Veteran journalist and political commentator, Allister Sparks, proposes in his last column before the elections (Cape Times, Thursday, April 16, 2009) that Zapiro should “scrap the shower and draw a dark cloud over [Jacob Zuma]’s head instead”. A few days before that, I had stopped to chat to a neighbor who swore to me that she would never vote for a man who gets drunk and falls stupidly on his bum. This, she said, was something that she had been told by someone else who saw an intoxicated Jacob Zuma dance at his last wedding in 2008.

Now, many of us know that Jacob Zuma, like the rest of us, does many things but getting drunk is not one of them! One could go on using up lots of column space relating the number of things that people say about Jacob Zuma. This long list is made up of things that range from the true and plausible and, unfortunately, then stretch into a longer part that is made up of pure hearsay and speculation. The sad thing about all this is that things that make up the latter part of the list tend to stick harder to Brand Zuma and require more work in order to get rid of them. The most recent lists also consist of things that many soothsayers among us tell us will happen once Brand Zuma takes over the country’s reins, including damage to the rule of law. Newspaper pages are full of predictions that only point the future of Brand South Africa in one direction, downwards. Clearly, many incidents of recent months and weeks have not helped.

I argued in one of my pieces in the past that South African voter choice will increasingly be determined, amongst others, by associations that people have in their minds when they think of different political leaders. I went on to argue that this should be a strong reason for the ANC to continue fighting against the Zapiro shower on the head of its president, as the more frequently this stigma is repeated, the harder it might be for voters to imagine him without it. In the minds of many in the general public – even people who never read newspapers – stories have been repeated over and over again that Jacob Zuma is a bad person who will never make a good president for South Africa. These stories have been repeated and reinterpreted, turned around so many times that different versions of the same anecdotes can be heard even in the most unlikely of quarters. While parts of the media might have played a role in initially spreading the stories, dinner time, braai time and gym steam-room time word of mouth has done even more to them further. This has gone on to the point where any attempt to defend the man on issues where he is unlikely to be guilty – such as falling drunk on his bum – are always met with utter suspicion and accusations that one is blindly defending him.

All successful brands – from product brands to service brands – have brand managers. People brands also need to be managed in a responsible manner. Brand Managers are appointed to ensure that all related communications are consistent with the core message and values, and that all deviation is dealt with as swiftly as possible. That is why courts in places like the US are replete with lawsuit cases by people and companies defending themselves against defamation of character. South Africans have also begun to take this line of defense very seriously, as they have come to realize that that success in business and other fields tends to be directly linked to how one’s brand is perceived. Any damage to the brand, real or perceived, will always impact on the manner in which outsiders react to it and to the promises that it makes.

The problem with Brand Zuma seems to be that it has too many spokespersons whose messages do not always seem well coordinated. They do not seem to be singing from the same hymn book. While the aims of all his defenders seem noble, their style of execution differs vastly. Some have sworn that they are prepared to sow mayhem and to kill for him while others have taken the time to explain the “real” Jacob Zuma to their interlocutors, taking the time to listen to all counter arguments while calmly explaining things that they consider to be misunderstood. The former types of spokespersons tend to either be condescending or they are simply untrained in communications, therefore annoying or ineffective in the end; thinking that they will win arguments by threats of force or other forms of intimidation. The second types have a studied manner about them, always mentally referring back to the core values and message in making their overall delivery. Carl Niehaus fits this second type of spokespersons.

Whether one likes Carl Niehaus or not he was, arguably, one of the ANC’s best spokespersons, while it lasted. Despite his well published faults – and perhaps because of them – he was, arguably, very engaging in his defense of the Zuma Brand. It could be argued that he succeeded for as long as he has doing the things that he is reported to have done precisely because he is a consummate communicator. He not only knew how to read his audience and to package both the content of his message and the tone of delivery for maximum effect. I doubt that he would have had the success that he did if he lacked the expertise that he clearly demonstrated to communicate with effect. Carl could probably look anyone in the eye, tell them that they had three ears instead of two and still manage to get that person to rush to the nearest bathroom to verify in the mirror. I had the fortune of being invited to welcome and introduce him to a group of European business people and diplomats exactly three days before his shit hit the fans. The occasion was a business breakfast organized by the French South Africa Chamber of Commerce & Industries. He calmly, confidently, stood up in front of an audience that seemed skeptical in the beginning and spoke at length about ANC history, policies, achievements and plans, even eloquently addressing issues related to the charges against Mr. Jacob Zuma, now dropped. He expertly handled some unfriendly sounding questions and turned a few unconvinced, unsmiling, participants into what seemed like friendlier ones, leaving them with satisfied smiles on their faces at the end of his address and a rather testing Q&A session.

In a piece called “The Brand called YOU”, Tom Peters argues that “Power is largely a matter of perception. If you want people to see you as a powerful brand, act like a credible leader”. Personal brands, no doubt, are harder to manage precisely because the brand itself is a dynamic human being that can, by itself, “go off message”. This is even harder when the brand in question is that of a powerful public/political figure whose every word and action is reported upon and subjected to all sorts of scrutiny and interpretation. To survive all the negative scrutiny that it has attracted, some of it probably deserved, Brand Zuma has to be managed in a manner that takes into consideration the ever changing political brand consumption patterns of South Africans. And whether the spokespersons like it or not, a one message one package approach will never work for the diverse South African electorate. The same message packaged for the electorate in Kwa-Zulu Natal might not have the same desired effect in the Western Cape – or vice versa – because the dynamics are totally different. I have heard people argue that “this is Africa and not America, we shall do it the African way whether they like it or not”. What such people fail to take into account is that they, not the electorate, have something to sell, in this case Brand Zuma. In packaging the message, issues that are important to the intended audience have to be seriously taken into consideration and respected. “Respected” does not necessarily mean “accepted” and repackaging the message does not mean changing its core meaning; but no message will be well received if the intended audience is not convinced that its own fears are being taken seriously.

I am not convinced that Jacob Zuma is the monster that so many amongst us seem desperate to make the rest of us believe he is.

Whichever way one chooses to relate to Brand Zuma, it seems like each one of us has to choose between spending the next five years – for a miracle must happen for Brand Zuma not to head Brand South Africa – losing more tomorrows because of yesterday or contributing to all efforts to ensure that the next government is more accountable to the people of South Africa, irrespective of their political persuasions and, ultimately, to the rule of law.

Cape Town
Solly MOENG is a Cape Town based Brand Management Consultant and Social commentator.