Ronnie, ever resilient
A veteran communicator, Mamoepa knew the story, and he told it well, writes David Hlabane
Many will agree that Ronnie Mamoepa was unbendable, as his brother, Tshepo Mamoepa, told communicators and journalists at a memorial service held by the Government Communication and Information System in Pretoria on Wednesday.
I would argue friends and foes alike are saddened by his tragic death.
Indeed, he was a communicator who understood the mission to serve beyond artificial boundaries constricting the mind – race, gender, class and other notions of power.
Therefore, he was celebrated as a gentle giant of government communications: full of life, bubbly, ever respectful.
We all drank from his brimming well of political wisdom and maturity.
Two personal encounters stand out for me. The military funeral of Yasser Arafat in Egypt, near Cairo’s airport, in November 2004 is the first.
There, available resources were mobilised around dignitaries in the hours before Arafat’s body was taken for burial in the West Bank.
We stood stranded as support staff of political principals outside the airport’s gates which were heavily manned by soldiers for security reasons.
Ronnie and deputy foreign affairs minister Aziz Pahad cheerfully laughed away care and had us walk many kilometres back to the hotel where we were stationed.
To tell the truth, the youngest among them, I felt weary in a heavy grey suit and tie under the heat of the sun. Not Ronnie, ever resilient.
He appeared to be absorbing energy and inspiration from Reverend Frank Chikane and Pahad chiding us all the way – “this short walk is nothing compared to the long journey we traversed through the dark days of the struggle”.
Ronnie teased me: “No, chief you wouldn’t have survived Robben Island at this pace, they should have kept you longer at Modderbee prison and turned you into a hardened chief.”
Like a commissar, he could have moved you to believe how prepared you were to die on the spot in the front-line trenches of the struggle.
One other long-serving government communicator, Thabo Masebe, admitted at the memorial service that with Ronnie’s departure he was in a troubled state.
I recalled how I felt, in another context, in a troubled state.
The second encounter took place earlier in the same year, on January 1.
We were in Haiti as communication support for former president Thabo Mbeki and Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in the middle of a civil war. The occasion was the celebrations of the bicentenary of the independence of Haiti, in Portau-Prince.
Out in the field Ronnie taught us about the nature of government communication, the ethics of intellectual combat, from which we all must learn.
In Haiti, he revealed the importance of handling communication in a time of a crisis. The lesson was that we must talk to journalists, all the time, even where we feel aggrieved by the angle taken or slant of the story.
He stayed calm, insisting we talk to the wellmeaning journalists who had reported inaccurately that president Mbeki’s contingent had come under fire on a Haiti street.
We were in that motorcade. So we thought our misgivings were justified. Still we sat down and drank tea with the journalists, with Ronnie explaining the difficult position they had put us in.
We had to convince our political principals to brief the same media from which had emerged these reports that had families trembling with fear back home.
The versatile Ronnie insisted we champion the cause of reporters who joined us in Haiti at a very difficult time with no sign of the sun to make happy the skies.
Later when I was stranded for hours at an airport in the US, having missed the connecting flight on the way back home, I felt proud to have had him on my side, with no hard feelings about earlier encounters.
We all were playing our part in telling the story of a nation that understood its role in the world and could, among the very few, see the essence of joining hands with the people of Haiti in celebrating a revolution that established the first black republic in the world.
All this unfolded in the land of the revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture who dared to challenge, in Mbeki’s words, those who had trampled on the sacred things that define our being as Africans and as human beings.
What will you remember most about Ronnie Mamoepa in his role as government communicator?
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Sitting flat on the ground at the bicentenary celebrations, Ronnie would shout – “L’Union fait la force” – seconds before the words popped out of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s mouth, in a moving clarion call for liberty, equality and fraternity.
He knew the story, and was able to tell it well. He didn’t do “spin”, he did communication, in the words of Mathatha Tsedu, the veteran journalist who taught us in our engagements what the media expects of us.
With Ronnie Mamoepa’s death the sun does indeed descend.
But, in the words of former president Aristide, “dying for the flag, for the homeland, is beautiful” for our dignity.
IN HONOUR OF Ronnie Mamoepa was remembered by many at a recent memorial service