THEMBA SEPOTOKELE | Mudslinging by spokespersons does no one any favours

Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya.
Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya.
Image: GCIS.

No one would have scripted this movie with twists and turns where a government spokesperson and former journalist throws mud at another government spokesperson and former journalist in defence of their respective political principals.

The battle between two senior professional communicators in the form of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya and tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s spokesperson Steven Motale was avoidable.

Sisulu has never employed a spokesperson who she wouldn't expect to toss away the public service regulations, government communicators' handbook, government communication policy, and all the ethics and etiquette governing the public service and descend into a political arena, and in appointing Motale in 2020, she seemingly wanted someone who would take the bull by the horns, so to speak.

In the past five years under Ramaphosa, Sisulu has had about five different spokespersons in different portfolios she has held. She is also one of the longest serving ministers since the dawn of democracy in 1994, having served under four of five presidents. 

In November 2009, under the Zuma administration, Sisulu’s spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya, when she was minister of defence and military veterans, issued a statement attacking Tokyo Sexwale, then human settlements minister, for having canned a low-cost housing project Sisulu spearheaded during her tenure in the portfolio.

Mabaya accused Sexwale of not having introduced a single project of his own since assuming office and implied that he was getting kudos for initiatives introduced by Sisulu. Fast forward to November 2022, and Sisulu’s umpteenth spokesperson, Motale, a former newspaper editor took umbrage at Magwenya’s comments about Sisulu for saying that Ramaphosa should step aside from his position both in government and the ANC. It was the straw that broke the camel's back in as far as Motale is concerned.

Magwenya had said Sisulu, as a member of the cabinet, was expected “ to know better that we allow the investigations to be concluded before any pronouncements are made”, adding that Sisulu’s criticism of Ramaphosa “is a reflection of her own performance”.

Motale said the presidential spokesperson had no business “parachuting” himself into internal business of a political party, the ANC.

“For someone claiming to speak on behalf of the head of state to ignore this and choose to be a propagandist to boost his principal’s political fortunes is a scandal of monumental proportions. Minister Sisulu wants to put it on record that her criticism of President Ramaphosa is purely motivated by his poor performance as ANC leader. In fact her criticism is not unique. President Ramaphosa’s three predecessors have publicly expressed disappointment with his performance as president of the ANC and the country," said Motale.

Granted, Magwenya committed a cardinal sin by venturing into party politics in his elaborate response, instead of providing a short, crisp and succinct response. He committed the same mistake earlier this year in an interview with Newzroom African host Xoli Mngambi ahead of the presidency budget vote after threats by the EFF to disrupt the speech.

Ironically, Motale did not cover himself in glory either. He too ventured into party politics in his missive to Magwenya.

He wrote: "One of the primary reasons Minister Sisulu is contesting President Ramaphosa in the upcoming ANC’s elective conference is precisely this dismal performance by President Ramaphosa as head of the ANC that has seen the party disbanding all its leagues representing an essential aspect of its ongoing existence.” 

As the plot thickens, the mudslinging has done enormous damage to the government communication machinery, and it remains to be seen how the powers that be would mend fences in dealing with the adversarial and hostile relationship between two senior government spokespersons who should know better. 

Sepotokele is a journalist, communication strategist, media trainer, and journalism lecturer

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