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Tue Sep 30 15:54:59 SAST 2014

First lesson: don't lie to us

Justice Malala | 30 January, 2011 22:450 Comments

Justice Malala: The hospitalisation of former president Nelson Mandela last week would make for a fabulous soap opera - or a Communications 101 case study.

First there was the two-line statement by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, saying the man had gone into hospital for routine tests. Communications lesson No1: don't lie. The truth will come back and bite you. Mandela would not be flown from holiday and have thousands of people streaming through the doors of the hospital if he had gone in for a regular checkup.

Then the foundation spokesman's cellphone was off for more than 24 hours after his statement. Lesson No 2: always be available.

As if this were not enough of a disaster, President Jacob Zuma's spokesman, Zizi Kodwa, then told the media that the speculation around Mandela's health was "very un-African and very alien to the African culture".

This would be comedy material if it were not so tragic: Africans talk about illness and deaths of leaders all the time. That is why Africans were rushing to Milpark Hospital in their hundreds to check on the man. If anything, the uttering of such drivel illustrates one thing and one thing only: Zuma's office did not have a clue about what was going on and did not have any idea of how to respond properly.

Which brings us to lesson No3: always have the sense to say "I will get back to you". Then hurry to your principals, find out what the real information is, and come back with a considered response. Pulling the race card is not a response. It is a pathetic venting of emotion.

The heroes of the hour were Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and his communications staff. From the time they took charge, first with the statement in the first few hours of Friday morning and then with the press conference soon after midday, a voice of authority and reason emerged.

In his cool and calm manner, Motlanthe managed to convey to a nation and a world on tenterhooks that Mandela had indeed beenseriously ill, had received treatment, was on the mend and on his way home. His fulsome briefing, devoid of obfuscation, put paid to rumours and speculation.

This is the team that should have run the communications right from the beginning.

The question now is whether a lesson has been learned here and whether, in future, we will have the news blackout we faced last week. The feuding that took place in the background last week between the presidency, the foundation, the ANC and the Mandela family is not resolved.

There have been simmering tensions between the foundation and the ANC over Mandela since the ANC managed to fly the elder statesman to Eastern Cape for an ANC election endorsement rally in 2009 without the foundation's co-operation.

Then there are various factions within the Mandela family. Mandela's grandson, Mandla, for example, is seen as the heir apparent to Mandela's political throne and this has largely been endorsed by Mandela himself.

Others in the Mandela family also want to be seen to be in the forefront of it. Plus there are thousands of distant relatives, free-loaders and hangers-on who want to be in on the action.

The Mandela family is not a unit. It is a cacophony of vested interests, all of which want to be on TV.

The ANC wants to ensure that the Mandela legacy belongs to it. As the ANC celebrates its 100th year next year, Mandela - dead or alive - will be a name to conjure with.

The party will fight tooth and nail to make sure that its is the voice that is heard when it comes to the imagery of its past presidents.

Then there is the fact that President Jacob Zuma's communications team - crippled by inexperience, hubris and the fact that they were in Davos - made a mess of things this week. Motlanthe stepped into that void. Some within the Zuma support base have been muttering that the man is eyeing the presidency of the ANC and the country. They don't much like his authoritative appearance on the scene.

Add to this mesh of interests the fact that Lindiwe Sisulu, the defence minister, who is not known as a friend of openness, is now in charge of all communications regarding Mandela's health, and you have a heady mix.

Over the next week, the government has to take a tough look at these interests and decide what happens when an incident such as last week's happens again.

Nelson Mandela is a special man. But we will all die, as will he. When he does, will these petty squabbles be resolved? Will South Africa and the world be able to give him the send-off he deserves?

Or will all these forces again be consumed by the petty turf wars that paralysed them last week?

As Mandela showed us, it is possible to change. Let's hope the people closest to him do just that - and fast.

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First lesson: don't lie to us

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