Tribute to a seasoned communicator

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Tribute by Director-General of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and Cabinet Spokesperson, Ms Phumla Williams

One of the most seasoned public servants and a government communicator of note, Mr Thabo Masebe, has passed away. Five years ago in July, we shared the same platform with him when we bid farewell to another finest government communicator, Mr Ronnie Mamoepa. May His Soul Rest in Peace.

We celebrated Mr Mamoepa’s amazing contribution to the government communication profession. At the time, there was a sense of comfort when Mr Masebe reassured everyone that he will carry the baton of professionalising government communication.

At the time of his death, Mr Masebe was the Acting Director-General in the Office of the Premier of Gauteng. He also served as a spokesperson to then Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and previously worked for a number of years as Chief Director: Media Liaison at the GCIS.

The outpouring of grief from colleagues and friends in the past few days and the endless tributes being posted on social media platforms, reflect the widespread appreciation of his public persona and meaningful contribution to the Public Service. Some of the tributes highlight his time as a youth league activist, showing some of his photos as a vibrant young man.

Mr Masebe’s passing is indeed a great loss to the government communication system and to the country as a whole. He was an exceptional and skilled public servant.

As Chief Director: Media Liaison at the GCIS, Mr Masebe was responsible for coordinating and supporting departmental heads of communication to fulfil their communication mandates. During those days, fortnightly meetings of heads of communication were convened at the then GCIS’s Midtown Building in Pretoria.        

Thabo derived satisfaction from leading the discussions that aimed to analyse how the communication of government information was handled in the past two weeks. He was frank and instructive on how departments should approach and unpack their communication issues. He was equally frank to express his displeasure if the media carried inaccurate stories that did not reflect the factual truth. He used to call it “lazy journalism”. 

During discussions with government communicators, Mr Masebe would enthusiastically share his wisdom and knowledge on how to simplify government jargon, and would also emphasise the importance of providing accurate information for the benefit of the media. At times, Thabo would go against the grain of being a Public Servant and actually disagree with whatever policy we were trying to communicate. 

In the discussions, Thabo preferred to speak last. True to his style he would come with a different angle on some of statements that were issued during the period under review.  He was not afraid to critique some of the interviews conducted by the principals. To illustrate how communicators failed to prepare their bosses.

In his sarcastic way, he would ask: “What were you trying to tell us?”. The discussions that would follow were undoubtedly constructive and helpful to those communicators. Thabo would show them how he would have dealt with the matter and also advise how to salvage the story. That was the Thabo I got to know when it came to assisting government communicators to perform better in their craft.

I can categorically state that those who attended those sessions at the GCIS benefited from Mr Masebe’s guidance. And importantly, we trust that they will take the baton forward to improve where he left off.

Although he was a senior manager in the Public Service, he hardly contributed to discussions on matters related to procurement and budget. I had a feeling that those discussions used to irritate him. As far as he was concerned, work should only revolve around communicating government information to the citizens without the irritation of the Public Finance Management Act and Public Service Act.   

I recall that it was during Mr Masebe’s time that we cancelled what used to be called an “entertainment allowance” for the media. He never submitted a claim for taking out any journalist for tea or red wine. Dare I say Thabo loved his good Red Wine. His view was that journalists must pay for their own drinks in the same way he would pay for his own drinks.

Thabo was a soft-spoken and down to earth human being who carried his accolades with humility and kindness. When he transitioned from being an activist to being a public servant, he carried his conviction of fighting for a democratic South Africa that is anchored on a non-racial, non-discriminatory and equal society.   

He never took advantage of his superiority but respected everyone he interacted with, irrespective of their ranks. He made a huge contribution towards the betterment of the lives of South Africans and worked tirelessly to better the government communication system.

His drive to better the lives of the people by communicating relevant government information in a coherent and consistent manner will always be celebrated and emulated by all like-minded communicators. He was truthful and accessible to the media and all government communicators who sought his wisdom and guidance.  Thabo was not arrogant; he was willing to learn from others. As we bid him farewell, we also thank him and his family for lending him to this nation.

Kha Vha Edele Nga Mulalo Vho Thabo!

Lala Ngoxolo  Tat”u Masebe

Rest in Peace Thabo.

*This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on 24 April 2022.