It would be logical to assume that President Zuma would have learnt something from the mistakes of his predecessor, those very mistakes that led to Mbeki’s downfall and ‘recall’ from the presidency.
I looked back at something I wrote just after Mbeki’s watershed day at Polokwane and most of what applied to Mbeki now applies to his successor.
Few politicians ever bother to consider the role of marketing in their success or failure and there is no question that the dramatic drop in popularity of President Mbeki and the bulk of his cabinet was caused by them ignoring the fundamentals of marketing.
An Ipsos-Markinor poll at the time showed that in just three years, perceived performance ratings by government dropped almost 16% and those of Mbeki by almost 20%. And that was before the ANC’s Polokwane Conference.
The most fundamental mistake that Mbeki and his cabinet made was to completely ignore the very foundation of marketing communication. And that is they persistently kept telling South Africans what they, the government wanted to say, and never ever what the citizens of this country wanted to hear.
The second big mistake made by cabinet ministers, with the exception of seasoned marketers such as Trevor Manuel and a few others, was to assume that human beings are naturally endowed with the ability to communicate. Not realising and often demonstrating that human beings are the most inefficient of Mother Nature’s communicators. Many of the ministers chose to talk down to their audiences, be they small rural communities or the nation through the mass media.
They would try and be jocular without having any idea of how to crack a joke. They very likely never ever undertook any sort of media training or communications mentoring and I suspect that their deputy ministers and directors general were just too darned scared to insist that they do. With the result that they were often misquoted and generally came across as arrogant and unthinking. And often unintelligent.
Another mammoth mistake was to ignore the fact that when it comes any form of human interaction, relationships are the key to successful discourse. Whether this involves husbands and wives, friends, work colleagues, companies and their customers or politicians and their constituents.
As any junior salesman will attest, if one does not have a personal relationship with a customer, selling something to that customer is extremely difficult if not impossible.
To refer to an insightful comment, just after Polokwane, by Independent Newspapers’ Peter Sullivan: If President Mbeki had chosen to meet with editors regularly instead of just once every few years, then the drubbing he received at Polokwane might well have been avoided.
The importance of relationship building is critical to business and even more important in politics. Because trying to communicate with strangers, let alone doing business with them or asking them for support, is difficult and often extremely dangerous.
To illustrate the impact of relationships or lack thereof, take this road rage analogy. When another motorist does something silly, how often do we wish for a traffic officer to be nearby so that we can report the guilty party and see him get his just desserts? How often do we wave our fists and mouth expletives?
But, when we suddenly find out that the culprit is not some insensitive stranger but a friend or even mild acquaintance, how often does our anger dissipate and our fury turn to embarrassment? So, we quickly wave and smile and make light of it. In short, problems and misunderstanding can always be far more easily overcome between people who know each other than by total strangers.
Equally, when it comes to getting across a point of view, people you know listen to you far more intently and sympathetically than a complete stranger.
But, in marketing and politics one has to be careful of certain relationships. Former Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi’s ‘relationship’ with certain individuals linked to crime did not ultimately do his ‘brand’ any good at all. It destroyed it, utterly and completely.
And something that impacted not only on Mbeki’s brand but his overall integrity was during his interminable visit to Harare to try and bring Mugabe’s Zane PF and Morgan Tsvangarai’s MDC together. He would more often than not refer to Mugabe as ‘President Mugabe’ and to the MDC leader simply as ‘Tsvangarai’ – not even saying ‘Mr’ most of the time.
Added to that his habit of greeting Mugabe as a long lost brother, all full of smiles and then holding his hand as they walked across the airport apron, did not send any message of impartiality. Quiet the opposite in fact.
From a marketing point of view President Mbeki and his cabinet lost the confidence of the majority of South Africans by not making any effort to get to know them; not knowing what to say to them and being seen to be arrogant and aloof. And making the most dangerous of all marketing mistakes: branding themselves as masters and not the servants they were voted in to be. The Zuma government is making precisely the same mistake.
Marketing is an obsession with customer service. Which, on the part of companies and brands means taking chips off shoulders and displaying a modicum humility and subservience.
President Mbeki and the bulk of his cabinet and now President Zuma and his cohorts, have never understood that simple definition but opted instead for marketing themselves with an obsession for control and superiority.
If government were a company its corporate slogan would probably be something like; “We might make mistakes, but we are never wrong.”
It has been tragic to see Jacob Zuma making the same mistakes that actually cost Thabo Mbeki the presidency.
But, unlike Mbeki, Zuma might come out on top at this year’s ANC elective conference. But those mistakes will still cost him dearly in the end.