The communications expert Julia Wood defines communication as “a systemic process in which individuals interact with and through symbols to create and interpret meanings.”
Hearing Wood in this sense is to hear the underscoring of the science, art and skill of communications. Since Sunday Times have apprised us all of an apparent “secret” meeting held among ANC members, we are compelled to appreciate the meaning of a secret meeting in using episodes when such claims were levelled against other leaders.
Can we accept it was the media that crafted a narrative of a secret meeting? The ANC’s error was twofold, firstly its factionalised reality allowed the media to run with it for narrow factional gain. Its second error was its complete ineptness to engage in a coherent and effective structured communications strategy from a head office of Luthuli House. Where was the systemic process Wood’s is pleading for since the story broke of a media invented secret meeting?
Perhaps we must contextualise claims of ‘secret’ meetings in a history of the ANC. In no sense can one be exhaustive on the subject matter hence my choice in an adumbrated sense to cite specific epochs that start with the 1980’s to 2018 is deliberate. I am sure a student of history would have a field day to elevate the very many secret meetings held by ANC leadership from its inception in 1912.
One may comfortably assume that the breakaway of the PAC in 1958/9 under Robert Sobukwe may have been preceded by several secret meetings. We can equally assume that the group of eight led by Chris Hani stood accused of having held secret meetings. The role of the SACP in seeking to control of the ANC’s ideological expression could not have been a public exercise but was shrouded with secrecy for those for whom it mattered. There’s the known uneasiness that an external ANC had with the popularity of those termed the inziles namely leaders in the form of Allan Boesak and Winnie Mandela equally had secret meetings. The departure of Bantu Holomisa from the ANC, like the forming of Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbazima Shilowa’s COPE and Julius Malema’s EFF, could not have occurred without secret meetings. Equally so, current talks with the EFF on coalitions for 2019 is also secretly unfolding.
The notion of secret meeting accusations levelled by ANC cadres to one another is not new. Shall we remember in a time past when an incarcerated Nelson Mandela’s prepared controversial memorandum for a meeting with PW Botha became for some a matter of great unease and concern as him setting up secret meetings with the enemy? Mandela became suspected of having sold out and not acting with due recognition of an ANC head office based in Lusaka at the time.
Mandela was suspected and stood accused of setting up “secret meetings” with the enemy the National Party. Mac Maharaj had to educate a young Valli Moosa on Mandela’s stance until the Moosa was comfortable of Mandela’s intentions. Mandela’s communique which he shared with his attorney was very clear and circumspect in paying due deference to a Lusaka head office.
Mandela argued at the time his meetings were not “secret ” but merely “confidential”. Tambo was able through the Vula channel to establish that Mandela was not breaching the collective decision-making of the movement so long as he reported back to Lusaka on the content of “confidential” deliberations.
This notion of secret meetings didn’t escape Thabo Mbeki when he often stood accused by some as one to have usurped the role of ‘chief negotiator’ during a time when the ANC was still in exile, in particular with regard to the initiatives of groups of Afrikaners when he initiated the first talks with Afrikaner business people led by Van Zyl Slabbert and Sampie Terblanche etc, in 1987, which saw to the Dakar engagement. Yet there are those who will argue Mbeki acted in the interest of the organisation while he took initiative.
If we really want to talk about secret meetings with the enemy, how do we engage the known or for some not known meetings that transpire daily between some ANC leaders and the EFF? One such meeting recently took place in Johannesburg at a mall where it is claimed a whole restaurant was cleared for Bheki Cele to meet with EFF leader Julius Malema. Was this also a secret meeting? Did anybody have a mandate that the ANC extended, or was this just two friends hooking up?
The interesting phenomenon of a claim of ‘secret’ meetings as it relates to the ANC is that the partner in accusation was always the enemy, meaning in Mandela’s case it was the apartheid system of PW Botha. In the Mbeki instance, it was still Afrikaners, the renamed beneficiaries of whiteness of a racist South Africa, albeit draped in what was referred to as ‘verligtes’. In the case of Mashatile and Cele who met with the EFF, the EFF represents the political enemies of the ANC. Its track record from its existence attests this undeniable reality. It showed itself when it in 2016 opted to punish the ANC and jumped into bed with the DA. The second manifestation of its enmity of the ANC was its most recent behaviour in Tshwane when despite having the ANC support for the intended motion of removing Solly Msimanga refused to extend the ANC the honour to let the latter’s motion stand because it firmly believes the ANC is rudderless and needs its leadership.
Then came the Sunday Times with its claims of a secret meeting, the stark difference here is it was a meeting of ANC members and leaders. Meaning the frame of the enemy could not be invoked as in the case of Mandela, Mbeki or Mashatile and Cele. Yet the meeting gained such traction that it forced the ANC SG to address a privately owned actively biased ENCA before he addressed the public broadcaster SABC. There are of course those who believe the SABC in this season appears more an ENCA-lite version.
What then went wrong for the ANC with this media engineered ‘secret’ meeting?
I have it on good authority that those who gathered knew they were going to be in the Sunday Times because the journalist was present at the hotel
Firstly, those who met were politicians, the problem with politicians unlike most occupations is that they thrive on a presupposed, often false, reality of what power is, this blindness often sees them disregard or abandon basic reason or advice from those who know. The innocence or arrogance of a misconception of power is often a moment where the blind side of politicians shows. It goes without saying that whoever gathered at Maharani knew there would be ramifications. They, therefore, needed to engage a communications strategy in the interest of the ANC less for its content but for its meaning in a volatile epoch of media crafted ‘angels’ and ‘demons’, where a need has arisen to see others as working against the ANC.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with anyone meeting anywhere and no one is obligated to explain why they met and what the content of that meeting or gathering entertained. Yet, the lack of a professional approach to gatherings afforded the mishap and pollution of denials, versions of what transpired and a confirming of what the media defined as clandestine.
It didn’t take long before we saw the ANC’s internal communications fall apart as laid bare for the factionalised farce it is. South Africa would hear two spokesmen relaying two separate messages from one ANC head office. The duplication of communication of convex forces that sees a Zizi Kodwa who is head of the ANC presidency increasingly usurping the role of communications because Pule Mabe who reports to the Secretary-General, is either inept or too preoccupied with his business interest, to settle down in his new key responsibility and function, does not bode well for the ANC,
It’s a given that the SG’s office is the hub of the ANC in organisational expression. It however in this season is yet to get its full handle on internal and external ANC communications. Under his predecessor team of Mantashe / Duarte, the communications were not perfect, as we have shared with them at the time when everyone in the ANC called press conferences, which they acknowledged, but there was over time one undeniable centre. What we miss in this season is that one centre, yet we know what we see is on another level a direct result of the 54th Conference.
Magashule appears not in control of the communications, plausibly a direct outflow of a space he is not allowed or allowing himself to control because some bay for his blood and are actively involved in undermining his office. Granted, Magashule like Mantashe initially is not the typical media savvy person and appears to have extended the role of media liaison and interactions inadvertently to a junior Mabe who is new and still struggles to find his feet. Mantashe determined to own that space and Kodwa who was spokesperson then worked as his junior team member. Is it possible that Mabe is finding himself conflicted in factional sides and often opts for a safe road with his own political career as the epicentre for his choices in ANC communications?
Then came the first public interview of Magashule. I still hold Pule Mabe had no business bringing the privately owned ENCA first port of call into the presence of the ANC SG to explain to the SA public his meeting. You could not help but assume ENCA was given a scoop if not exclusive when it is not the official public broadcaster. In my assessment, Magashule was ill-advised and had no preparation. He, therefore, messed up when he entertained a Vuyo Mvoko who almost contested for State Capture lead investigator, Advocate Vincent Maleka’s position with his essentially personalised barrage of pounding questions. I cringed because when I thought a simple answer would have been, we met as ANC members and leaders, a natural reality on a multiplicity of matters, dovetailed with the question, do I ask you what you and your bosses discuss in your meetings? Magashule appeared flustered not because he cannot speak his mind, neither because he cannot be tough, but he was set-up as he had not prepared and he was overawed by a booby trap of an ENCA agenda. We all know this media agency’s political agenda. Magashule’s later SABC interview was much more thought through and he appeared more in control.
Magashule could have chosen to say what Mandela said. Our meeting was not secret but confidential because it took place in an open area. Magashule could have opted to say we had no secret meeting but what we discussed was confidential, as with most ANC leaders’ meetings. He could have said can the content of the meeting be respected by ENCA and any other media agencies, those who practice the uphold of a right to confidentiality for themselves must necessarily allow that right to stand for others.
The ENCA interview can, therefore, be seen as an orchestrated tactic and maybe deliberate for its political motive as a trap Magashule walked into ill-prepared.
In conclusion, we can accept that communications around the matter from the ANC was and remains a royal miscarriage. This speaks to the lack of seriousness a 106-year-old, organisation shows when it continues to lack foresight and due respect for a necessary infrastructure duly resourced in both capital and skilled human resource to deliver a sustainable and coherent effective communications that show the leader of society leading and not responding in factionalised crisis management.
Can the ANC please budget, source the skills and pay for the human capital to assist you, because you are clearly inept and not taking communications seriously. That’s why you play catch-up to the smaller parties who have long seen your weakness in this space.
It is not an abomination to admit you are incapable, but pretending you are capable when in a glaring sense we see you faltering can only lead to self-destruction. Unfortunately a road you traverse with a broad smile.
Political Commentator and Writer