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Baleka Mbete

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Baleka woman

1949 Born Claremont, Durban

1967 Matric from Inanda Seminar

1973 Lovedale Teacher Training College in Alice

1974-1975 Teacher at Isibonelo High School in KwaMashu, Durban

1976 Left for Swaziland 1977 & then to Tanzania as the first ANC Secretary, Regional Women’s Section

1978 Married exiled writer, Keorapetse Kgositsile

1981 Moved to Kenya and taught at the University of Nairobi

1985 Head of the writers and music units of the Medu Gaborone Arts Ensemble until the disruption of SANDF raids

1990 Worked for ANC’s Women’s Section in Lusaka until the relaunch of ANCWL

1991 Returned to South Africa and became Secretary-General of ANCWL

1994 Elected as the MP for the ANC

1995 Chair of ANC's parliamentary caucus

1998 Graduated from UCT


Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile is a poet, teacher, and political activist. After spending 15 years in exile, she returned home to serve her nation by becoming her party's national spokesperson and occupying critical political positions in the ANC.


She was born in Durban. Her mom was a nurse, and her father was a librarian. She attributes her very humble beginnings and the values her parents instilled in her shaped her into the remarkable woman leader she is today. As a librarian and lover of books, her father sowed the seeds of reading and writing. She started her studies in the late 1960s to be a teacher at Eshowe college. However, in the early 1970s, she got expelled from the institution because of resistance to the suppressive systems of the school.


Baleka experienced persistent problems with authorities of institutions she either attended or worked for due to her nonconformist principles. With help from her brother, a fellow struggle activist, she escaped the harassment of authorities in 1976 and fled to Swaziland. She taught and worked for the ANC in Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.


Following Nelson Mandela's release from prison, she returned to South Africa and soon got elected into the ANC Women's League executive. In 2007, she became the National Chairperson of the ANC, holding the position for two terms. On the 25th of September 2008, Motlanthe appointed her as Deputy President. She also served as Deputy Speaker of Parliament for eight years and Speaker for another four years. She also became the ANC's first female National Chairperson in 2007.


Baleka's longevity in South Africa's political landscape has solidified her position as a female politician worthy of note. In 2016 she was awarded the Martin Luther King Legacy Award for International Service in Washington DC. In his congratulatory message to Baleka, former president Jacob Zuma pointed out that "The achievement not only recognises her distinguished service to our nation; it is also an affirmation of the calibre of leadership that South Africa always has and continues to offer to the global community."

Baleka leader

Let more women take leadership positions

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Baleka Mbete

South African

Public Servant


Deputy Speaker of SA's National Assembly



National Chair of the ANC



National Assembly Speaker, the second woman appointed



Vice President of South Africa



Re-elected ANC National Chair



Speaker at National Assembly

Awards for her roles as Public Servant

2016 Martin Luther King Legacy Award for International Service in Washington DC, in the United States

Baleka interview

Things You May Not Know About Baleka

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother'. Watch the full interview, here.

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The humble beginnings

“... I describe myself as a product of any township in South Africa because that’s where I grew up. I was born in Durban, in what is today called Claremont. Though I recognised that place as a shack. I was a child of a teacher and a nurse. I was brought up like any township child, in a township. Went to school, grew up and somewhat started making certain observations in the 50s about the activities of my mother. And now as an adult, after reading about history, and women’s activities in those times, I see that political consciousness is something that you must never put very far from your family and home environment. It's something that you suckle from your mother’s breasts. How we are shaped, our ideas, our world view and how we perceive the communities that produce us, is as a result of many different things including observations we make as children. It occurs to me now that my mom was what I can now call a branch secretary. Because she used to take notes at meetings of ladies, of women. She prepared me to become a good wife for somebody one day…”



Father who practices firm discipline

“... I do have memories of my father as somewhat different from my mom but a very interesting and very rich character. Each time I think of him, I now smile because I always think about the very funny side of him. He was not funny when I grew up because I was scared of him. He used to be a man that instilled discipline including by boxing you if needed, if he felt it was needed. But my dad was the man who gave us the singing in my family, he had the most beautiful voice. My first memories are of him at the piano, him teaching me songs, him and I singing and him playing the piano teaching me certain songs. So those were the initial memories of my dad…”



Keep quiet or get fired

“... After I had come back from Eshowe, where we were expelled, I got a job selling skin lightening creams and at some point this thing about his skin lightening creams, I was like “no man” , this thing doesn’t make sense so I started grappling with the very essence of even the job that I had. After this the white woman manager became aware of my thinking about this or someone must have reported about it. One day I’m called and she says, you know what? We think you are overqualified for this job. And I’m like Huh? What do you mean?... She was expelling me, I was losing my job… Simply because suddenly I’m raising uncomfortable issues about the essence of this job… I soon got another job in a clothing shop as a sales lady… Something happened there again… It became a thing of this girl, she’s not like an ordinary African girl who appreciates the fact that she’s got this job, she kind of carries herself like she’s not grateful. That’s how that was lost too…”



The discovery in exile

“... It came as a surprise that my father was a member of the Communist Party (SACP). I was only told in Tanzania by the same Masondo who left me at Fort Hare and was imprisoned. He said to me, ‘You know that I last saw you when you were 12’. He went on to tell me about my father ( being a communist ). I was very surprised because I had just grown up, made my own observations, and came to my own conclusions. This was because I was a young person growing up in a racist society with my own personal experiences of being confronted with racism.



Polokwane decisions result in most challenging times

“... The ANC went through one of its most testing moments… At that time, a number of very significant issues came up, which in itself were a sign that all was not well. We had just come through our highest decision-making process and body at Polokwane but clearly, not everything had been resolved… Wounds had been bruised… Just after the conference in Polokwane instead of things settling down, we were suddenly faced with charges against the new president of the ANC, the newly elected president of the ANC and we had this challenging situation whereby you had two centers of power because you had a president in the ANC but you also had a different cadre of the ANC being president in the state, in the government… We entered in 2008, and in January, we started going to our regular meetings in Luthuli House. I think in a nutshell I can just say those months from the beginning of 2008, proved how difficult the situation was. On one level we thought that we would continue to have Comrade Thabo as part of us as the leadership of the ANC even though he was no longer holding the position of president in Polokwane or didn’t get elected or reelected… In a nutshell, 2008 proved to be one of the most challenging times in trying to manage the relationship of the two presidencies… There came a time when the view of many of the leaders and comrades was that there is a deliberate resistance from the side of those deployed in government not to work smoothly… Politics teaches you that there are moments that are complex and sometimes you might feel that no, this is how we must deal with this thing, we can manage this thing but when the critical mass has come to a particular view, the only thing to do is to accept it and to let it go. That moment came and even Comrade Zuma himself at the meeting of NEC made an effort to stop the tide but it had come. The time had come and the moment came…”



The homely values she never strayed far from

“... Respecting your elders is something that was instilled in me. Today in politics when I see a culture emerging of lack of respect, it evokes in me, is that sense of this is not done. That's how we were brought up. We were always told that there are certain things that are not done. You don’t talk back to your parents, you don’t use foul language to others and in particular to your elders. You respect people of all statuses in life. My mum taught us that this person who’s working here, who’s cleaning and cooking for us, doing washing is a helper, she is not a slave. This person has not come here to make you think that you suddenly have no responsibility to your own needs and the general communal environment in the home. You must always remember you are still in charge, you are still responsible. You are lucky to be able to have this person who has come to help. So you must retain that sense of I must respect this person, this person is adding value here and therefore we are very fortunate. We must always be grateful to have this extra pair of hands making sure that life can be together because my mom is a nurse, my father is a librarian - he’s all over the place and there’s hardly any adult who’s able to be with us or at home when we leave or come back from school…”



Lessons from her parents

“... Dad was a man surrounded by paper and books. He loved reading and brought us up saying, when you see a piece of paper pick it up and read it you might pick up something there. You remember these chewing gums, I don't know whether it still exists Is it Chappies that has these little things… You find valuable and very interesting information in those Chappies wraps. It’s my dad who taught me. Pick up the piece of paper and read it… He hardly ever went to church. My mom grew up in the Moravian Church … It’s the Germans that had sort of civilised them and turned them into church going people. She married my father and he came from the Methodist, but he hardly ever went to church except if there was an event or an occasion. But he always spoke in conspiratorial terms. The tone when he would be talking about certain things, I started to observe that it would be criticism of the government of the day but he would also not discuss those things with us children, he would be talking to my mother, to other adults but I picked up that consistently he was very very opposed ,very very critical…”



The days of struggle

“... In the early 70s, we formed the Kwamashu Youth Organisation and in the way we made ourselves relevant to our community, we were very basic. We came together as young people, talked about life as we see it, conscientize one another. By this time, we knew that listening to Radio Freedom was dangerous but we listened anyway. We organised meetings as young people in the township, talking about the need to keep ourselves away from trouble. Our children today are dealing with issues as hard as drugs and of course it’s adults who are pushing drugs and targeting our children. And then of course I came back as a teacher. When I came back as a young teacher, I came into a space where I was a part of the instruments through which the conscientisation of our children in the schools was taking place. We were supposed to dish out Apartheid Bantu Education and I was not going to do that, I was going to do my best to actually counter that quietly within that space which of course itself got me into trouble and in no time the special branch were in and out collecting me from school for lots of questions…”

Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Baleka's conversation. 



Her father's reading get him to lose his job

“... Dad also worked in a department through which they recruited cheap labour from rural areas. It was my father and other African managers that made sure that physically, the people recruited were fit for working in the mining sector and urban areas. He would have to handle the private parts of other men and I would hear him complaining about those things and disgusted that the government made men have to be subjected to that kind of treatment. So my father was like that. And these days, I once learnt from an MP who worked with him underground, that when my brother (the ambassador in Harare now) and I were in exile, she worked with my dad underground and he was always pushing books and reading material all over the place. Someone I was flying with who just happened to sit next to me , said to me “The first time I read Das Kapital, it was through the arrangement of an old man Mbete who was a librarian at Fort Hare. She said he arranged for her to go into some basement and read and leave the book there. So clearly he was doing these types of things… My dad eventually lost his job at Fort Hare. He never got to be arrested for anything but he lost his job. As a child I knew that whatever it is that had happened my dad had been affected and so we stopped living in a nice big house at Fort Hare and had to go and squeeze by one of the political families that I got to know.. So after that we moved to Durban…”



Resisted the system and got expelled

“... I was expelled from Eshowe Training College. We used to break the rules, we never used to respect the notions of the boundaries of the college… At college, most people were too young and immature… The rules seemed to be trying to force us, to limit our movements, to limit the issues around which we discussed with our age mates. Because we used to already speak politics at that time. We talked about observations we made about the country, about society. We didn’t have a deep understanding but we articulated our observations about how the school was organised. White people had a particular status. The white management of the school was accommodated and carried itself compared to the other staff members who are black . I made these same observations when I had gone to boarding school after my dad had lost his job in Fort Hare. My brother and I were sent to Bethel, a 7th Day Church College. I turned 16 at Bethel and I remember that the white people were living on this side of the college. There was a road going through the college and there was an administration block and a block to our classrooms. All the black people, the black staff, lived on this one side of the college and the white people lived on the other side which was bordering a river so it was very green and beautiful and they picniced there. As a child you make these observations , so I’m thinking why? This is not right and these are 7th Day Adventist Church. In my early twenties when I was training to be a teacher, I ended up being expelled because I couldn’t stay within the limits of the boundaries at the college…”



Travails of life in exile

“... The thing about the camps is that they had to be organised to provide the necessary environment for the training to happen. They had to be sensitive to the needs of the soldiers and of the trainees. That often includes young girls. In a camp where you have like a thousand young trainees, out of whom you may have 10 as young teenage girls, the likelihood, like in any boarding school, nevermind camp of young men and women making it possible for them to come together somewhere is very high. It’s something that no amount of authority, no amount of trying to keep people apart is going to prevent. I think that’s a reality that we have got to accept. Being far from home on its own to a young mind, to a young heart, a young soul, is one of the most traumatic things that in fact we have not even started to unpack and I think that a similar story can be told by young white South Africans who found themselves in the bushes of Angola. Those camps were in the bushes of Angola, subsequently off Uganda or Tanzania… It’s a story of a personal experience and how major moments of one’s life are experienced away from home rather than somewhere near home, near family where you would’ve had the fortune to be supported by older relatives, by your parents, if you are lucky your mother. So many South Africans lost their virginity all over the place, in exile either at school, many of them got pregnant and I always say that South Africans have yet to hear the story of how a particular section of their history was played out outside the borders of South Africa…”

Baleka Full Interview

Full Interview 

Baleka lesson

Servant Leaders must let more women take leadership positions

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*... One of the strengths also about women is that we bring life into this world and are therefore less inclined to want to see people killing each other or one another. So I’m saying there is value in upholding the principle of the correctness of letting more women take leadership positions. I think secondly, we should allow into political prioritisation of resources being put into socialising and molding children who will be the future adults in society. So personally I think the issue of children is taken’s’s one of those things. I would prioritise attention being paid in particular, in a society like ours....*

Daniel in conversation with

Baleka Mbete






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