Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj, who has retired after 60 years in politics, says the turmoil in the country provides an opportunity to rediscover how diversity can be turned into an asset. Picture: THE TIMES
Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj, who has retired after 60 years in politics, says the turmoil in the country provides an opportunity to rediscover how diversity can be turned into an asset. Picture: THE TIMES

LEADERSHIP is about taking responsibility, says Mac Maharaj who, for the better part of five years, was accused of shielding President Jacob Zuma from doing just that.

Following Zuma’s comments on electronic tolling — when he infamously said Johannesburg’s roads were not "some national road in Malawi" and caused a diplomatic row — and throughout the Nkandla and Guptagate rows, Maharaj was at the forefront of defending the president.

His work at the Presidency was the last entry in his ledger. He began his political career in 1953 when he was 18, and last month called it quits at the age of 80.

Maharaj breathes life into history when he speaks. He adds quirky takes to stories immortalised in his books — illustrated with expletives in his retelling.

He contends that there is no "leadership gene", no one is born to become a leader, but the skill is learnt through people’s responses to the challenges they face.

It boils down, he says, to identifying a challenge, making a choice on how to deal with it and facing the consequences.

"If you look at Mandela’s life, if you look at any leader’s life, you will realise that they look at a situation and they see it as a challenge. Once they see it as a challenge they see an opportunity to do something, once they decide to do something they are making a choice," he says. "They intend certain consequences, but invariably their actions lead to consequences they did not intend."

A leader will then respond to both the intended and unintended consequences of action and once again identify the challenges and the opportunities — leading to a choice on how to deal with both.

"Leaders are always taking responsibility, that’s how straightforward the issue is to me."

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HE used the Rivonia Trial as an example, when Nelson Mandela took responsibility for the actions of many. He was arrested in August 1962 and sentenced to five years for leaving the country, and also for leading a strike.

"By that time a group of them are discussing Operation Mayibuye, which is a hare-brained scheme," Maharaj says. "Mandela is brought to court and made accused number one. There is no evidence that he turned to his colleagues and asked ‘what the f**k were you doing?’.

"No, he said ‘this is where we are, this is the mess we are in, how are we going to conduct ourselves?’. He asked: ‘Do we conduct ourselves to save our skins, or do we conduct ourselves with this setback to leave a message for posterity?’.

"And he said that ‘we have to tell posterity what our agenda is and show the way’. He said: ‘I take responsibility for it, even for things that you did while I was in prison’."

Maharaj says this story carries a powerful message on leadership, which is why Mandela’s speech from the dock had become a "key document of humankind".

The stories will continue. He is settling down to pen a history of the African National Congress (ANC) with his comrade Pallo Jordan — a project that he found impossible to complete with the pressures of his role in the Presidency.

Maharaj describes the "turmoil" in the country as necessary, an opportunity to finally address the bigger questions lurking beneath the surface in SA politics.

The "turmoil" he refers to ranges from the debates on race, statues, xenophobia and the land question. It is resurfacing because South Africans have never paused to "reinterpret" their history, to recognise that in 1994 freedom came for both the oppressed and the oppressor. He contrasts this with the 1950s academic retelling of the Anglo Boer War — described then as the "Freedom Wars".

It was one of the first anti-colonial wars, but won a freedom that excluded indigenous peoples. Maharaj says the Freedom Charter changed this interpretation of history when it proclaimed that SA belonged to all who lived in it.

"That statement changed the framework of the meaning of freedom. Also embedded in that was the view that the freedom of the oppressed will also be the freedom of the oppressor — so that concept opened the door to freedom being inclusive," he says.

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THE Freedom Charter also acknowledged the wealth in SA’s diversity and this was carried into the drafting of the new Constitution after 1994.

"Every time an attempt is made to reinterpret history, it is looked at with suspicion … no matter how legitimate the attempt."

The ANC’s first election campaign 21 years ago was based on three pillars: reconciliation, reconstruction and nation building. But reconstruction was emphasised over the others. The result was the "politics of fear", in which "consciously or unconsciously, the other was feared", Maharaj says, and majority rule became a threat to historically privileged South Africans. "And that has been the story since then. There is a strand running through our politics that the other is to be feared," he says.

"What is happening is that in the white community you can’t find a person who supported apartheid, and in the black community you can’t find a person who wasn’t an MK combatant — but not just a combatant, a commander. Both are defects arising from this divide that creates suspicion, even though in this there is a strong tendency, reinforced in our Constitution, reinforced by our conduct, that nation building requires us to convert our diversity into wealth."

The current "turmoil" provides an opportunity to address this, to rediscover how diversity in SA can be turned into an asset. "It is a refining process of what your story is, it seeks to take the story of each community, each class, each colour, each religion and each culture — to draw out from its own experience from that the positives that feed into the unity of our people."

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HE says this will be no easy feat; even within the ANC there is recognition that the party is not responding adequately to the situation. "But it (the ANC) has moved past the issue of denialism. All of this is bubbling over and coming up in a form of energy."

Maharaj says it is not up to one organisation or group to lead a process that will result in the country’s diversity becoming an asset and building a common understanding of the South African nation.

He describes the problem in the ANC after 1994 as one of careerism.

"People are going into it as a livelihood and they want security. The function of the ANC branch has been defined in such a way that it does not keep in touch with the community.

"So it does not keep organically linked and the result is the bloody branch becomes a place where it discusses what is the council doing, what is the contract, can my friend be in the council so that the contract is for us — not what’s happening to our people."

But the ANC will find its strength when it "gets back to the people" and it will meet the challenges of the time when it does this, he says.

Turning to his relationship with Zuma, Maharaj — to dispel the belief that he was part of the "Zuma faction" — says a lot of the reporting about his relationship with the president is steeped in "mythology". He did not share a cell with Zuma, nor did he teach him to read. It took much persuasion for him to agree to be appointed as a spokesman for the Presidency as he had no intention of leaving KwaZulu-Natal where he was caring for his son, who is schizophrenic.

"There is a lot of mythology about it … there is a story that Mac has been manipulating this thing. Mac is on the pro-Zuma side … it’s not true," he says.

Maharaj, who quit smoking after a 100-per-day habit for five decades, will now have to succumb to the serenity of retirement after 60 years of high-pressured political activity.

We have probably not heard the last of him.

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