SONA: Zuma tries to soldier past a PR cul-de-sac

President Jacob Zuma has hit what I call public relations’ cul-de-sac. And this will be most visible at 7pm tonight when he delivers the State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Exasperated by the turn of events in the last two SONAs, where he was booed and heckled by the opposition, President Zuma – most probably under advisement – has decided to enlist the services of the South African National Defence Force to “help the police maintain law and order” at the opening of parliament.

This move is proof that Zuma and parliament have run out of ideas of how to deal with what they know will happen – another repeat of what happened in 2015 and 2016.

Already this decision to enlist the services of soldiers, itself very curious and probably unconstitutional, has caused a huge stir in the public space.

Zuma has unwittingly delivered another public relations coup to the opposition, notably the Economic Freedom Fighters, who more than the Democratic Alliance, have led the SONA disruptions for the past two years.

I could almost see the EFF brigade rubbing their hands in glee saying “this fellow is really scared of us”. And who would blame them?

It is very possible that his advisors told the president that if he took this drastic unprecedented step, it would make the EFF look bad in the eyes of the public.

After all, public relations is a game of managing perceptions. The presidency would like to create a perception that the EFF has forced his hand into calling the soldiers.

Those who advised him probably told the president that the public would be unhappy with the EFF for forcing Zuma’s hands to employ such undesirable tactics, just to allow him to address the nation.

As we now know, this has blown the other way. Bringing in the soldiers has strengthened the perception that Zuma cannot deal with the EFF and has now resorted to what is seen mostly in dictatorships and not constitutional democracies like us.

What’s to be done you may ask. Frankly I think the president is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. We all know the EFF will not relent. They will heckle him tonight and for as long as he is president.

Whatever strategy he comes along with, there is never going to be a win-win. It is either Zuma wins, and the EFF loses or vice versa.

If the opposition – notably the EFF – chooses to boycott SONA, they would grant a PR victory to Zuma on a platter. They won’t.

If Zuma goes to parliament tonight, and the police aided by soldiers bulldoze the opposition who will surely boo and heckle, it would be 3-0 to the EFF. They will once again come across as victims and win the PR war.

Sadly, the only reasonable solution here for the president would be a lose-lose. He could choose to present his SONA via video. In that regard he loses the honour of being a strong leader in charge of his country, but the EFF also loses out on a chance to heckle him, at least in person.

But that is not going to happen. He is going to come to parliament. He is going to be heckled. The EFF are going to be thrown out. And the victory will be belong to the underdog.

Such is a PR cul-de-sac.

[Follow me on twitter @ramsbythehorns]