South Africa

Op-Ed: Bidding farewell to Ronnie Mamoepa, the Communicator’s Communicator

By Lisa Combrinck 31 July 2017

With the sad and sudden passing of activist and government communicator, Ronnie Mamoepa, we have lost a brother, an intellectual, a technical expert and worker, combined. He was everything that Antonio Gramsci would have needed to resolve an organic crisis or kick-start a revolution – all in one. By LISA COMBRINCK.

He was the firepower, the manifesto and the drum. We learnt from his drumbeat, his words and his deeds. He was a unifier and an engine driver. How sad that we have lost his heartbeat, his electrical energy that activated some of us who worked with him, jolting us like a shock out of the silence of bureaucratic complacency.

He worked with no sense of time. The calls would come from Brazil at 1am in the morning or from Pretoria in the mid-afternoon as he sat at his desk typing. He was either nowhere or everywhere. He was a super-communicator who spoke prolifically about everything under the sun. There were no holy cows. His instincts were powerful and prophetic. He spoke truth within the corridors of power and truth without. This brought him friends and also probably enemies. He was not the Diplomat’s Diplomat but the Communicator’s Communicator, undaunted and asking uncomfortable questions as much as later he would have to answer them too in the public domain.

He chose to fight his way and sharpen his powers of persuasion every step and every day, tramping on toes in the process, and therefore he retained a common touch, a soul, and a welcoming smile.

Photo: Former President Kgalema Motlanthe and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa with Ronnie Mamoepa’s wife Audrey and daughter Nthabiseng Mamoepa during the memorial service of Ronnie Mamoepa held at Tshwane Events Centre in Pretoria. [Photo: GCIS]

Yet in the midst of it all was something quite simple yet extraordinarily profound. It is a testimony to his story-telling ability but also to his sharp insights and strategic vision that one did not forgot what he said, even years later.

At the heart of his life story and his work ethic, there are important lessons that we need to learn. He knew that imparting information in an age of democracy was not enough. He was not content simply to part with information.

While he knew that information is needed for people to access services, and did his best to find creative ways to bring this across directly to the people, he knew that in other ways we fell short. There are important “dialogues” between government communicator and reporter in which information is not enough. One of the reasons, I suspect, why he befriended journalists –besides his naturally friendly demeanour – was because he knew that what is important is the human interaction, the way in which a story is told, the context of that story and not only the information given.

Like Walter Benjamin in his essay on the storyteller in the book, Illuminations, he knew that information has its value but also its limitations. As Walter Benjamin says: “The most extraordinary things, marvellous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is up to him to interpret things the way he understands them and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.”

For Walter Benjamin, “The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.” He pointed out that while information can answer questions on verifiability and satisfy the needs of the moment, it cannot transcend this immediacy in the way a full-bodied story does.

This is why Mamoepa was not content only to do media liaison work or marketing. He was a trailblazer in meeting the needs of new times by implementing videography, sound and photography units within the ambit of communications. Yet he recognised the yearning for something deeper, so he established content development units where stories, documentaries and magazines could be generated. He knew too that in the complexity of modern life, you needed a team to put the elements of a story together and you needed to generate historical content not for its own sake but to change consciousness.

He was concerned about history. Ronnie made it a point to tell me that the play and the film, Kalushi, wonderful as they are, had got it wrong and that it was he, not another, who had gone to see Mam Martha Mahlangu to break the sad news that her son had been hanged by the henchmen of the apartheid regime. He wanted them to get it right. He was still going to see the director. I shall have to do so for him.

At some stage I found him frantically writing in softcover notepads a story of young MK soldiers and what had happened to them. I think he had written about 24 pages. I looked at him writing so hard; and I said to myself that he would not have time to finish this: because, between other important tasks, the full narratives of who we are and what we have accomplished gets lost. We always think that there is time but there isn’t any.

This was Ronnie’s dilemma. But it is also an aspect of the dilemma that the communicator faces every workday of his or her life; and I dare to say, also the reporter and the editor.

Amid all the frantic activities that fill the day, when do we fully tell our own stories? And if we do not, then who will? What do we do with what we leave out?

Yet if we do not pause to reflect, then our actions become mindless and mechanical. Real lives get lost or edited out in the simple exchange of information not exceeding the length of a tweet or a one-page statement or in a series of questions and answers. Sometimes the immediacy of a short message relegates the real story to becoming a footnote in the fables of history.

We have become a nation where the story that underpins our existence is a contested space, where conflicting stories define who we are. There are no bridges built between the two stories.

On the one hand, there are those who paint the picture of Afropessimism, corruption and state failure or capture. On the other hand, there is the story of the building of a better life for all. The latter is more nuanced, recognising mistakes along the way, but trying to self-correct and “tell the story” of a triumphant people in the throes of the democratic experiment which is still being perfected, struggling but victorious. Both utilise information to make their points. But so much it seems is still lost.

Ronnie Mamoepa in his frantic questioning and seeking for answers would have expected more from us. As a people in one national space with contesting visions he would have reminded us that we reside in a shared zone and that, as Aimé Césaire says in his Return to My Native Land, there is room for all of us at the rendezvous of victory. We owe it to him and to ourselves to get this right by strengthening the mental frameworks for our liberation and humanising our vocations.

How hard it is that we shall not see Mamoepa again. The country is so much poorer without him. Our thanks must go to his family for sharing him with us in the decades in the trenches, in the planting of new trees and in the building of this house of freedom and dreams. DM

Lisa Combrinck worked under Ronnie Mamoepa in the Presidency and later in the then Department of Foreign Affairs. She currently works in the Department of Arts and Culture. She writes here in her personal capacity.

Photo: Ronnie Mamoepa (GCIS)

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