Joel Netshitenzhe - Government communication in Public Service transformation and the African Renaissance

11 May 1999

11 May 1999

In this input I proceed, firstly, from the premise that the act of political liberation is but the beginning of a long process of social change; and that the aim of social change is to attain self determination and a measure of sovereignty as a country. (One says a measure of sovereignty given the process of globalisation in the current age.)

Secondly, the aim of social change should be to lay the economic foundation both for the creation and improvement of socio-economic conditions of citizens and, in our case, especially the poor.

I believe that there would be no debate around the critical role the state should play in such a massive project of social change. Therefore the issue of transformation of the public service should be approached from this perspective. We cannot lay hold of an apartheid or colonial state machinery and try to use it to achieve what would in fact be an anti-thesis of what that state was, i.e. to create an anti-apartheid and anti-colonial new social order.

In case some might say that this public servant is starting to sound like a politician, I should say that this is not a party political matter. It is the dividing line between liberation and political neo-colonialism or political neo-apartheid. If indeed transformation of this public service is not premised on an understanding that we are building a new order, then we will not be able to transform this service, in the first instance; but secondly, we will not be able to ensure that it fulfils the prescripts of the constitution, including political, social and other rights.

Therefore, it is not a matter of accident that there are battles around these questions: what kind of state machinery should we build; what kind of public service, and who should occupy strategic positions in this machinery: be it the Judiciary, the National Director of Public Prosecution’s Office, the Reserve Bank, GCIS and so on.

I was informed - and I’ve now listened to it - that the DP amongst its adverts in this election campaign has one that claims Joel Netshitenzhe - mentioning me by name - says that the ANC should take over the Reserve Bank and all other kinds of institutions. I’m trying to resolve this matter with relevant institutions because they are misrepresenting what I may have said wherever they got it from. But the point I’m making is that it is not accidental that there are battles around these questions, precisely because changing the state machinery is the dividing line between whether the democratic project will succeed or not.

I’ve had a quarrel with Paseka Ncholo saying to him he has emboldened some of these characters. The impression created is that, after they had harassed him, he announced that he would be resigning. These forces are now celebrating this as a victory, and in fact he has overheard one of them saying we have succeeded with Paseka; let’s identify others for targeting.

It is not accidental that there should be these battles because those who do not want change would not want to see an effective public service, a transforming public service. The recent battles around the eligibility of Constitutional Court judges includes arguments which amount to saying that you have to have supported apartheid or sat on the fence to qualify to be a judge of the Constitutional Court. The same applies to tender procedures, issues of affirmative action and broadly the question of ownership of wealth.

We should expect it to be more so with communication which is a critical centre of power which cuts across all government activities. This is where the battle of ideas take place. It is where the national soul is shaped; it is where the character of a nation or even a continent is forged . Paulo Frere captured this succinctly when he said:

"A society beginning to move from one epoch to another requires the development of an especially flexible and critical spirit. Lacking such a spirit, people cannot perceive the marked contradictions that occur in society as emerging values in search of affirmation and fulfilment clash with earlier values in seeking self-preservation".

He couldn’t have described SA better, regarding the challenge that we face as we embark on renewal. And the reality is that the communication agenda is defined by those who control local, continental and global means of communication. In our own country, 82% of ABC registered publications are controlled by 4 companies. Changes that have taken place in the past few weeks have, most probably, worsened the situation.

In such a situation it becomes critical to have policies that seek to transform the media environment, but it is also very critical to have an effective Government Communication and Information System.

Given the demographics of the news-rooms; and given these problems of ownership I have referred to, it does not require a rocket scientist to appreciate that society is therefore not provided with balanced information. The Government has an important role to ensure, where necessary, that it communicates directly with the people without any apologies.

But related to this is the very question of the paradigm within society as a whole.

I watched a youth program on television on Freedom Day and they were talking about the need to popularise what you can call "struggle poetry "and "struggle literature". And after a long discussion and convincing arguments on this, amongst the calls that came in was a constant refrain from certain sectors of society to say: No, but we are a rainbow nation; we must forget the past!

What this means is that this nation should be soulless; it shouldn’t know where it comes from; it shouldn’t know about those people who fought to set up the democratic state. The same people, mind you, will argue that the youth should study Shakespeare and Alan Paton; but because we are a rainbow nation, we must ignore the other literature. This must be questioned; and it is one of the challenges of communication in the broader sense.

In line with what Deputy Minister Essop Pahad said, if you were to ask a South African, when last did they hear about Kenya and Tanzania, all of them, if they were honest, will tell you that it was when the United States Embassies were bombed and the FBI descended on the "dark continent". We have no information about the education policies in Tanzania or Kenya, or about the budgets that they have, nor about their parliamentary debates. We will never hear about that. Something must change in this current paradigm of discourse.

This then is the context within which those in the public service carry out their tasks. We need to develop a new value system based on, first and foremost, our self- worth as a people, as South Africans and as Africans: as a public service that is meant to serve the people.

This public service needs transformation so as to become an instrument that serves the purpose of building a new democratic order, both ensuring cohesion of this nation-state and coercion where necessary. You therefore need to change the doctrines, as we are doing with Batho Pele, the White Paper on Defence, Defence Review, the White Paper on the police and so on.

But you also need to change the personnel and ensure that you have among them people who believe in and fought for democracy, people who are loyal to the constitution both in word and in deed. And about that there should be no apology.

What role should government communication play in all this? In our country there is an obligation that comes from the constitution that government should provide the population with information about its policies and activities. Further, the RDP asserts that it is not possible to have development without mass involvement. And by extension it is not possible to have mass involvement without information: an informed citizenry is a citizenry that can actively participate in changing its life for the better.

What does this mean in actual practice? A number of things need to be changed.

Firstly, quite often when reference is made to government communication, this conjures up images of "spin-doctors" and Ministerial Liaison Officers who try to influence as much as possible what the media establishment says. This is important and critical; but the strategic focus should be on those who are the primary target of government programmes, the poor and the disadvantaged.

The primary emphasis should be to change this understanding of communication by, among others, introducing what we term "development communication" as a basis of government operations. Its content should be to inform people about their rights and obligations as citizens; to inform them about the socio-economic programs and opportunities and how to access them; to provide citizens with information that they can use for purposes of their health, education, welfare and so on - for their self preservation and development as a human resource.

The challenge is to provide citizens with information about how they can take part in local, provincial and national discourse so that they influence the direction in which the country is going. And various means have to be used for purposes of such development information: direct communication with the public is critical, involving what we call community liaison, where leaders go directly to communities and address them, listen to them and reply to their questions; video road shows, cultural activities, folklore and so forth.

Like in all other areas of work, in the Government Communication and Information System we have also suffered from a malaise: that is, when we look for experience, for expertise, for lessons to learn from, we rush to Europe and America. But the reality is that, in Africa and in Asia and particularly in India, there are many, many creative examples of development communication through the usage of culture and of folklore.

Development communication has to include what is now part of government policy: to set up a Media Development Agency that can assist small and community media not only in setting themselves up, but also in surviving in this difficult market environment.

It also includes the setting up of tele-centres, because being poor does not mean that you cannot use modern links of communication. In a number of areas with these tele-centres, people see them as critical in improving their own lives, with information that students can use, information resources for teachers, nurses, business people to access government tenders, and so on. In a partnership with the Department of Communications and the Universal Service Agency we wish over time to set up as many of these tele-centres as possible.

The second paradigm that needs to change is one regarding the artificial separation between communication and the public service in general. Our starting point here is that what Batho Pele says is correct: everything that the public service does is public communication.

It would not help much if you had the best communication strategies on welfare, housing and education, if what the citizen experiences when applying for a child grant, for a pension or for a home loan, is arrogance and insults from the public service, or demands for bribes. The best communication strategy will not resolve those problems. What those public servants are doing is an act of public communication because they are telling the public who this government is and how it operates.

A communication programme on human rights will fall flat if what citizens experience is brutality from security agencies.

Related to this is the Open Democracy Bill which is before Parliament. On the one hand, the rich and powerful will seek information to frustrate change, they will try to use the Bill for that purpose. One example is the Anti-tobacco Bill where the tobacco companies were demanding that the Minister should provide them with all the information that she used to reach a decision, so that they can assess whether she was able to properly process that information. On the other hand, it is quite possible in the public service to use the Open Democracy Bill to leak information in order to prevent change and claim the protective barrier of a "whistle blower".

Yes there is a danger; but I believe that openness and effective communication can also be an antidote to such resistance. It ensures that the mass of the people know what government is doing and what it stands for, and they can act in defence of the process of change.

I will conclude briefly with some observations on the issue of the African Renaissance: essentially to reiterate what Deputy Minister Pahad said. Firstly, it is true that the African Renaissance idea has gained currency on the continent. But there are a number of challenges:

  • how do we ensure that it captures the minds of the mass of Africans on the continent to become their way of life;
  • how do we ensure that articulation of the AR and enthusiasm for it is continental in earnest and seen as the property of the political, ideological, economic and cultural leaders of the continent; and
  • how do we convince the world through our communication and action in the fields of diplomacy, culture, sports and religion that we are capable as a continent to acknowledge those things that divide us but are able to use those that benefit us for the common good of the continent!

What are these issues that unite us, issues around which states on the continent can give leadership?

I believe every African wishes to see Africa uplifted from the lowest rung of human development; we want to see the continent liberated from the crippling debt burden; we want to see Africans enjoying improving trade relations and taking advantage of the comparative advantages of the continent; we want to afford our children and population in general quality education, quality health care and quality housing, and we want to allow the creative sprit of our artists, natural scientists, philosophers and others free reign. Lastly we want to ensure that our people enjoy human rights and democracy, however that democracy is defined.

It is within this context that we should address the communication challenges outlined earlier. Amongst the critical questions is the layer of ownership of media on the African continent and how to ensure that the approach of development communication becomes a systematic continental strategy!

How do we speed up joint massive projects such as the one that started with the Africa Telecom conference for the development of the telecommunication infrastructure on the continent, with a clear slant towards popular benefit such as tele-centres? Shouldn’t the continent develop a joint communication strategy through bilateral and multilateral bodies, including the OAU, for promoting the continent abroad?

One example of this is that we have managed to convince all right-thinking people all over the world about the crippling debt burden that the continent suffers from, which not so much of the continent’s own making. But has the continent worked out proactive ways of arguing how such relief will be used for the benefit of the people? The answer is no!

Instead, what then happens is that it is those developed countries who start devising conditions to attach to the provision of such debt relief. This may be because Africa does not agree within itself what those conditions should be, to ensure that if there is relief it does not go into the pockets of individuals in power and the bureaucracies. So a good campaign, a good communication approach that has made an impact. But we may lose the battle because we do not have the necessary follow-up mechanisms.

Further, we can do as much as we should to convince the international community about the renewal that we are embarking on. But if we are involved in internecine conflict; if there’s genocide in some countries; if there is proof of individual self aggrandisement … a communication strategy will have no impact.

A communication strategy needs practical programmes to correct our weaknesses as a continent. Among the things that need to be urgently don’n the continent embrace the broad consensus that I referred to earlier. We should strive to ensure that they cover developments on the continent from the point of view of the interests of the continent.

This is not to argue against freedom of expression or individual initiative in reporting and analysis; but I’m convinced personally that journalists everywhere do this: they cover developments from the point of view of the interests of their own people, their own countries and their own continents.

To give an example, we asked our people in GCIS to do research: When President Nelson Mandela was abroad, recently he uttered very strong remarks about Bosnia and about Nato regarding the current military campaign. Day-in and day-out we have searched TV news bulletins on BBC and CNN but couldn’t find one instance where those repeated statements by the President were reflected.

We are convinced that if the statements were in support of Nato, the BBC and CNN would have reported on them. They would do this without being instructed by anyone. Their approach in the UK and US newsrooms is that they are promoting the self-interest of their people and their countries at war, whether that war is right or wrong. (We are still searching, but we can’t find any reference to the President’s statements.)

One of the things that may happen during the course of this year is the organisation of a conference of African journalists to discuss, among others, precisely this question of self-interest, at least judicious self-interest. In addition, the continent should strive to have co-ordinated celebrations of the new millennium.

Together we should work to improve our internal and external communication as governments and as societies. Communication structures have a central role to play in this, but it is even more critical that government as such, and the public service in general, are oriented towards open and transparent discourse with their own people and the wider world.

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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