A consummate public servant has left us – a tribute to Ronnie Mamoepa!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

This past Sunday we woke up to the sad news of the untimely death Ronnie Mamoepa, an outstanding human being and a consummate public servant.  Mamoepa passed away after having suffered a stroke a month ago.

Ronnie, as he was fondly known by a number of public servants especially within the government communications sector, was a brilliant communicator. He became known and high valued for his insights into media management and for being the darling of many media professionals. To us in government and the ANC, Ronnie was a brother, a comrade, a colleague and a counsellor. I’m one of those who can say proudly that I benefitted a great deal from Ronnie’s expertise.

I started working with Ronnie back in 1993 in the Department of Information and Publicity of the ANC.  This department was at the forefront of managing the country’s transition following the unbanning of political parties including the ANC. Amongst the people we worked with were Gill Marcus, Pallo Jordan and Joel Netshitenzhe.

There was a huge interest in the negotiations that were taking place as these would pave the way for the first democratic elections that were to take place the following year. There was obviously a lot to be done, with very little experience on our side. Mamoepa was given the task of managing the media – a role he was to excel in and carve a niche for himself. Ronnie’s defining traits of humility, and dedication came to the fore and helped us many a times to navigate challenging circumstances. Ronnie found time to be involved in provincial ANC activities, and was also full time in ensuring that the media was updated at all times with the ANC’s perspective in the transitional negotiations.   

His typical day at the ANC office, then known as “Shell House”, began with checking all the newspapers to see what was said about the party. Next Ronnie would be on the phone calling a journalist or two who had written about the ANC. The calls were either to commend the work that was done or correct errors that may have been reported. He did this with respect and great sensitivity. He had a wonderful and collegial relationship with journalists. 

I recall one of his impromptu media briefings that he would call when he felt strongly about a misrepresentation of the ANC. In one of those Ronnie ended up arriving more than an hour late. I was beside myself with anxiety, concerned that his late arrival would exacerbate the problem. By the time he arrived, a number of journalists had left but there were a few who had remained. 

Ronnie started with a long story explaining what had delayed him and apologising profusely before getting to the purpose of the meeting. After the briefing, Ronnie asked me to give him the names of all the journalists who had since left. Ronnie made sure he called all of them to apologise and gave them individual telephonic briefings. I was somewhat worried that his two-hour delay would have an adverse effect on the coverage. But I was worried for nothing. As I recall there was not a single media house that mentioned Ronnie’s almost two-hour delay. The coverage was great, and needless to say I was worried for nothing; thanks to Ronnie’s amicable relationship with the media. 

After the 1994 elections, I remember Ronnie dragging me to work for the Gauteng Premier’s Office. Ronnie never cared much for paper work. In his typical good-natured style, he just said “tomorrow we start work at the Premier’s office and we will deal with the rest when we get in”. Ronnie was a real character; he wanted to be everywhere during that transitional period.

Initially I must admit I got confused about whether he was working for the provincial legislature, the ANC Provincial office or the Premier’s office.  He was everywhere. I asked him once where exactly he was working. His response was: “I work everywhere so as to take the work of the ANC forward.”  Predictably, it took him a while to transition from being an activist to being a public servant. 

He never quite liked government bureaucracy. Ronnie was a true public servant without its bureaucracy!  His preoccupation was to provide a service without being bogged down with bureaucracy.  He was never the stereotypical 8am to 4pm kind employee. He was extremely dedicated to his work and worked tirelessly to improve the lives of South Africans in whatever capacity he found himself in. I am certain those who have interacted with Ronnie will agree that his conversations were mostly about government work.  He thrived in sharing stories about being an activist in the 1980’s, being a political prisoner or just generally explaining government policies.

I have fond memories of working with Ronnie at national government level. When Madiba passed away in 2013, Ronnie promptly arrived at the GCIS offices in Hatfield just after midnight.

I asked him how he knew that we would be at the office. His response was: “I knew that somebody must be up and working on the media accreditations and therefore came to offer my assistance.” He asked to be deployed at GCIS despite the fact that he was working at the Department of Home Affairs at the time. He became part of the media relations team – which included communicators from other departments. Throughout the 10 days that followed he immersed himself fully in engaging with the media about the funeral preparations. As usual he brought great insights and was a pleasure to work with during that time.

If there is one person who knew exactly what the motto of ‘Batho Pele’ meant, it was Ronnie. He served the media with distinction and also served the country with equal dedication.  He raised the level of communications work within the public service.

Go well my brother, comrade and friend!  You have served your country well! As we bow our heads to honour you, let us all retain some of the wisdom that made you a distinguished public servant!

Acting Director-General at GCIS Phumla Williams

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