PARLIAMENTARY REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK
No, Minister – government’s communication breakdown is not a good story to tell
Government wants to tell South Africa its good story through online infographics, orchestrated optics, the odd televised national speech and spin. But when it comes to backing pretty words with facts, evidential details and comment, it’s a whole different story.
It didn’t take long for one-time US president Donald Trump to be fact-checked by the media. By 2021, The Washington Post had, after four years, logged up 30,573 of Trump’s misleading or false claims.
From April 2020, mainstream broadcasters – from CNN and ABC to MSNBC, NBC and CBS – started pulling away from Trump’s briefings because of all the propaganda, misstatements and false claims. In November 2020, ABC, CBS and NBC pulled away from reporting on Trump’s false claims that the election had been stolen. And while CNN and Fox continued, it was very clear that no evidence existed for his claims.
In South Africa, politicians hog the camera – uninterrupted and unchecked.
And so, from the President to ministers and officials in their departments, and councillors and officials in state-owned entities (SOEs), it’s believed that announcing a meeting, conference or plan is tantamount to dealing with the issue.
Some of this has to do with the tone set by the head of government – a Presidency focused on curating optics and PR moments, and the one-way communication of the televised national speeches, the format of political communication without questions.
Some of it also relates to the two-year Covid lockdown when ministers and their senior officials stopped travelling to Parliament in Cape Town, where the lack of gatekeepers meant they were actually called to account. This state of affairs has largely continued in the wake of the January 2022 fire that devastated the National Assembly and is likely to continue as renovations are scheduled to continue for another two or so years.
While the switch to online and now also hybrid proceedings like parliamentary meetings and ministerial briefings allow for a wider audience to dial in, it has also stifled quality engagement.
It’s no longer really about explaining potentially complex policy, administrative and legal matters, but more about addressing the nation. In many of the YouTubed sessions, ministers, officials and parliamentarians greet the country in their moment before the camera.
Over time, the lack of face-to-face engagement has helped stifle, sideline and even eliminate pesky questions. From the President to ministers, to councillors and mayors, government has become comfortable talking at people – not with them.
The turn to camera time – unchecked and uninterrupted – has become the preferred curated moment to style pretty words as action and implementation.
Against this background, getting media comment from a minister, department or SOE – actually, any state entity – is turning into an uphill battle, particularly if more than rhetoric is required.
Little gets done without written questions, even on the most basic stuff any decent government spin doctor should be on top of. Getting comment usually requires follow-ups, much patience and sometimes a strong stomach as questions beget belligerence.
The responses are often not worth the proverbial paper they are written on – from high-handed formulaic replies that don’t answer the questions, to referring queries elsewhere, or a statement to be issued at some stage. Sometimes there’s just silence.
This is a far cry from when ministerial spokespersons and those speaking for departments were up to date with the content and work done – and confident to speak for their principals.
Spin doctor supreme, the late Ronnie Mamoepa, who spoke for the governing ANC and government including the Presidency, was approachable, contactable and always prepped to comment, while also willing to explain background even to a wet-behind-the-ears reporter.
He wasn’t alone. From the late Thabo Masebe and Parks Mankahlana, Bheki Khumalo, Paul Setsetse, Joel Netshithenze and Themba Maseko, to many, many others across government, getting comment was usually a case of picking up the phone or doorstepping them. The spokespersons were ready and able to explain their respective, often tricky, portfolios.
And yes, sometimes it was all about successfully keeping schtum, like about the private wedding of then president Nelson Mandela to Graca Machel, announced when his deputy Thabo Mbeki left Madiba’s 80th birthday celebration.
As Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) founding CEO Joel Netshitenzhe briefed parliamentary media on the State of the Nation address – a day ahead on Chatham House Rule. No embargo was broken, and coverage was in-depth and informed.
As GCIS boss Themba Maseko, also a State Capture whistle-blower, briefed in detail on Cabinet meetings, at times even releasing limited transcripts. Those briefings, on the record, were invaluable to understanding government’s thinking on key matters – and set the tone for ministerial spokespersons to speak to details whether that was policy, law or politics.
The current ministerial reading out of cut-and-paste format Cabinet statements falls short. Nowhere reflected was the Cabinet decision that ministers would meet banks to reopen the Gupta’s bank accounts – not until journalists asked about an attempt at political influence in the State Capture years.
How did GCIS, established in May 1998 as the government communication nub of democratic South Africa, end up in its current state as mostly a logistics carrier for ministerial water bottles, large chairs – appropriately sized according to the sitter’s seniority – and banners at online and physical government briefings?
Perhaps it’s the tale of loss of confidence and refuge in rigidity and hierarchy and reduction of communicators to gatekeepers. Perhaps ministerial egos are inflated amid protocol obsession and coteries of officials doing the Yes Minister routine.
It’s a sign of the times.
That against this backdrop politicians of all ilk rush to where cameras roll – uninterrupted and unchecked – talks not only to the quality of politicians, but also to a fundamental disrespect and distrust of media. DM