Guest Column

The Presidency's communication choices

2015-12-14 08:56

Mathatha Tsedu

Does the absence of an obligation on the part of President Jacob Zuma to explain his removals and appointments to Cabinet equate to a prohibition to explain?

That is the central question for me as his office went into overdrive on Friday night and on Saturday, issuing four statements on the departure of former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and the appointment of David van Rooyen as his replacement.

I am not concerned about the politics of the appointment, but instead of how Zuma, having taken that decision, chose to communicate it.

The first statement came at 20:05 on Wednesday evening, titled “Statement by President Jacob Zuma on the appointment of new finance minister”

It simply stated in part “I would like to announce changes to the Finance portfolio in Cabinet. I have decided to remove Mr Nhlanhla Nene as Minister of Finance, ahead of his deployment to another strategic position.”

From the heading, it is clear that there is a disjuncture. On the one hand the president feels that the most important aspect of the announcement is the appointment of a new minister.

On the other hand, such appointments cannot happen unless there is a vacancy, so in announcing the appointment, he has to detour and remove Nene. From that it is clear that what was important for him was not that a sitting member of Cabinet was being given the boot and how people would read it, but it was instead the entry of the new kid on the block.

That is how we were all supposed to read this and accept it. That initial statement did not attempt any explanations. In any case there is no obligation on the president to explain his appointments and removals from Cabinet.

But it didn’t turn out the way the Presidency had scripted. There was shock and disbelief. How could he? Why? Is it SAA and Ms Myeni? Is it the nuclear deal? Is more coming? But how is it that the ANC can just stop short of saying we don’t know? Who knew? Oh My God how is this going to play out in the financial world? What impact is this going to have on the overall economy? Did it have to be on a Wednesday night? Couldn’t it wait for Friday night when the markets were closed?

The questions were endless and needed to be responded to. But the Presidency held the line. They moved swiftly to swear in Van Rooyen on Thursday and as far as they were concerned this was it. Afterall, the president himself had addressed business people a few hours after the Wednesday night announcement and did not really see any need to use that platform to explain what was going on.

But as the post Cabinet briefing ended on Friday and it became clear that the issue was getting out of hand and needed some explanations, three statements were issued in succession attempting to quell rising speculations about changes in fiscal policy with the new man, about alleged impending further Cabinet changes, about minister Jeff Radebe’s statement that Cabinet did not know of the Nene move before hand. A fourth statement about the alleged intimate links between SAA board chair Ms Dudu Myeni and the President was issued on Saturday.

I assume a crisis meeting was convened in the communications division of the Presidency on Friday. And the statements were the result. Was there a meeting before the statement on Wednesday was issued? Was there a communications plan that foresaw the crisis it would create in the country and outside? If there was, did it foresee the reaction and communications problem? If not, why not?

The first statement on Friday dealt with allegations of an impending Cabinet reshuffle. Headlined “Presidency rejects reshuffle rumours”, it read: “The Presidency rejects the ongoing reports in some media houses about an alleged pending Cabinet reshuffle”.

The furore around Nene’s axing was not even mentioned. Ten minutes later another statement came, headlined “South Africa to maintain prudent fiscal position”.

It was the first real statement that dealt with the issues raised in the raging debate, the first explanation of why Nene had to go, so quickly, and where he was headed. It read in part: “On Wednesday, 9 December, I appointed Mr David Douglas van Rooyen as the new Minister of Finance. His appointment as Minister of Finance does not signal a change in the government’s fiscal stance.

“Government will not abandon the fiscal path that we have chosen in the last few years. Maintaining a prudent fiscal position remains one of government’s top priorities. The new Minister will strengthen the path and continue to support all efforts aimed at improving the lives of ordinary South Africans.

“Minister van Rooyen is supported by Deputy Minister Mcebisi Jonas who carries many years of experience in the economic cluster. They are supported by the hard-working and capable National Treasury team, led by the Director-General, Mr Lungisa Fuzile.

 “I would like to thank the former Minister of Finance, Mr Nhlanhla Nene for his sterling contribution to the National Executive and to taking forward the goals of building a better life for all our people. The urgency of the changes in the leadership of the National Treasury was occasioned by the need to send nominations to Shanghai, of the head of the African Regional Centre of the New Development Bank/BRICS Bank, to be based in Johannesburg. Mr Nene is our candidate for this position.

“We are fully backing his candidature, knowing full well that he will excel and make the nation proud in his next assignment. Government remains committed to adhering to the set expenditure ceiling while maintaining a stable trajectory of our debt portfolio, as set out in the February 2015 Budget.”

That in my view is the statement that should have been issued on Wednesday night, with those details. Of course they could have added why it was necessary that his mere candidacy should leave him unemployed in the meantime. Or why him? Can SA not produce another person who could run this bank? The statement could have dealt with such issues too.

Would it have made a difference? Absolutely, as Zuma himself would say. It would not have stopped the debate about the appropriateness of the move, but people would have had something to debate around instead of suppositions and imaginations in the face of the silence by the Presidency.

Two hours later another statement was issued stating that Cabinet did not have to know. It was a response to the coverage of the post-Cabinet briefing during which Radebe had said they had not known. The statement stated: “There is no obligation on the part the President of the Republic to inform or consult other members of Cabinet or the National Executive prior to making any new appointments or changes.”

As the debate moved from the political to the personal, another statement was issued on Saturday, bringing SAA and Myeni into the picture for the first time. A number of allegations/rumours were dealt with. That Malusi Gigaba was fired from Public Enterprise because Myeni wanted him gone: “This is not true”. That SAA was moved to Treasury because Myeni didn’t see eye to eye with minister Lynn Brown: “This is grossly untrue”.

That Nene’s refusal to sanction the reworked Airbus deal had made Myeni angry and had asked the President that he be removed : “a malicious fabrication”.

And finally: “Rumour: The President and the SAA board chair have a romantic relationship and have a son together:

“Ms Myeni is the chairperson of the Jacob Zuma Foundation. Her relationship with the President is purely professional, and is based on the running of the Foundation. Rumours about a romance and a child are baseless and are designed to cast aspersions on the President.”

It is the language of the statement that is also important. Rumours around Gigaba and Brown are “not true” and “grossly untrue” respectively. On Nene and the Airbus deal, the rumour is a “malicious fabrication” while the romantic linkage is simply “baseless”, but not necessarily untrue or grossly so or a fabrication?

I think there are at least three communications lessons in this for the Presidency. Firstly, South Africans are a feisty lot and want to know why things happen, so explain right from the start, don’t wait to have to react. That you don’t have to, does not mean you shouldn’t.

Secondly, the choice of words is important. When the President decides to remove a minister, it is not the same as redeploying him. Removal has a ring of confrontation, that the other guy did not agree to go and therefore had to be removed.

Thirdly, if you intend denying something, deny it. Don’t call the rumour about romance baseless when you have called others not true and grossly untrue and fabrications. Unless of course if it is not possible, for whatever reasons, for you to call it untrue or grossly untrue or a fabrication.

News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  nhlanhla ­nene


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