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Mkhwebane needs a lesson in public relations

I tentatively and nervously raise my hand in support of the new Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

Because someone has to. And it might as well be me.

And whereas I might be perplexed and confused by many of the reports about her first 100 days in office, I still believe that she needs to be given the chance to show us her metal (and I don’t mean that steely look on her face).

Mkhwebane still needs to prove that she represents the people and is on the side of the public. She must demonstrate that she is no one’s puppet, especially not Jacob Zuma’s.

She also needs to get some public relations help fast.

Like ASAP.

Like STAT as they say on medical dramas.

Like if there was a 10111 (that someone would answer) for PR advice she should dial it immediately and not hang up until help arrives. She should stay on the line, because, “your call is important to us”, even if they are experiencing “high caller volumes”.

She might even consider putting that number on speed-dial.

She needs to know that enlisting the assistance of government does not do her any favours for an infinite number of reasons.

This is what happened. The government has an official communication channel known as the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS). That they would choose a KGB and Big Brother sounding name is neither here nor there. But it does suggest the possibility that communication might not be their thing.

The GCIS were kind enough to host the public protector for a question and answer session and to facilitate the process they created the Twitter hashtag, #AskThePublicProtector.

What could possibly go wrong?

They tweeted information that could assist the public. Phone numbers and challenges that she faced in office were included, but all of that got lost when South Africans picked up on the thread. And with that, Twitter exploded into a frenzy of tweets asking the public protector very deep and meaningful questions such as, “Can I also cry my way into Parliament?” (With a photo of Brian Molefe doing what he does best.)

For most of the day #AskThePublicProtector trended as the most used hashtag for South African Twitter users. It was riveting. It was creative and it was funny. And if I hadn’t resolved to support Mkhwebane in her position, I would have blamed her for her failure to foresee where this was inevitably going to go.

Because very simply, if you don’t want the answer, then don’t ask the question.

One doesn’t have to be a graduate from Boston College School of Marketing to know that.

It’s pretty obvious.

The point is this: South Africans are nervous and skeptical and we have been trained to be cynical. We have been taught that the president and the ANC are not to be trusted and that they are prepared to destroy the country for their own personal gain. We have seen what they are capable of and the lengths that they will go to to protect themselves and the money that they have looted.

We have seen our financial institutions behave appallingly and collude and manipulate for personal gain.

We are essentially alone in government aside from the Office of the Public Protector who is tasked to, well, protect the public. The opposition parties might do an excellent job of calling out and alerting us to the behaviour of the ANC, but it is the public protector who is tasked with investigating further.

We have witnessed the vital role that the public protector’s office has played in exposing what is most likely the tip of a rotten iceberg. And we are petrified and panicked that in Mkhwebane we might not have a friend. We are anxious that we have lost, not the person who was the last public protector, but the office that she represented. The sooner Mkhwebane realises just how vulnerable we are, and the sooner she reassures us, the safer we will feel.

It is perhaps shallow to suggest that when the people who have qualified from Boston consult with her, that they take a look at her look and that they maybe tell her a joke or tickle her under her feet until her face lights up so that we can see what she looks like when she doesn’t scour at us. And at that moment they need to capture her. And then show us that she is not only on our side, but that beneath that harsh exterior lies the heart of a public protector – someone that I can raise my hand with confidence to support.

– Howard Feldman is the author of Carry on Baggage and Tightrope and the afternoon drive show presenter on Chai FM.

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