Strug­gle stal­wart Ron­nie Mamoepa mourned by many

Ron­nie’s work and life in­spire us to re­gain the lus­tre of the na­tion that fought its way out of apartheid and re­pres­sion to world fame as a non-racial ex­em­plar state in 1994

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE - BHEKI KHU­MALO

SOUTH Africa has been blessed with ca­pa­ble po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tors. They have proved to be es­sen­tial in the long walk to our eman­ci­pa­tion as a na­tion. The real “greats” on this road are an in­spi­ra­tion and a good au­gury for all of us as we face cru­cially test­ing times ahead.

Let us be gen­er­ous and see the to­tal pic­ture for a change. These com­mu­ni­ca­tors would, as a re­sult of the apartheid past, be sharply di­vided into two camps.

Parks Mankahlana and Ron­nie Mamoepa, both now sadly not with us, stood out as pioneers on the side of our move­ment, the ANC, driven in no mean mea­sure by the sheer in­tel­lec­tual force of lead­ers such as Nel­son Man­dela and Joel Net­shiten­zhe.

Yet, con­versely, one must also recog­nise that Marco Boni and Peter Swanepool were iconic apartheid-era com­mu­ni­ca­tors who, to their credit and with a sense of pa­tri­o­tism (as they saw it evolv­ing), stayed on at For­eign Af­fairs where they were joined by Ron­nie un­til they bowed out.

All, in their own ways, con­trib­uted some­thing to the cru­cible of a new, freed na­tion. That re­mains part of Ron­nie’s mon­u­ment.

The words “Ron­nie is dead” are hard to com­pre­hend, or even to mouth in such sad­ness, given the unique role he has played both in our Strug­gle for free­dom and in gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Ron­nie Mamoepa em­bod­ies a para­dox. On the one hand, we admire him for the courage of his con­vic­tions that led him when so very young to join the ANC un­der­ground, re­sult­ing in his in­car­cer­a­tion as a 15 year old on Robben Is­land, where the iconic Nel­son Man­dela was also im­pris­oned.

He of­ten joked, when we trav­elled to­gether dur­ing state vis­its, that he was the youngest pris­oner there – an hon­oured ti­tle that I am sure even to this day he is still fig­u­ra­tively vy­ing over, in a long con­test with his fel­low At­teridgeville ”home­boy”, Judge Dik­gang Moseneke.

Our paths crossed for the first time on a balmy Satur­day morn­ing in 1987 at the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand, where I joined a banned work­shop of chair­per­sons of all the branches of the Transvaal Stu­dent Con­gress in an “il­le­gal gath­er­ing”, cour­tesy of the rag­ing State of Emer­gency of the time.

I had been in the un­der­ground my­self, hav­ing gone into in­ter­nal ex­ile be­tween 1986 and 1990.

Mamoepa struck me as a jovial and for­ever talk­a­tive fel­low. He was full of pas­sion­ate and pos­i­tive en­ergy, as well as en­thu­si­asm which co­cooned us and of­fered hope that our Strug­gle would not be in vain.

It was said that fear­less Ron­nie in his day did the high­est kicks of all when toyi-toy­ing for free­dom in his gan­gling youth.

I was so de­spon­dent at the time we met. The bru­tal­ity of the apartheid regime had dec­i­mated our struc­tures on the ground. Com­rades were ei­ther in de­ten­tion, prison, ex­ile or dead. I had asked a pas­tor, whose wife was im­pla­ca­bly op­posed to our role in the Strug­gle, to take me to Wits to lis­ten to Ron­nie, Peter Mok­aba and Ephraim Mo­gale – all late ex-Robben Is­lan­ders who shared an abid­ing en­thu­si­asm for the just­ness of our Strug­gle and the cer­tainty of vic­tory.

Ron­nie is best re­mem­bered for his role as spokesper­son of the then ANC PWV re­gion, af­ter the un­ban­ning of the or­gan­i­sa­tion in 1990. He utilised the skills that he honed at the fa­mous build­ing called Free­way House, where all the pro­pa­ganda of the UDF times was pro­duced.

He was al­ways in the com­pany of Ti­tus Mafolo and Kgaugelo Le­goro, and served as a driver to Obed Bapela and Paul Mashatile. He had a dif­fi­cult role to po­si­tion the ANC hu­manely af­ter the pro­pa­ganda of the Na­tion­al­ist Party that branded it as a ter­ror­ist and dan­ger­ous or­gan­i­sa­tion. The ANC needed to project it­self as a peo­ple’s or­gan­i­sa­tion that lis­tened to and rep­re­sented their in­ter­ests and as­pi­ra­tions... a role he per­formed with dis­tinc­tion.

My brother, who was part of Tokyo Sexwale’s se­cu­rity de­tail, re­minded me when we heard the sad news this week­end, that even though Ron­nie was one of the few com­rades who had a car at the time, he hated the speed that was of­ten used by the po­lice VIP Pro­tec­tion Unit.

On one oc­ca­sion, Sexwale was late for an ap­point­ment and he in­sisted on driv­ing with Ron­nie to the meet­ing. But Ron­nie kept on scream­ing and telling se­cu­rity to slow down as they were mak­ing their way to the Lib­er­tas home of Man­dela, as Mahlamba Nd­lopfu was then known. Ron­nie never agreed to drive with Sexwale again af­ter that har­row­ing drive to Pre­to­ria.

In 2001 Ron­nie and I were to work to­gether in a pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship when I was re­cruited to re­place him as spokesper­son for Pres­i­dent Mbeki. The com­mu­ni­ca­tions unit in the Pres­i­dency at the time was com­bined into one ser­vic­ing both prin­ci­pals.

In spite of the fact that I re­placed him, he never showed any an­i­mos­ity to­wards me. He opened up, his usual ebul­lient per­son­al­ity on dis­play, and made me learn the ropes, my hav­ing been ed­u­ca­tion spokesper­son un­til then. Typ­i­cal of his out­spo­ken per­sona, he would re­mind me that even though I was pres­i­den­tial spokesper­son, I was still his ju­nior by rank and age and there­fore needed to take the cue from him.

Such was Ron­nie – full of life and pride in po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. With­out the guid­ance of Net­shiten­zhe and Mamoepa, one would hardly have had a mod­estly suc­cess­ful stint in prob­a­bly the most ex­act­ing role in gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions, at the apex of power.

We trav­elled on many trips to the DRC, where Pres­i­dent Mbeki was play­ing the role of me­di­a­tor. Ron­nie was al­ways with us on these trips, as for­eign af­fairs and Pres­i­dency com­mu­ni­ca­tors had to be there on such oc­ca­sions to give im­pe­tus to the re­gen­er­a­tion of the coun­try of Pa­trice Lu­mumba, once wrecked by Bel­gian im­pe­ri­al­ism.

On one oc­ca­sion, I do not know what was go­ing through my mind. I did two bizarre things: I car­ried sand­wiches, as I did not like the food at the ho­tel in Kinshasa, and I de­cided to wear cream-coloured shoes. Ron­nie was in stitches and lit­er­ally laughed at me un­til we came back. On that trip he called me “Ice” and told me to dress prop­erly and not to em­bar­rass the pres­i­dent by wear­ing colours as if I was still work­ing for the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment.

To show that he was a pleas­ant fel­low, he would apol­o­gise in the morn­ing and ask for my sand­wiches that he had crit­i­cised me for car­ry­ing when we were on our way on the pres­i­den­tial jet. Such was Ron­nie – per­son­able with a warm dis­po­si­tion and a puck­ish sense of hu­mour.

Guided by Joel, we were in the team tasked with im­ple­ment­ing the rec­om­men­da­tion of the Com­task re­port on the moderni­sa­tion of post-apartheid gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

We worked to­gether to draft key mes­sages and scripts cov­er­ing such com­plex mat­ters as Zim­babwe, HIV/ Aids and other geopo­lit­i­cal mat­ters af­fect­ing the globe. In this we found Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Aziz Pa­had a ver­i­ta­ble en­cy­clopae­dia – now re­placed by the tal­ented Mx­olisi Nkosi.

Ron­nie’s work and life in­spire us to re­gain the lus­tre of the na­tion that fought its way out of apartheid and re­pres­sion to world fame as a non-racial ex­em­plar state in 1994.

He knew all too well that there was still hard work to be done. He ac­quit­ted him­self with dis­tinc­tion, courage, com­mit­ment, elo­quence – and a sense of hu­man­ity.

His deft touch of hu­mour and skills of the ra­con­teur made him an en­gag­ing and valu­able force in our for­ever evolv­ing po­lit­i­cal drama.

Ron­nie’s un­timely death, at a time when the Pres­i­dency in gen­eral and in par­tic­u­lar the deputy pres­i­dent des­per­ately needed his skills, leaves us as po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tors the poorer and in­deed, de­bil­i­tated.

But his life in­spires us to bat­tle on for de­cency, so­cio-eco­nomic jus­tice and free­dom in our land. Come what may, that is how we shall re­mem­ber him.

Dear Ron­nie, you have earned your rest and your peace. And may your fam­ily be com­forted and held high by those com­rades who, too, wit­nessed his life of lov­ing ser­vice.

As a close com­rade of many bat­tles. I per­son­ally salute you. Rest in Peace.

He had a warm dis­po­si­tion and puck­ish sense of hu­mour

Bheki Khu­malo took over from Ron­nie Mamoepa as spokesper­son for Pres­i­dent Mbeki from 2001 to 2005

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