OPINION: So long Mac, we will miss you
Mac Maharaj, a man who has dominated so many of the high places in our politics, is stepping down from his job this week. He's just turned 80. And the job he is leaving has to be one of the toughest, hardest, most fraught in any democracy anywhere. As spokesperson for President Jacob Zuma, he has shown himself to be literally the country's Number One spinner. No matter what you think about Mac, we will not see his like again.
I think I have to start where I first heard the name Mac Maharaj. I was working at Sunrise Radio in London. Modestly, it styled itself as 'The Greatest Asian Radio Station in the World'. The bane of my existence was an old teletype printer that produced acres of copy from the Press Trust of India. One day, while trying to understand transliterated Hindi, I came across a story headlined, 'Mac Maharaj, Transport Minister of Indian Origin, to step down'. It was a very strange way to first realise the existence of such a figure.
Our first meeting, somewhat inevitably, was over the phone on 702. I was standing in for John Robbie back in 2003. Maharaj phoned in, full of anger and venom about something that Jovial Rantao had written in The Star. It was probably clear to him at the time that I had absolutely no idea what he was on about. But he was certainly furious, and something big was happening. It was during the run-up to the Hefer Commission of Inquiry, amid the claim that then National Prosecuting Authority head Bulelani Ngcuka was an apartheid spy.
Later, while covering the trial of Schabir Shaik (the aftershocks of which have dominated so much of my later political reporting career), I used to sit between Moe Shaik and a police officer. In those days, there was no Twitter or live streaming of radio, and yet I would receive hourly cheerful critiques of my reports from Moe. I realised later he was clearly getting them from Mac, and they were just having fun at my expense.
It was some time before I realised Mac's struggle record is impeccable, that he was the person who allegedly smuggled out the first draft of Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom from Robben Island. I should probably never admit it, but I was a little star-struck when I realised all of this.
But, like so many others, I was still shocked when he became Zuma's spokesperson. I should have realised, actually. I had bumped into him during Zuma's inauguration at the Union Buildings in 2009, introduced myself and asked for his number (you never knew when you might need it). A few days later, one Sunday evening, he rang me. I answered "Good evening Mr Maharaj (the 'Mac' came later). He replied, tersely, "How the hell did you know my number?" He was slightly mollified when I reminded him the source of this elusive information was one M Maharaj. He then asked me a question for a column he was writing for the Sunday Times. Which may mean I have the unique distinction of offering Mac help journalist to journalist (You also have another unique experience with Maharaj but I'm presuming you'll come to that later - Ed).
But still, when the announcement came in 2011, it was a shock to many. It didn't seem to make sense; he was 76 for goodness sake, and who would want THAT kind of job at THAT stage of life?
But Mac being Mac, he got into the swing of things very quickly. As I've realised so many times before in politics and in rugby, youth and skill are no match for age and treachery. Mac's experience showed. It wasn't just that he could say the right thing at the right time, as any old spokesperson would do. It's that he would continue to spin even after the microphone was off. It's an art very few people bother to get good at. Often, after an interview, he would say "Now look Stephen, off the record, and I still have to make inquiries into this, but it might be worth your while to…"
That kind of tactic is incredibly effective. Just recently Zuma held a lunch for editors, everything was on the record, and it worked out pretty well for him in setting the agenda ahead of a difficult week that would see him taking questions from his old friends Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane in the National Assembly. As the lunch broke up, Mac mentioned to me, "Look, I don't know if you got a question in (I didn't) but the president was asked 26 questions, and he answered 26 questions". It was a great little touch, just ramming the point home.
But, Mac does come with baggage.
Some of it, it seems, related to the arms deal. At one point, he tried to have criminal charges against the Mail & Guardian investigated, after they tried to publish parts of testimony he had given during a Scorpions investigation. In the end, he had to have his own press conference to explain his view of things, thus breaking the first rule of being a spin-doctor: don't become the story.
I wrote at the time that I would always be undecided about Mac. A major part of me wants to embrace the good he has done for our society, but another part is very wary of the bad. Like so much of our country, it's complex and complicated.
Despite all of that, when I published a little book about our politics, I thought it might be fun (and yes, good marketing) to ask him to interview me (Ah, here we go - Ed). It might have been fun. For him. Just reading through my account of that experience is still painful. I learnt a lot about Mac that day. I learnt that for him politics is never going to be fun, it's going to always be more important than that. I learnt also that if you are going to go up against a top-notch politician, you are very likely lose if you don't completely control the rules of engagement (as you might, say, in a radio interview).
I learnt also that aggression is a useful trait in this kind of field, that if you can land the first blow in a debate, and make it sting, you'll probably win it. Mac has never been someone who debates for fun; he debates to win.
Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Mac's career as Zuma's spokesperson has been keeping him out of the news. Despite the Nkandla scandal, or the Waterkloof scandal, or whichever scandal you like, somehow Zuma himself hasn't had to account in person. That could be a testament to Mac's skills, his ability to manage and massage events.
Surely, Zuma is going to miss him. Any politician anywhere would miss someone who has that experience, that knowledge, that nous. And sometimes we forget Mac wasn't just a spokesperson, he was actually a special advisor. He spent much time shuttling between Zuma and President Robert Mugabe. It's unlikely he enjoyed that too much.)
Many words are applied to Mac. On my Twitter timeline when I've spoken to him on radio, many people accuse him of lying, or spinning, or just speaking nonsense. Often those words are 'canny' or 'cunning'. I've often wondered if those words are applied because Mac is Indian, if there isn't a sort of subtext there, in the way that some men claim assertive women are 'dominating'. Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly, one could use the words 'clever', 'sharp' and 'knowledgeable'. You could also add, in the media context, 'professional' and 'available', two words that can mean so much in the middle-class media world.
One of the joys of speaking to Mac was that you were almost speaking to history. It must have been awful for him to have to handle the media just before, during and after Madiba's death. It couldn't have been made any easier when it turned out that an ambulance that transported him did actually break down. I've always thought that probably no one showed Mac much sympathy at the time. Not that he would necessarily have expected any. And of course Mac has always given freely of his time to speak about the past, about the struggle, to make sure that people knew the facts. Or his version of them.
I'm going to miss Mac. No doubt some will claim this means that I was in his pocket; I would have to ask them to prove that. But beyond it all, he was always what you could call a character. He has never been grey or boring, or straitlaced or dull. He has always been interesting, exciting and up for battle. Once he told my producer to make sure I was ready before an interview "because I'm bringing my AK". And there has always been a sense of humour, a sting waiting in the wings, a line you will want to repeat to your friends later, because of its sheer cynicism.
I understand he's going to spend some time writing a book with Pallo Jordan. I'm sure they'll do it well. And I hope he'll have fun laying down the ANC's history. And settling old scores, as he does so.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes