Ronnie had deep respect for the power of his post

25 July 2017 - 06:43
Ronnie Mamoepa and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ronnie Mamoepa and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Image: GCIS

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 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 spokesman in various capacities, in the Presidency and the departments of foreign and home affairs.

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

Whatever turbulence was engulfing his department or the political figure 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 spokesman - 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 spokesmen 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 contribute meaningfully 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 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.