President Cyril Ramaphosa updates the nation on South Africa's risk adjusted strategy to fight Covid-19. The bi-weekly presidential monologues are slowly being reduced to background noise, says the writer. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa updates the nation on South Africa's risk adjusted strategy to fight Covid-19. The bi-weekly presidential monologues are slowly being reduced to background noise, says the writer. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS

It’s time to ditch the family meeting, Mr President

By Opinion Time of article published Jan 17, 2021

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By Tinyiko Maluleke

ALL the platitudes about being science-led, all the clichés about obtaining a balance between lives and livelihoods, all the lockdowns, all the president’s mournful “fellow South Africans” exhortations, all the follow-up ministerial briefings and all the glittering PowerPoint vaccine roll-out strategy presentations will come to nought; if President Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet do not craft a dynamic, responsive and robust communication strategy, urgently.

Until now the government appears to be stuck on an announcements-model of communication – epitomised by the bi-weekly ‘family meetings’ in which the president briefly appears on our TV screens to read out a speech.

This is then followed by briefings by a coterie of ministers.

I sometimes wish I could follow the president backstage after his speech.

I would love to look into his face, to check if it has the veni-vidi-vici (the Latin phrase meaning “I came, I saw, I conquered”) look of victory or the Ray Velaphi Ntlokwana look of permanent lostness and confusion.

What concerns me is that the president seems to think that, in of themselves, his lamentations about reckless alcohol consumption, super-spreader events, rising statistics of infections and deaths as well as the widespread community disregard for Covid-19 prevention protocols, which are a constant component of his interventions, will lead to a change of attitude and behaviour for the average South African.

He further seems to think that the sterner his warnings and the stricter the lockdown protocols, the more likely he is to extract compliance from his fellow South Africans.

Three hundred days of lockdown later, it will take more than mere coercion to elicit compliance even with the most stringent lockdown rules.

Indeed, the very notion of compliance as an end in and of itself is problematic.

Sure; a successful national campaign against Covid-19 requires the observation of basic protocols by the greatest number of citizens.

However, for this to happen, the enlightened and self-interested cooperation of citizens is necessary.

Enlightened and self-interested collaboration comes about when as many people as possible have the minimum material wherewithal to enable them to comply with the protocols with dignity; when the leadership enjoys the trust of the led to a level when the latter can give the benefit of the doubt to the former; when compliance has something in it for the ordinary shack-dwelling Mkhize; and when the citizenry has access to as complete a picture of what is going on as is currently available.

It is the last point that concerns me. When fighting a pandemic such as Covid-19, the communication strategy is not an optional extra.

It is not a nice-to-have.

It could make or break our national response.

Unleashing police minister Bheki Cele on the citizens – and never reprimanding him for his verbal excesses – is not the way to secure enlightened and self-interested collaboration.

While the strategic intent of government communication at this time may be to obtain compliance with the Covid-19 safety protocols, the route to any compliance to anything is the people’s buy-in.

Unless the absolute vast majority of people buy-in, no amount of bullying, fear-mongering, knuckles-and-boots and the verbal skop-skiet-en-donner will induce compliance.

Three hundred and fifteen days since our Covid-19 patient zero, 297 days of lockdown later; over a million confirmed cases; R2 billion worth of PPE corruption with possible vaccine procurement corruption on its way; more than thirty thousands deaths later; the bi-weekly hit-and-run presidential soliloquies are no longer adequate.

Starved for engagement and interaction, the nation is scrambling and is now at the mercy of soothsayers, quacks, fake news and myth makers.

The bi-weekly presidential monologues are slowly being reduced to background noise.

Any wonder that during the last but one ‘family meeting’ South Africans seemed more interested in the slight bit of foam lodged in the corner of the mouth of the president, than in the words that came out of his mouth?

As a country we are currently stumbling in our response to the pandemic.

And no Mr President, we are not stumbling because people are disobedient and not law-abiding, but rather because, the family meeting communication model no longer serves purpose in a country under the grip of the second wave.

As well as all the other advisory panels, it is time to assemble a panel of wordsmiths, story tellers, poets, communicators and writers to advise you, Mr President.

More importantly, I urge you to ditch the family meeting model, instead, try for example, to sit on a couch and engage with two seasoned journalists, after which you open the floor for questions from all at sundry.

South Africans may ask hard questions, but they will not bite you, I promise.

* Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

Sunday Independent

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