Cyril needs to improve his speeches, or risk his reputation as a leader

“My fellow South Africans. This evening, as I stand here before you, our nation is confronted by the gravest crisis in the history of our democracy.”

With these words, President Cyril Ramaphosa started his much-anticipated speech on Sunday, as the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis continues to make its presence felt in our country.

The speech was anticipated for several reasons.

As a nation we wanted to know whether we were moving back to a hard lockdown as we saw at the start of the pandemic in March.

Others wanted to know whether there were new industry-specific announcements coming.

Most significantly, however, we wanted to know what new strategies would be activated or deployed in the fight against this pandemic given where we are in our battle with the invincible nasty monster.

Tucked away towards the end of the speech was what was supposed to have been its mainstay.

We are now in the eye of the proverbial storm and what is required is concise and influential messages that drive attitude and behaviour change.

We cannot continue playing Russian roulette with lives, including those of healthcare workers, by behaving recklessly – not doing simple things such as wearing masks and insisting on loading taxis to full capacity.

Instead of focusing on this key message, the president’s speech sought to make a raft of announcements ranging from a number of tests done to the availability of public parks for exercise purposes (many of these announcements could have been made through simple media statements or press conferences by relevant ministers).

In fact, I counted no less than ten such announcements, including big ones dealing with a ban on the trade in alcohol and permission for the taxi industry to load their vehicles to full capacity during “local” trips.

The taxi industry had already decided to defy the lockdown regulations by loading their vehicles to full capacity – they did not wait for anyone to tell them what to do.

If anything, the announcement on Sunday evening appeared to be endorsing defiance and lawlessness by the taxi industry when the country is going through “a gravest crisis” since 1994.

As we navigate our way through this global health crisis, clear communication will be our key instrument.

The regular addresses by the president will be important in this regard – he is our chief salesperson after all.

But he has to be protected from situations that are harmful to his reputation and undermine his credibility as a messenger and head of state.

His speeches have to be clear, succinct and deliver simple yet influential messages.

We are in the midst of a crisis and credibility is a key currency as we push back against the crisis.

Sunday night was a wonderful opportunity to remobilise the South African society in the fight against the raging pandemic.

A bit of trust has been lost over the past few weeks since we went into the lockdown.

Those cracked and collapsed bridges have to be re-built and strengthened. It is our common future that is under serious threat.

The road ahead is long and the president’s support team has to display the requisite mental stamina by carefully crafting his speeches and ensuring that they remain on target in terms of both messaging and social mobilisation.

  • Hadebe is a communication strategist and former government communicator

OPINION: Fidel Hadebe