Social Development spokesperson Lumka Oliphant.
Social Development spokesperson Lumka Oliphant.

Is Lumka Oliphant our own Kellyanne Conway?

By OPINION Time of article published Mar 12, 2017

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Government's PR has been weakest with this administration - and it’s paying for that, writes Makhosini Nkosi.

Ministry of Social Development spokesperson Lumka Oliphant has been hogging headlines of late for her unorthodox style of public relations. Due to her antics, she has taken public conversations away from the serious issues around the payments of social grants to over 17 million beneficiaries.

There are few possible reasons for this. It could be that Oliphant is suffering a meltdown, which would be understandable because she is being lambasted by her peers in mainstream and social media, making her feel ostracised. It could also be that she is incompetent.

She should know that her conduct gets in the way of the messages she should be conveying on behalf of her employers.

The public pays her a salary so that she can keep the department’s customers informed, not for her to be the story and in a manner that does not advance the interests of those who are dependent on social grants.

It could also be that Oliphant is our own Kellyanne Conway, the shrewd spin doctor who is the adviser to US President Donald Trump. Conway coined the term “alternative facts” for lies that are told by the White House.

Does her behaviour represent the new style of government communications in South Africa?

Under the first administration headed by former president Nelson Mandela, public relations by the government was a serious function treated with high standards of professionalism. Mandela’s spokesperson, the late Parks Mankahlana, was a shining example of what government communications sought to achieve, which was to serve the public’s right to know. It was the kind of public relations that positioned South Africa as a nascent nation breaking away from its dark past. It was an era of government communication that was galvanising the nation towards a goal of a better country a rainbow nation.

Mandela’s approach to public relations was exemplary. He kept the mainstream media engaged, often hosting private dinners for senior editors. He also hosted events for journalists where even low level reporters could have cherished moments with the world icon. As a result, media coverage of Mandela was often benign and forgiving by today’s standards.

Mandela’s successor, former president Thabo Mbeki, was less trustful of the media. He changed the government’s style of public relations. He preferred direct engagement with stakeholders and relied less on the news media. Mbeki granted fewer interviews to the independent media, preferring instead to use SABC News.

At the height of his power, the Presidency’s messages were well articulated by his then spokesperson Bheki Khumalo, who must be the best presidential spokesperson this country has had.

Mbeki devised alternative stratagems to reach the ANC membership and supporters. He used the ANC’s media – its website and publications – to share his views. Journalists and commentators avidly read his writings and reported on them, often giving his voice further access to the broader public.

To reach the public, Mbeki’s administration used izimbizo, where members of the public could speak to government ministers and top officials. These were not party political and they did not happen only during election time.

Government communications, headed by ANC intellectual Joel Netshitenzhe, attracted the best professionals to lead public relations. There was a system of brainstorming major national events and milestones among departmental spokespersons. This system also catered for peer review. It was the golden era of government communication and the citizens’ trust in their government was high.

Notwithstanding Mbeki’s unpopular stance on the HIV/Aids pandemic in the early 2000s, popularity for the ruling ANC grew bigger with the party surpassing the two-thirds majority mark in the 2004 general elections, coming just a tad shy of 70% of the vote.

Communication and public relations has been weakest with the current administration and it pays dearly for that. President Jacob Zuma obviously has the lowest level of trust of all democratically elected presidents. This hinders his ability to carry out his agenda as head of the government. One example is the December 2015 decision to appoint Des van Rooyen as finance minister.

He was sprung on South Africans and the financial markets. Some investor engagement usually precedes the appointment of a new treasury minister. It is also global best practice to profile the next incumbent in the financial media and have them publish opinion pieces that provide thought leadership.

Added to that is an investor engagement drive. None of that happened with Van Rooyen and it was this failure that led to him being the finance minister for a weekend.

It is this administration, more than any other since 1994, which desperately needs the best systems and talent in government communication. It is this government that gave a lucrative social grant contract to a foreign-owned company with a questionable BEE rating. It is this government that has failed to heed the order of the highest court in the land for three years. It is this government that has failed to find a black company or consortium to benefit from distributing social grants. It is also this government that in rhetoric places radical economic transformation at the nucleus of its agenda for this year.

On Sunday, this government decided to tell the public that it would pay social grants next month using the same white company whose contract the Constitutional Court had ruled to be invalid. A day earlier the director general for the department had resigned citing disagreements with Dlamini while the social security agency’s chief executive was off sick, also rumoured to have fallen out with the minister. It was the press conference all eyes would be on. The stakes could not have been higher.

What transpired was a disaster. Minister Bathabile Dlamini and Oliphant were hostile to reporters, refused to answer pertinent questions and terminated the event abruptly. They had not anticipated nor catered for the most obvious litany of tough questions.

They had not seen the need for specialised expert assistance for the enormous task at hand.

Dlamini’s temperament and the risk of her propensity for lashing out had not been mitigated. Oliphant, who once wrote a rant filled with expletives and threats of violence on her private Facebook page, was going to be the minister’s handler on the day.

Was it gross incompetence and arrogance on the part of Dlamini and Oliphant, or was it something more sinister? Was it a calculated ruse to change the conversation from the substance of the scandal to something less damaging – a shambolic press conference?

Was Oliphant’s sudden preference for isiZulu part of a meltdown, or was it a genius move to change the discussion from her inability or unwillingness to answer hard questions to a far less damaging topic about her constitutional right to speak an official language of her choice?

The social development department has caused damage to the government’s reputation and lost some public trust. If no corrective action is taken it will be an indication that government communication has evolved to a posture of obfuscating and hiding the truth instead of serving the public’s right to know.

* Nkosi is an independent strategic communications and crisis management specialist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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