Remembering Ronnie: The era of exemplary government spokespersons has now passed

24 July 2017 - 15:32
By ranjeni munusamy AND Ranjeni Munusamy
Spokesperson for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Ronnie Mamoepa, passed away on Saturday night.
Image: MBUZENI ZULU/SOWETAN Spokesperson for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Ronnie Mamoepa, passed away on Saturday night.

Ronnie Mamoepa once barged into a group I was in at Katzy’s bar in Rosebank. Because the world belonged to Ronnie and he could easily make conversation with any group of people‚ he did not to wait to be invited to join us.

Before long‚ he and I were engrossed in deep conversation about whatever it was that was preoccupying the national discourse at that time. As always‚ he challenged me on my perspectives‚ listened to what I had to say and pointed to things I had not seen.

Over an hour later he looked up startled. “Hey what happened to that guy I came here with? We were supposed to meet some people!”

He then shot off to find them.

This was vintage Ronnie Mamoepa – comical‚ disruptive‚ engaging‚ bursting with knowledge and always making an impression on those he encountered.

He served as a government spokesperson in various capacities‚ in the presidency‚ the department of foreign affairs and the department of home affairs.

These were tricky times for his principals – former president Thabo Mbeki‚ Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma when she was minister of foreign affairs and then home affairs‚ and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Whatever turbulence was engulfing his department or the political figures he represented‚ Ronnie was able to navigate the issues and kept the flow of communication open.

That‚ of course‚ is the core responsibility of a government spokesperson – at least those who understand that their duty first and foremost is to the South African public.

He represented his political principals professionally‚ not as deities and not as celebrities.

Perhaps because of his own liberation credentials and sense of self worth‚ he was not in pursuit of affirmation from those he represented.

The era of exemplary government spokespersons such as Parks Mankahlana‚ Joel Netshitenzhe‚ Bheki Khumalo‚ Themba Maseko and Ronnie Mamoepa has now passed.

They all had a deep respect for the power and positions they held. They also respected the journalists they worked with and therefore they were able to meaningfully contribute to the story of the era in which they served.

They all understood that they had a constitutional obligation to keep government transparent. And when controversies arose or when caught in a negative news cycle‚ they were bold and skilled enough to attempt to counter the narrative.

The government communications system is now a glorified email generating machinery. The state is engulfed in the biggest crisis in the democratic era with evidence of political power being usurped by a foreign family.

There is a veritable avalanche of allegations of corruption in government and state-owned companies. President Jacob Zuma‚ some of his ministers and a number of government institutions are heavily compromised by incontrovertible evidence of state capture.

The Government Communications and Information System has made no serious attempt to counter or explain this – it is apparent they do not have the mandate and tools to do so.

For several years now‚ some government spokespeople have used their positions to profile themselves and become political attack dogs. They have no concept of their responsibility to communicate the work of government not to conceal it. Some appear to think that they do journalists a favour when they send them media releases or arrange press conferences. A few perceive journalists as adversaries and the media as their plaything‚ not essential features of a democracy.

And then there is the deplorable tendency of mimicking their ministers and elevating themselves to pseudo celebrity status. During the 2014 and 2016 election periods‚ there were bizarre incidents where government spokespeople were denigrating opposition parties and using state resources to promote the ANC.

Ronnie Mamoepa was one of the youngest political prisoners on Robben Island. Politics flowed in his blood. Yet‚ to the very end‚ he was a professional who took his position in government seriously.

Ronnie’s passing comes at a time when a fierce political contest for power is raging between two people he served – Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of these two people intimately and his knowledge would have been valuable to all of us traversing this rocky terrain.

The last time I saw Ronnie was at Ahmed Kathrada’s burial‚ where he was as usual spouting his comical anecdotes even though he said he was unwell. Of the ANC succession battle he said what was needed was a “roast” of the candidates.

“They must be asked hard questions‚” he bellowed‚ poking me on my shoulder. He then planted a big kiss on my forehead and sped off.

I wish now I had hugged him or thanked him for his service to our country.

But mostly‚ for being my friend.