A mas­ter at nav­i­gat­ing po­ten­tial com­mu­ni­ca­tions mine­field

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

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

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