Prasa spokesperson chooses sickness over truth

If Nana Zenani comes back to work next week with a resignation letter or a requesting to be moved to any other department but media relations, I would understand.

This spokesperson of the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) had a bad Friday, 2 June 2017 not so much because she had to be woken up from her “sick bed” but because she gave what will remain one of the worst interviews ever.

Speaking to the irrepressible and take-no-prisoners interviewer in Eusebius McKaiser of Radio 702 and Cape Talk Nana obfuscated, tried to shift the blame to others, she later tried to blame the fact that she was booked off because of bronchitis.

By the way, this is a coincidence. I am penning this blog from my sick bed with bronchitis coupled with laryngitis. In fact I missed my deadline because the medication knocked me out earlier. But I digress.

The interview was simple. Eusebius simply wanted to know if Prasa hired/instructed the removals company Red Ants to move illegal residents of a place known as Bekezela in Newtown, Johannesburg.

After asking a numerous times, Nana could not just get herself to agree that it was the instruction of her company to the Red Ants to remove the residents.

It is simple to know why. The Red Ants had gone around the eviction in the most inhuman way, reportedly destroying people’s property, swearing at them and apparently others being assaulted.

This would be embarrassing to any organisation, let alone a state owned one, to be complicit in human rights violation. And Nana was embarrassed for her company and sought to cleanse it via a radio interview.

Eusebius would have none of it. He did not allow Nana get away with murder when she tried to leave the area grey by saying that “if the gentleman (from the Red Ants) says so (that they were instructed by Prasa), then we will have to check that”.

What nonsense. It is either Prasa instructed the Red Ants or “the gentleman” – being the CEO of the Red Ants – or the “gentleman” is lying.

Good leaders and organisations take responsibility when things wrong. You cannot blame suppliers. You cannot try and cover you backside by invoking court orders. It does not work that way.

All Nana had to do, right at the beginning because actually Eusebius gave her that chance, was to admit that Prasa had indeed instructed the Red Ants to effect the evictions.

She should and could have followed that up by expressing regret and remorse for how things turned out and as per my manual, where there are human casualties, she could have quickly moved to expressing empathy and compassion for the aggrieved residents.

Eusebius had earlier interviewed one of the evicted residents who was literally in tears on air. Nana had an opportunity to acknowledge the woman by name, apologise to her, offer her sympathies to her and her fellow residents.

But no. Her brief was to protect Prasa, by hook or by crook, mostly the latter. She ended up lying, at least by omission not by commission, before later admitting liability.

She could have done that quickly and apologised. There is nothing more Eusebius could do once an apology was offered. She would then have had an opportunity to move the interview in another mood and direction, that of compassion and not a blame game.

But if there is no admission of wrongdoing, any journalist worth their salt – and trust me Eusebius is worth a full sea of salt – will have to press on. And when you start throwing others under the bus, they rightfully assume you are lying.

Admittedly Nana was calm. And this is a good tactic during hostile interviews. But calmness alone, worse still coupled with what appears to be lies and playing the blame game, is useless.

This is why when calmness did not work, she remembered she had bronchitis. At which point I had to go to my doctor quickly, lest my blog ends up as some indecipherable gobbledygook.

[Follow me on twitter @ramsbythehorns]