Up for a challenge? Apply to be a presidential spin doctor

Presidency official Lakela Kaunda has stuck by President Jacob Zuma through thick and thin. But nerves of steel are required for the job of presidential spokesperson. (Victor Ruiz Garcia, Reuters)

Presidency official Lakela Kaunda has stuck by President Jacob Zuma through thick and thin. But nerves of steel are required for the job of presidential spokesperson. (Victor Ruiz Garcia, Reuters)

Soon after former presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj left his west wing office at the Union Buildings, the presidency embarked on a media charm offensive to improve the public’s access to the highest office in the land. The only hitch in its plan appears to be finding a permanent spin doctor.

Harold Maloka, a longtime government communicator and deputy director general of the Government Communication and Information System, was roped in to fill Maharaj’s shoes on an acting basis while President Jacob Zuma was searching for the right candidate. But Maloka was led out the building a mere three months later, even before Zuma could appoint a permanent spokesperson.

The presidency insists Maloka was seconded to the position for only three months, but some government officials said his contract could have easily been extended, considering his seniority and experience. Presidency sources claim Maloka is, however, not fully trusted by Zuma and those close to him.

The same sources told the Mail & Guardian that Maloka was treated badly by his colleagues in the three months he spent as Zuma’s spokesperson. “He did not even have direct access to Zuma. He was moved from Mac Maharaj’s office, which is much closer to Zuma’s, to a smaller office somewhere in the same building. They really frustrated him,” said a senior official in the presidency.

The same official said another reason Maloka’s three-month contract was not renewed is that he is not a pushover. “He could not allow people to impose their views on him. He is his own person. He is not someone you can push around as you wish. His track record within the public service speaks for itself,” said the presidency official.

A trained journalist, Maloka has been in government communications since the late 1990s.

Another senior government official said he is not surprised by Maloka’s departure because he did not fit with those regarded as being Zuma’s core cluster.

Seasoned communicator Harold Maloka has been shown the door after just three months. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The Zuma loyalists in the presidency “want someone they can trust. It made a lot of sense to me when his three-month contract was not extended. To earn trust by Zuma, you really need to understand his culture. You can’t mix with him and his people if you don’t understand that,” said a government official.

Bongani Majola, the director of media liaison in Zuma’s office and a former M&G journalist, has been appointed Zuma’s acting spokesperson. The M&G has learned that Majola has been advised to apply for the vacant post of chief director of communications, an indication that he might be appointed permanently as a spokesperson. Majola declined to answer M&G questions this week.

The chief director position was left vacant by Zanele Mngadi, who is now chief of staff for Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa.

Mngadi joined the presidency’s current chief operating officer, Lakela Kaunda, in Zuma’s office almost 15 years ago when he was still deputy president of the country.

Mngadi and Kaunda stood by Zuma during his most trying time politically, when he was ousted from the second-highest position in government. When the then president, Thabo Mbeki, fired Zuma, the two officials moved to the social development department, returning to the presidency after Zuma was elected president in 2009.

But Mngadi mysteriously moved to a junior ministry a few months ago. Mngadi said she is still part of several presidency task teams and is working on a plan for the proposed presidential press corps.

“I’m in a number of advisory committees and write some documents for the presidency,” she told the M&G. It’s not the first time that there has been an overhaul of Zuma’s presidency communications team, particularly when he is facing public relations challenges. A few months after the scandal broke about the president fathering a child with Sonono Khoza, the daughter of soccer boss Irvin Khoza, in 2010, Zuma spokesperson Vincent Magwenya resigned, followed by deputy director of communications Vusi Mona a week later.

Current ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa was acting presidency spokesperson before Maharaj was appointed.



Matuma Letsoalo is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003, focussing on politics and labour, and collaborated with the M&G's centre for investigations, amaBhungane, from time to time.In 2011, Matuma won the South African Journalist of the Year Award and was also the winner in the investigative journalism category in the same year.In 2004, he won the CNN African Journalist of the Year prize – the MKO Abiola Print Journalism Award. Matuma was also a joint category winner of the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the year Award in 2008. In 2013, he was a finalist for Wits University's Taco Kuiper Award.
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