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
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