Almost a decade ago, when I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed intern for Daily Maverick, I wrote a piece about then president Jacob Zuma and the government’s aversion to communicating with the people of South Africa about the plethora of issues facing the country. Admittedly, since then, and during his nine wasted years, there have been great shifts in this space, where government departments, institutions and executive members at all levels of government are active, to varying degrees, on social media.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has a personal Twitter account and dives into our inboxes and jumps on to our Twitter and Facebook feeds with a weekly newsletter, where he outlines his thoughts on the most pressing issues before him and the country. This weekly newsletter, From the Desk of the President, is then widely reported on as it is the most accessible way of getting into the mind of the president.
It is not enough.
In a functioning constitutional democracy, it cannot be that the president has a one-way conversation with the country, where he is not quizzed on the actions and inactions of his administration, most especially when there is so much we need to know about from the West Wing of the Union Buildings or the leafy suburb of Sandhurst – depending on whether he is at the office or working from home.
In true South African wit, President Ramaphosa’s addresses to the country during the Covid-19 pandemic have been termed “family meetings”. During his addresses, all comes to a standstill, we gather, and as the head of the South African family we listen to him closely so that we can act accordingly. But even in the most dysfunctional of families, when a family meeting is called the head of the family receives input from the floor and the matters at hand are scrutinised. This is not the case with family meetings called by “Uncle Cyril”.
President Ramaphosa speaks and we, through the media, are not given an opportunity to interrogate the items placed on the family meeting agenda. Even his peers, like outgoing US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who have bungled their respective nation’s response to the coronavirus, have regularly subjected themselves to questions from the media. Our president has been given a free ride, and this has been by his design and most likely at the insistence of his advisers.
It’s unacceptable, and should not be allowed to go on.
In a recent example, President Ramaphosa opened one of his many summits and was part of a scripted panel discussion, but there was no follow-up briefing with the media to scrutinise the importance of the summit, the reason for another talk shop and the nature of the pledges made or an opportunity to follow up on progress since the last summit. This is apart from the day-to-day chaos and crises in South Africa – Eskom, SAA, corruption, SABC, internal ANC matters, talk of a second wave of the coronavirus, recent unemployment numbers and the economy, unmitigated gender-based violence and crime, drought in parts of the country – I could keep going on. Ultimately, our well-scripted president has a lot to answer for as the leader of the fourth democratic administration and fifth democratically elected president.
It is not only that he sidesteps being quizzed, but also that when he does subject himself to the media, he ignores our local media fraternity and happily sits down with journalists and media houses from beyond our borders. And in my experience, these interviews come with a litany of terms and conditions like “don’t ask about ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule!”
His advisers might come out and say that “the president as per the Constitution subjects himself to questions from members of Parliament, for all the country to see and hear”. Again, it is not enough and it is unacceptable that this is the only forum in which he is scrutinised because he receives questions ahead of time and has the protection of the presiding officers and ANC back-benchers who howl in defence of him and for their supper.
Through his aversion to questions from the media he is inadvertently (or not) turning media houses into his public relations machines.
Former president Zuma, who President Ramaphosa subtly paints himself as the antithesis of, was clear in his disdain for tough questions from journalists, especially women, whereas, President Ramaphosa plays a game of illusion: he appears to be speaking to the media and answering questions but this only happens via scripts and on his own terms and timing.
Mr President, you have a responsibility to face the media and their tough questions regularly. DM