On 18 May 1998, history was made when Dr Essop Pahad, Deputy Minister in the Office of the Deputy President responsible for the South African Communication Service (SACS), took the floor in Parliament and formally declared the books of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) open.
His speech marked the end of a lengthy investigation into government communication. It also heralded the launch of a system encompassing government communicators at all levels.
This process was initiated in 1995, when Deputy President Thabo Mbeki appointed a task team (Comtask) to investigate government communication. Comtask's final report was submitted to Mr Mbeki in December 1996. An Implementation Committee (IC) was then set up, one of its tasks being to oversee the transformation of the SACS, as recommended by Comtask.
In a Cabinet Memorandum adopted by the Cabinet on 8 October 1997, the IC proposed the development of a professional and effective corps of government communicators that would professionalise and streamline government communication. This would be done through:
- the establishment of the GCIS Secretariat to plan and co-ordinate government communication and information in close collaboration with the Cabinet and the Presidency
- the transformation of the existing SACS to fulfil the requirements of the new framework
- the restructuring of the existing communication arrangements in Ministries and departments. Ministries would now take direct responsibility for the communication function in their respective departments.
Comtask's broad-based approach to the investigation, involving institutions of civil society as well as individuals from academia, the media and the advertising world, has helped strengthen the GCIS mandate to communicate on behalf of the Government. The GCIS mandate is drawn primarily from Section 16 of the Bill of Rights as contained in the Constitution, which guarantees citizens freedom of speech. The consequence of this is their right not only to receive information about the Government, but also themselves to communicate their views and activities.
'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.'
- Dr Essop Pahad at the first Government Communicators Consultative Conference, held in May 1998