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The spokesperson you have called is not available at present …

Sonia Gandhi — president of the Indian National Congress and the leader of the ruling Indian Congress Alliance — is planning to visit South Africa. Obviously, the Mail & Guardian would like an interview. So a colleague phoned one Manusha Pillai, the Department of Foreign Affairs employee who had sent out the press release on Gandhi, complete with itinerary. “For further information, contact Manusha Pillai,” it suggested helpfully.

My colleague called Manusha, who was in her car at the time. When my colleague started explaining the reason for her call, dear Manusha asked her — wait for this — to speak faster because she was driving. My colleague elected to call back. When she did so, she was greeted with brusque, monosyllabic replies and then informed that dear Manusha does not, in fact, set up interviews. Call the Indian high commission, she told my colleague, who then asked whether Manusha had a specific contact person or number. “Call 1023,” came the reply.

What “further” information did Manusha really want to share with the media? Perhaps details of the course she must have attended: the one where so many government spokespersons learn to duck questions and phone calls, ignore emails, tip messages into the trash and, in general, pretend not to know anything about anyone.

At the weekend, after the Sunday Times dropped another Manto Tshabalala-Msimang bombshell, the Health Department’s two official spokespersons were not available. Their cellphones were switched off. This is no exception to the rule. In the Mail & Guardian Online‘s business of breaking news, which cannot wait for days, we often have to publish stories saying “the Department of Such-and-Such could not be reached for comment”.

Like puppies aren’t just for Christmas, surely a spokesperson’s job isn’t only for the good times? It’s unimaginable to think the official White House spokesperson’s cellphone would go to voicemail if Time magazine dug up dirt on George Bush.

You signed on for the job (and we, the people, pay you for it), so answer the phone, dammit, and reply to that email. And if you want to discuss my advice, please call my spokesperson for further information.


  • Riaan Wolmarans is a former editor, reader liaison, spell checker, general mechanic, morale officer and journalist at large at the Mail & Guardian Online.