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Hamba kahle Mntungwa, a militant diplomat of note

Tuesday morning. It’s absurdly early. Arthritis is a ruthlessly efficient alarm clock.

The Heritage Day long weekend has been wet and miserable, despite it ending with a rather sunny 2-0 victory to Arsenal. Durban’s cold, damp air amplifies the ache in the bones.

I start trying to pull the week together. There’s a need to decipher ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe’s statement on what the party’s national executive committee (NEC) said about the KwaZulu-Natal provincial executive committee’s request to appeal the high court ruling that declared it illegitimate.

The statement is a real Mantashe special. The NEC respects the court’s decision. But, the NEC wants to consult senior counsel to see whether the ruling is appealable. In the meantime, the national working committee (NWC) needs to set up a task team to oversee the processes between now and the December conference. The NWC will report back to the NEC.

Lots of acronyms. Some very long sentences. Clarity and leadership? Dololo. How’s that for Mantashery? The cat should change his name to Muddy Waters.

The mobile rings. There’s a possibility of an interview with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. I dive for the phone.

I see the caller ID. My heart sinks.

There’s a ball of lead in my chest. Sour bile rises in my throat. I’ve been dreading this moment.

Sipho Khumalo — journalist, editor, government communicator and the best friend I ever had — is dead.

My head starts spinning. I’ve known Mntungwa, as Khumalo (59) was popularly known, since my student days at the then Natal Technikon.

He’s been a big part of my life since.

Khumalo, who was serving as director for community safety and liaison with the KwaZulu-Natal transport and public safety department at the time of his death, has been one of the most quietly influential figures on the KwaZulu-Natal media and political scene since the early 1980s.

The son of a migrant worker, December Khumalo from Denny Dalton, Khumalo started working for the isiZulu-language newspapers while living in Umlazi’s P Section.

He then moved to the Mercury, carving out a space for himself and imposing his character on the paper and the people who worked there.

Already active in the Umlazi Youth Congress, Khumalo saw the need for alternative media voices.

He had used his time at technikon to put together a collective of journalists and trainees tired of the mainstream media and its support, open or implicit, for the apartheid regime.

Khumalo’s energy, and his political contacts, eventually secured enough funding to set up the Concord News Agency. This morphed into the New African which, with the Weekly Mail, South and New Nation, battled to expose the atrocities of apartheid in the face of heavy censorship.

He remained at the helm of the New African until its demise in 1994.

Moving back to mainstream journalism, Khumalo served a lengthy stint as Sowetan bureau chief in Durban. Here, Khumalo came into his own as a mentor, guiding a generation of younger journalists who have gone on to shine in their own right. He then returned to the Mercury, where his coverage of KwaZulu-Natal politics was legendary.

Khumalo knew the legislature, and the people in it, like the back of his hand, finessing documents and politicians with an ease and grace that was something to see. A genuinely funny man with a keen sense of humour and a razor-sharp mind, his famous combination of “militancy and diplomacy” saw him deal with the politicians as equals.

As much as Khumalo loved the media, he was a patriot and an activist. A move to government on his part was both inevitable and appropriate.

Khumalo “crossed the floor”, as he put it, after completing his BTech degree at the Durban University of Technology in his early 50s. Most of his classmates — my son included — were half his age.

That was Mntungwa.

Khumalo made the leap to government with the clarity with which he took everything on in life. He brought a new energy and understanding of the media to the department’s communications set-up — the results of which are visible every day.

Khumalo was also a great family man. He loved his wife, Dolly, and sons, Mzilikazi and Samora, with the same joy with such he embraced life.

Five weeks ago, Khumalo suffered a massive stroke. On Tuesday he gave up the fight. RIP Mntungwa. You will be missed.

Khumalo will be buried at his family home in Denny Dalton on Sunday.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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