Steve Tshwete was not a man afraid of the hot seat. The Safety and Security portfolio is not one that a South African Government Minister takes on lightly. Indeed, some Ministers could be forgiven for saying "It would be the death of me" and while perhaps not attributable to his death, it was in the capacity of the African National Congress (ANC) government's second term cabinet Minister of Safety and Security that Steve Tshwete passed away, aged 63, after a short illness, the day before celebrating the eighth anniversary of the elections that brought his party into government.

Stephen Vukile Thangana Tshwete

born November 12, 1938, Springs, South Africa

died approximately 11pm, April 26, 2002

married Pamela, one daughter and one son

Early Years

Though born in Springs, in the (then) Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga), his family soon returned to their roots in the Eastern Cape. Steve spent his early childhood in the village of Nkonkqweni (Peelton) on the outskirts of King William's Town

Steve's parents were workers who recognised the value of an education. When Steve and his mother returned from tending the mielie fields or chopping wood, she would teach him to read and write. The eldest of four children, Steve was extremely lucky to benefit from so much of his mother's attention, and that he could already read and write before starting school certainly put him at great advantage over his classmates. He excelled at Primary School, where he passed Standard 6 with distinction in 1956 and was awarded a Junior Certificate and won a bursary to attend secondary school (rather than seek menial employment to help support his family, as many of his classmates would have).

Steve commenced Secondary education at Forbes Grant Secondary School, Ginseng Location, King William's Town in 1957. The school's principal, Harry Mjamba, introduced the teenaged Steve to ANC literature and developed his political consciousness. He also honed his skills on the rugby field, representing his school's first team and playing for local rugby clubs. He later transferred to the Welsh High School in East London (1960-1961), where he joined the African Students' Association and refined his leadership and organisational skills. He also helped to found the East London Youth Club (a cover for recruitment into the ANC that had been forced underground), holding the post of general secretary.

Steve's rugby interests continued and in 1962, he was a delegate of the Spring Rose Rugby Football Club at the GOMPO Rugby Union, when the Department of Bantu Development killed off the East London Sports Board, replacing it with the East London Bantu Sports Board, and the face of South African sport became a monochrome. Steve took part in a campaign to reinstate the East London Sports Board and to rescind the constitution imposed upon his fellow players. Sadly the government was not in a listening frame of mind.

While Steve was enjoying his teenage years and developing his political consciousness, many of his countrymen were literally fighting for their lives. In 1955, the Nationalist government arrested 156 political activists, including Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, and what became known as the Treason Trial began and was drawn out until 1961. The trial made headlines on a regular basis throughout Steve's High School career, and Steve's paper of choice (quite likely the only one) was Imvo Zabantsundu, giving him a significantly different perspective on matters to that which, say, F.W. de Klerk, two years his senior, would have got from the Beeld.

Living The Struggle

Upon leaving school, took up employment with AJ North, before returning to the Welsh High School as a clerk. But his day job was not the be all or end all of his existence, far from it. He continued his political activity, and lost his job at his alma marta. With the recently proclaimed independent Bantustans, Steve lost his quot;citizenship" of South Africa and was in danger of being declared a Redundant African in East London should he not find another job. With this in mind, he took up an unpaid job at a struggling law firm. Not paying his keep, Steve was not scoring highly in the popularity stakes with his family.

Steve extended his involvement with the ANC, taking up the role of secretary of the Border regional command of Umkhonto we Sizwe1 (MK). Being so prominently involved, it is little surprise that around two years later, he was arrested (June 1963), tried and convicted of sixteen counts of sabotage, membership of a banned organisation, furthering its aims and soliciting finance for same. He was sentenced to 15 years on Robben Island, where he joined many prominent leaders, in February 1964.

Like many of his Robben Island compatriots, he was far from idle on the island. Nelson Mandela said of his fellow inmate: "[He was] a sterling example of how prisoners made their incarceration a positive experience and a building stone for the future." Steve used his time to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree from the (correspondence, or distance learning) University of South Africa (UNISA), majoring in English and Philosophy. He also extended his rugby career, along with dabbling in some other sports. He was president of the Island Rugby Board, president of the Island Amateur Athletics Association, vice-chairperson of the Dynaspurs Football Club and chairperson of the Ikwezi Rugby Football Club.

He was released in March of 1978, having served his full term, and returned to his home on the border of the now Ciskei. Under a two year banning order he was virtually confined to his home town of Peelton. He found work locally as a high school teacher (in 1981), but not even fifteen years in prison could keep him away from fighting for his rights and the rights of his countrymen.

By 1983, Steve was again president of the Border region and led the Border delegation at the launch of the United Democratic Front (a union of all the banned organisations to fight for the common goal of democracy). On his return from the launch, he was arrested by the Ciskei police and spent 4 months in detention at Mdantsane Police Station. These were the twisted days of the state of emergency during which the police could, quite literally, detain you without charge, for as long as they liked, simply because they didn't like your face.

Steve Tshwete was a little more fortunate than his namesake Mr Biko, and saw the light of day again, however not without losing his teaching post. After three months' unemployment, he was offered a clerical job at an attorney's practise in King William's Town (on the "South African" side of the border with the Ciskei, although the town effectively spilled over the border to Bisho, the bantustan's capital).

In October 1984 Steve received a Persona Non Grata tag courtesy of Mr F.W. de Klerk, current National Party Minister of Home Affairs (he who would later share a Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela). Under the order, he had to have a visa and temporary resident's permit if he wanted to enter "South Africa". He fought the case right up to the Grahamstown Supreme Court, all the while traversing the country addressing rallies and mass funerals. Not surprisingly, he lost his case (this was, after all, a government that made laws at will, not event he scales of the Supreme Court were balanced.)

Forced into exile, he spent time in Maseru (Lesotho) before moving to Lusaka (Zambia) in 1985, though his work took him constantly around the world. He held the office of secretary of the (ANC) 75th Anniversary Committee, was a member of the Politico-Military Council (PMC) secretariat and after undergoing military training, held the office of Army Commissar of MK, working closely with Chris Hani.

In 1988 he was co-opted onto the ANC National Executive Committee and was involved in the ANC delegation to 1990's Groote Schuur Talks. With the ANC (and other political groups) unbanned in February 1990, he was instructed by the NEC to return to South Africa permanently on May 21st of the same year. Upon his return, he took up the role of National Organiser and chairperson of the National Organising Committee. In this role, he was responsible for rebuilding the structures of the ANC following decades of underground activity.

A keen rugby man throughout his life, Steve also headed up the ANC's Sports Desk, playing a starring role in facilitating the transformation of sport in post-apartheid South Africa. Understanding the importance of sport in unity, Steve also lobbied for the lifting of the sports embargo, even before South African teams were racially integrated. In 1992, he was awarded the Jack Cheetam Award in recognition of his devotion to South African sport and in particular the role he played in facilitating the deracialisation and normalisation of South African Sport.

Working for Freedom

In 1994 the ANC whitewashed the elections and Steve was elected to the first democratically elected National Assembly, holding the post of Minister of Sport and Recreation in Nelson Mandela's cabinet. Though admittedly not the most challenging of portfolios, sport is something very close to the heart of most South Africans, and Steve did have to do some radical things. Unifying the leagues was tuppence compared to the onerous task of levelling the playing field, while at the same time maintaining the successes that the South African team had won in the international arena.

The importance of international success of South African sporting teams should not be underestimated. Our sporting ambassadors are responsible for generating huge volumes of tourism to the country, which is pivotal to the success of the economy. Bringing the 1995 Rugby World Cup to South Africa had contributed immeasurably to post-apartheid South Africa. Hosting the tournament showed the international audience that South Africa was a safe place to visit, while home team victory worked wonders in uniting a confused nation. It was a fairytale story, and the AmaBokkeBokke were happy Cinderellas.

However, the years of inequitable resource division are mirrored in the imbalance of skill amongst the citizens of South Africa. Steve Tshwete was left holding the glass slipper. No sooner was South Africa back in the international arena than the spotlight was searching for a dusky skinned Princess and kept reflecting brightly off a continuum of white faces.

The issue of skills imbalance (not talent imbalance) was something that Steve had to address. In any country, it would be hard for the population to digest that their national team was not picked purely on merit. But in a country with national sporting pride so fiercely entrenched, a nation eager to succeed, with a point to prove after years of isolation, the notion of selecting players who are not the best in their position, is a bitter pill to swallow. The bigger picture is not easy to see, especially when it is just a player or two at the top level. It is easy to argue that what difference does one person make?

Steve Tshwete introduced the quota system into South African sport. Teams competing at national and provincial level would have to have a minimum number of non-white players in their squads. In soccer, this was never going to be a problem. In cricket, the likes of Paul Gogga Adams, Mkhya Ntini and Herschelle Gibbs would have earned their spots on merit anyway. Of course the Hansie Cronje years were incredibly successful in any case (before the devil made him do it). Things didn't go down very well in rugby, however. On the national level, Chester Williams answered any questions about his selection when he scored four tries in his opening World Cup match, but on the provincial level, things were not too rosy.

Disgraced South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU) president but still Golden Lions (former Transvaal) President and new leader of the Federal Alliance party, Dr Louis Luyt, nearly took Steve to court.

Steve Tshwete lacks the statutory power to interfere in sport and on the autonomy of sporting bodies. To this effect the FEDERAL ALLIANCE will assist and support sporting bodies to maintain their independence and autonomy and if need be the FEDERAL ALLIANCE will support sporting bodies with the necessary legal action to prevent Steve Tshwete and the ANC from further interference in sport. The autonomy of sporting bodies is clearly defined in the South African Sports Commission Bill and furthermore the objects and the powers of the said Commission are fully defined in this Bill. Not Steve Tshwete nor anybody else can therefore interfere with sport or sporting bodies and if it takes a court of law to impress this on Steve Tshwete then the FEDERAL ALLIANCE will do it.

The Federal Alliance's January 21, 1999 press release continued:

The FEDERAL ALLIANCE will not allow South African sport to collapse into mediocrity and inferiority. The FEDERAL ALLIANCE accepts that the face of sport will have [to change] but to enforce draconian measures, such as quota systems, on sporting bodies because the ANC failed in every other aspect of government, is cheap politicking and will not contribute to nation building. Merit must always be the criteria, be it in sport, business or any other sphere of civil society. We will not allow the ANC or their lackeys to destroy the hopes and aspirations of our sportsmen and women, for their own selfish purposes.

The penultimate sentence is an attack of the Affirmative Action policy, which requires that, in the case of two identical candidates, the position be given to the person who was previously disadvantaged. I'm sure that the press release left Steve sitting easily. It is more of a rant than a threat, and is clearly a cheap shot to muster up the support of a small disenchanted section of society that would never have voted ANC in the first place.

Out of the Frying pan, into the Fire

Later that year, the country held its second democratic elections. Despite the highs and lows of the first term, the ANC secured an even more emphatic victory. In the cabinet reshuffle that followed on June 16, 1999, Steve Tshwete was rewarded for his excellent achievements as Minister of Sport and Recreation, with the unenviable task of Minister of Safety and Security.

In a job where everybody is looking to you for answers and nobody is your friend, Steve focused his efforts on the police force, who found themselves in a similar position. He began to tackle the low morale and fear for their personal safety that is rife amongst the police force in South Africa today. When in the past the police were the murderers, nowadays they find themselves the victims. Sweet revenge, you may say, except that the 80's policemen, by and large, have long-since fled the police force.

In his years as MK's Political Commissar, he had spoken out against state violence and repression of the people, warning that it would lead to an overspill of violence in previously serene "white" areas. His predictions did not make him popular with the people whose lives were to be affected (those who heard his warnings, anyway). Now, however, Steve was fighting for the other side and it was to him that wives, children and families of murdered police in the new South Africa began to turn.

Steve took a tough stance against crime, in a society that has become tolerant of it in many regards, and followed up with encouragement and support of the police who had to enforce his policies. He also reorganised the force and undertook some transformation within the ranks. Midway through his term as Minister, his efforts bore fruit with a downturn in growth of criminal activity.

Death is a Thief

Steve Tshwete complained of back pain and was admitted to hospital late in April 2002. He died a few days later, of kidney failure and pneumonia on the eve of the holiday celebrating the elections that he fought most of his life for.

Steve Tshwete's death was marked with flags flown at half mast and his minister's chair left vacant with his name plate in place. A memorial service was held in St George's Cathedral, Cape Town on May 2, 2002, at which Dr Frene Ginwala and Deputy President Jakob Zuma, a former co-inmate on Robben Island, paid tribute to a great politician, an outstanding citizen of South Africa. His national funeral was held at Bisho Stadium on May 4, 2002, attended by President Thabo Mbeki. He was laid to rest alongside his parents and relatives in Peelton, at a private burial later that day.

If he had lost his pretence at a sharp tongue, which sought, unsuccessfully, to hide the softest of hearts, we would have known that the day was not far when we would no longer hear his voice.

If he had tired of bringing joy to our hearts with merry tales and chance remarks and wit that made us laugh, we would have known that he was preparing himself for his eternal journey.

Had the fire that burned in his heart begun to wither into the cold embers of extinguished light - the fire of a fighter for justice, of a revolutionary, a dedicated and selfless worker for the total emancipation of our people, a humble midwife for our human dignity, a parent concerned about the beautiful Yonda - we would have known that he had run his race.

... But death has struck suddenly and without warning, with the frightening mystery of a flash of lightening that splits the clear blue skies. Without notice, death has taken from us the apple of our eye.2

Lala ngoxolo Thangana3

1. The Spear of the Nation
2. Taken from the Oration at the Funeral of Minister Steve Tshwete
2. Rest in Peace


  • South Africa Times May 8, 2002

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