Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Century-old movement gets unsettled too easily

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29 Jan 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: Bdlive

An FNB ad campaign criticising the government seemed enough to unsettle a 100-year-old liberation movement that is soon to celebrate two decades in power, writes Tony Leon

IN THE 11th century, Ibn Hazm, regarded as the leading thinker of his day in the Arab world, advised: "He who would treat friend and foe alike will only arouse distaste for his friendship and contempt from his enemy."

Okay, that was about 1,000 years ago and he was writing from Cordoba in Spain. Still, as SA watched the spectacular somersault by FNB last week, this thought had some contemporary and local resonance.

At the beginning of last week, FNB was the perhaps unlikely promoter of an edgy, online campaign giving voice to the next "born free" generation, which seemed an innocuous, commercially savvy exercise in free expression. By Friday, FNB appeared to have buckled to the local equivalent of a mafia shakedown, administered with brutal efficiency and typical bombast by African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

For those who admire naked displays of power politics, the denouement of the FNB saga will provide an object lesson. But for those measuring SA’s democratic health and maturity, the outcome is less reassuring.

The inflammation of rhetoric — with the ANC Youth League calling FNB "treasonous" and the egregious and voluble Mantashe accusing Anglo American Platinum of "theft" — provides one such negative measure.

FNB’s quick surrender perhaps provides another, although, in future, maybe business schools will use the bank’s confusing and changing message during the week as a master-class example of how not to handle a communications crisis. Anyway, the online reaction to Friday’s capitulation, with expletives substituting for the "F" and the "B" of FNB, will rank the "You Can Help" campaign as a contemporary public-relations (PR) disaster, validating Hazm’s warning.

But this campaign was launched online via YouTube and the adverse reaction to it, and then the denunciation of the visit by the bank to ANC headquarters, turned it into a "cyberwar" on Facebook and Twitter — which points us in another direction.

Perhaps President Jacob Zuma and his supersized Davos delegation were too busy dealing with the contradictions between his "we’re open for business" message in the Swiss Alps and the war against business being waged by his apparatchiks at home to take notice of a survey released on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum.

Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, published its findings (based on annual interviews in 26 countries) on trust in public institutions. As Gillian Tett writes in the Financial Times, it revealed that on a five-year view, or since the financial crisis of 2008, "there has been a sharp downturn of credibility commanded by business, government and the media". Tett observes that while "faith in leaders" (such as bank CEOs and government officials) has ebbed to a record low, there is a "sky high" public faith in technology: "People might not trust banks or bureaucrats, but they do trust their BlackBerrys, iPhones and Facebook friends."

"Trust," Tett concludes," is being expressed in horizontal ways, rather than on a vertical axis."

Friday’s display of power politics at Luthuli House was a classic example of the old vertical pressure (the chastened CEO is reprimanded by the political boss and an apology follows). The online response, in a country with more cellphones than people, was beyond the control of any of the parties and proves the volatility of what Tett calls "the wisdom of cyber-crowd rules". It provides a democratic antidote to the old politics.

On the subject of old politics, last week Tim Cohen provided an interesting take on the eerie similarities between the ANC attack on FNB and the 1987 assault on its predecessor Barclays Bank by PW Botha. Of course, in the democracy of today, compared with the authoritarian structure then, the negative response is easier, provided it is exercised.

However, another parallel struck me. When Botha launched a root-and-branch assault in Parliament on Barclays CEO Chris Ball, he went on to use the fig leaf of a show trial, in the form of a judicial commission, to secure a conviction. In a spectacular use of parliamentary privilege, Progressive Federal Party MP Dave Dalling revealed that the instrument chosen by Botha to exact his revenge, Cape judge president George Munnik, had previously had his bank account closed by Barclays because he had defaulted on his debts.

These days, compliant judges might be used elsewhere, but they do not seem necessary to bring business critics to heel.

The objection to the FNB campaign was apparently based on a couple of (admittedly, script-perfect) girls and boys criticising the government. Is this enough to unsettle a 100-year-old liberation movement that is soon to celebrate two decades in power? It is time, perhaps, to reread the old fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and remember who unmasked the naked emperor.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA

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