28 March 2011
Mr Jimmy Manyi, Chief Executive Officer of GCIS
Our special guest, Mr Alastair Campbell
Guests from the media industry
Ladies and gentlemen
I am honoured and humbled to be part of the Government Communicators’ Forum and making my debut on an occasion where GCIS has facilitated a particularly exciting and provocative programme.
I am also told that this is the GCF debut of the CEO of GCIS, Mr Jimmy Manyi. While we speak of debuts, I must say, Jimmy, that I note that your baptism of fire has been a rather drawn-out affair.
I am sure part of the decision to invite Mr Alastair Campbell here at this time has to do with the turbulence Alastair himself encountered in positioning the Labour Party and Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain in the late 1990s. Welcome indeed, Alastair, to South Africa and to the government-wide communication system.
As a government seeking to improve our communications practice, our outlook is that we are not dealing with communication about service delivery, but communication as service delivery. What we say about what we are doing is as important as what we are doing to improve the lives of our people, in order to create a better South Africa within a better Africa.
As Deputy Minister in The Presidency for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation and Administration, I can assure you all that communication is at the very heart of our programme of action.
Indeed, at our Cabinet Lekgotla early this year, the President of the Republic of South Africa, Mr JG Zuma, implored us to ensure that communication will be a primary task of this government in 2011. We are therefore tasked by the President to invest the same vigour, seriousness and importance in communication, as we do in security, health, education, employment and rural development. I believe the clear, focused and measurable nature of government’s work gives communicators and news media organisations a great deal of quality content with which to work.
Whether we are building five new, major hospitals around the country or are competing to be awarded the Square Kilometre Array; whether we are demanding a full day’s work from our teachers and learners or completing the Gautrain rapid rail link to Pretoria - we are changing lives for the better with each passing day. Our programme of action is people-centred and we believe we are creating compelling people-centred stories each day.
To government communicators, our directive is to bring this programme of action to life in creative, meaningful and eye-opening ways. To the media, our suggestion is: don’t just take our word for it. Be inquisitive, fearless and relentless as you script the story of a rapidly changing country.
And feel free to report to us any shortcomings or failures in our communication effort, because we are accountable for communication as well. But, please, also be fair. In the interest of being fair ourselves, let me say we see how mixed the journalism bag is. We follow very closely the hard-hitting news, considered analysis and sarcastic stories implicating government – and we see in this the freedom of expression and freedom of the media in action.
This is a necessary and welcome feature of our Constitutional democracy – one for which our 99-year-old African National Congress fought without fail. However, we reserve the freedom also to express our reservations about aspects of the news mix that we believe leave our people with an impoverished perspective of how we are doing as a nation.
We are concerned about analysis we see on daily basis. We see unquestioning lapping up of generalisations by analysts and think-tanks who purport to act in so-called defence of our democracy.
Just a few days ago, suggestions by the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC) that South Africa was on the brink of becoming a dysfunctional state, fundamentally corrupt country made headlines.Few media made reference to government’s own initiatives against corruption. Fewer still paused long enough to ask CASAC for evidence, not just opinion. And hardly anyone in media argued the toss. Overnight, the hypothesis was adopted as a truth with which to confront government. This is not an argument about CASAC as much as it is about the basics of fairness, balance and verification in the journalism concerned.
I raise these issues here, for everyone’s consideration, because it isn’t every day that we have communicators and journalists or editors in the same room to reflect, rather than to interrogate or to argue.
To government communicators, I say your basics are as important. Inform yourselves about the work of government, of being available to media and of being equipped to bring our work to life. We should not allow the basics – on both sides of this relationship – to get in the way of a good story.
As professional communicators in government and in the media, we should remain robust but also respectful. We are all part of building the non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous democracy that has replaced centuries of inequality and division.
As government, we do not take our overwhelming mandate for granted, but neither will we accept the recurring implication in public discourse that two-thirds of our people may have gotten it wrong as recently as 2009 when they voted in this administration.
This relationship – some would say stand-off – between government and media is one on which our guest speaker has built an international reputation. His own reputation is the subject of high praise or damning disdain, depending on who it is you are listening to. However, it is something on which Alastair has a great deal to share and to inspire.
Alastair’s visit is the start of a GCIS-led programme to broaden the horizons and modes of practice of government communications. We want this sector in government to grow in impact in the same way that we are developing other areas of work. Between Jimmy and Alastair, you are all in good hands this evening.
I hope you enjoy this evening with us, as well as the substantive discussions that will take place at this venue tomorrow.
Remember our relationship with our citizens is that of working together and let us all work together and build our country.
I thank you.