Mac Maharaj says goodbye to the ‘bastards’

19 April 2015 - 02:00 By Sam Mkokeli

Mac Maharaj told journalists nothing but the truth as Zuma’s spokesman, he tells Sam Mkokeli

I never told a lie! So says Mac Maharaj as he looks back on his fours years as President Jacob Zuma’s spokesman.

It was a challenging job, yes, but for a man known for his charming yet manipulative character, this was probably one of his easier endeavours.

He turns 80 on Wednesday, a birthday that comes as he clears his office in the Presidency to start a new life as a retiree.

He has tried to retire from active politics before, in 1999, at the end of the Mandela presidency under which he served as transport minister.

He cited the need to spend time with his family — an obvious casualty of his dedication to the liberation struggle.

But in 2011 he became a bureaucrat , speaking for a man who is always in the news.

“There is a deep-seated distrust [of the president], and one of the things the spokesman is charged with doing is to ensure that every response he gives in the name of the president can never be faulted as a lie.”

He may have omitted necessary information, but lie? Never.

“You cannot show me a lie in my statements as spokesman of the president.

“Even [cartoonist] Zapiro, the maximum he can go is to say his explanations put him in a twist, but he cannot say this man lied,” he says, referring to a cartoon that depicted Maharaj’s arms and legs twisted into knots.

His role as presidential sp o ke s man brought Maharaj the challenge — and rewards — of communicating information about Nelson Mandela’s health before his death in 2013.

After a number of gaffes, he became the only person allowed to give out the information.

That meant regular hospital visits to the man he had come to k n ow on Robben Island, where he had helped put together Mandela’s autobiography. He also smuggled it out.

So magnetic was the link between the two that Mandela called him “neef” (Afrikaans for nephew) and Ngquphephe — the name of a one-eyed hero in Xhosa folklore. Maharaj lost an eye in a “brawl” during his days as a student in Durban.

Handling the Nkandla controversy and other political matters was OK, but dealing with the story of Mandela’s deteriorating health was hard, he says.

The statesman’s family was already tearing itself apart—at one stage going to court where an affidavit (that has since been repudiated) said Mandela was in a “vegetative state”.

Maharaj had to give sceptical journalists some information — enough to show Madiba was still alive — without exposing himself to criticism from the warring family.

“That was the most difficult thing to manage,” he says.

Amid all that there were heart-warming moments when Maharaj visited Madiba in hospital. One morning, for instance, a shy Graça Machel told Maharaj that her husband — although weak and at that stage often hooked up to machines to help him breathe — had fondled her bottom.

Maharaj counts DA leader Helen Zille among the people to whom he gave serious punches.

“When Zille made the mistake of coming on the same programme on air, she called Nkandla a compound, and I went for her,” he says, clicking a finger.

“All of you knew that in South Africa a compound is a hostel or a migrant labourer’s residency but y’all began to laugh at me and defended her and said Kennedy’s residency in Florida is called a compound.

“But one thing I achieved, she never came back on the radio or any programme together with me and she stopped using the word ‘compound’.”

In his new life stage, octogenarian Maharaj is looking forward to spending time with his family and working on a long overdue book about the history of the ANC.

He speaks with pride about his 30-year-old daughter Joey’s career as a banker in Johannesburg.

His son, Milou, 32, who lives in a flat in Durban, is schizophrenic but stable.

“He is not able to look after himself, yes, will never be able to look after himself. But mental illness people . . . their first symptoms are body hygiene. They neglect [their hygiene], they won’t brush their teeth. My son is brushing his teeth now. I don’t have to tell him to shower.”

Milou remains a recluse, spending most of his time with his books.

Maharaj sees a direct link between his son’s troubles and his role as a father who was consumed by the struggle. From an early age, his son feared he would return in a coffin, if at all.

Maharaj’s second wife, Zarina, when she was not consumed by the struggle herself, had to ex p l a i n to the children why their father was away, or why he had been arrested .

Once she told Milou, then eight, that Daddy would soon be released from jail, having been arrested in the ’80s.

“ ‘Please don’t worry. Dad will be all right, one of these days we will be seeing him,’ Zarina said.

My son replies: ‘Mom, it’s not a question of when will see him. It’s a question of whether we will see him.’ ”

Maharaj’s first marriage, to Tim, had collapsed as they grew apart. After 20 years of marriage — which included the 12 Maharaj spent on Robben Island — Tim did the maths and realised that the days they had spent together amounted to only 18 months. That was it.

Maharaj speaks with pride about Zarina’s new passion: she is doing an online film scriptwriting course through a US university.

“My wife is a changed person, she is studying like mad . . . she is doing exceptionally well, in all the classes she is coming in the top five,” he says.

“I joke that when I visit her, she opens the door, we kiss each other, she says: ‘Would you like a cup of coffee?’We sit down, we talk, when I’m leaving she says: ‘I forgot to give you coffee.’

She’d be talking about her work and studies. It’s wonderful.”

Retirement will give Maharaj more time to reflect on politics without being bothered by the journalists he jokingly calls the “bastards” who constantly looked for holes in his statements.