Remembering Vytjie Mentor

In early 2021 I wrote the following profile piece about Vytjie Mentor, which I share today, through misted eyes, in honour of her incredible contribution to South Africa.

Vytjie is a hero to me and, I suspect, she will be to you too after reading this.

Vytjie Mentor was born in Kimberly, Northern Cape. Her father was the 1st black African police station commander, based in Welkom, and her mother was a schoolteacher.

Vytjie’s mother played a role in her political upbringing because she used to run women’s development programmes to engender political consciousness among the women of their community.

Vytjie believes this contributed to the divorce of her parents because her father, working for the state at the time, could not handle his wife undermining the state in her teachings. Vytjie does attribute her political consciousness to her grandmother who she recalled waking at 3am to start praying for the liberation of South Africa and the freeing of Nelson Mandela.

Vytjie’s father, to get her away from political influences, took her to boarding school in the rural Northern Cape. Unawares to him, it was this School Principal, a member of the ANC underground, that recruited Vytjie into the ANC at the age of 13.

Due to her political activities, Vytjie was detained numerous times by the police, including during both states of emergency. During one of these detentions, Vytjie participated in a hunger strike of political detainees and prisoners. She lasted 39 days before being forced into hospital under heavy police guard.

After this Vytjie was under house arrest and fulltime police surveillance. She was not allowed to be in the company of more than 10 people, which meant she could not perform her duties as a qualified teacher.

On another occasion, Vytjie was arrested and detained for questioning. While in detention ammunitions were planted in her hotel room and she was charged with treason. She laughs as she recalls how the case fell apart because of how poorly orchestrated it all was.

After the advent of democracy Vytjie worked on the Department of Education and then later on as a Councillor in what is now Frances Baard Municipality (Kimberly) where she served as the MMC for Social Development. In this role she was instrumental in riving the delivery of water to communities, believing children needed to be clean and hydrated to learn.

In this role she had her first of many run-ins with the ANC. A Swedish donation of paving stones, meant for the municipality, was allegedly taken and used to pave the driveways of Councillors homes. Vytjie reported this to the Public Protector who declined to investigate. She reported it to the media and, when it became a story, she was charged for bringing the ANC in disrepute. The DC found her innocent.

In 2002 Vytjie was elected to Parliament and became the ANC’s Parliamentary Caucus Chairperson – a very senior position. In this role it was Vytjie who convinced the ANC to adopt Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s proposal to end floor-crossing, despite proposals from another party traditionally being shot down.

During the contest ahead of the ANC’s Polokwane Conference, she did herself no favours by warning both sides that they would not use and divide the parliamentary caucus for their own ends.

After the Polokwane Conference, Vytjie remarked that a bizarre dynamic emerged where the ANC began issuing calls to disinvest in the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor – a project she believed to be of great value to the country; producing SA patented isotopes used in chemotherapy, invaluable intellectual property and for which billions had already been invested. It was this move, that Vytjie believed was paving the way towards a Russian nuclear deal.

Questioning and opposing this move earned her no friends and she soon found herself in the political wilderness. It was only because of the then ANC SG, Kgalema Motlanthe, someone for whom Vytjie holds immense respect, that she became the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises.

Vytjie was one of the ANC MPs put onto a special ad hoc committee to deal with a piece of legislation that proposed widespread powers for the state to breach civil rights, privacy and access to personal communications. When the vote came Vytjie was the only ANC MP to vote with the opposition, effectively stopping the legislation going to Parliament.

For years, before it became a story, Vytjie had been posting on social media account about state capture and the Gupta’s offering her a cabinet position. It never received attention, presumably because the context of state capture had not yet emerged. It was only in 2016, when Vytjie was overseas, that she commented on a ratings downgrade by referencing state capture and cabinet offer from the Guptas that the story went viral.

When the then Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, visited Vytjie to interview her in what became her report titled ‘The State of Capture’, Vytjie speaks of how she encouraged the PP to be decisive, recognizing the unique scenario where a major subject of the investigation was also the President and thus the authority on commissions of inquiry. She believes this may played a part in the final report necessitating the role of the Chief Justice in recommending candidates to the President to chair the State Capture Commission of Enquiry.

For her troubles, multiple attempts have been made on Vytjie’s life. She stoically recalls two assignation attempts on one day where a fake branded police car fired shots at her while picking her daughter up from school and someone in a rented vehicle took shots on her on the same day on her way home from Parliament. She refused protection and told the police to use the resources to investigate.

When I talked to her about taking the hard choices she has made in her life and doing what was unpopular (she was constantly dubbed a traitor within the ANC), Vytjie says regrets nothing. She says that she responded to that allegation, every time, by saying that the ANC that she grew up in always put the people first, and she would not change just because others had.

Vytjie holds a Higher Diploma in Education and an Honours in Management.

Vytjie Mentor is, in all probability, one of the bravest people I have ever met and someone with immovable principles carved into rock. I have endless respect for her, and ActionSA is fortunate to have her leading our efforts as our Provincial Chairperson of the Western Cape.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present Vytjie Mentor