Joel Netshitenzhe - Workshop on improving public communication, Bagamoyo, Tanzania

18 March 2003

18 March 2003

Challenges of government communication: The South African experience

Your Excellency President Mkapa;
Honourable Ministers;
Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
Colleagues from the Public Service;

I should start off by thanking colleagues in the Presidency for the invitation to take part in this important workshop. I should also apologise for my short stay – it is precisely because of the matters that are on the agenda of this workshop that I have to be present at a Cabinet meeting in Cape Town tomorrow. Among issues on the agenda will be critical communication issues as well as matters of integrated governance on which we seek the guidance of the political principals. However, as you know, a colleague from GCIS will remain to make whatever contribution we can to your endeavours.

Learning from Tanzania

There is always a temptation when asked to make a presentation of this nature to arrogate to oneself the challenge: what is it that I can teach my audience, in this instance, the Tanzanian government! Such an approach would be presumptuous in the extreme.

This is because, firstly, Tanzania has been in the business of government communication for over forty years. And if there is one lesson South Africans are still learning, it is how to develop the acumen so characteristic of Tanzania and the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, to translate complex issues into simple messages easily grasped by the people.

A particular experience comes to mind in this regard. During our negotiations process in the early 1990s, incidence of violence directed against black people became so intense that at one stage, the liberation movement led by the ANC decided to withdraw from negotiations, asserting it would not go back before violence came to an end. The greatest concern that impelled us to take this route was the difficulty of justifying continuing engagement with a regime whose security forces were responsible for brutal acts of violence against unarmed people.

In a discussion with Mwalimu, he posed an interesting question to some of our leaders: ‘Aren’t you the ones who told us on countless occasions that the apartheid regime was inherently violent! So how can you demand that negotiations only take place when violence has come to and end? That would require the downfall of the regime, and if it were no longer there, what would be the need for negotiations! The main reason for negotiating is to remove the apartheid regime, the root cause of violence against the people.’

In the event, this is among the explanations that the liberation movement used to our people as we inched back to the negotiations.

The second reason why it would be mightily presumptuous to believe that we have any thing to teach the Tanzanians is that our transforming society in South Africa is hardly a great example of an ideal communications environment. We are grappling with a reality among other attributes, in which the political ruling elite is strictly speaking not the ruling class. Ownership in the economy including means of communications, the dominant culture in discourse and attitudes in the media reflect the intense contestation within a nation still in search of a common identity, a society that still has to reflect an overwhelming appreciation of the national interest.

Thus our approach in this interaction is that we are all learning; and the question is how we share experiences, in the context of a continent finding its own solutions to the challenges it faces; in the context of NEPAD and a renewal that is as much material as it should be cultural in the broad sense.

In embarking on this journey, it is critical in my view, that we should not forget our history and our culture. We should avoid being so bedazzled by the shining lights of a false modernity that we allow ourselves to be crushed by the on-coming truck of change. A core element of that history and culture, which derives from the struggles that we waged for our freedom on the continent, is that the masses are the primary motive forces of change; they should be active participants in changing their lives for the better. This was the principle in struggle, and so it should be in the phase of reconstruction and development.

Setting up Government Communications (GCIS)

In South Africa, the establishment of our current communications system, including its structures and practices, took place against the backdrop of a legacy of government communications having been conceptualised and utilised to help institutionalise, perpetuate and deepen the ideology of apartheid.

In seeking an antithesis to this order of things, the starting point for us was the letter and spirit of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right of access to information. This is not because these are nice-sounding words in the universal definitions of democracy; but because we proceed from the understanding that without information, there can be no popular participation; without popular participation there can be no lasting legitimacy – powerful interest groups will succeed in determining the national agenda, and real freedom will in truth be a pipe-dream for the majority.

To guide the process of transforming the institutions we had inherited, government set up an independent Task Team (Comtask) in 1995 to study South Africa’s communication challenges and recommend to government how to address these challenges. Comtask, among other issues, observed the following about government communications:

  • That there were no clear standards to measure communication capacity and costs
  • Communication suffered from poor morale and lack of mandate
  • The erstwhile communication agency had low level interaction with government departments and provinces and was meeting their needs fitfully
  • The erstwhile communication agency had low level interaction with government departments and provinces and was meeting their needs fitfully
  • Overall government lacked central co-ordination in messaging, adequate planning of information campaigns and communication was given a low priority.

Regarding relations between government and the media, Comtask made the following observations:

  • Government and media relations in a democracy are always sensitive, and occasionally acrimonious
  • Apartheid weakened the profession in South Africa, and there is agreement in the industry that capacity-building is needed to improve standards and to open the profession and media management to disadvantaged groups
  • South African media, especially the press, lacks experienced journalists able to cover stories in depth and context.

Comtask also made critical observations on the developmental mandate of communications:

  • There is a fundamental need to reach out to the majority of the population, especially the disadvantaged
  • There is inadequate public infrastructure in broadcasting and telecommunication to respond to this need
  • A closely co-ordinated strategy is required to extend the infrastructure to needy communities, including telecommunications and ICT infrastructure, appreciating also that communication activity is in its own right economic activity.

It is on then basis of these and other recommendations that GCIS was set up: with the understanding that it would be led from the Presidency, with a Head who maintains close links with Cabinet, and yet with day-to-day communication taking place at departmental level, the centres where actual implementation takes place; and more so at provincial and local level, the spheres of government closest to the people.

Milestones in GCIS' development

Five years down the line since its launch in May 1998, we can say that GCIS has established itself as a communication agency that is able to provide leadership in government communications, and it increasingly ensures that the public is informed of government’s implementation of its mandate.

Such progress depended in part on maintaining an intensive advocacy campaign within government – among political principals and senior public servants – to ensure an appreciation that communication is a critical element of good governance, strategic planning and management.

Over the years, Cabinet has gradually taken direct responsibility for communication strategies, messages and implementation of communication plans. Twice a year, Cabinet reflects on an integrated and over-arching government communication strategy, which in turn is translated into communication strategies of departmental clusters and then of the departments themselves.

On a fortnightly basis, Cabinet examines current issues that require coherent and integrated communication by government as whole. This helps to cure a communication defect in a Cabinet system where departmental memos are processed over a four-week period and more, from drafting to consideration in Cabinet Committees until they reach Cabinet. As such Cabinet agendas, without a specific Current Affairs item, would deal with issues that are in communication terms timeless and of little impact in terms of asserting government’s position on immediate developments.

GCIS has also sought to improve government-media relations in a variety of ways. It has sought to improve regular contact between the Executive and the media, with some emphasis on background briefings which we believe are more critical than immediate soundbites. Some two years ago, in the context of some tension between media and government, the President and Cabinet held a two-day meeting with the SA National Editors’ Forum to seek to gain a mutual understanding of the context of the work of both sides. Among the outcomes of this engagement was an agreement to set up a Presidential Press Corps of senior journalists whose primary beat would be the work of the President and other political principals in his office.

Communications environment and international marketing

Related to this is the continuing challenge to address the communications environment in its totality. Four areas have received our attention, in this regard:

  • The government worked with the industry as well as the community media and other stakeholders to lay a basis for the establishment of a Media Development and Diversity Agency, to assist community media and small commercial media
  • Issues of transformation of the media and specifically skills development remain serious challenges which the media has acknowledged need to be urgently addressed while recognising the arms-length relationship between government and public broadcaster, it is necessary to ensure that the paradigm of the latter accords with the strategic pursuits of society as a whole
  • Government itself is promoting professionalism in the manner our communicators deal with the media and the public at large – this self-examination also helps obviate an attitude as a matter of principle to blame the "other side" for all the bad press that government gets.

For South Africa and all developing countries, it stands to reason that Development Communication should be at the core of the work of any government communication system. How have we sought to carry this out in the South African context?

This has included regular imbizo (direct two-way interactions between the President and other leaders with communities); interviews by the principals especially on radio in languages understood by the people (so the measure of success is not just a Minister’s appearance on the evening TV news bulletin); production of material by GCIS and government departments; and establishment of Multi-purpose Community Centres in districts across the country with one-stop government service provision backed by ICT.

Another element of GCIS work, which was introduced some 3 years ago with the formation of the International Marketing Council (IMC), is an integrated approach to marketing the country abroad. Research done in 1998 revealed a serious perceptions deficit, with SA increasingly identified on the basis of a negative news agenda of correspondents based in the country. The IMC is a partnership between government and the private sector; and its main focus in the past 18 months has been the development of a Brand Identity for SA, and it is now entering the phase of promoting the brand among South Africans: though the brand key derives from extensive research, it is critical to ensure that the population as a whole is conscious of it and actually lives the brand.

‘Ten Commandments’ of government communication

From the all these experiences, what are the core challenges of any government communication enterprise? I have sought to distil these into what I will refer to as The ‘Ten Commandments’ of government communication:

  1. Government work is essentially public activity – we should continually challenge the paradigm that government work is secret activity which unfortunately goes public from time to time. Rather the approach should be how to manage the flow of information in the interest of the country. Especially for our colleagues in the bureaucracy, it is necessary to develop an appreciation that it does matter what the people know and think.
  2. A central communication service should have authority to carry out its work – it should be located in the highest office, privy to decision-making processes including Cabinet, and able to exercise discipline among all communicators. The latter may require occasional intervention by the President.
  3. Political principals are the main communicators – from the President and Ministers to regional/provincial executives and local councils. The public servants employed as "communicators" are first and foremost facilitators, creating opportunities for the principals to articulate their messages, rather than themselves courting publicity.
  4. Everyone in government is a communicator: this includes a clerk in a local office of government. Indeed, a message of caring would sound ridiculous if the official at the front office is arrogant and rude to citizens
  5. Communication should be based on an integrated communication strategy and programme, with core messages which guide all the actors. This is a critical prerequisite to pro-active communication, instead of always responding to others’ agenda.
  6. Communication structures do not determine policy – they articulate it. In doing so, it is imperative always to tell the truth (or just keep quiet), for if attempts are made to embellish, this will in time be found out. Further, it is critical in difficult situations to examine the real causes of the difficulties, and avoid blaming communicators, as a rule, for what may in fact be defects in the policy itself.
  7. Communication is more than just media liaison: a multi-media approach should be adopted particularly in implementing major campaigns, including own productions and other unmediated forms, with specific target groups in mind.
  8. Direct communication and mutual exchange of views with the public is the most effective form of communication – where resources are available, there should be communicators in all localities, multi-skilled development workers to provide both information and services.
  9. In working out campaigns and programmes, there should be a deliberate effort to understand the communication environment, including target groups, appropriate media platforms, messages and forms of interaction. In this regard, communication research is a critical element of the trade: communication is an art form, but it should be based on science.
  10. Communication campaigns work best when they are carried out in partnership with others outside of government. This would include researchers, NGO’s, role-models for specific sectors and son on – all of which can, if mobilised and supportive, transmit similar messages sometimes with a greater measure of credibility and impact. 


These are just some of the lessons that we have drawn from our experience over the past five years. Some of the issues we raise are still ideals, perhaps not even capable of full realisation. There is no harm in pursuing the ideal state, all in the service of the people.

But as we do so, we need to remember that the trade of which we speak is as old as human social organisation – the challenge we face is how we improve forms we have used historically, while accommodating new ones thrown up by the new environment. At the core of a developmental communication agenda, I believe, should be the understanding that the people, who were their own liberators, should be the active agents in changing their lives for the better.

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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