Political change in South Africa becomes PR crisis

The former comms chief for the Liberal Democrats Jonny Oates has told PRWeek how yesterday's resignation of a third of the South African cabinet has threatened to turn a potential 'PR triumph' into a 'destabilizing disaster'.

Jonny Oates
Jonny Oates

Oates, who has just stepped down as Liberal Democrats comms chief to join Bell Pottinger on 13 October as strategic media director, spoke to PRWeek from South Africa:

'Arriving in South Africa from a Britain febrile with plots against the head of government, it was almost comforting to find that Britain's ruling party was not alone in wishing to be rid of its leader. The African National Congress, however, proved rather more ruthless than their British counterparts in dispatching the bright understudy turned disappointing leading man.

After a thirteen and a half hours discussion, the ANC's National Executive Committee announced that they had determined to 'recall' the President of the Republic. A day later - in accordance with the loyalty and discipline of an ANC cadre of 50 years standing - President Mbeki informed the nation in a TV address that he would step down.

The combination of the decisive stance taken by the NEC and the President's dignified resignation statement, offered the prospect that the country might pull a PR and political triumph out of an ugly factional fight.

Despite the jubilance of some of Zuma's ANC supporters in the Durban bar where I was sharing a drink with a very depressed Mbeki supporter on Saturday, the abiding sentiment of the people I spoke to on the street was of calm. South Africa was simply changing its leader in a peaceful and orderly fashion just as any other democracy might do; what was the big deal?

Calm turned to consternation yesterday and potential PR triumph to destabilizing disaster as 14 ministers abruptly announced their resignation including the world's longstanding and highly respected Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel.

As the jacarandas explode into their spectacular springtime blooms, South Africa appears to be headed for a full-blown political crisis. As for me, I am headed to Cape Town to attend the election of South Africa's new - albeit temporary – President, Kgalema Motlanthe, and to observe developing events at closer hand.'

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