South African cabinet minister dies of COVID-19 amid surge

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Jackson Mthembu, a central figure in communicating the South African government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, died of complications from the coronavirus, the president announced Thursday. He was 62.

Mthembu is the first member of South Africa’s cabinet to succumb to COVID-19 after he tested positive on January 11.

“Minister Mthembu was an exemplary leader, an activist and life-long champion of freedom and democracy," President Cyril Ramaphosa said. “He was a much-loved and greatly respected colleague and comrade, whose passing leaves our nation at a loss.”

Mthembu's death comes as South Africa battles a second wave of the COVID-19 that is driven by a new variant of the virus that is about 50% more infectious, according to health experts.

Mthembu was appointed the spokesman for South Africa's governing African National Congress party in 2007 and became a member of parliament a few years later.

He was the Minister in the Presidency, responsible for communicating cabinet decisions and since the outbreak of COVID-19 has been coordinating the government’s key messages on the virus.

“We have lost a remarkable person for the ANC, he has come a long way from being a student in the 70s to becoming a leader in the ANC," said ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte.

“He was the face of the government in the last few months communicating to the country on COVID-19,” she said. “I would say he died with his boots on.”

Tributes for Mthembu have been pouring in from across the country’s political divide.

“Jackson Mthembu was a rare exception amongst ministers as he valued accountability dearly and never shied away from difficult questions," said former opposition party Democratic Alliance spokesman Solly Malatsi. “He had an impeccable knack for banter that could defrost the most tense moments between political opponents."