Ambassador Jessie Duarte: A Fearless, Staunch, Courageous Activist

18 July 2022

Ambassador Duarte,  dedicated her life to the liberation of South Africa and particularly the emancipation of women,” was a long-time anti-apartheid activist who served as Special Assistant to former President Nelson Mandela and struggle stalwart, Walter Sisulu.

In 1994, she was appointed to the Gauteng Provincial Government as a Member of the Executive Council (MEC) responsible for Safety and Security. Between 1999 and 2003, she served as South Africa’s Ambassador to the Republic of Mozambique.

Until her untimely passing Ambassador Duarte was serving as Deputy Secretary General of the governing African National Congress (ANC) following her election in 2012, and she was a member of its National Executive Committee, a role she occupied since 1997.

In delivering the Eulogy at the funeral of Yasmin ‘Jessie’ Duarte, President Ramaphosa said:-

We gather here in sorrow and disbelief. Although our beloved comrade, Jessie has been gravely ill for several months, it is difficult to comprehend that someone with such vitality and such spirit has departed this earth.

Comrade Jessie was a faithful, dedicated and fiercely loyal leader of the African National Congress.

It is difficult to imagine the ANC without our beloved DSG, and to think that we will never again hear her voice and her laughter carrying down the corridors of Luthuli House.

For close on 10 years, she served as ANC Deputy Secretary General.For 25 years, she served on its National Executive Committee. And from the years of her youth to her final days, she served the people of South Africa with dedication, with humility and with a passion that is all too rare.

She worked alongside great leaders of our struggle. She learnt the politics of liberation from leaders like Mama Albertina Sisulu, Oom Beyers Naudé and Madiba. From them she imbibed the qualities of revolutionary leadership. Qualities that she was to demonstrate in every position she occupied.

Qualities that she was to pass on to future generations of activists. Throughout her life, Jessie Duarte was an organiser. She was an organiser of women.

As the Secretary of the Federation of Transvaal Women – FEDTRAW – she was part of building and leading a powerful women’s movement that directly challenged the oppression of black women and shook the foundations of the apartheid state.

She mobilised women across the country to resist the restrictions imposed upon them by a racist and sexist political system and a patriarchal society.

Like the generations that had come before, like the defiant women who burnt their passes in 1913, like the defiant women who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956, Jessie was determined that women should occupy their rightful place in the struggle for national liberation.

We remember her immense contribution to the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the experiences of women in detention.

We remember the courage with which she spoke against the abuse of women not just by the apartheid security forces, but within the ranks of the liberation movement itself.

Even in the democratic era, Jessie was relentless in advancing the position of women in all areas of public and private life.

She confronted the patriarchal attitudes and practices that sought to diminish the role and contribution of women in Parliament, in government and across society.

She did not hesitate to confront inadequate representation of women in the ANC itself.  Cde Jessie was an organiser of workers. Her involvement in the mobilisation of domestic workers was part of a lifelong commitment to the struggles of the working class.

Cde Jessie was an organiser of writers. Her role in the formation of the Congress of South African Writers and her work for Ravan Press revealed not only her love for literature, but also her conviction that writing, art and culture serve as powerful instruments of empowerment and liberation.

Comrade Jessie said last year that she was looking forward to writing books during her retirement. It is our ardent wish that the family will publish some of the work she has produced, so that future generations may draw inspiration from the record of this fine activist.

Cde Jessie was an organiser of activists. She firmly believed that the people were their own liberators. She was never content to remain closeted in an office, to sit on a stage, or to direct the struggle from the comfort of a boardroom.

She was always among the people, on the conference floor, in the community halls, in homes, on the streets. Wherever there was suffering, wherever families were mourning, where students were organising, you would find Comrade Jessie there, offering comfort, hope and encouragement.

Comrades have remarked that whenever Cde Jessie entered a room where people were mourning she was able to comfort those in pain with her kind and encouraging words.  She was gracious, compassionate and always kind. She was always there, teaching, organising, mobilising.

She never missed a beat, she was on top of every issue, she led with distinction, and she always made her voice heard. It was a matter of great distress to her that she felt that the movement to which she had dedicated her life had grown so distant from the people they were given the responsibility to serve.

This is a deficiency that we are called upon to remedy. Drawing on her example, let us – as leaders and activists – humble ourselves before the people.

We are called upon to retore the values of our Constitution and our movement. We must take up the concerns and champion the interests of the people of this country, particularly the workers, the poor and the vulnerable. Above all, we need to work together with the people to improve their lives and to transform our society.

The Holy Quran says: “Stand firmly for justice, even if it is against yourselves, against your parents, against your kin, against rich or poor.” Jessie Duarte’s sense of justice was keen.

Her sympathies for the poor, the vulnerable, the destitute and the marginalised ran deep. She had empathy and was able to walk in other people’s shoes and see through their eyes. It is this that enabled her to see the suffering of our people and empathise with them.

She took up their cause and stood firm on her principles, even when her stance attracted criticism or personal attack. She was a champion of the oppressed everywhere.

She will forever be remembered for her commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people and to keeping the issue alive in the minds of the South African people. She had great courage. She was at the forefront of the fight against the apartheid state at the height of its cruel and oppressive rule.

Who can forget the power of her intervention during the inquest into the death of Ahmed Timol five years ago, when she exposed the lies of the security branch police, telling the world what she and her family had witnessed and endured at their cruel hands.

She also had the courage to speak out – honestly and directly – about the abuses and destructive tendencies she saw within her movement and within the democratic government.

At a time like this, our nation needs more people of her courage and consciousness. Our nation calls out for people who are not afraid to confront wrongdoing and to speak hard truths.

Our nation calls out for people who will, even in the face of severe resistance, champion the values of honesty, integrity, selflessness and service.

Jessie Duarte was a unifier. She embodied a politics that was neither divisive, mean, nor small. Her politics were empowering and unifying. She understand the immense power of a united people and a united movement.

There was no difficulty, no challenge, that could not be overcome by a people united in purpose and action. And so she fought against factionalism and disunity. She stood firm against those who would sow division, who were interested only in personal advancement, who pursued narrow interests to the neglect of the needs of the people.

Let us, in her memory and in following her example, strive towards unity and common purpose. Let us build a united nation and a united movement founded on the principles of our democratic Constitution.

Comrade Jessie has run her race. Our nation’s thoughts and prayers are with the family at this difficult time. The nation shares in your grief.

May you be comforted by the knowledge that the life of this great patriot has inspired us all and her contribution will never be forgotten.

May we all strive to honour her life by doing everything within our means, sparing neither strength nor courage, to achieve the free, united and equal society for which she so gallantly fought.

May her soul rest in peace.

Hamba Kahle Umkhonto.

The Diplomatic Informer
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