The news that the contract of cabinet spokesman and CEO of Government Communication and Information Service, Jimmy Manyi, had not been renewed was not greeted with alarm and despondency by media. To say the least.
“Manyi was always the wrong man for the job, and that was apparent from day one. The nature of this job is to make others look good, and Jimmy’s enormous ego got in the way of that. He became the story, the centre of attention instead of the facilitator and enabler. He is a man with many skills and talents, but being a government communicator was not one of them,” says Anton Harber, professor of journalism and Media Studies at Wits University.
Manyi’s tenure at head of the GCIS was riven with controversy that lasted until his very last week on the job when he told journalists searching for information from government departments on the Nkandla Project, dubbed ‘Zumaville’, to look in the government’s upcoming annual reports.
Not only that, but he continued to fight with the Mail & Guardian right up to the end, when the paper asked questions over his proposed restructuring of GCIS. In a (garbled) statement titled ‘Smear campaign against Manyi orchestrated through the Mail and Guarian [sic]’ he rejected claims that he had not informed Chabane about his restructuring plans.
That was on 23 August. By 25 August (a Saturday), the day after the Mail & Guardian story was published, Manyi was gone. In a carefully worded statement, minister in the presidency in charge of performance monitoring and evaluation, and the political head of GCIS, Collins Chabane, thanked him for his contribution, and wished “Mr Jimmy Manyi well with his future endeavours either in the private or public sector”. No redeployment, then.
The relationship between Manyi and the media was fraught from the start, but deteriorated even further. Could the media also have had a role to play?
“No, I don’t think so, at least not initially. It is the right of media to ask questions from government, particularly as far as the spend of taxpayers money is concerned,” says Wadim Schreiner, media analyst at Media Tenor. “Media is also right to ask questions about governance and service delivery. If these questions are uncomfortable, so be it. The hostilities developed because many of the questions were not, or inadequately answered.”
But Harber believes there were some issues on the side of the media. “Yes, the media were hostile because of his history and background and Manyi reacted badly instead of going out to win respect and acceptance form at least some of the media. People in this job seem to think they are media critics and part of their job is to analyse and point out the shortcomings of the media,” he says. “But their job is to know and understand what you can expect from the media and what you can’t expect – and use it to the full. Not to criticise. In this job you need friends and enemies in the media, and you need to know who they are and work with both in different ways. Mr Manyi seemed to only see enemies.”
The relationship between government and media was the subject of a study commissioned by the National Press Club earlier this year. It found that “close to 55 percent of government spokesperson respondents rated the relationship between themselves and journalists as being somewhat more than they expected. Ethical conduct was raised by government spokespersons as an important aspect which influences their relationships with journalists”.
But on the other side, “45 percent of journalist respondents rated the relationship as somewhat less than expected. The reasons for the lower rating by journalists held similar patterns across the study with reference to follow-up and feedback, spokesperson availability and queries answered within deadline as the primary challenges.
But should the relationship between government communicators and the press be friendly, or is a natural tension and some skepticism on the part of the media normal.
“There will always be tension between media and government, each country has debates and conflicts there, but it should be cordial,”” says Schreiner. Government needs to understand the role of the media correctly, and media on the other hand needs to understand the complex mechanisms of government, particularly in South Africa where the distinction between party and government are much more interblurred than in other countries. Many journalists do not know how government operates, and vice versa.”
Harber says t should be one of mutual respect regardless of whether or not there is tension. “It does not have to be friendly, but it does have to be professional and respectful of respective roles. The minute the person in this role generalises about ‘the media’ as a whole, they are in trouble, because a major part of the job is to differentiate between different elements of the media and treat them accordingly – not lump everyone together no matter how good or bad or friendly or unfriendly they are,” Harber says.
Government says it will be advertising for a replacement for Manyi. It’s a tough job, especially in the tense political environment South Africa is experiencing in the lead up to the ANC’s elective conference in Manguang in December.
“Most of all, he or she needs to understand and appreciate the media and how it works. A spokesperson that is hostile to the media is hopeless. One has to know and appreciate both the power and the limitations of the media and be realistic about what you expect from them,” says Harber.
Schreiner says “spokespeople are not just people who talk on behalf of others when others don’t want/cannot talk, but are supposed to act as advisors for those who don’t want/cannot talk and should be trusted in their judgement. Their main skill should be the honest and transparent communication of information, rather than following a legally correct route”.
Manyi’s departure will give the media and GCIS a chance for an entente cordial, a chance to renew the important relationship. “The relationship between government and media has been at a low point for a considerable amount of time, due to ‘faults’ from both sides. It is imperative to ‘heal this rift’ sooner rather than later, in the interest of our young democracy,” says Schreiner.
Harber says he hopes the new person will “try and change the relationship and base it on professionalism, mutual respect and an understanding of the media’s needs and working ways. It is not an easy job, but it does require a very high level of skill and experience, and a particular kind of character and personality”, he says.
The DA has welcomed Manyi’s departure, with national spokesperson Mmusi Mainmane saying it was “about time that Mr Manyi was removed from office. He has consistently showcased behaviour unbecoming of government’s chief communicator”.
The South African Freelancers’ Association said it did “not mourn” Manyi. “It is our hope that the next government spokesperson and head of GCIS is someone who understands how the media functions, and someone with whom an open and honest relationship can be established. This relationship needs to be forged on the basis of mutual respect, and on the principles of democracy and freedom of speech,” says Safrea chair, Helen Ueckermann.
And the Twitterati had quite a lot to say.
Good bye, Jimmy Manyi. We promise to love you if you stay out of public life
Jimmy Manyi joins a growing list of ‘We were once the JZ cheerleaders’.
@npclub Welcomes departure of Jimmy Manyi. “While we are not sorry to see him go, we wish him well in his future endeavours.”
Jimmy Manyi’s time as government spokesperson is up, according to a statement made by someone other than Jimmy Manyi
Jimmy Manyi booted out of Govt, believed to be applying for new post as Lance Armstrong’s spokesperson.
#Manyi Also, a replacement is appointed until position is filled. Raises questions about why he wasn’t allowed to stay until then
He may have sucked at his job, but man, this means no more eye candy in govt, coz Jimmy Manyi is out.#Gwedehadbetternotgetthejob
Jimmy Manyi is out, next the Gov urgently needs to do something about Mac Maharaj, ASAP! He is hopelessly useless as a President spokesman.
Love him or hate him, Jimmy #Manyi was articulate in presenting cabinet’ views and decisions.
So long, Jimmy, so long/I’m just so relieved that it’s over/We were hanging out going nowhere… #Manyi