BUSANI NGCAWENI: Adios Thibos, a man to be judged by his impact


I have many memories and recollections of Thabo Masebe, the communicator par excellence, the consummate professional and the dedicated public servant. One that stands out for me, and is perhaps most instructive of all in these times, is how self-effacing he was.

I had the rare privilege of being his supervisor for four years at the presidency between 2010 and 2014, where he was on secondment from the Gauteng Premier’s Office as spokesperson and head of communications in the Office of the Deputy President.

Although we occupied the same levels as deputy directors-general and he reported to me as the head of office, he understood that seniors set the tone for the work environment.

He had great and equal respect for all the colleagues at the office, young and old. Everyone called him Thabo because he thought it was more liberatory than the use of rank. And so in the office everyone referred to each other by first name.

This was a man with an outstanding track record as a political leader and activist, yet you never heard him bring it up.

He was one of the only people I have encountered who were able to finish a meal without regaling you with stories of their glorious past in the trenches of anti-apartheid struggles. During those four years, we met for lunch three days a week when we worked in Cape Town. He never brought up his personal history with his lunch companions, or with anyone for that matter. Not even at a particular lunch with his colleague Nomfanelo Kota at a youth festival in North Korea, where python was a challenge on the menu.

He was a man who lived for the present and the future rather than for past glory. To us as his colleagues, it was a mark of the humility of a man who wanted to be judged by his impact, and not by his history. He never pulled political rank. He also never missed a deadline, skipped a meeting, or declined an assignment.

A provincial state funeral is a fitting tribute to a man who has left an indelible mark on the public service, on the public communications environment, and on wider society.

Official funerals are reserved for men and women of exceptional pedigree, who distinguish themselves in their chosen vocations or contribution to society. They are people with whom society become acquainted through acts of service either as artists, scholars, scientists, politicians, public servants, athletes, and community builders.

There are very few serving public servants who have been honoured with an official funeral of any category. These include the former chief of state protocol ambassador Billy Modise and Ronnie Mamoepa, the former spokesperson to then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.

This tribute to Thabo Masebe from the government he served so loyally speaks volumes about the character of the man. He has been eulogised as an excellent communicator. He was also of that special category of public servants who are deservedly recognised for their selflessness and distinction in the service of humanity.

Like Mamoepa, Masebe was 57 when he was called to the land of the ancestors. The two had worked together and exchanged jobs many times at the highest level inside and outside the state.

The tributes we have read to Thabo Masebe have been punctuated with anecdotes of light moments, and of a senior public servant who balanced his professional and private life.

He was a family man whose life revolved around his children. Weekend assignments were often stressful for him because he wanted to be with them/

Everyone knew his sisters because he never stopped talking about them.

He was a wine connoisseur, but without the pretentiousness this is often accompanied by. The oenophile in him was well known. He taught everyone about different grape varieties, and about which regions of the world that produced great wine, with Napa Valley in California among his favourites.

He taught us how to pronounce Pinot Noir and where it got its colour from. In the close to 30 international visits we shared, he would always pack his favourite bottle or return with something new from another country.

He would admonish us for serving him Baronne, calling it plonk reserved for uncultured people who risk damaging their stomach linings. He once walked us into a supermarket to show us differences among wine glasses and why each shape mattered.

Regardless of the number of glasses he would have consumed the previous night, the treadmill was his companion every morning.

Golf was his favourite sport. He meandered many fairways and greens, screamed at Tiger Woods when he delivered a poor shot. In hindsight, golf was his meditation and his escape from the complexities of politics where everything is over-complicated by supersized egos concealing fragilities, countless rules and ever-expanding public expectations.

He had a knack for managing tricky situations, like the time he tanked down a full serving of horse milk in Mongolia so not to upset the hosts.

Or the time he handled a moment in Washington DC when a Minister arrived 50 seconds late at the entrance of the White House and was subjected to the shoes and jacket off indignity accompanied by body search. What will live in immortality was the riposte of the security to the minister’s indignant “But I’m the minister!”

“Of what church?” they asked, their faces deadpan.

Being with him abroad offered many insights into the man. Back in the day a thousand rands could purchase four designer chinos in New York. I remember how he only bought one khaki pair, that he wore for over a decade. The joke was on us when he said, “I have children to look after, and good wine awaits me at home.”

Former colleagues like Dr Khulu Mbatha, Dr Nono Simelela, Mogotladi Mogano, Tyrone Seale, Dan Motaung and Malebo Sibiya would view this tribute unfavourably if I did not recall the evening when we got bargain priced tailored suits made in a Beijing mall.

As we lined up dutifully for fittings, Masebe was paying for a golf club and a set of Mont Blanc replicas.

He answered our guffaws saying the golf club was just a memento and the pens were to show off to Trevor Manuel whom he thought was deeply enamoured with Mont Blanc pens. He told us jokingly of his plans to use his knock-off pens as a flex next time he saw the minister.

Adios, Thibos.

In your unassuming way, you ran your race. In doing so you impacted so many lives.

You never hid your views on anything, even on sensitive political matters, and you had the courage of your convictions. You distinguished yourself in all the assignments you undertook. In an era where government communicators remain preoccupied with inconsequential social media trends, you were citizen oriented.

You did not compete for positions. Instead, you favoured the battle of ideas. You taught us patience. Your humility humbled those who disliked you. You are a mirror against which society will judge the remaining and future government communicators. You will live on in our efforts to deepen the capability of the state.

Rest in peace, my brother, my leader.