This weekend presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj found himself at the centre of a media storm. But Maharaj is only the latest in a succession of cantankerous spokespeople appointed by a state with a poor track record when it comes to selecting candidates for this critical role.
The role of official spokesperson is a tricky one. He or she should be diplomatic — able to carefully manage the messages sent out by those they represent, work with the media to disseminate information, navigate dangerous political waters and deflect the criticism that comes from all quarters on an almost daily basis.
Things get shaky, then, when the spokesperson’s affairs take over the news.
Maharaj made headlines this week after he forced the Mail & Guardian to suppress a story that alleged he lied to the Scorpions while under oath during a corruption investigation stemming from the arms deal.
Friday’s edition of the paper was consequently printed with large tracts of the story blacked out. Then, on Saturday, Maharaj laid charges against the newspaper and two of its senior journalists, Stefaans Brümmer and Sam Sole.
The weekend papers were awash with stories concerning Maharaj and his alleged involvement in a tender agreement with French company Thales. He told the Sunday Times that the “insinuations and allegations of unlawful conduct” would subject him and his wife to “character assassination and trial by media”.
Over the past few years the ANC and government have shown questionable judgment when it comes to choosing official spokespeople. Trust and loyalty may be essential in a spokesperson but the party should no doubt be doing more to select comrades with an even temperament and, at the very least, a clear criminal record.
The wrath of Jessie Duarte
ANC stalwart Jessie Duarte, who served as ANC spokesperson and later as chief executive in the presidency, was known for her short temper and scathing attacks of journalists.
In the run-up to the 2009 elections Duarte railed against BBC reporter John Humphreys, who questioned the ANC’s delivery record, calling him a “colonialist” and saying she would “not allow [him] to determine the course of the agenda for the South African people”. On another occasion she accused a Sunday Times reporter, who questioned her about the ANC’s online correspondence with voters, of insinuating that President Jacob Zuma could not read.
Last year, just six months after taking up the post of chief executive in the presidency, the Sunday Times reported that Duarte had sent ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe in an “emotional email” saying she was resigning because of “gossip” and “vilification”. Duarte denied the reports that she meant to leave and the presidency denied that there was any tension between the two. But in April it was announced that Duarte was leaving to “pursue other interests”.
One-time ANC spokesperson Carl Niehaus is perhaps the biggest example of a case in which a spokesperson’s personal affairs have overshadowed the people he or she was meant to represent.
Niehaus had a chequered career. An anti-apartheid activist who once served as Nelson Mandela’s spokesperson and as an ambassador to the Netherlands, he flitted from job to job, racking up debts with his employers. He lied about his qualifications and wheedled freebies out of travel agents and landlords. Despite being asked to leave his job with provincial government in 2005 due to “financial impropriety,” he managed to secure a post as ANC spokesperson.
But just four months after taking up the post, a tearful Niehaus confessed that he had committed fraud while working for the Gauteng provincial government and owed hundreds of thousands of rands to influential businessmen and politicians. Niehaus resigned from his position.
Manyi and the media
But when it comes to starring in the headlines, no one beats the head of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), Jimmy Manyi.
Manyi, the controversial Black Management Forum president, became head of the GCIS when Zuma reshuffled his Cabinet early in 2011. The appointment was controversial as Manyi had recently been suspended from his post as director-general in the labour department. Manyi was suspended after Norway’s ambassador to South Africa laid a formal complaint against him for reportedly promoting private business interests in their dealings.
Earlier this year, Manyi came under fire when a television interview emerged in which he said there was an “over-concentration” of coloured people in the Western Cape and that they should “spread in the country”. This led to a public fallout with Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel who, in an open letter to the Star newspaper, called Manyi “a racist in the mould of HF Verwoed”.
Another government spokesperson, Vusi Mona, came to Manyi’s defence, saying that the timing of the incident was suspicious as the comments were made months ago but only resurfaced after Manyi was appointed as government spokesperson. Manyi later apologised for the comments.
A few months later, in a radio interview, Manyi said South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef) chairperson Mondli Makhanya had shown “cartel-like tendencies” and that the media created “fictions,” prompting Sanef to call an urgent meeting with the state, to discuss the deteriorating relationship between the media and the head of government communications.
Last year, before he was appointed to the GCIS, Manyi drew criticism for his attacks on freedom of expression and for saying the Constitution should be changed as it did not favour transformation.
Despite these incidents Manyi, who enjoys Zuma’s firm support, is secure in his position.
Driven to drink
Against this backdrop, the indiscretions of presidential spokesperson Zizi Kodwa and ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu seem almost trivial.
Kodwa made the news just a few weeks ago when he was arrested in Rosebank, Johannesburg, on suspicion of drunk driving.
Mthembu was arrested in March for driving in the bus lane on the N2 in Cape Town. When tested, his alcohol levels were found to be more than three times over the legal limit.
While Mthembu pleaded guilty and paid a fine for his crimes, Kodwa has opted to fight the case.
View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.