Newsmaker: Maharaj has the last laugh

2015-04-12 15:00

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When Satyandranath “Mac” Maharaj was appointed presidential spokesperson in June 2011, he was offended when he was called a Jacob Zuma loyalist.

He insisted that his relationship with President Zuma should rather be viewed as one of trust, and four years in that position have reflected both unwavering loyalty and trust.

This week, Maharaj announced his retirement. He will leave his post at the end of this month, a few days after his 80th birthday.

With the media, Maharaj has displayed a great sense of humour and, when he’s in a good mood, he’s always ready to crack a joke.

When called on a Friday or Saturday with a query, his opening line is usually: “How are you going to spoil my weekend now?”

The liberation struggle veteran always treats journalists with respect and he was willing to share information generously at times, but when journalists did something he regarded as a breach of trust, he’d call them up and give them a dressing-down. The hostility never lasted long and he would still treat them in a professional manner after that.

His age advantage meant he had first-hand knowledge about things that most journalists might only have heard or read about.

But there’s also a mean streak to him.

Before the elections last year, Talk Radio 702’s Stephen Grootes invited Maharaj to take part in the launch of his book, a simplified, tongue-in-cheek take on South African politics. Maharaj had the good humour to play the journalist and interview Grootes, but grilled him quite meanly on what he said were historical inaccuracies, and he had the audience squirming.

Coming into the position in 2011, Maharaj had been through his fair share of controversies, but none that would match those of the man he would repeatedly take shots for.

Maharaj will be remembered for his sometimes stormy relationship with the media, but also fondly for some rather creative cover-ups.

Maharaj faced the herculean task of trying to explain many of Zuma’s bizarre statements. But he never fell short; always managing some sort of explanation.

When Zuma is making a scheduled speech and suddenly starts speaking off the cuff, he is known to make strange comments that often contradict South Africa’s Constitution – comments that Maharaj would later have to explain or defend.

Undoubtedly the biggest talking point in the past five years has been the president’s home in Nkandla, built at a cost of R246?million. This was expected to be an albatross around the ANCs neck going into the 2014 national elections. There was even talk that the ANC might dump Zuma for a less controversial candidate. But like he has done so often before, Zuma defied his sceptics and delivered another victory for the ANC, even if the margin of victory dropped slightly.

Maharaj’s task of protecting the man who recently expressed his “wish” to be a dictator has not been an easy one.

Zuma would often make controversial remarks in isiZulu, and Maharaj would dispute the English translation or use the standard response that the comments were taken out of context.

For example, Zuma’s comments that spending money on buying a dog, taking it to the vet and out for walks belonged to “white” culture. The president added that there was a generation of people trying to “emulate whiteness”, but who would not succeed.

Maharaj’s response was: “The essential message from the president was the need to decolonise the African mind, post-liberation.”

He added: “It is unfortunate that the journalists concerned chose to report the comments in a manner that seeks to problematise them, instead of promoting a debate about deconstruction and decolonisation of the mind as part of promoting reconciliation, nation-building, unity and social cohesion.”

But other comments by the president were uttered in English and were, therefore, almost impossible to “clarify”.

For example, justifying Gauteng’s e-tolled roads, Zuma said: “We can’t think like Africans in Africa. It’s not some national road in Malawi.”

Poor Maharaj was still able to manage this: “The words have regrettably been taken out of context and blown completely out of proportion.”

When Zuma suggested pregnant teenagers should be sent to Robben Island, Maharaj had to conjure up the explanation that Zuma was emphasising the need for teenagers to focus on their studies.

But as he got ready to leave the spotlight, Maharaj turned the table on the media and gave them a taste of their own medicine on April Fools’ Day when he released a statement announcing three new appointments to Zuma’s Cabinet.

“I was sitting there getting calls from you guys for comment on anything from Nkandla to the lottery. So I thought, okay, I’m going to reverse the roles and take the media for a ride,” he said with a chuckle.

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