Steve Tshwete

Stephen (Steve) Vukile Tshwete, South African politician

Born: 12 November, 1938, in Springs, South Africa

Died: 26 April, 2002, aged 63

STEVE Tshwete, who has died of pneumonia after a short illness, was one of the more colourful members of the African National Congress and the government of South Africa.

He was imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, became political commissar of the ANC’s guerrilla wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), and finally established a reputation as a strong-willed reformer of the demoralised South African Police Service.

However, Tshwete, a gravelly-voiced, whisky-drinking, tough-talking pipesmoker, said that if apartheid had not got in the way his biggest ambition would have been to play rugby and cricket for his country. During his 15 years on Robben Island he organised the prisoners into four rugby teams, which played each other in a league.

It is possible that he will be best remembered for his role as the ANC sports commissar who helped the then whites-only sports bodies re-enter international sport well before majority rule was established at the first all-race general election in 1994.

Ali Bacher, the former Springbok cricketer and director of the former all-white South African Cricket Board, became a close friend of Tshwete when the two worked together to reform cricket from 1990 onwards and prepare for the return to international test cricket. "I will miss Steve as a true friend," said Dr Bacher on learning of Tshwete’s death. "He devoted his whole life to the freedom of all the people of South Africa."

Steve Vukile Tshwete was born in Springs, a gold-mining town near Johannesburg. But his parents moved back to Peelton, a black township near King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, while he was still a baby.

Despite the many obstacles raised by apartheid, he obtained a degree in philosophy and English from the University of South Africa and was an enthusiastic rugby and cricket player in the blacks-only leagues of the Eastern Cape.

After the banning in 1960 of the ANC by the then prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, he became national secretary of the African Students Association, an ANC front chaired by Thabo Mbeki. The two men were to maintain a close relationship for the rest of Tshwete’s life.

In 1963 Tshwete was convicted on charges of sabotage and sent to Robben Island for 15 years. The dust and the glare of the lime quarries where the prisoners worked severely damaged his eyes, and for many years he wore distinctive spectacles with lenses that resembled the bottom of Coca Cola bottles.

After release in 1979, he played a major role in the formation of the United Democratic Front, a facade for the banned ANC. He became chairman of the UDF and the Eastern Cape but was then issued with a restriction order limiting his movements.

In 1985 he went underground, fled to Zambia and re-joined the exiled ANC. He was sent for military training in the Soviet bloc and returned to Zambia to become political commissar of Umkhonto we Sizwe. He was removed from the post after advocating hitting "soft targets" - ie white civilians - in white-ruled South Africa.

When the ANC returned to South Africa in 1990 he played a key role in negotiations with the National Party government. He was appointed national organiser of the ANC and played a prominent part in the quest for racial unity in sport. He worked with Ali Bacher and in 1992 accompanied the then all-white South African cricket team to Australia to take part in the World Cup.

When Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, Tshwete was appointed sports minister and laid the groundwork for the development of sports facilities and opportunities among the country’s black youth. He was appointed safety and security minister in 1999 when his friend, Thabo Mbeki, succeeded Mandela as president.

It was something of a poison chalice. His predecessor had been ineffectual and South Africa had gained a reputation of being one of the world’s most violent and crime-infested countries. Tshwete began controversially by suspending publication of crime statistics for a year while he undertook a number of measures to raise police morale and discipline and root out corruption. He secured for the police improved pay, better equipment and more customer-friendly uniforms. He told the police to tear into criminals like bulldogs and avowed: "This is not the time for niceties." By the time he died, he was popularly known as "Mr Fixit" for his success in reinvigorating the police.

However, he dented his reputation in March last year when he accused three senior ANC heavyweights, Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa, critics of Mbeki, of plotting to topple the president. The plot was later found to be a fiction. Tshwete apologised, but he was unable to erase the blot on his career.

His final illness was something of a mystery. He developed back pains in early March. He was confined to a wheelchair and then to an isolated glass cubicle in a military hospital in Pretoria. His aides said he was unable to communicate in the late stages of his illness and he finally succumbed to pneumonia.

President Mbeki said Tshwete would be give a state funeral, the first since the ANC was elected to power eight years ago.

Tshwete is survived by his wife, Pamela, sons Lindela and Mayihlome and daughter Yonda.