The Covid-19 pandemic has created many problems for government communications professionals the world over. Some have done well in crafting and disseminating messages effectively, while others have had to bumble from one crisis to another, in defence of the bad decisions of their political principals and heads of departments.
In South Africa, the Eastern Cape government has become a painful joke in how they continue to manage the public health crisis – COVID-19. From a collapsed public health system, growing allegations and perceptions of corruption, to disproportionately rising numbers of positive COVID cases and deaths, nothing seems to work in the province. A place affectionately known as the ‘Home of the Legends’. The latest tragicomedy of scooter ambulances also blemished the national Health Minister’s impressive management of the health crisis.
That notwithstanding, the province has to contend with shocking comments made by its Corporative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) MEC Xolile Nqatha at the memorial service of the late Buffalo City Metro speaker, Alfred Mtsi who died of Covid-19 complications last Sunday.
Thanks to social media, South Africa and the world were treated to pleas for the suspension of disciplinary hearings for people who must be held accountable for wrongdoing, if they are ill and in quarantine.
MEC Nqatha said: “The challenges of this coronavirus do not require a stressed cadreship, for that weakens the immune system. That is why if you’re contemplating to discipline anyone who must be held accountable for wrongdoing, if that person is in quarantine because he is ill, don’t act against that person. It’s un-ANC, it’s not comradely. Let’s not treat each other that way. It’s against the spirit of comrade Mtsi. Let’s mourn him and pay tribute to him by treating each other better and being comradely to one another. You take action against anyone who is quarantined, that person is stressed, his immune system cannot fight the virus — that person dies. Then you come here and cry crocodile tears. Part of the renewal is to rethink how we treat each other in the name of comrade Mtsi.”How bizarre, coming from a public representative meant to promote clean and good governance!
Even more outrageous was the MEC’s media statement issued on Thursday, 16 July 2020, in response to the video going viral. He claimed that he was deliberately quoted out of context to tarnish his image.
In the first instance, the statement is a terrible attempt at avoiding an apology for the worst assertions of 2020 so far by a public representative, considering we are yet to recount the impact and depth of the CoronaGate. The media statement committed a cardinal sin in the playbooks of press release writing. It says: “MEC Nqatha distances himself from the distorted and misconstrued social media posts and wishes to ensure the public that what is in circulation is distortion of the intended message.”
How can anyone distance themselves from their own words, captured on video in real time? Talk about distancing yourself from yourself!
Secondly, the press statement directs media enquiries to the MEC’s spokesperson: Makhaya Komisa and the Head of Communications in the Eastern Cape Cogta: Mamnkeli Ngam. Of course, it would be dereliction of duty if the pair were not to take responsibility for an official communique of the department, right! But this was not the case. I take it they are both competent professionals who should easily tell right from wrong. If that is the case – why would they agree with an official communique that is dishonest?
Perhaps it is because, we have come to accept a well-known fact that from time to time political principals ignore technical and professional advice especially that they do not agree with, and sometimes they even go to the point of coercing government officials into complying with dishonest messages and wrong decisions. The saddening part about these two professionals is that they have to answer for their political principal’s moment of madness, something which is not of their doing. How unfortunate!
Thirdly and most importantly, the media statement clearly demonstrates that MEC Nqatha does not take communication seriously. There are many more questions that could be asked flowing from his public utterances at the memorial service or his subsequent media statement:
- What business did he have, making a public address without a written speech or speaking notes?
- Does it mean that the communications team did not prepare one for him and they did not agree on messaging upfront?
- Does it mean that the team did not consider the communication implications of the message he was meant to deliver at the memorial service?
- Does it mean that the communications team did not advise him against the content of the media statement, specifically the implied “I am distancing myself from myself” part?
- Does it mean he ignored counsel from his communications team?
- Does it mean that the MEC sees PR and Communications as being about writing and issuing press releases and not as a strategic function?
Although these questions can only be answered by MEC Nqatha and his communicators – one wonders what recourse government communicators have to protect themselves against unethical conduct of their political principals.
In a recent Facebook post, the department of Public Service and Administration Director General, Yoliswa Makhasi, wrote about what and how civil servants should respond to illegal and unlawful instructions from their principals. She advised them to refuse taking the illegal and unlawful instructions, and they should not even ask such instructions be sent in writing. Receiving an instruction in writing does not absolve civil servants from their role in illegal and unlawful acts. But, what about unethical and dishonest requests?
MEC Nqatha’s media statement is a classical case that tells a worrying tale of how desperately government communicators need saving from politicians who, through politricks, get away with unethical and dishonest requests. According to Google, the meaning of Politricks is characterization by dishonesty or self-interest; the use of underhand methods to achieve political ends regarded as self-serving or contemptible.
Unfortunately, in an unregulated PR and Communications industry – professionals will always be vulnerable to victimisation when they take the hard-line and refuse to take unethical and dishonest instructions. The Public Relations Institute for Southern Africa’s lethargy in expediting regulation of the industry is such a disservice as it fails to promote professional activism and high ethical conduct, and compliance with the much-needed regulations.
Outside an industry regulator, the only hope the government communicators have for recourse are the Labour Unions, the Public Service Commission (PSC) and the Government Communication and Information Systems (GCIS). Because the unions’ solution prioritises membership and rank of employees – in practice, the GCIS is the most relevant institution to effectively pursue a push for a binding and strong code of ethics. This will curb the abuse of power and the victimisation of the communicators who refuse to take unethical instructions. The PSC can then be responsible for oversight.
Because the African National Congress (ANC) is not going to rule until Jesus comes, the GCIS should develop a framework and guidelines that empower communicators across all government spheres to assert their roles and inculcate a culture that requires them to always ask and answer the question: what are the communication implications of all government decisions?
Lest we forget, politicians often mean what they say when making even the most outrageous of statements. Their defensiveness only serves to distract the public from the real meaning behind their messages. Remember one late Ndaweni Mahlangu, the former Premier of Mpumalanga’s infamous statement – “It is acceptable for politicians to lie” – when he was trying to defend his decision to re-appoint three disgraced MECs: Jacques Modipane; Steve Mabona and David Mabuza. All three had lied before in a matter concerning their involvement in fraud and corruption, only to retract their statements later.
Fortunately for Mahlangu, the ANC then did not have an Integrity Commission to maintain the moral high ground of the party as a leader of society, ensure that it speaks with authority and that it commands the respect of its members and the public at large.
Now that it exists, surely it is reasonable to expect Nqatha to be hauled before the Integrity Commission. But then again, for a case to be heard a member of the ANC has to report it. Considering its track record and impact, the recommendations of the Integrity Commission seem easy to ignore. Perhaps there is no point in hoping that this blunt tool can facilitate recourse for the government communicators against the ANC politicians.
Fourthly, the ANC’s response to Nqatha’s outrageous assertions, through the comments attributed to its Deputy Secretary General, Jessie Duarte, is a cop out. It is not good enough to simply say of a senior party official and public representative, “MEC Nqatha speaks for himself, not the ANC”, and to further claim that he was emotional as he was speaking from a point of loss.
MECs speaking out of turn in ways that do not align with the country’s policies and the mixed message they send through embarrassing public statements symbolise the deepening dearth of leadership in our society. A frank reflection on the many moments of miscommunication and contradictions by the ANC leaders which resulted in public outrage, should be accepted by the party as a consequence of bad leadership.
The single thing that can change bad communication in our government is good leadership. Good leadership that will ensure we achieve a corruption-free South Africa with a well-functioning public service that always prioritise its citizens.
As South Africans, we are yearning for the leadership that came with Lillian Ngoyi, Charlotte Maxeke, Fatima Meer, Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and many others of their generation – a leadership that had a profound comprehension of what it meant to be leader.
The ANC always claims that it is the leader of society. Therefore, it must recognize the gravity of the problem of its leaders and, most importantly, the implications and impact of the unethical instructions on civil servants. This is also how they get away with corruption and maladministration – using civil servants as scapegoats.
Like it or not, any leader of society will always be held to higher standards. The ANC as a governing party is no exception. It has the responsibility to protect the government communicators from any form of abuse including from their own leaders. It is the right to do that will ensure government continues to hire and retain the best of the best.
Lastly, the Covid-19 pandemic requires the best of the best among government communicators to help manage this public health crisis through engaging citizens and all stakeholders with clear and consistent messaging. They will only be able to successfully do that when the politicians decide to take the responsibility of leading the nation seriously.
As we celebrate this year’s International Mandela day on 18 July, may we implore the governing party to fix bad communication with good leadership.
By Lorato Tshenkeng – CEO of Decode Communications