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24 July 2014 01:28 (South Africa)
Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane

Government communications' own Operation Vula

  • Onkgopotse JJ Tabane
Mac Maharaj is the most senior ANC veteran yet appointed as presidential spokesman – even seven years older than his boss, President Jacob Zuma. How the man who headed the ANC’s Operation Vula many years ago fares in the tempestuous seas of state-media relations – at present at their lowest trough in 17 years – will be not only interesting to watch, but critical in turning South Africa and the way it sees its president around.

What shall we make of the appointment of ANC veteran as spokesman for the president? Let's begin by looking briefly at the people who have been presidential spokesmen in the 17 years of democracy.

Parks Mankahlana was a youth league leader with verve and a common touch with the media. He was followed by Bheki Khumalo and Vincent Magwenya. Then came Ronnie Mamoepa under Mbeki when he was deputy, Thabo Masebe (now under Kgalema Motlanthe), as well as others I can’t care to remember. This slew of these people were either professional communicators or activists who had cut their teeth in the propaganda belly of the ANC as a movement. None, however, had so high a profile as someone who has  already been a minister and a political leader in his own right - and in many ways a peer of the president (and let's not forget, seven years his senior in ages).

As Jeremy Gordin wrote:

“Operation Vula was, as Padraig O'Malley puts it in ‘Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa’ ‘... an ambitious project aiming to locate senior leaders, including members of the NEC [the ANC’s executive committee] and the PMC [politico-military council of the ANC], within South Africa to take overall charge of the struggle. Vula was under the direct command of Oliver Tambo (OR), assisted by Joe Slovo (JS). ... It was [also] to set up the infrastructure for the people's war’."

Cognisant of the porousness of the ANC’s underground structures, Maharaj's primary goal was to keep Vula ultra-secret. No one besides Tambo, Slovo and (initially) Zuma knew about Vula, or was supposed to know about it.

The spokesmen were always really appointed at a junior level - too junior for the role they actually had to play as ears and eyes of the president. What was always missing was someone we could be assured could take on the president as an equal to produce the kind of strategic outcomes that were not products of an instruction, but of robust engagement.

Zizi Kodwa, the most recent caretaker spokesman, was appointed for the first time at an appropriate advisory level and this was a welcome development. Often when a communications advisor is appointed, he (or she) clings to the multiple role of spokesman and head of communications. In this case we saw differently and, as if appointing Mac was Zizi’s advice, it was indeed a master stroke. What could have happened was that a person of Mac’s calibre be an advisor, playing in the background and crafting the political messages while someone of Zizi’s agility and youth would do the slog of media relations where the title means around-the-clock availability. But we have to wait to see how it will all work out. Mac is of such seniority one battles to see how he will cope with media liaison. In fact, he may well need a media liaison officer of his own if he is going to continue his work as an envoy of Zuma on the continent. You don’t want a spokesman who is otherwise too engaged to serve the press

On a very positive note, suddenly there is an oversupply of advice in so crucial an area as communications. It can only bode well. There will, of course, be another dynamic with Mac being politically senior to both Jimmy Manyi and Zizi Kodwa. It will be good to see the new power map emerging. More than 15 years ago when he was transport minister, Mac had a spokeswoman, Molly Woods, who ensured he was always in the face of the press - he was friendly and understood the power of the press.

As leader of Vula, Mac understood the value of subtle propaganda and information management. It would be interesting to know his views on the media tribunal issue. For someone who has been a minister, he will be able to communicate the mind of the president and cabinet with distinction. With such positioning, the relations with Manyi must be cordial or there will be fireworks. Recently he was a paid columnist for the Sunday Times and he understands the value of the written word. Perhaps we will see more words being written and published out of the presidency to explain some of the policy decisions - or lack thereof that matter - on issues ranging from why we still have Sicelo Shiceka in office, why SA voted as it did at the United Nations or even why people would be made to wait for the Zuma at Orlando to address a youth league conference. I know I digress a bit, but South Africans want to understand their president a tad more and Mac is the man for the job. This will be interesting to watch.

The challenge of media-state relations is really top of mind. And there will be inevitable comparisons about how he will get off his mark. Will he go out of his way to build bridges between the media and the state as Zizi Kodwa successfully did or will he wield the hammer with the “president-says syndrome”. Will he make the media an ally of the presidency or will he continue on a path of polarisation that has been fomented by the information bill and threat to cut off the media at the knees using the economic muscle of government? However you look at these challenges, he will have to take one route or another. But it’s going to be fascinating to watch the most senior communicator ever appointed by the ANC government about to take to the turbulent seas of the media-state relations in an era where those relations are at their nadir. Maybe government communications needs its own Operation Vula to open the doors between the media and the state. DM

  • Onkgopotse JJ Tabane
OnkgeposteBW

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane is one of South Africa’s leading media and communications specialists, as well as a community activist and a business executive. He is currently the Chief Executive of Oresego Holdings an International Advisory Company. His most recent roles were Head of Communications for COPE [2008], Political Advisor to the COPE parliamentary Leader as well as a Corporate Affairs Executive at the JSE listed Altron. He is a member of the University of the Western Cape Council, where he is an appointee of the Minister of Higher Education after serving two terms on the council of the Northwest University. He is an Associate of the prestigious international Institute of Independent Business (IIB). He is a regular columnist for The Sunday Independent and Pretoria News. In 2011 he rejoined the ANC as an ordinary member. Tabane is a PHD Candidate in Media and Journalism Studies at WITS University.

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