By JAMES MUYANWA –
DEFINITELY, the current crop of politicians, especially the opposition, has a lot to learn from late President Michael Sata in terms of handling the media and public gatherings.
Mr Sata knew how to handle the media hostile and friendly ones made sure he got the best in terms of attention out of any public appearance.
He did not allow anyone to subdue his political clout, and as a result, his speech always had a keen audience.
At public debates while in opposition, Mr Sata made sure he identified himself with the audience, sometimes to the extent of taking on the moderator.
As a moderator you always had difficulties to stay in charge of the meeting where he was featuring.
I was privileged to host Mr Sata who – while in the opposition – in 2004 appeared during the hardest public discussion I have ever chaired.
In May 2004, while working in Kitwe, I was elected Kitwe Press Club president and we started organising public fora on which we featured dignitaries, especially politicians.
The fora were both a fundraising tool, as we charged entry fee for the audience, and a professional platform to bring people to discuss national issues
Between May and August 2004, we had invited the likes of the late United Party for National Development president Anderson Mazoka, Zambia Congress of Trade Unions president Leonard Hikaumba and officials from the two then warring trade unions in the mining sector, while Mr Sata’s political esteem in most parts of the country was, by that time, not any better than exemplified by the results of the 2001 general elections when he managed a paltry 3.3 per cent of the total votes cast, on the Copperbelt it was soaring in leaps and bounds.
We learnt that on the day of the meeting.
My colleagues in the executive committee got in touch with the officials then surrounding the Patriotic Front (PF) president who showed interest in convincing him to turn up for the event.
They kept in touch with them but a day or two before the actual event Mr Sata offered to talk to me on phone.
“Mr President, how many people are you expecting, as members of the audience?” he inquired on phone, catching me napping as we did not even know the capacity of Edinburg Hotel hall.
I vaguely answered before he went on to inquire on other specifics like starting time, who would chair and the duration of the meeting
After assuring himself of our preparedness he told me we would meet on the day of the meeting at 18:00 hours, 30 minutes before the actual time.
By 17:30 hours on the discussion day, the venue was full with some people sitting right under the high table.
At 18:00 hours, true to his word, he was outside the hotel calling us.
When we met him, he mockingly asked us how the turnout was so far but before we could answer, he started loudly laughing at us saying we had thought he was a political infant, who would not attract a big audience.
We had arranged for a room with the hotel management where he could go and freshen up, waiting for 18:30 hours but he refused saying, “if the people are already there why should we wait?”
We had problems to access the high table because there was nowhere to pass as a sea of people had filled up the entire hall, including the doorway.
After struggling, we managed to reach for our seats and caught our breaths. I had difficulties to control the crowd which was still swelling with those still outside demanding that a bigger venue should be quickly found because they could not manage to miss the discussion.
Additional pressure emanated from my guest who was busy addressing the people even before the meeting could officially start.
After delivering his unwritten statement for about 15 to 30 minutes we went into question-and-answer session, which proved even tougher.
Tougher in the sense that I would point on questioners on one side while Mr Sata would also be busy on the other side saying:
“Iwe mwandi njipusha, ninshi tabalekusontela?” (You, ask me! Why are you being sidelined?).
The bombshell for us, however, was yet to come.
As a way of enhancing club operations we always had pledge forms on which members of the audience would fill in indicating their support in cash or in kind.
For some reasons, on that day I advised against passing the forms round but my colleagues convinced me otherwise since I was the only one who objected and had no convincing reasons for that.
I do not know how the pledge form caught Mr Sata’s eyes and all I heard was him saying:
“What is that paper for? Pledges?” he rhetorically inquired, and without waiting for the answer, he publicly directed Mr Charles Chimumbwa who was, I think, party national treasurer or secretary at the time, to contribute K2 million (now K2,000).
Equally, Mr Chimumbwa publicly announced that he would hand over the money the following week on Monday and one of us should travel to Chingola where he was based.
That marked the genesis of problems for our club and stirred hullabaloo against us by fellow professionals, then ruling MMD officials and other people who accused us of having been bought by the PF.
Amid accusations we had to deal with the immediate issue of whether we should get the money and after a heated debate we resolved to get it since it was publicly offered to the club and there were no strings attached to it.
For Mr Sata the meeting was an opportunity well-utilised to effectively sell himself and his party by convincingly answering all the questions posed to him, coupled with ‘public relations chores’.
For the club, however, somebody had to pay the price of organising such a successful meeting, featuring an opposition leader and I think I paid a full price, which is, however, not the subject of this article.
Generally, Mr Sata while in opposition studied the challenges of journalists from public and private media.
He could freely walk into any newsroom and interact with reporters, a move which looks impracticable by the current crop of opposition leaders, who seemingly treat the public media with contempt and
Even at the peak of negative coverage against him by the public media before the 2011 general elections,Mr Sata was able to either drive to Times of Zambia offices or just walk from his Farmers House offices when he had a statement.
Should you ask him a leading question which would either make him condemn or praise the government of the day, he would first start by strongly denouncing the government and then he would say: “I know your editor would not publish that because you are a public media.”
Then moderate his language to make it ‘palatable’ for the public media. In short he had a message for all media categories regardless of ownership.
He was, however, difficult to corner with a question because before you finish asking he would have seen through it.
In 2010 I was assigned to interview him on the Barotseland Agreement with my bosses then purporting that Mr Sata had all along been against the agreement but at that time he was seemingly supporting it, why? I called him and fixed an appointment.