History and background of Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)

The Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) was officially launched on 18 May 1998. The GCIS came into being after an investigation into government communications by a communications task group (Comtask).

1. Task group on Government Communications (Comtask)

Before 1994, the National Party government had a culture of secrecy, disinformation and restrictions on press freedom. Media restrictions caused limited exposure of government mismanagement and disinformation (Comtask report, 1996:13).

This changed from May 1994, when the Government of National Unity brought in a new spirit of freedom of expression. The introduction of constitutional guarantees for freedom of the media and the public’s right to information promised a new, open and accountable style of government. Government was also exposed to the full force of a free an independent media.

At that time government has recognised freedom of expression as an integral part of our new democratic society, but this was “within a context of a society with an inheritance of severe deprivation in regard to information and dialogue with government. It also had to operate within an organisational culture and structural framework that was not geared to modern systems of communication and information delivery” (Comtask report, 1996:13).

Comtask was appointed in 1995 by the then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki. The brief of the task group was to review government communications at the local, provincial, national and international level. It had to make recommendations on how government communication should be structured in line with constitutional principles of freedom of expression and transparency and openness of government. Recommendations had to address new policies, structures and budgets. Comtask also had to examine training and affirmative action policies, the way in which ownership of the media affects government communication, and South Africa’s international information dissemination.

Comtask consulted with a broad range of stakeholders (including academics, the media, civil society organisations and advertisers). It also did a study of international best practice to learn from other countries about ways of communication between government and its citizens.

The Comtask team delivered their final report to Mr Mbeki in October 1996. The report included 83 recommendations dealing with the structure of government communication, media diversity and access to information legislation. The report had foreseen the following:

  • a secretariat in The Presidency responsible for determining communication strategy, advising and acting on behalf of the President and Cabinet, as well as co-ordinating between different communication structures
  • the development of a professional communications unit within each Ministry and the different spheres of government responsible for delivering the communication strategy
  • a centralised Communications Service Agency (CSA) responsible for, among other things, co-ordinating bulk-buying of media and research into media needs and trends as well as assisting in developing content
  • a conscious focus on development communication aimed at communication to empower citizens
  • direct and unmediated communication with South Africans
  • the development and co-ordination of ongoing training in government communication (Comtask, 1996: 56-91).


2. Implementation committee

Government set up a Comtask implementation committee to

  • oversee the transformation of government communications as recommended by the Comtask report and
  • assist in transforming the old South African Communication Service (SACS) into the new centre of the government communication system.

In a Cabinet memorandum adopted on 8 October 1997, the committee proposed the development of a group of professional, effective government communicators to streamline government communications in South Africa. It proposed:

  • the creation of the GCIS Secretariat (now known as the Management Committee) to plan and coordinate government communication and information through in close collaboration with Cabinet and the Presidency
  • the transformation of the then SACS to fulfil the requirements of the new constitutional framework
  • the restructuring of communications across government departments and levels. Ministries would become directly responsible for the communications functions of their respective departments.


3. Launch of the GCIS

The Comtask processes resulted in the launch of the GCIS on 18 May 1998 during the Communication Budget Vote in the South African Parliament.

The GCIS was formally established in terms of Section 7 (subsection 2 and 3) of the Public Service Act, 1994 [PDF] 211 kb as a strategic unit located in The Presidency. The mandate of the organisation was to co-ordinate, guide and advise on government communication (including media liaison, development communication and marketing). The core vision was to achieve integrated, co-ordinated and clear communication between government and the South African citizens to enable them to be involved in the country’s transformation.

At the first Government Communicators' Consultative Conference held in May 1998 Dr Essop Pahad (then Deputy Minister in the Office of the President) explained GCIS’ role as:

'Our task, hand in hand with partners in the communication industry, including the media, is to ensure that this right is indeed realised in practical life.
It is to see to it that all South Africans receive comment and information that enable them to make rational choices about their lives.
It is to see to it that they themselves can pass on information and views about their activities as they change their lives for the better.
They have got the right to know, and to be heard.'