Newsmaker – Zizi Kodwa: And now for something completely different

2014-06-01 15:00

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In a slightly worn corner office on the ninth floor of Luthuli House, the immaculately suited Zizi Kodwa declares that he’s reached the top of the communications ladder.

He was appointed ANC spokesperson on Monday and leads a team of 10 at the party’s headquarters.

“I mean, being spokesperson of the [ANC] Youth League, that is not enough. Being spokesperson for the president, that is not enough. Being the spokesperson of the ANC, that is something completely different,” he says.

The language he uses these days is far more measured than that of eight years ago, when he shared a stage with Young Communist League leader Buti Manamela at President Jacob Zuma’s rape trial, declaring that if they beat the dog hard enough, its handlers would come out. The “dog” he referred to was “Khwezi”, Zuma’s accuser.

These days, he quotes Tupac Shakur (without citing him), saying “like a rose that grew from the concrete”, the ANC has survived 102 years.

It’s been a long journey to this point for 44-year-old Kodwa.

The man with an honours degree from the University of the Western Cape worked as a marketing manager for Denel and later became the spokesperson of the ANC Youth League under then president Fikile Mbalula at the time Thabo Mbeki was ousted as ANC president in Polokwane in 2007.

He was rewarded by becoming Zuma’s spin doctor on his rocky road to the Union Buildings in 2008 and 2009.

Kodwa then followed Zuma to the presidency but was unseated in 2011 by Mac Maharaj and left for a marketing job at the Gauteng Film Commission.

There was talk that his closeness to Mbalula and Julius Malema, who by then had turned against Zuma, had the president suspicious. But Kodwa is an operator and after his election to the ANC’s national executive committee, he’s speaking again.

Now he carries the weight of the governing party and it requires a certain “posture, decorum and aura”, he says.

The flamboyant Kodwa is well known for the glamorous Champagne-fuelled parties he’s attended and hosted, but says that, from now on, he’ll abstain from drinking.

Part of his new, upstanding persona is the fact that he’s married. His Durban wedding – after years of bachelorhood – to Zama Ngubane in 2011 made it to lifestyle TV show Top Billing.

He gushes that she’s a great cook and a source of support.

“I have grown to appreciate the role of a wife in a man’s life,” he says with a sunshine news smile. Inevitably, comparisons arise with former party spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, now a member of Parliament.

Mthembu’s background was more politics than communications. One of his less illustrious moments came when he sang to a reporter on the phone while driving drunk one morning in Cape Town and was arrested.

Kodwa, who carefully avoids being drawn into references about Mthembu’s drink-driving case, had a close shave himself. He was pulled over on suspicion of drunken driving at 2am in Johannesburg, but tests found “there was nothing but juice in my blood”. Kodwa is now suing the officers responsible.

Kodwa sings from the ANC’s hymn book on all contentious issues.

About the ANC’s drop in support after last month’s elections, he says the party should look for ways to engage those who strayed or didn’t vote. Nkandla?

Well, that hasn’t been properly communicated by government, which should have started by emphasising that the state has a responsibility to provide the president with security. Besides, only R70?million of the R246?million was spent on upgrades inside the house.

The rest all went to the clinic and buildings outside. What’s the best thing to do then when a story breaks, I ask. “News is news when it’s news,” he says.

This is the guy who early in his career had to spin the youth league out of negative stories about its dirty links with mining magnate Brett Kebble.

“Instant communication,” he says, “is quite important in the modern digital world where news flies in the blink of an eye.

“Any delay not only causes anxiety, but it may just add speculation and perception to the story.”

Then any response becomes reactive, he says. Kodwa is ruthless. He says he’d have no qualms about destroying an exclusive scoop by issuing a press release to all other media houses.

To journalists this is dirty play, but Kodwa says at least it’s not censorship.

Kodwa has an interesting term ahead, with a potentially contentious ANC conference looming in 2017. Zuma has no clear successor and things could get ugly.

At the top of the spokesperson ladder, Kodwa intends to do his best to perfect his game.

“There is no perfect spokesperson because communications is a team effort,” he says. “I’d imagine you’d do your best to be the best among the best.”

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