Despite the shock discovery that I am staying in a hotel owned by Colonel Gaddafi, I have spent a very nice day in one of my favourite countries, South Africa.
Whenever anyone says political protest cannot achieve anything, I strongly recommend a visit to this place. My hotel backs onto Nelson Mandela Square in Joburg, one of the many public places to celebrate one of the great lives of recent history.
He is a symbol of what politics and protest can achieve, and though his country faces many challenges, it is a fairer, better, healthier, happier country than it was under apartheid.
I have been taking part, and will be again tomorrow, in a conference on government communications, and have just spoken at a dinner attended both by government communicators and journalists from here and from overseas.
There is definitely tension between government and media, and the latter has not reacted well to the former’s decision to publish its own monthly newspaper. Government comms chief Jimmy Mannyi is all over one front page with the headline ‘dirty tricks boss’, though the assumption that a government paper represents dirty tricks does rather play into the government’s view that elements of the media will only paint a negative picture.
I found myself in the admittedly somewhat unusual position of urging them to be a bit more chilled. The disconnect that matters is not the one that exists between what the government does and what the media says. It is the one between what the media says and what people actually think about their lives.
During much of our time in government, anyone relying on much of the media for their understanding of Britain would have imagined that nothing worked, everyone in public life was venal, corrupt and incompetent and that it was wise not to get out of bed in the morning because if you ventured out the front door you would be stabbed by an asylum seeker. In the real world, meanwhile, a lot of largely happy people went about their business, lived nice lives, had nice holidays, sent nice kids to nice state schools and appreciated the fact the NHS was so marvellous.
Likewise people in South Africa know that for all the challenges, their country is a good one getting better so though much of the media coverage may be irritating, ultimately it doesn’t matter too much.
The government is trying to improve co-ordination systems and to be more strategic. The President has sent out the message to the government that in the past they have not done enough to communicate what they are doing.
There is a real energy to the comms team and they are also focused on the importance of comms to country branding. With the end of apartheid, the Mandela era, and then the World Cup behind them, they are in a good place in terms of global image. But as some of us were discussing tonight, one day Mandela will no longer be with us. Just as his life was one of the remarkable stories of the last century, so his death will be one of the most moving and emotional stories of this one.
In a way, it will be the time when South Africa has to take it’s place alongside others as a ‘normal’ country.