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Jessie Duarte, who served as special assistant to former South African President Nelson Mandela after his release from prison, has died. She was 68.
Duarte’s death on Sunday was announced by the South Africa’s ruling party. She had been on medical leave since November undergoing cancer treatment.
“It is with profound sadness that the African National Congress has learned of the passing of our Deputy Secretary General, Yasmin ‘Jessie’ Duarte,” the ANC said in a statement.
A leading political activist during the apartheid years, Duarte held several senior posts in the government and the ANC, which took power under Mandela in the nation’s first multiracial elections in 1994. She fell ill weeks after municipal elections in which support for the ANC fell below 50% for the first time.
Born in Johannesburg on Sept. 19, 1953, Duarte worked as a management accountant, helped establish women’s structures for the ANC in the 1970s and 1980s, and was detained without trial. She later became a leading figure in the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front. Mandela appointed her as special assistant when he was freed from jail in 1990, a position she held until he became president.
Duarte went on to serve as head of safety and security in the provincial cabinet in the central Gauteng region and spent eight years working for the Department of Foreign Affairs, becoming South Africa’s high commissioner to Mozambique. After exiting the diplomatic service in 2003, she was appointed the ANC’s spokeswoman and then served as chief operations officer in the Presidency until her resignation in 2010.
When the party elected Jacob Zuma as its leader for a second term in 2012, Duarte was appointed its deputy secretary general and was regarded as one of his staunchest allies. While Zuma’s nine-year tenure as the nation’s president was tainted by corruption scandals, Duarte retained her ANC post after Cyril Ramaphosa succeeded him as its leader in late 2017.
Duarte was named the ANC’s acting secretary general in May 2021, when the incumbent Ace Magashule was suspended pending his trial on corruption charges.
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