Can Zuma’s new spin doctor polish up his boss’s tattered image?

Bongani Ngqulunga, Jacob Zuma’s new spin doctor, faced his first big media event on Monday when he led a late-night press conference after a meeting between the presidency and business concerning this week’s World Economic Forum on Africa.

Barely 10 hours later, the newly appointed acting presidential spokesperson jetted off with Zuma to a meeting in Beaufort West.

Ngqulunga will remain head of the private office of the president, one of the most powerful positions in Zuma’s office.

 “I am currently holding the fort until we figure out what to do with the [spokesperson] position,” Ngqulunga said after the announcement that he has replaced Bongani Majola, who was also in an acting capacity. 

Majola has been promoted to chief director of communications in Zuma’s office, which is a “huge responsibility” and would not allow him to hold two positions. 

“The main thing about these positions is we are here to support the president,” Ngqulunga said, again stressing that “there is nothing interesting about all of it”. 

Many others might beg to differ; since former spin doctor Mac Maharaj’s retirement 13 months ago, aged 80, there have been two acting spokespeople, Harold Maloka served in the post until he moved to the office of the minister in the presidency, and then Majola. 

This is despite the president being in dire need of a high-calibre professional to polish his image following, among other matters, the Constitutional Court’s Nkandla judgment and the possibility of having corruption charges reinstated against him.

Maharaj, a senior ANC leader and former minister, was well known for the way he could backtrack and attempt to explain statements and speeches that had landed Zuma in hot water. 

Ngqulunga has been in the presidency since 2006, when former president Thabo Mbeki was still in office. He worked in a variety of positions, from senior policy analyst to chief policy analyst and head of governance and administration in the presidency’s policy co-ordination and advisory services division.

He was also the acting chief of staff in the office of the director-general and secretary of Cabinet in the presidency and, since 2010, the chief director of special projects in the president’s private office, providing support to Zuma’s monitoring and evaluation programmes. He has been acting as head of the president’s private office since November 2014.

Ngqulunga has a PhD from Brown University, a Bachelor of Pedagogics and a Bachelor of Education from the University of Durban-Westville and a Master of Science in Development Studies from the University of Natal (Durban).

Those who have worked with him say he is “the nicest of people”, but is at the same time a staunchly loyal cadre.

Ngqulunga wouldn’t be drawn into any further questions about his work as presidential spin doctor but by answering the phone and being available for comment, he has passed the first test of being a government spokesperson. 

“I will try to answer the calls and if I can’t, I will return the calls. The most important thing is to communicate,” he said.

This week, Ngqulunga posted updates about the president’s public movements and his Facebook profile picture was of a smiling Zuma holding a child in his arms at a rally – the perfect election-year campaign image.

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