Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo during the swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers and deputy ministers after President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle. Picture: Oupa Mokoena
New Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo's in-tray is overflowing with the business of cleaning up the mess in virtually all areas of this crucial portfolio, writes Lebo Keswa.

One of the most disastrous departments in the Zuma administration has been the Department of Communications. All the ministers appointed to this post ended in spectacular failure, the recent one, Faith Muthambi, being the most disastrous of the lot given the high expectations created of a new era in government communications.

It is clear that the government needs an overhaul in this area of work as it is crucial for not only rebuilding its reputation, but also for service delivery. In numerous areas of service delivery, communications is key if the government has to consider itself adequate to the task of empowering its citizens, especially in the era of a fast-paced communication highway and the digital age.

Key to the debate of economic emancipation is the issue of ensuring that citizens can access information on economic opportunities to help lift them out of poverty. In this regard, the government has been a monumental failure, despite thousands of communicators being hired full-time across all spheres of government. Other crucial areas of total collapse included the digital migration project and the issue of public broadcasting. This has caused the public to lose faith in the government and its public pronouncements.

The new minister Ayanda Dlolodo’s in-tray is therefore flowing over the brim with its first order of business being to clean up the mess in virtually all areas of this crucial portfolio. In theory, the government communications system, supported by community development workers, should work in such a way that government information can reach all households efficiently.

In reality this is a total failure, largely because of the lack of leadership in government communications since 2012.

Muthambi failed dismally in this key portfolio, among this being the failure to appoint a director-general for this crucial area of work for over five years.

The GCIS last had a permanent head five years ago, and had its morale at an all time low with officials wondering what on earth they did to deserve such a disastrous set-up. One of the issues that became a horror story was the total disregard for public service rules, including appointing an acting DG who was at a level lower than all the current DDGs, resulting in a junior official suddenly being the boss of his superiors.

So what is in Dlodlo’s in-tray? The appointment of a highly professional DG for the GCIS: The last credible professional to hold this position was Themba Maseko, who left unceremoniously in the face of the Guptas’ interference in government work.

Mzwanele Manyi’s appointment to the post to replace Maseko was also a disaster, both inside and outside of government.

Manyi’s corrosive approach to the media overnight destroyed the relationships that Maseko had built over the years, as well as denting the morale of all the government communicators.

Dlodlo is said to be considering returning Phumla Williams to the post. This will be another mistake.

Williams is not a career communicator and was brought in from being a bean counter to being acting chief executive.

What this post needs is an energetic and young communicator who is also a heavyweight in the political arena, and able to balance the exuberance of a Zizi Kodwa at the ANC headquarters - someone he will need to work with to ensure consistency.

Given the message of discord within the cabinet, it also needs someone who will not fear bringing ministers into line and forcing them to change the terrible culture of communications that now prevails.

A spineless lackey of politicians will not be suitable for this post.

Media training for all principals: It is clear that there is a need for Dlodlo to impose a new culture of communications across government.

While Muthambi was rumoured to have hired some top consultants to help her with her terrible lack of articulation, she did not run a programme for her cabinet colleagues to help them on how to deal with the media.

This is a mistake Dlodlo must avoid. Building confidence with her cabinet colleagues is key to avoiding running battles.

An embarrassing situation where ministers refused that Muthambi articulate the positions of their departments through opinion pieces and media conferences needs to be avoided at all costs. Communications is a joint effort between Dlodlo’s team and the teams of all other ministries. A thorough media-coaching programme is therefore crucial for Dlodlo to prioritise.

Abandon talk of a media tribunal. The question of transformation of the media and how it works is crucial and must remain on the agenda of any communications minister.

What is unacceptable is the dangling of a sword called the media appeals tribunal and flirting with the idea of using government advertising to force the media to report positively, and punish the media that is seen to be hostile towards the government.

All of these failed under Muthambi and has resulted in a worsening relationship between the media and the government.

Dlodlo has to rise above this childish approach and reach out to the media, which will hopefully result in better coverage for the work that the government does.

There is simply no substitute for investing in relationships with the media. The idea of regulating the press will be resisted by the media at all costs as it interferes with the freedom of the press, which is guaranteed by our constitution.

Dlodlo would do well not to make this her battle, but rather ensure that the thousands of communicators hired by the state do their work in building relations with the media in all the spheres of government.

Finally, all her predecessors failed and fell out over the handling of digital migration wars with stakeholders, which ended in court battles.

Muthambi was no exception as she pushed for policies that favoured the SABC.

Dloldlo has to unscramble this egg, including the scandalous sell-off of the SABC archives to MultiChoice. No matter how we look at this deal, there is something fishy about it and she will do well to get to the bottom of it, reverse it while time is still on her side and have those found with their fingers in the cookie jar punished.

The inquiry by Parliament is a good blueprint for Dlodlo on how not to oversee the SABC. She will do well to heed the advice of Parliament and withdraw the disastrous Broadcasting Bill that Muthambi clumsily pursued in an attempt to usurp the powers of Parliament in appointing and dismissing board members of the public broadcaster.

* Keswa is a businesswoman. She writes in her personal capacity. Follow her on Twitter: @lebokeswa

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent