ANCYL: Behind the Young Lions’ charm defensive

It's been more than two years since Julius Malema, still in his prime and presiding over a packed ANC Youth League press conference, waved his finger angrily at the  bemused-looking BBC journalist Jonah Fisher.

"This is not a newsroom, this. This is a revolutionary house and you don't come here with that white tendency, not here. You can do it somewhere else, not here. You can go out. Rubbish is what you have covered in that trouser – that is the rubbish. You are a small boy, you can't do anything. Go out! Bastard! Go out! You bloody agent!"

Fisher packed up his belongings and left and the interaction between the two on the 11th floor of Luthuli House in April 2010 became one of – if not the – defining depiction of the youth league's rocky relationship with the media. 

At the time insulting journalists by labelling them as "white bitches" or "drunkards" had seemed to become norm for the league.

In an attitude set by spokesperson Floyd Shivambu, the league considered the media to be persona non grata – they were, at the very best, to be tolerated and at worst to be attacked and undermined. 

But it would seem that tendency is now over – at least for the time being.

Since the fall of Malema and Shivambu, the Young Lions have softened their approach to the media.

With head of communications Kusela Sangoni-Khawe and long-standing spokesperson Magdalene Moonsamy the new public face of the league, warm and friendly tones have replaced the standoffish and tense encounters – with even a chummy undertone taken with their former foes.

"We will always view the press with suspicion, but at the same time we never intended to be overly antagonistic or acrimonious towards the media. We both have a job to do and we can work together," Sangoni-Khawe told the Mail & Guardian

Contrast the above with any press release released by Shivambu and the marked change becomes apparent.

"Dealing with the communications arm under the reign of Malema was always a fractious and abrasive experience and it didn't help their cause when they faced disciplinary action," Eyewitness News senior political reporter Stephen Grootes – who was often caught in Shivambu's firing line – told the M&G on Sunday. 

"This distinct softening of their approach is a sign of the difference in personalities and attitude. It's a sign of their decreasing power. At the moment they are a bit like the [Democratic Alliance] – a lack of political power dictates your availability to the media," Grootes said. 

Nothing wrong
But this sudden change of attitude should not be interpreted as cognisance of former wrongdoing.

"With Malema they didn't need anyone else, but with him gone they are making a bigger effort to reach out to the media. It's as if they have finally realised they need us," said Carien du Plessis, City Press senior political reporter and victor of a hate speech case against Shivambu.

Eusebius McKaiser, political and social analyst at the University of Witwatersrand Centre for Ethics agrees with Du Plessis and said the league needed a new strategy to make their voice heard. 

"Malema was a superb public relations tool on his own. His personality seeped through the communications machine within the league. But with their constant attempts to resuscitate their expelled leader's career failing, it's obvious they need something fresh," he added.

It would seem the league's Sangoni-Khawe agrees. At least in part.

"It's no secret that we've gone through a rough patch and we've realised we needed to look out of ourselves and address peripheral issues," she said.

"We need every single channel of communication we can get with the media. We know the SABC has taken a decision to stop covering the league, so we have to make up for that." 

Never open to persuasion
So while the league may be more affable towards the media, it isn't  simply the result of a bid to sharpen their public relation skills.

Even so, says McKaiser, a charm defensive could work in their favour.

"You never got the sense that Shivambu or Malema were open to persuasion. With the new kids on the block, it seems as though they are open to debate and persuasion and that makes them immediately more persuasive," Mckaiser said.

Persuasive or not, for as long as the league's fortunes are waning, they'll need the media as they continue with their attempts to revive Malema's political career. But don't think it will prevent them from turning to their old habits if given the opportunity to do so.

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