Motalatale Modiba6 July 2024 | 8:03

MOTALATALE MODIBA: Mandarins of government comms can’t be bystanders in our maturing democracy’s evolving narrative

If 2024 is to be our 1994, perhaps this moment calls for a rethinking of the government communication system in the light of the changing political and social landscapes, writes Motalatale Modiba.

MOTALATALE MODIBA: Mandarins of government comms can’t be bystanders in our maturing democracy’s evolving narrative

Spectators on the lawns outside the Union Buildings watch President Cyril Ramaphosa being sworn into office on 19 June 2024. Picture: Jacques Nelles/Eyewitness News

One of the dominant narratives advanced during the campaigning period ahead of the recent national and provincial elections was that 2024 is our 1994.

The framing of the narrative in this way, although a no-brainer, was ingenious, nevertheless. 

This year marks three decades since the dawn of the democratic dispensation. Naturally, it was behoved upon us to take stock on how far we have traversed the bumpy road to a democratic society, united in its diversity, and anchored on the values of ubuntu as envisioned in the highest law of the land, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. 

Judging by the outcomes of the historic elections and the far-reaching implications these have on redefining not only the political but the social landscape of our country, it is not unreasonable to assert that we have entered a new dispensation in the life of our young democracy. That, indeed, 2024 might prove to be our 1994, notwithstanding the contextual variations.

There is no doubt that an uncharted moment is upon us as a nation as we transition from a one-party dominance governance system into a multi-party co-governance system. 

Transitions by their nature require change management. They are usually not automatic and often require a shrewd communication approach to ensure that no one is left behind, and there is a greater acceptance of the inevitable shift that is unfolding.

In order to skilfully navigate through the rapid waters of change, and to ensure that this moment is not wasted, it is important to draw lessons from the past so that history does not repeat itself.

After the defeat of the apartheid regime, through the ballot in 1994, there was a recognition of a need for the democratic government to put in place a ‘new communication system’. 

This, it was envisaged, would fundamentally reconstruct the government’s communication machinery, bolster its capability to transparently and effectively communicate its policies, and allow for an open feedback mechanism. A Communication Task Group was established reporting to then-Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki. This led to the producing of a seminal report known as the ComTask Report in October of 1996, after eight months of intense consultations within and outside of government.

The ComTask Report identified several grey areas and made recommendations after examining the status quo. Some of the challenges were characterised as follows:

  • Poor coordination of communication within government;
  • Culture differences between the old and the new administration, resulting in completely different attitudes to communication and information sharing;
  • Little evidence of effective cooperation between ministerial liaison officers and departmental communicators, although there were exceptions;
  • Low status of communication owing to poor understanding of the role of communications and its function in government; and
  • An uneasy relationship between government and the media, which had implications on the culture of accountability and the citizens’ right to know.

There is a growing feeling among many of my peers in the communication space, especially senior practitioners, that government communication, in general, has regressed over time, and that we once again find ourselves grappling with many of the issues diagnosed in the ComTask Report 28 years ago. 

This argument is substantiated when one looks at the paralysis that hit communication units, especially at some municipalities, following the 2016 and 2021 local government elections which ushered in coalition governments.

Many of the local authorities such as the cities of Ekurhuleni and Johannesburg have struggled to maintain a coherent city identity amid constant leadership changes.

The culture of collaboration was replaced with unhealthy competition as principals from various political parties, in the same municipality, sought to outshine each other, and often engaged in de-campaigning one another to the detriment of service delivery.

Lack of communication authority has further deepened the trust deficit, undermining meaningful engagement with the public, which has led to the citizens’ withdrawal from active participation in government programmes.

Communication units in strategic institutions have been sadly left without heads of communication, and in some instances for a full term of office, signalling the attitude of the powers that be towards communication, which is supposedly a strategic function of service delivery. 

To make matters worse, the Government Communication and Information System, which was born out of the recommendations of the ComTask Report, has endured some instability. This has greatly affected the department’s ability to provide strategic leadership to the whole government communication machinery, especially in critical moments.

If 2024 is to be our 1994, perhaps this moment calls for a rethinking of the government communication system in the light of the changing political and social landscapes.

The call to ‘public sector Mandarins’ to be “adaptable and resilient to their mandate of serving the public effectively and efficiently” made by Professor Busani Ngcaweni, the DG of the National School of Government in his recent opinion piece, resonates more.

Senior government communicators cannot afford to be bystanders in the evolving narrative of our maturing democracy.

The ComTask Report envisaged a government communication and information system that will foster better coordination across all spheres, bridge the information gap, ensure focused and coherent messaging, improve the credibility of government communication, and is driven by a highly professional  personnel of communicators.

While much is expected of the communication Mandarins, it is of importance that the newly announced National Executive of the 7th Democratic Administration take care of the calibre of teams they assemble, especially where communication is concerned. 

It is anticipated that they will want to hit the ground running. 

However, before they run too far, I hope that the principals will take a moment to ponder on these reflections. 

Motalatale Modiba is the recipient of the NPC/NWU Journalist of the Year 2023: Media Liaison / Spokesperson of the year award and the Head of Communication at the Gauteng Department of Health. Views expressed here are private.