Limpopo Health MEC Dr Phophi Ramathuba.
Limpopo Health MEC Dr Phophi Ramathuba.

Is Limpopo’s Health MEC her own worst enemy?

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 30, 2021

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Lorato Tshenkeng

South Africa may be lagging behind with the roll-out of its vaccination programme, but it is without a doubt that Dr Phophi Ramathuba, MEC of Health in Limpopo, has been an outstanding champion of the vaccine drive in her province.

With close to 12 million vaccine doses administered nationally as at 27 August 2021, the National Department of Health had reported that 19,8% of adults in Limpopo were fully vaccinated, putting Ramathuba’s province ahead of the other eight provinces in the country.

It is also reported that 70% of Limpopo’s senior citizens have been vaccinated. It is a feat Ramathuba attributes to Limpopo being a rural province where the role of religious and traditional leaders has been instrumental in spreading the message about the benefits of vaccination.

She also attributes the success of the communication strategy to the fact that the majority of the senior citizens are not overly exposed to misinformation and disinformation, as they do not rely on social media for news and information.

With the vaccination procurement and distribution challenges seemingly now behind us, and the programme now open to all citizens above 18 years – the big question is – will Limpopo sustain this positive trajectory?

The Good

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures trust as a function of competence and ethics, reported that the government remains the least trusted institution among the four which include NGOs, the media and business.

However, despite the continuing decline in trust levels of leaders in society, South Africans are reported to have more trust on scientists, and the least on government leaders.

As a medical doctor, fortunately or otherwise, Ramathuba straddles both lanes as a government leader and a scientist.

This juxtaposition stands Ramathuba in good stead, because her communication efforts will not only be trusted because she says so, but because she’s an authority in many matters pertaining to medicine.

My suspicion is based on her technical expertise and knowledge. She is likely to be better trusted, especially in a country where doctors are generally held in high esteem. This is just my suspicion, I digress.

The other outstanding thing about Ramathuba is – she is not media shy at all. She’s arguably the most visible politician from the rural provinces, always on our screens doing media interviews on a variety of issues.

Also, believe it or not, she is the most followed MEC of Health on Twitter with more that 35 000 followers, and her department, with more than 130 000 followers, enjoys the most following on Facebook than any other health department.

The Bad

Of course, with such high media attention and social media following, what you say on these platforms will always define the strengths or failures of your communication strategy.

Recently, the Limpopo Premier Stan Mathabatha had to do damage control in trying to explain the pronouncement by Ramathuba that her department is lobbying the alcohol industry to consider not selling liquor to unvaccinated patrons.

That Mathabatha had to try to explain what Ramathuba was intending to convey with her pronouncement, signals an unnecessary entanglement created by the good doctor.

As much as she is not media shy, Ramathuba is also not shy to stir controversy. In an attempt to deal with vaccine hesitancy, her department recently shared a social media post which in part read, “Mjolo slaps better when you are protected” and read further “no vaccination certificate, no dating”.

Speculation is, the message was intended to create talk-ability, which it did. In fact, to date, the post has received more engagement than any other on the department’s platforms.

While the majority of the engagement is jocular, some, rightfully so, express the issue of a government that seemingly wants to nanny its people.

At a time where South Africa’s vaccine programme seems to be stagnating due to hesitancy – the trusted sources like Ramathuba, must use their authority to communicate clearly and unambiguously, while affirming the rights of citizens.

We are in a constitutional democracy, after all, and therefore, government leaders have to communicate responsibly.

The Ugly

While people found the ‘mjolo’ social media post humorous, unfortunately the “Real men vaccinate for Covid-19” is by far the most embarrassing, shameful and shameless message ever.

It also received high engagement with the majority of the commentary lamenting the lack of tact from Ramathuba and her communications team.

While it is understandable that the low numbers of men turning up for vaccination threatens the country’s efforts of achieving its goal of herd immunity – using such polarizing messaging is unhelpful.

To address vaccine hesitancy among all target groups including men, no amount of ridiculing is going to encourage them to turn up.

There is nothing persuasive about the messages such as “Real men vaccinate for Covid-19”. Ramathuba should know better, and her team even more so, unless they live in a parallel universe. Therefore, the two most important things that all communicators should consider in the efficacy of their communication strategy are: communication implications of every decision, and clear, consistent and unambiguous messaging.

It is clear to me that Ramathuba and her team are hell-bent on maintaining the national acclaim of being in pole position. However, the ‘any means necessary’ approach may be where they are going to lose it.

My last advice to Ramathuba and her team is – not everything is about hype. Notwithstanding some of the bad publicity her department has received, their work must always speak for them. Also, not all social media graphics have to bear the MEC’s face. The recent Women’s Month campaign was a good one. However, it seems that the communicators in her office struggle to push back.

* Tshenkeng is the CEO and Founder of Decode Communications, a Pan-African reputation management agency

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