Jimmy Manyi: The spin doctor who can do no wrong
When government spin doctor Jimmy Manyi started his new job a few weeks ago he had one message: I am not the story.
This was a first for Manyi. As president of the Black Management Forum (BMF) he took the organisation from a garden-variety pro-transformation organisation to one that every television-watching South African knows about. He was the one that would ignite debate, and his views were always cushioned by the Black Management Forum peopled by those in whose eyes Manyi can do no wrong.
So to step out of the limelight and be a conduit for boring Cabinet statements does not come naturally to him.
His predecessors were all cut from the same cloth—sensible and stoic—with no colourful quotes to brighten up the headline news. Cabinet briefings were a serious affair and the spin doctors above reproach.
He immediately went on the charm offensive, explaining to journalists that his appointment to a higher office clears him of all wrongdoing that might or might not have taken place during his short stint as director general of the Department of Labour.
Everyone who dares to mention that no official communication had exonerated him got a glare and the question: “Why don’t you trust this government?” as if the question amounted to treason.
For a few weeks he managed to keep attention away from himself. At his first Cabinet briefing he had Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel handling most of the journalists’ questions. Cabinet statements also now are appended with lists of government spokespersons who journalists are told to call when the questions “need expert answers”, according to Manyi.
His first few briefings went well, with the only hiccup when Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu told him off for referring all the questions to her, ignoring the other ministers in the briefing. Sisulu doesn’t like to be the story either, it seems.
Manyi managed to stay on message for exactly one month. Then two video clips of him making racist remarks put the media spotlight squarely on him again. And at a post-Cabinet briefing he felt its harshness again.
Dressed for a drilling in his dark suit, pink shirt and baby blue tie, Manyi told reporters who asked him if he’s still confident that he can do his job:
“Can’t you see the confidence in me?”
Another question about his effectiveness as spokesperson was answered with a confident: “You be the judge of that.” Why didn’t Cabinet discuss the furore around him: “No clue.” What is the relationship like between you and Trevor Manuel—who called him a “worst-order racist” the day before?” “We shook hands. There were no issues,” he snapped back, not missing a beat.
Manyi’s confidence stems not only from arrogance, it is the confidence of a man who knows he has the president behind him.
Manyi’s staunch support of Zuma through the BMF did not go unnoticed, neither has Manyi’s enthusiasm for black empowerment—by hook or by crook.
And although some of his colleagues and comrades are now more openly wondering about whether he should be entrusted with such an important job, Manyi will stay put.
And no matter how hard he tries, he will remain a story. But only he can decide what that story will say.