for. He still thinks about her a lot, he says sadly.

 “I think our lives as people who were at the forefront of bringing democracy . . . our family lives were not that great, we didn’t have closeness with our families. “Because we had decided that we would pursue the liberation of our people at all costs, and we did. “All that we can hope for is that time will heal us now.”

 These days Jackson spends as much time as he can with his family. “On weekends I try to go home to my wife, Thembi, who is in Nelspruit.” He and Thembi, a nursing sister at a public institution, have been married for more than 20 years.

“I meet her on weekends, but only if the ANC hasn’t sent me to do work. This thing of us being away from our families continues – we see them once a week when we are lucky. “So family life isn’t that great.”

 Fortunately, three of his children live with him in Cape Town, where they’re studying. “That helps; at least I’m with them now. But it only started three years ago. All the time they were young, they were far.”

His wife has grown used to not having him around, he says. “When she got involved with this young man at the time, she knew what she was getting into. It’s the life of politicians. All of us have been through things. It was a choice to liberate our people, then to serve our people.”

Still, he considers himself lucky that he gets to see his loved ones once a week. “We are still fortunate, we are still alive.”

 His focus now is on ensuring government’s new district based service delivery model is a success. This new way of working aims to ensure government departments all know what other departments are doing. Currently they don’t have an overview so the department of health and the department of education might both be working in the same district without realising they can share resources.

“We will have a district service delivery at a glance you’ll be able to know what projects there are in the next five years in that particular district,” Jackson says.

“Then we will know how the lives of our people will change. You’ll have a sense of the service delivery. So when you talk about service delivery, you won’t talk in general terms – you’ll be able to say where, in which area, which district and how.

“You can say this road will be able to employ so many people, this clinic construction will need so many employees and it will service so many people once it’s done.”

The project also aims to bring different spheres of government together to maximise impact.

“It will be the first time provincial departments won’t be working in silos,” he says, meaning they’ll finally be sharing information. They also plan to provide scarce skills in areas that might otherwise not have them, and this will mean communities won’t have to wait for services just because they don’t have certain engineers for that area.

“I’m very excited.”

Jackson (61) has a lot of plans for his five years in office. He wants his time to mean something, he tells us, and doesn’t want anything less than a perfect score when he’s assessed by the president for their version of performance appraisals.

One of the legacies he hopes to be part of is a corruption-free government.

“I will be the happiest person when we leave a public system that has been cleaned of corruption, cleared of a system where people loot with no consequences. “If we can do away with corruption in the value chain of government, I would be happy. The good part is that the president is prepared to fight corruption.”

From the looting of state-owned enterprises to the infamous Gupta family, the country has weathered some big scandals recently, but Jackson has faith we’ll get back on track.

“We’re the only country who can say to our children, ‘Some of us wanted to sell the most precious instrument of our people, that our people fought for, died for – our government – to the highest bidder’.

“But we are tackling it. We are dealing with corruption one person at a time.”

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