Remembering Zola Skweyiya

minister of Social and welfare Zola Skweyiya and Minister of transport and also the acting health care minister Jeff Radebe briefs the media about the following issues: Comprehensive Social Security, Comprehensive Health Care, Housing and Human Settlement, Food Security and Nutrition, and Education and Basic Services.This was held at the Union Building in Pretoria.003 Picture: Paballo Thekiso

In both the Simon’s Town Museum and the Simon’s Town Heritage Museum there are press cuttings of Zola Skweyiya.He is regarded as a proud son of the town now. But it wasn’t always like that.

Skweyiya’s lifelong fight against injustice began in Simon’s Town itself. To the apartheid National Party, he and the 1500 residents of Luyolo township, on the outskirts of the town – like the coloured community in the town itself – were a blight on the landscape.

They had to be moved – and the quicker the better.

In these tragic years of divide and rule, it was far easier for the apartheid apparatchiks to get rid of the African community than coloured people: for one, they did not need a Group Areas Act to remove them. Instead, they had a battery of nearly 20 laws which they could use at will to forcibly remove African people from where they were living – and they showed many times that they were prepared to ruthlessly use these laws.

One of these, the Black Prohibition of Interdicts Act, was promulgated to stop anyone who was under threat of removal to seek the protection of the courts – even if it was apparent that the government was acting beyond its powers.

Moreover, if the government believed in calling in the help of the army to move communities of people, no news of such a development could be published in terms of laws preventing the disclosure of the movement of the country’s armed forces.

In 1965, two years before the coloured people of Ocean View were moved 15km away to what was then known as Slangkop, Luyolo was shut down and its residents moved to the far-off township of Gugulethu – in a day.

Long before these forced removals, Skweyiya had already been spurred into action by the injustices all around him. He was determined to resist the attempts by the National Party to turn black people into non-persons.

Always a caring, sensitive person – and influenced by Congress politics at school in the Eastern Cape and the Cape Town suburb of Retreat, he joined the ANC in 1956, while still a pupil.

Following the Pass law protests and forced to regroup and re-strategise after their banning, together with the Pan-Africanist Congress and the Communist Party of South Africa, the ANC began moving key members out of the country – and into exile.

Skweyiya was one of them.

In 1963, he slipped out of South Africa en route to Tanzania and Zambia, where he stayed for many years, serving the ANC in a number of capacities. Later, he travelled to East Germany, to study for a degree in law at Leipzig University, where he graduated in 1978.

After graduating, he returned to Africa, where he threw all his energies in building up the ANC into a strong, international political force. He was a leading light in setting up an ANC office in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. In 1982, he was the ANC representative at the Organisation of African Unity, the forerunner to the African Union.

Later, the organisation called him to Lusaka, in Zambia, to set up its Legal and Constitutional Department. After his return to South Africa in 1990, he continued to head this department from Johannesburg. His expertise in the legal field made him an obvious choice to head the ANC’s constitution committee, after the negotiations that began following the defeat of apartheid.

He also chaired the ANC Constitution Committee and played a “critical role” in the constitutional negotiations. Though described by some as a “gentle giant”, he was a tough negotiator who was never afraid to speak his mind. He represented the ANC with distinction at Codesa, and was regarded with respect in talks with the ANC’s alliance partners, the legal fraternity and civil society groups.

Further afield, he also represented the ANC at the Human Rights Commission at the United Nations. In many ways, Skweyiya was a rare breed of politician….

Throughout his long career in politics, not once was there a hint of scandal about him – and it was during his watch as Minister that the Department of Social Development became one of the most respected departments in the fight against poverty in South Africa.

In his 10 years as Minister, it was he who conceptualised child grants and the formation of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa). He also served as Minister of Public Service and Administration and as South African High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. He had an endearing honesty about him – and when he started criticising the corruption in the ANC under Jacob Zuma, party members listened to him respectfully – and, indeed, agreed with him.

As far back as 2016 he called for Zuma to step down, stating at the same time that he believed the ANC was out of step with the aspirations of ordinary South Africans. Zuma was scathing in his response to the criticism of ANC veterans such as Skweyiya, but their reading of the situation proved correct when Zuma’s choice of successor for the ANC presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was defeated by Cyril Ramaphosa at the party’s elective conference in December, 2017. Early this year, Zuma himself was removed as ANC president before his term of office had expired. 

Skweyiya, who had been ill for a long time, died in hospital in Pretoria yesterday, just a few days short of his 76th birthday.

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sportswriting, politics and features. He is also the Opinion Editor for the Independent Media Group