You Can Help … But has FNB?

In the spat around First National Bank's You Can Help campaign, everyone's a loser. FNB has been labelled a treasonous, exploitative and cowardly agent of the DA, while the ANC has been seen as responding to the adverts like an over-reactive bully, scared to face up to the "truth" of a South Africa mired in corruption, poverty and inequality.

But the ultimate losers must surely be the young South Africans who took part in the campaign: they've been painted at best as unwitting victims of political machinations, or at worst as treasonous themselves.

And, it seems, they may now be at risk simply for taking part. According to FNB chief marketing officer Bernice Samuels, the bank decided to pull extra footage of the children from the internet because "the participants are fearing reprisals". It's unclear if their fears were linked to actual threats against them, but I would assume the fear itself is very real indeed.

At the moment, it seems FNB is floating in a murky pool of "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." It has been called manipulative on one hand and naive on the other. It's been demonised for running the campaign and derided for buckling under pressure from the ANC. The bank's move to remove the footage from the web was lambasted by the ANC Youth League as a cowardly act by "capital caught with its pants down".

Through all of this, FNB has remained firmly behind its campaign, claiming its motives were pure and the whole thing had been one big misunderstanding. The bank took to public platforms including Twitter to defend itself, explaining that it "did not use children to air [its] thoughts" but merely "gave them a platform to voice theirs". Excuse me for saying so, but yeah right.

I wonder if these children knew what kind of "platform" they were being handed, whether they had any idea of the potential ramifications of what they said in front of the cameras. One can't really have expected them to ... but FNB? Surely the people behind this campaign knew they were treading on dangerous ground. The ANC's public spat with Nedbank chair Reuel Khoza in 2012 should have given it a clear idea of how these things can turn nasty. Or they could have looked further back to an incident in 2007, in which FNB suspended an anti-crime advertising campaign under pressure from then-President Thabo Mbeki. Could FNB not on some level have predicted a strong response to what could only have been seen as a very strong statement about governance in South Africa?

So what if the children were not paid for their opinions and that their parents gave consent for their views to be aired? They were still put in a very difficult position, one that they couldn't have been expected to anticipate. FNB says "we need the debate and our children need to be heard", but wouldn't it have been better for these kids to have added their voices at their own behest?

Another thing... Did any of the kids who were interviewed praise government and the work it is doing? Did those views make it on air or online? If they had, perhaps the ANC's reaction to the campaign would also have been more balanced, more measured.

During this row, the ruling party has come under fire for quibbling about an advertisement instead of focusing on the real issues at hand: those very issues that the You Can Help campaign attempts (perhaps misguidedly) to raise. The ANC's Jackson Mthembu invoked the country's past to make his point in condemning the campaign:

"FNB must desist from using school kids to make political statements in a manner that is disrespectful to elders and that disregard sacrifices made in the 18 year of democratic government, to improving the living conditions of those who were on the receiving end of Apartheid rule."

And, of course, the DA's Mmusi Maimane hit back with an Apartheid jibe of his own:

"The ANC and ANCYL objections to the commercial are reminiscent of the Apartheid government's approach to dissent. During Apartheid, whenever opinions were raised that questioned the actions of government those opinions would be branded as 'treasonous'. The ANC seems to have adopted the same approach now - harshly attacking anyone who it might have disagreements with."

So it seems both parties got lost in the debate around the campaign itself and were pulled into the past. As a result, they failed to address the substance of the footage.

The idea of children contributing to the debate around the future of our country (which is intrinsically linked to their own futures) is a good one. But let's be honest, this wasn't a debate. It was more of a soapbox pontification. I don't reject outright FNB's assertion that the spirit of its campaign was one of unity and nation building, but I also don't buy its claim that it never intended to criticise government or the ANC. And using children to do it only further muddies the water.

Camilla Bath is the Eyewitness News Deputy Editor in Johannesburg.