On Friday, 15 January 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as the president of the governing ANC, hosted a media junket with a select group of broadcast, online and print journalists under the theme .
January 8 is a very significant moment on the ANC's calendar - a celebration of the party's anniversary and an occasion to share the party's vision for the year ahead, while rallying branch members and those serving in government to align themselves accordingly.
Notably, the junket was a reaction to criticism from some in the media fraternity who bemoaned being excluded when the president recently granted one-on-one interviews with three major TV news channels Newzroom Afrika, SABC and eNCA.
According to a tweet from EWN's head of news, Mahlatse Mahlase, the junket was initially planned for Tuesday, 12 January but it was postponed due to the president's African Union (AU) meeting on vaccines.
It is fair to assume the junket was organised and coordinated by party headquarters Luthuli House and not the Union Buildings, the seat of government. If all things were equal, we wouldn't have to assume or be confused about the governing party's responsibility in its handling of media management affairs.
But things being what they are - notable disunity and infighting, the New Dawn brigade firmly in charge of government under Ramaphosa, and the radical economic transformation faction, led by secretary-general Ace Magashule, clumsily running the party affairs at Luthuli House - there's no guessing why one would make assumptions on an issue that is supposed to be straightforward.
Why was media engagement kept a secret?
It's puzzling why an engagement of significant interest to ANC members and the general public - one that was going to be broadcast live on two of the country's largest talk radio stations, Power FM and 702 - was kept under wraps. By 11:30 on that Friday, just a few minutes before the interview with the president went live, there was no communication from the ANC, Power FM, 702 or any other news channel.
Although the journalists had already gathered at Luthuli House, logistics were in place and they were ready to broadcast, it was only when the first interview with Lukhona Mnguni, the presenter of weeknight talk show POWER Perspective, was about to start, that communication went out.
It is quite baffling that the media junket was held under wraps until the last minute, considering that Ramaphosa's office is supposed to be well organised, with his public engagements always communicated in advance. His diary as the head of state is run by experienced protocol officers who comprehend the role and power of perception, while the Office of the Presidency at Luthuli House is headed by a seasoned politician.
Professional and competent communicators understand only too well that being proactive frames conversations. This way, they have the power to set the agenda with clear and simple communication that is tactically sound. They also know better than to create room for unnecessary speculation by hiding from the truth.
The optics of keeping the junket under wraps left wide room for conspiracy theories and rumour-mongering which unfortunately, became a distraction from the agenda of the day.
I know it is too much to expect an explanation from the ANC as to what, in their wisdom, they thought they would gain from it.
They didn't seem bothered about explaining it to citizens on Friday. I don't see why they will do it now.
The media can be forgiven for not communicating in advance because it is common practice for them to be sworn to secrecy in the principle of "embargo". Respecting this principle is very important to maintain cordial relations between the state/government and media houses.
Claims of a diversion
Sadly, while in the middle of dealing with the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with preparations for the country's vaccine strategy rollout afoot, some had social media conversations and claimed that Ramaphosa used the junket as a diversion to mitigate against the allegations levelled against him by former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe at the state capture commission of inquiry.
Interestingly, someone even claimed that the president was scared of the Soul City Institute, which lobbied Ramaphosa in November of 2019 to withdraw from Power FM's Chairman's conversation facilitated by the station's owner, Given Mkhari.
South Africans may not be as polarised as the New Dawn vs RET factions, but they will unfortunately always be influenced by some dominant narratives as a result of perceptions created, intentionally or otherwise. Although these narratives may be very far from the truth, who can blame those who believe them?
The ANC, and both Offices of the President in the Union Buildings and Luthuli House should have done better. We have much bigger problems to deal with - Covid-19, an ailing economy, high unemployment, endemic corruption, poverty and hunger, etc.
For the longest time, many journalists, political analysts and communication strategists, myself included, have been critical of Ramaphosa's media strategy, mainly lamenting his refusal to take questions from the media. Of course, there has been some notable improvement in how his offices manages media relations - both with the two post-national executive committee press briefings and the exclusive gatherings with the South African National Editors' Forum. Are these enough? Not at all.
Coverage of the junket showed that it was exceptionally useful to both the media and citizens. Ramaphosa's public concession to Mnguni that the Presidency needs to open regular engagements with the media, particularly after the presidential addresses, goes to show that the accusation of inaccessibility to the media was not baseless.
It is not good enough for the president to dismiss the accusation as "just a perception". His team must stop the unnecessary gatekeeping. They should entrench a culture of openness and transparency by allowing the media to ask the president questions after key public engagements. The governing party should also stop with the own goals, like keeping the president's public engagements secret.
In his own words, the president committed as follows during the Power FM interview: "Post the family meeting, we should have a question and answer session. Maybe a day or two thereafter... I will suggest it to my office that post the family meeting, which tends to be very formal, [we] should allow [a situation] where I sit down and take questions from the media."
Beyond the improvements that the president's team has to action, citizens and civil society have to insist on holding him accountable for the commitments he made. Some of the president's commitments are on public record, only for there to be a delay in implementing them. The digital team has done well to raise the president's profile on social media. Now they should focus more on engagement because the information broadcast strategy has reached its sell-by date.
The mishandling of the Khusela Diko's matter demonstrates the need for Ramaphosa's office to always emphasise the communication implications of every decision, action or inaction by the office of the first citizen. Diko, a presidential spokesperson, was put on leave due to personal protective equipment procurement allegations involving her husband.
Lastly, no media strategy is complete without a proper rapid response approach. The team could and should do better there.