Jessie Duarte, a senior aide to Nelson Mandela before he became the first Black president of South Africa and a combative political figure in her own right who tussled with the media over allegations of corruption within the governing African National Congress party, died Sunday in Johannesburg. She was 68.
An ANC statement announced the death and said Duarte had been on medical leave undergoing cancer treatment.
Duarte began her career in accounting in the 1970s and became involved in organizing women’s groups that served as a grass-roots network for the ANC and the United Democratic Front, both of which were outlawed by South African authorities during the apartheid era.
She was detained without trial in 1988 and released under “restriction orders,” which placed controls on where someone could travel or whom they could meet with. She then became a core member of Mandela’s team after he was freed in 1990 after 27 years in prison – part of a political process that led to the end of white rule with Mandela’s election as president in 1994.
She served as Mandela’s special assistant until the election and later modeled herself as an uncompromising – and, to critics, sometimes mercurial – defender of the ANC and Mandela’s vision after his death in 2013 at 95.
Admirers embraced her as a fiery stalwart from the anti-apartheid struggle and one of the few consequential women in South African leadership. She also could be a political liability at times, flying into rages over tough questions.
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