CR-come-lately — always being late to act and to address the nation is the ultimate act of disrespect
This week, President Cyril Ramaphosa finally announced his Cabinet reshuffle, in an event which had been eagerly expected for many weeks. And still, true to the waiting nature of the government’s business, even the final announcement itself was delayed.
In the end, President Cyril Ramaphosa made the announcement of his Cabinet reshuffle more than an hour and a half later than it had been scheduled. This kind of delay has happened many times before, where a presidential address occurs long after it was scheduled. This lateness happens almost across our politics, for reasons which are fairly revealing.
On Sunday, during a press briefing, the Presidency confirmed that Ramaphosa would address the nation and announce his new Cabinet at 7pm on Monday. On Monday afternoon, at 4.58, the Presidency issued a statement on the Presidency media WhatsApp group confirming that the announcement “will take place at 19h00”.
At 6.13 that evening came another statement, indicating that the announcement would now be delayed until 8pm.
Then, at 7.56 that evening, the SABC tweeted that there would be a delay until 8.30pm.
Eventually, the President started speaking at 8.39pm and made his announcement, which could have easily been emailed. No public explanation was given for the delay.
It was not the first time this has happened.
During the pandemic, at a time when Ramaphosa was addressing the nation more than any President before him, several announcements were delayed. Often, there was a warning or some kind of indication that there would be a delay — in one case there was a wait to allow the TV newsreader Noxolo Grootboom to deliver her final bulletin.
But in other cases, the announcement would simply begin several minutes late.
The importance of temporal precision
It needs to be underscored how important temporal precision is.
For broadcasters in many countries, including ours, broadcast clocks are set by satellites. There is, in fact, an official time site. Your phone may well do this automatically — it sets its time by the network.
In countries with longer democratic and broadcasting histories than ours, customs and procedures have been set up to deal with this.
In the US, a President will request a time from the networks. It is customary for this to be granted, but the address must start on time. If it doesn’t, the networks will have other programming in their schedules to get to.
In other places, a major announcement will often start just two minutes after the hour. This is not because they are consistently late, but because organisers know television news channels prefer to do their headlines at the top of the hour.
In South Africa, none of those procedures is yet in place. Instead, the President starts when he is ready.
While it may seem like a minor detail to quibble over the timing of an event, it does raise several interesting issues.
Many people consider it rude to be late for an appointment. Critics of Ramaphosa could suggest that no individual would ever be late for the President, so why then is he allowed to be late for us?
Also, absent any public explanation for these continued delays, it must be presumed that the reason is incompetence. In the case of this week’s announcement, Ramaphosa had given himself more than 24 hours’ notice of it. Why was he not able to make it on time?
It could be argued that reshuffles are complex to manage; those who have lost their jobs must be told and those who have gained jobs have to be told and need to accept the call to serve the country. The entire process is supposed to be kept secret (although details of reshuffles have leaked in the past… in one case from the Guptas to Fikile Mbalula). This may make it difficult to get everything done on time.
But that was not the case during the pandemic. Then, all of the events leading up to the announcement could be controlled by the Presidency. What does it say then, that so many were late?
It may mean that behind the scenes, the President’s office is simply not well organised. This is important, as it suggests that our Presidency is uncoordinated — if it cannot arrange a simple television broadcast, how can it run the entire country? (Uhm, yes. — Ed)
The importance of a national broadcast cannot be underrated.
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A unique power
The privilege of speaking directly to the entire nation while looking into the camera from a podium is given to no one else in our society, only to the President. It is a unique opportunity to control the message and the narrative, to speak directly to people in a completely unfiltered way.
It has a unique power.
Despite this, so few of these broadcasts are on time.
What makes this question even more urgent is Ramaphosa’s own stated intention, soon after he took over the ANC’s leadership, that events would run on time.
As he was quoted as saying in January 2018: “Starting on time for us in the ANC is a big thing, because one of the bad tendencies that had seeped in was for meetings to start at any time, much later than the time that had been determined. That is a bad practice we have to rid our movement of.”
How times change.
This may well become an important political point, showing he has no power to deliver on promises he makes.
But Ramaphosa is not the only one. The ANC has, for many years, been famously non-punctual, as he himself has pointed out. Zuma would make journalists wait for hours, and Bathabile Dlamini was, in fact, once so late that journalists decided to leave.
This is not just about highly contested political meetings — announcements and press conferences have often been late. The ANC is not the only political party to suffer from this.
While it may be tempting for some to say this is about a lack of organisation, it is important to note there is probably a link between the level of contestation and lateness.
The higher the level of contestation between different factions, the more arguments there could be behind the scenes, and the later announcements would be. This may explain why press conferences and announcements start later and later.
But, changes to the way voters receive information may start to impose a cost to this.
Fifteen years ago, before Twitter, the public would only have known if an announcement was delayed if reporters said so. Now, events are live-tweeted, and many are taken on live television.
This means that voters know which parties keep to time and which do not.
Of course, this may not have any impact at all on voter behaviour, as there are so many other elements involved in making a decision. But it is important to note that how a political party conducts itself is now out in the open and cannot be hidden.
One of the advantages of a democracy is that there is a way to change the behaviour of those in charge, that voters can see how those in power are behaving. There are so many other issues in our society that punctuality is unlikely to be an important issue for many voters. But it should be, as it shows the ultimate contempt for South Africans at the highest levels of power. DM