A letter to Lumka Oliphant from a former social grant beneficiary

Let me begin by expressing how disappointed I am that I have to write this letter. I don’t believe it is normal for the public to have an opinion on the performance of a government spokesperson unless it has to do with the content of their message. Unfortunately your content is not the story; instead you are the story. This means you are failing in the most important duty of someone in your position: keeping the public informed on the operations of the department you represent.

A few weeks ago, you published a post on Facebook defending Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini against accusations of being drunk on the job. I personally do not care what you write on your private social media platforms, but I took exception to this because the content was directed at me as a citizen of this country. In that post, you proudly showed us your true colours and said you don’t care whether the media publishes your comments or not. There are two things I wish to say on this.

First, your display of belligerence is not an achievement and you are not the only person capable of this. The difference between you and someone who respects the people she works for (yes, you’re employed by the taxpayer) is that some of us choose not to be belligerent. The fact that you resort to such language is indicative of the fact that you lack confidence or an ability to debate an issue based on its merits or demerits. I recognise your tactics for exactly what they are: pivoting and red herrings.

My second thought is that such behaviour shows you are a bully. There are a few things we all know about bullies. A bully typically confuses intimidation with strength. We see this with United States President Donald Trump and, yes, I am equating you with him. That you believe ubukrwada (rudeness) is an asset and that you dare the media to print your remarks are symptoms of this.

Bullies crave attention and have a need to let everyone know that they are “bosso”; another Trump-esque characteristic. Children on school playgrounds often praise bullies or give them their pocket money because they are scared of them. Please be kind to yourself and don’t fall for the fake pats on the back from your colleagues, who enjoy watching you embarrass yourself before the nation. It’s also useful to tell you that we are not children and we are not scared of you.

On Monday morning you were on Radio 702 with host Xolani Gwala, where you infamously refused to speak in English. I must concede: here I don’t place the blame at your doorstep but I think it is us, the public, who have failed. You see, you were just being a typical bully: acting out to see if anyone will have the guts to stand up to you. Sadly, we did not stand up to you because the narrative moved away from the crisis at the South African Social Security Agency to a discussion on language. I’m disappointed in us because in doing this we have legitimised a bully and we should never do that.

As a spokesperson, you are supposed to be a communicator and in a country with 11 official languages it would be impressive to hear you talk in a number of them. You have conducted interviews in English before so we know you can speak the language, therefore we can only conclude that your refusal was blatant disrespect and disregard for the people you are supposed to be accountable to.

This is not about whether or not you like speaking in English; it is your job to communicate with your audience in a way in which they can grasp your message. Radio 702 has mostly English-speaking listeners. Ukhozi FM has mostly isiZulu speaking listeners and an effective spokesperson would therefore seek to communicate with each audience in a language in which they will understand the message better. You know all of this and your intention on Gwala’s show was not to level with South Africans, but to provide a distraction and you succeeded. Shame on us.

It is distressing that you act with impunity because the nation deserves an account of what is happening with the social grants fiasco and you deprived us of this. This issue resonates with me on a personal level because my late great aunt was able to provide me a good education through the assistance of a foster care grant when my mother passed on. It is for this reason that I’m speaking out.

My heart breaks when I think of the millions of people who rely on such grants and find themselves in a state of uncertainty because of what we are seeing and hearing on the news. Your duty is to reassure them and to allay their fears. You have instead opted to be selfish and unsympathetic and that you are still in this job is baffling. Our public service can do better than you.

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