A master at navigating potential communications minefield
I WAS cut to the quick yesterday when I woke up to the news of Ronnie Mamoepa’s demise. I knew he had been hospitalised but was hoping for a miracle.
Just a few days before his transition into eternity, I had called his good friend Groovin Nchabeleng to enquire about his health. Groovin had been to see him at the hospital. His response was: “It’s tough, but he is fighting. As he lay on his hospital bed, I could see the Robben Island spirit in him. He is a fighter and he will pull through.”
And so, hoping against hope, we all hoped we would see Ronnie again. But it was not to be.
As the man who welcomed me into the public service, particularly in government communications when I joined the Presidency in 2009, Ronnie impacted my professional life. I was from the private sector and clueless about the workings of government.
He offered to teach me the ropes. I used him as a sounding board on many issues and he was always ready with his forthright opinion.
I once was faced with a situation where a staff member was being imposed upon me. I called Ronnie for advice. He was unflattering about the person’s competence and advised me on how to handle the situation – which meant transferring the position from my unit to that of the influential senior manager, who wanted this candidate.
A confrontation, in which I would be the loser, was averted.
And then there was the time when I wanted his former colleague at Foreign Affairs, Nomfanelo Kota, to join the Presidency’s communications team. Ronnie was at Home Affairs then. And I had no vacancy for Nomfanelo at the Union Buildings.
It was Ronnie who advised me to talk to the then director-general at what was now known as the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, Ayanda Ntsaluba, about a secondment while he cajoled Nomfanelo into joining me.
A protégé of Ronnie, Nomfanelo was, and still is, one of government’s finest communicators. In a sense, she is Ronnie’s legacy.
Talking about legacy, this is a very over-used word these days; it seems that everyone and everything has to have one – but Ronnie has indeed left a very real legacy, which will affect the way we do government communications for a long time to come.
Journalists respected him for his professionalism and open lines. He respected their deadlines and did not act as a buffer between them and his political principals. In fact, he used to say his role was not to protect his principals from the media but to facilitate the flow of information between his principals and the public, while using the media as the conduit.
A political animal himself and a staunch member of the ANC, Ronnie was adept at balancing his professional life and his politics.
As a politicised bureaucrat, he was acutely and forever alive to the challenge of managing the relationship between political office-bearers and public servants in a manner that ensures that the public service is not abused for narrow party political agendas, but remains an instrument of service delivery for the people as a whole, of course under the policy direction of the governing party.
It is a balancing act that many public service mandarins find challenging. But those of us who have interacted with Ronnie in government can attest to how he would avoid party political issues in his work, but without being apolitical.
Even outside his work, he did not like mixing the social with the political. I have watched the Soweto derby with him on more than one occasion, once with our sons, and whenever I tried to engage him on the ANC’s succession battles, he wouldn’t bite. His response would be: “Chief, let’s enjoy the game.”
When I left GCIS, he tried to convince me otherwise, arguing that I still had more to offer. When the late public service and administration minister Collins Chabane hinted to him the possibility of being deployed to head the GCIS (government communication and information system), Ronnie declined, arguing he was not an administrator, but a communicator. The government machinery would function much better if many of us senior mandarins were as aware of our strengths and limitations as Ronnie was about his.
The last thing I will remember about Ronnie is how he would laugh at you for your silly mistakes. I once committed a communications gaffe and Ronnie called me and said: “Chief, how could you say that on radio?” And he burst out laughing. Whenever he laughed at you, it wasn’t about embarrassing you as it was about comforting and encouraging you to see the folly of your ways.
On a personal level, everyone of us who knew Ronnie and worked alongside him will remember him with great affection. When all is said and done, however much you like your work, it’s the people you meet in it that really matter and colleagues like Ronnie are very special. You don’t come across many of them and when you do, they leave a lasting impression.
Chief, we’re really going to miss you. Rest In Peace.
Adept at relations between political office-bearers, public servants
Mona is a former editor of City Press and a communications specialist