‘Nothing surprises me at my age, broer!’

2011-07-16 16:41

If things had been different in 1960s South Africa, perhaps Mac Maharaj would have been the country’s answer to Sean Connery – making a name for himself in the glittering world of the movies.

His neatly combed silver hair, carefully trimmed silver goatee, deep Mandela-like voice and a wicked sense of humour that often sees him rocking with laughter would no doubt have endeared him to many film directors.

But fate and circumstances meant things turned out differently for the man who, at the age of 76, was ­appointed President Jacob Zuma’s spokesperson last week.

Many eyebrows were raised at the announcement, largely because at his age, Maharaj is considered too old to keep up with the pressures of such a demanding job.

But when I met the septuagenarian in his office at the imposing ­Union Buildings in Tshwane on Wednesday morning, he came across as a highly energised and dapper man, hardly affected by the natural load-shedding afflicting many of his peers.

Dressed in a BEE-style grey suit and matching blue-striped shirt, he looked like the proverbial “man about town” in his office, which is almost bare except for a simple desk, a set of couches for visitors, a glass table with the morning’s ­papers and photographs of Zuma and Madiba on opposite walls.

He is witty too, a pleasant man who is not easy to dislike. But boy, oh boy, can he talk.

I asked what keeps him in such good physical and mental shape, and he answered with a straight face before breaking into rocking laughter: “It’s people like you, who keep on ­questioning me.”

Does he exercise? “No, no, no! In 1994 I threw away my gun, stopped exercising, that’s it,” he said and broke into that deep, hearty laugh again.

He even managed to joke about his 12-year stretch on Robben Island. “It was a holiday, broer, free ­lodgings, free healthy diet.”

Once a 100-cigarette-a-day ­smoker, Maharaj says he stopped lighting up about six years ago, ­ending an almost half-century love affair with nicotine.

He wanted to retire, he says, but he just couldn’t say no to the president. So was he surprised by his ­appointment?

“Nothing surprises me at my age, broer. How many times has president JZ surprised you? I think in any democracy, when the president of your country calls on you, you have to take that as a ­serious thing.”

Maharaj, who was born in ­Newcastle on April 22 1935, is a former member of the SA Communist Party central committee.

He spent 12 years on Robben Island (1964 to 1976) before going into political exile. In 1985, he was appointed to the ANC’s national executive committee in Zambia and in 1988 he was appointed commander of Operation Vula, an underground campaign to infiltrate top ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe leaders into the country.

He served in Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet as minister of transport ­between 1994 and 1999.

“I’m not a career politician. I retired in 1999. I’m a freedom fighter, not a politician. I spent my life fighting for freedom. I think it is the challenges of all revolutionaries and it’s one of the dangers of all occupations that you become single-minded.

“Many things fell by the wayside and I miss them. I’m not a dog walker, I’m not a cat keeper, but I think that life has to be more than a particular job. I don’t want to live my life with regrets. What happened has happened, it’s water under the bridge,” he says.

There has been speculation that his ­appointment is Zuma’s way of surrounding himself with loyal cadres ahead of the ANC’s national conference in Mangaung next year.

But Maharaj pours cold water on the idea.

“I have never owed my loyalty to a man. I have very high respect for the leaders of the ANC – Madiba, OR (Tambo), Walter Sisulu, Cyril Ramaphosa – but loyalty to an individual, no! What joins me to President ­Zuma, if you look at our life stories, is a shared world view, a common commitment to the ANC as the vehicle to transform our country.

“It is more about trust than loyalty. We are still in the same trenches –­constructing and transforming our country, and the problems of our country are as big as they ever were. It’s a great challenge,” he says.

Maharaj has been painted in ­various ways by his comrades, particularly those incarcerated with him on Robben Island, as an outspoken and critical thinker who never shies away from arguing his case.

He laughs when I put this to him and ask if he has a similar relationship with the president. “I don’t know if Madiba and the Sisulus are doing justice to this or not perpetuating propaganda. They make me sound like an ­argumentative Indian!

“The truth is, I spend more time ­arguing with myself than with other people. I’m a person who questions my innermost recesses. There isn’t a day, there isn’t a night when I go to bed without questioning myself over whether I said the right thing or did the right thing,” he says.

Maharaj describes the circumstances around the Hefer Commission, where, together with Moe Shaik, he failed to convince Justice Joos Hefer that former National Prosecuting Authority head Bulelani Ngcuka, who they accused of abusing his ­position for political purposes, had been an apartheid spy, as “a very painful episode”.

He pauses for a while when I ask if he thinks the commission did any damage to his public image.

He then quotes the words of Chilean poet ­Pablo Neruda: “The injuries done to me by my friends have been all the more painful than those done by my enemies.” 

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