Thursday, May 21, 2009

ANC public relations in a spin over car

The story continues; zero points for Zuma

ANC public relations in a spin over car.

Business day; May 21, 2009

Ndebele claims moral high ground but Zuma raises eyebrows, writes Wilson Johwa

TRANSPORT Minister Sbu Ndebele’s initial acceptance of a R1,1m gift car, which he decided to return under public pressure, has presented the African National Congress (ANC) with a public relations nightmare.

In announcing his decision to return the Mercedes-Benz along with two cows and fuel vouchers, Ndebele said he was doing so despite the ANC and President Jacob Zuma allowing him to keep the gifts. Handing back the luxury vehicle appears to have given Ndebele the moral high ground ahead of Zuma and the ANC.

Marketing expert Chris Moerdyk says the ANC wasted a great opportunity to endorse the principles that Zuma had been emphasising in the past few weeks. “It’s the old story of not communicating within the organisation and not communicating quickly enough,” he says.

Politicians did not seem to understand the power of perception, Moerdyk says. “We live in a world where perception is reality. In people’s eyes, the difference between bribery and a gift is almost indiscernible.”

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said Ndebele followed the right procedure of declaring the gifts and then seeking guidance from the president.

Procedure had to be followed regardless of whether there was an intention to keep the gifts or not. “Keep it or return it — follow the right steps,” Mantashe said.

But not everyone agrees.

“This is such a clear-cut issue that you can’t really argue that it’s okay for a Cabinet minister to accept a gift from people he might do business with,” says political analyst Steven Friedman.

Rob van Rooyen, a planning executive for the McCann Group, says the ANC’s mistake was in not using the human touch that Zuma effectively exploited to get elected. “They took it so seriously when they should have made light of it,” he says.

Zuma could have acknowledged the legal position but in good humour explained that accepting the gifts was not advisable. “They have made it academic rather than human,” Van Rooyen says. As a result, the issue was now subject to scholarly analysis and appeared to have split opinion within the party.

One view was that the matter was a no-brainer and that as a long-serving political officer-bearer, Ndebele should have immediately recognised the moral impropriety and not bothered to seek Zuma’s view. “It’s an excessive gift. If it was me, there would have been no two ways about it,” said an ANC member who did not wish to be named.

Businesswoman Noluthando Gosa feels that, as president, Zuma’s role is to uphold the law and not necessarily rule on matters of personal ethics or morality.

“Moral issues cannot be legislated; that’s why it is possible that he may have left it to minister Ndebele to decide,” she says, adding that Ndebele’s decision to return the car indicates that Zuma may not have been keen on Ndebele keeping it.

Presidential spokesman Thabo Masebe said Zuma was not asked to decide on the morality of the gift — something which could have been referred to Parliament or the public protector. “All the president said was it was fine as long as you comply with the ethics code,” Masebe said.

The final decision rested with Ndebele. “In this regard, the minister said ‘I’m not going to keep this thing’, and the president was happy with that,” Masebe said.

The fact that various companies contributed towards Ndebele’s gifts reduced the likelihood of any one of them influencing him. “It would have been a serious problem if it had come from one company,” he said.

Last Saturday, Ndebele was presented with a Mercedes-Benz S500 worth R1,1m by members of an emerging contractors programme he had helped set up when still MEC for transport in KwaZulu-Natal.

At a farewell party in Pietermaritzburg, Vukuzakhe contractors also presented Ndebele with other gifts, including two cows , fuel vouchers and a plasma TV.

Vukuzakhe has a membership of almost 30000 contractors who received government contracts of about R19bn over the past 10 years.

United Democratic Movement president Bantu Holomisa thought the ANC leadership had once again been caught in a situation that required them to differentiate what constituted a conflict of interest and what did not. “It confirms that in the ANC, when you bring cattle or sheep, they don’t see anything wrong with that,” he said.

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