On December 4 1935, Walter Francis White, secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the US, wrote a letter to Olympic athlete Jesse Owens (but never sent it), trying to dissuade Owens from taking part in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.
Owens not only participated in the Berlin Olympics, he won four gold medals. Most importantly, he and his compatriots raised their clenched fists at the awards ceremony, sending a strong message to both Adolf Hitler and black people across the world.
Thirty years later, in 1967, world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to go to war against Vietnam, and in just this one act influenced millions across the world.
This is propaganda at its best. Contrary to its latter-day negative connotations, the term is nothing but an act of influencing others. It first came about in 1622, when Pope Gregory XV established the Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith, aimed at recruiting more people to his faith.
Government announced that it would not support Miss SA Lalela Mswane’s decision to participate in the global spectacle, stating its solidarity with Palestinian people who suffer at the hands of Israel.
Owens and Ali showed us how sport can be used effectively to embarrass evil and to show solidarity with the oppressed. Who is to say Mswane could not do the same?
What was required was for government to reach for the heart and mind of the young lass; to educate her about the struggles of the people of Palestine, the evils of Israel and the political importance of isolating the latter.
Imagine if Mswane went to the resort city of Eliat, participated in the event and, when asked what she wished for most, instead of the banal “world peace” always regurgitated by her ilk, she said, “Justice for Palestine” or “Lasting peace between Israel and Palestine”.
Sadly, government failed to influence its cause by allowing a key ambassador to have the ideal platform from which to deliver the message.
Public relations is, after all, the art of managing or changing perceptions.