Mbeki's Media Smarts

I am quite sure a lot of journalists will be annoyed with me for declaring President Mbeki “communicator of the year” for 2004. On what grounds do I give him this award, they might ask?

They will enquire whether I am unaware that Mbeki does not stand in front of cameras every week to answer questions from journalists. They will ask me whether I do not know that the Presidential Press Corps is practically the equivalent of the White House Press Corps.
They will ask me how many times I have read, heard or seen Mbeki being interviewed one-on-one. They will say to me that he is defensive and refuses to answer certain questions.

Perhaps the president doesn’t appear as often as many journalists would want. But the times he does engage with the media I have found myself concluding that he simply outsmarts them to get his message through.

It is not how often you meet journalists that determines the quality of your ability to communicate as a politician. Journalists and the media only want frequent engagements because it feeds the appetite of the media beast, which needs content and more content in the days of the 24-hour news cycle.

Everyone will recall that in the April elections Mbeki did very few interviews. The ANC even refused to allow him to debate with leader of the opposition Tony Leon. Instead he went on a cross-country walkabout, with the media in tow reporting his every interaction with the voters—who gave his party the largest majority ever! His technique, I said then, was a masterful combination of direct communication with the voter and “mediation” of the media.

In other words, Mbeki and the electorate set the agenda, not the media. As a result, some of the issues the media had put forward as key to the election, like HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe, did not quite feature.

A number of newspaper columnists this year have found themselves having to comment on Mbeki’s column in the online ANC publication ANC Today. One complained that it was too long and needed an edit. An interesting view, given that most columnists (myself included) begrudge the immense powers editors have to cut columns or even can them altogether. Mbeki does not have to suffer the dictatorship of an editor and his subs, or the commercially calculated tyranny of the owner—which journalists call “space constraints”.

The online publication has been copied by the Democratic Alliance and the South African Communist Party—who, despite not being in government, seem to lack the weekly energy of the ANC and the president and instead publish bi-weekly. No prizes for guessing which publication sets the agenda.

Another point about the president’s column is that its no-holds-barred approach consistently gets into the weekend newspapers in an abridged version. This was certainly the case in November, when Mbeki took on Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture.

In his address Tutu lamented the lack of free public debate in part caused by sycophancy, and questioned government policies on black economic empowerment, housing, social welfare, HIV/Aids and the crisis in Zimbabwe. Mbeki’s letter, which suggested he wanted open public debate but that it should be based on respect for the truth, left almost all gasping for breath. The Arch himself was reduced to mock prayer as a counter response. Typically, the weekend media latched onto the column and produced at least two abridged versions and by Monday many were still reproducing big sections of the column. Again, talk of setting the news agenda!

Whether you agree with him or not, quite clearly President Mbeki has his own media strategy. It’s a strategy that eschews the conventional press conferences and bland statements and instead raises the temperature and level of debate by not fearing to court controversy.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Head of the School of Literature, Languages and Media Studies at Wits University.