The Leadership of GCIS
Members of the Media
Colleagues and friends,
Good morning. Thank you for this Memorial Service, honouring a gallant freedom-fighter, a time-tested public servant, a seasoned government communicator par excellence – Ronnie Mamoepa.
A gathering of Government Communicators and the Media is in itself a special tribute to this humble, calm, patient, cheerful, approachable, gentle, humane, down-to-earth, and most likeable patriot and servant of the people – Cde Ronnie. He spent most of his life among communicators and reporters, serving the people.
His ascension to the beyond, at an early age of 56, is an unkindest cut death unleashed on a true patriot when his career was turning full circle.
The Presidency was among high-points in his communication calling, which he perceived, while at Foreign Affairs, as ‘public diplomacy’. When the shattering tidings of his passage hit us, like a sharp blade in the spine, he was back in the Presidency. Indeed a rarity for me.
Ordinarily, people often get to serve in the High Office but once in a lifetime, with such fearless, indomitable and unimpeachable spirit.
You, who are seasoned communication practitioners, know that before Ronnie was spokesperson to Minister Dlamini-Zuma, at Foreign Affairs, from 2000 to 2009, where I personally met him for the first time, he was Communications Chief Director in The Presidency.
His vast experience in political communication includes Head of Communications for the ANC Regional Executive Committee and Head of Communications for Gauteng Premier Tokyo Sexwale between 1994 and 1996. Indeed he was a veteran and dedicated communicator of note.
We became even closer when together we joined Home Affairs in 2009 after the general elections. It was then the days of ‘horror affairs.’ The most observant among us noted how hard it is to address Ronnie otherwise. It is simply and adoringly Ronnie, as he wanted it to be. Not Mr Mamoepa, or DDG, even in his position as Communications Deputy Director-General at Home Affairs, from 2011. He wouldn’t accept any title. He preferred to be called ‘Ronnie’.
This should begin to explain the person he truly was. He was down to earth. And he was unassuming. Upon his shoulders neatly rests the accolades – ‘Man of the people.’ ‘A leader who had no title.’ ‘A true servant of the masses!’ Yet in his remarkable life, a life cut short like a brief candle brightening the corner, now gone dark, he touched our souls, very deeply. And so it is, with sadness, we are gathered here in honour of his memory.
An important lesson for me is how he handled the media. He had this ability to understand the product itself, whether a birth or an immigration issue. And he understood different segments of his audience.
Thus he was able to come up with a communication strategy befitting the particular grouping. Hence he was able to come up with various channels of communication, effective and tailor-made for the task at hand. Furthermore, you could see he believed a communicator was not the message itself, or the one who usurps the role of chief communicator from the Political Principal.
In addition, to him communication was a must. Hence a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ from you, would not have saved you from doing what he asked you to do. During the World Cup, in 2010, we needed a billboard of the Minister at the airport. But ACSA was saying ‘no’. He took the matter up. And at the end, that billboard was up there, enlightening people coming for the World Cup.
With him, politically the face of the department was the Minister, or Deputy Minister. On that, he was constant as the sun rising from the East bringing light and warmth to all of humanity. At the same time, he understood the role of management in communicating administrative issues.
Where he was concerned, the Principal was expected to be the master of the subject-matter. He wanted his Principals to prepare media briefing statements with communicators, so they could answer questions properly. So to speak, he was a good African teacher, aspiring to be a man of law. One of the concepts I learnt from him, is the form and content of media briefings. He taught us to distinguish an off-the-record briefing from an on-the-record briefing, and so on.
The beauty of it all was in the fact that there should be no room for a ‘spin’, for dishonesty, or at worst, for a lie. You could see he learnt from the best.
He was quite clear on the role of the media, understanding that media questions must be answered, with all honesty and integrity. This is to disseminate information to the people, through the media, a powerful medium for distributing information to the populace.
‘It takes two to tango.’ He wanted feedback on communication efforts, and thus, for him, media monitoring was critical, to test the impact of the communication drive. This is another important lesson I learnt from Ronnie. When I need the media, I trust the media would be there. But reciprocity, like content, is king. Equally, we have a duty as government officials to avail ourselves to the media; to respond to media inquiries.
For him, internal communication was also a key. Departmental officials, as ambassadors, must be informed; indeed it was a question of deploying internal means of communicating, to compliment what you do externally. In this scheme of things, synergy is also critical in running the communication machinery of a Minister and that of a Deputy Minister.
My Brethren, Ronnie may have held his own views about the Americans. But one thing is certain. Your Colleague truly admired the communication system of the Americans. He interacted with this system in 1998. Then he was selected a South African candidate for the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship in Philadelphia, in the United States of America. So he was exposed to high-level communication in various US state agencies, including the White House.
Ronnie would always say about the American communication system, that it was a well-oiled machinery knowing fully why governments must talk to the people, “All the time Chief,” repeating messages, consistently, effectively, and, as he would say, “Without fail Chief.” That was Ronnie!
It is in this context we can better understand two things in his strategy. One is the regular media briefings he institutionalised with Deputy Minister Aziz Pahad at Foreign Affairs. Second is the passion with which he supported the Presidency’s launch of the Presidential Press Corp in the early 2000s.
Something else I must say before closing. Ronnie was an inspiring manager in government, and a reliable, yet unconventional team-player as we saw in senior management meetings and in operations.
What he detested was working in silos. For him government was one seamless system of governance geared at the end of the day to take us towards the strategic objective of a united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous African state.
He would just walk across Branches, be it Civics or Immigration, for updates on policy and statistics, or for any other reason. He understood clearly his role as a manager, and believed in the unity of all the parts. Each spoke is critical for the whole wheel to run.
Indeed exactly as we believed in the noble struggle for liberation, each of the pillars of the struggle had a role to play, be it international solidarity, mass mobilisation, underground work or the armed struggle.
In the current communication context, talking about the armed struggle as a pillar, reminds me of the advice, given last Friday, by Communication Minister Ayanda Dlodlo to government communicators that, “Communication must be reliable, and accurate, like an effective weapon.”
In a nutshell, the Ronnie I’m talking about underscored profoundly the essence of promoting government as a brand in such terms as clearly articulated by Minister Dlodlo to communicators.
It’s not without reason, people have been saying since Sunday, on Social Media: “Ronnie was a government communicator par excellence!
On behalf of government, our Minister, Deputy Minister, and public servants, I convey our heartfelt condolences to Ronnie’s wife Audrey, his children, his siblings, and to the entire family, colleagues, friends and comrades across the length and breadth of our beloved Republic.
At Home Affairs, we were hoping one day he would return to finish work he started to transform our communications. On excellence in government communication, without the “Ronnie Magic,” we’re left the poorer. We will remember him as a militant, loyal, and committed servant of the people who was fortified by years on Robben Island at a very young age.
With the many who are shocked by his untimely departure, on Saturday 22 July 2017, at Unitas Hospital in Pretoria, following a recent stroke, we would like to say to the family, your loss is our loss, and, as Ronnie would have said from his genuine African heart – Your pain is indeed our pain.
Lastly, the Ronnie Mamoepa I know was a gift for all. Communicators at Home Affairs always say, ‘they learnt a lot from him.’ I for one did learn much from him. Farewell to the Dean of Government Communications!
I thank you!