CONTROVERSIAL: An image from the FNB advertising campaign
CONTROVERSIAL: An image from the FNB advertising campaign

THERE has been a lot of heat, but not too much light, around the subject of the "You Can Help" campaign launched, suspended, reinstated partially and eventually apologised for by First National Bank (FNB). This marketing exercise, intended to raise the profile of the bank among young people by engaging on and publicising a sample of their views on what is to be done to help the country succeed, has certainly succeeded in getting FNB into the news, even if not in the manner intended.

The trouble with the campaign stems from the fact that some of the youngsters whose interviews on camera form the "grounding in reality" (according to FNB’s chief marketing officer, Bernice Samuels) of the exercise were brutally frank in giving expression to their views on aspects of their lives in post-liberation SA. This elicited a strong reaction from various African National Congress (ANC) formations, not unlike its response to artist Brett Murray painting and City Press publicising The Spear — the painting of President Jacob Zuma as Lenin with his manhood on display.

Rather than expose the young proponents of the controversial views to further criticism or to being attacked by vengeful cadres of the ANC as treasonous rebels, the powers that be at FNB decided to limit but to continue the campaign. FNB pulled offending clips to protect the children involved from coming to harm of the kind envisaged when the supporters of the ANC marched on the Goodman Gallery to present demands in relation to The Spear long after the painting was defaced by vandals who are awaiting trial on charges of malicious damage to property.

For good measure, and no doubt to protect its own commercial interests, FNB met the ANC last week to discuss the campaign and, after the meeting, an apology to the ANC was announced. This has forestalled the propagating of a slogan along the lines of "Don’t bank FNB, don’t bank!" to match the "Don’t buy City Press, don’t buy", which was an integral part of the ANC’s reaction to The Spear. On that occasion, there was resort to litigation by Zuma and the ANC, but this was swiftly abandoned after half a morning of withering questions from a three-judge bench. Instead, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe proudly announced: "We have won in the streets what we could not win in the courts."

For the ANC’s political sanitising of the FNB campaign, not even a threat of litigation was needed. The leadership of the ANC preferred to deal with the bank in the court of public opinion and the political corridors of power and it has every reason to feel quite pleased with the outcome of its efforts. Dissenting views have been crushed and a major bank has been obliged to eat a full helping of humble pie.

The serious questions about these developments relate to the underlying intent of FNB in mounting the campaign: "To play a role in building a unified value-based nation … don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" (Samuels again), which is presumably what was uncovered when FirstRand CEO Sizwe Nxasana investigated why and how the offending clips ended up on its subsidiary’s website. It is not difficult to find the values of the nation that FNB sought to promote. They are in the constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights. Relevant here are the foundational notions of a multiparty democracy under the rule of law in which human rights have pride of place.

Of the latter, freedom of expression and the right of all to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion are at the core of the clash. Freedom of association and the notion that the interests of children are of paramount importance in all matters concerning children should also be noted in any analysis of the response of the ANC to the FNB campaign, or at least its "offending" video clips of children speaking their truth to the camera and to power.

The Bill of Rights enshrines the political rights of citizens. It says: "Every citizen is free to make political choices, which includes the right … to campaign for … a cause."

There is no age limit to political rights, nor are children under 18 years of age and banks limited to supporting the ANC. The right to vote is for adults. Children have long been politically active in SA.

What values inform the outraged reaction of the ANC? Reportedly, emotions ran high when FNB CEO Michael Jordaan suggested to its delegation that the ANC had misunderstood the campaign. He was accused of insulting the government and feeding into the opposition narrative — much to his understandable bewilderment. Insulting governments and opposing them is the stuff of multiparty constitutional democracy. But this type of value system is not popular in some quarters in the ANC. Some of its cadres seek hegemonic control of all levers of power in society in a one-party state.

Others in the ANC, such as the late Kader Asmal, have called for the scrapping of the national democratic revolution, which is still being pursued by some in the ANC. Until the ANC abandons this 19th-century value system in favour of a more wholehearted adoption of the value system agreed by all major parties when the new constitutional dispensation was negotiated, the type of bewildering reactions that so confounded FNB are likely to continue. SA will be the poorer for this, as it means the closing down of hard-won democratic space and the unwarranted curtailment of the fundamental freedoms in the Bill of Rights.

Make no mistake, the banking sector is a "lever of power", and a marketing campaign that is justifiably critical of the ANC is bound to be targeted by the type of cadre who marched on the Goodman Gallery chanting, "Don’t buy City Press, don’t buy!"

Probably the most stinging insult in the FNB video clips came from a child who called Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga "brainless". Having regard to the crisis in basic education, the Limpopo schoolbooks scandal and the ineptitude on display in Motshekga’s draft guidelines for norms and standards for educational infrastructure, the epithet is a sharp but deserved one.

Speaking in more polite terms, Lindiwe Mokate of the South African Human Rights Commission notes: "The right to basic education is a constitutionally protected right that is unequivocally guaranteed to all children in SA. It is considered a central facilitative right that is not qualified by expressions such as ‘available resources’, ‘progressive realisation’ or ‘reasonable legislative measures’, which are applicable to other socioeconomic rights." Motshekga’s draft guidelines are clearly dreadfully ignorant of this. The shambles in basic education is not likely to produce feelings of gratitude towards the minister in the children who are subjected to it daily.

The ANC’s reckless disregard for the wholesome value system that the FNB campaign is aimed at promoting is at the core of the trouble around the campaign. Perhaps FNB’s "how can we help" culture is politically naive, but it is certainly preferable to the hegemony for which the ANC strives.

It is right and good that the campaign continues, albeit in less strident fashion. It is wrong and bad that the ANC seeks to close down democratic space by resorting to the type of bullying tactics seen in the debacle of The Spear and now repeated on FNB.

Bullies are usually motivated by fear; what is it that the ANC fears?

Hoffman is a director of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa.