REPORT: Progress on establishing the new DoC and its new National Communication Strategy
The SOS Coalition sat in on the Department of Communications presentation to Parliament in which the Deputy Minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, and Director General, Donald Liphoko, presented the National Communications Strategy. Here’s what happened:
First on the agenda was the process that would be followed in identifying and interviewing candidates to fill the three vacancies on the SABC board. It was asked why there were only interviews scheduled to take place for the position vacated by Ellen Tshabalala and not the other two vacant position. The chairperson responded to this by citing the Broadcasting Act in which resignations from the Board are received by and either accepted or rejected by the President.
The Director General of the Department of Communications, Donald Liphoko, than presented a report on the progress made in established the Department of Communications on behalf of the absent Minister of Communications. The report outlined the transfer of functions between the Department of Telecommunications and the new Department of Communications, the budget transfer, the purpose of the establishment of the new Department, in general there was not too much to take home from the presentation, but several points stood out both to Gavin Davis and the SOS members present at the committee meeting. No new positions in the department will be created and adverts will run in the media next week to full vacant positions. Not mentioned, but surely in line with the forthcoming austerity budged to be delivered later this month and certainly under pressure from the treasury and presidency the Department’s structure will be ‘lean’.
It seems as part of the presidency’s attempt to set ‘performance targets’ for the newly established departments a number of performance agreements have been set for the Department of Communications. The one that stood out was that part of the Department’s mandate was to increase ‘ national pride’ in South Africa from 66% to 75% as part of what they termed “in “Forging a new overarching identity” as art of this government’s focus on building ‘social cohesion’. Gavin Davis indicated he considered this a form of ‘social engineering’ and not the mandate of the Department, which was to inform South Africans about government policy and the constitution to empower them as active citizens. He also asked what methodology was used to determine ‘National Pride’ and how does one calculate the levels of national pride in South Africa, furthermore how could one expect South Africans to stuffed full of national pride after Marikana, Nkandla and other such scandals. Furthermore is it even a good thing for government to encourage people to identify as ‘South African’ before anything else, as the Department wants to improve the figure from 52% to 60%.
Another figure mentioned by the minister was for the SABC to promote 70% content that ‘reflected South Africans’, a question was raised by Gavin Davis is this figure reflected the figured trotted out by the SABC of an editorial policy that reflected 70% ‘good news’. They have furthermore been set the goal of improving pride in South Africa’s sporting teams to 66% by 2019, which has likely been hurt by the poor performance of Bafana Bafana in the Africa Cup of Nations and it could be achieved by the end of the year if South Africa win the rugby or cricket world cups, these figures seem to be completely arbitrary.
The Deputy Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, was tasked with responding to Davis. Her response was what seemed like a deliberately largely unrelated rant that largely failed to respond to the simple questions posed, in which she claimed that the Department emerged from a realisation that government had since coming to power in 1994 that during previous elections (despite wining them with ease) most citizens claimed that ‘government doesn’t talk to us’ and it is our responsibility as the majority government to serve the ‘whole nation’ and “we do not want to see during election time to see parties running around like headless chickens”. Thus all South Africans must be advising the government. Poor communications is linked to ‘ a lack of jobs’ and ‘poor economic growth’, if South Africans don’t identify with ‘South Africa’ (unclear if it is the country of the government) because of ‘poor communications. Increased patriotism in the eyes of the Department will be linked to increased investment and thus economic growth, other countries with better rates of patriotism than ours have more investment because they are more patriotic. The examples she cited of moments of ‘national unity’ and patriotism were the 2010 Football World Cup and former president Nelson Mandela’s funeral. At no point during this speech or any of Davis’ s follow up questions did she outline the definition of ‘pride in South Africa’ or the methodology used to determine it.
Although she was almost as vague about the 70% figure of reflecting all South Africans, SOS interpreted this as meaning, aiming to produce 70% local content rather than 70% ‘good news’ – although, this is not clear.
A number of exchanges occurred between the Deputy-Minister and Davis, in which Davis accused the minister of bringing ‘party politics’ into the discussion and disturbingly conflating the ruling party and state. It was clear that it was the Deputy –Minister who brought the discussion of political parties into the discussion from her response to Davis’s first question and when the questions got tough for the Deputy-Minister, the chairperson intervened, claiming that this exchange and discussion was undermining the agenda of the meeting and should not take place, it was clear that the Deputy-Minister’s vague responses were deliberate, but ineffective and worsened her own position in the exchange, thus requiring the chairperson’s intervention to prevent further rather confusing and somewhat damning statements from being made.
Following this was the Briefing on the National Communications Strategy, by the deputy-director general and Pumla Williams the deputy-director of GCIS, who didn’t not add to much beyond, what was presented in the first part of the meeting and focused on building media diversity through government advertising and renewing the MDDA.
Davis followed up on a comment made by the Deputy-Minister earlier, in which she indicated the Department of Communications supported the conveying of information of South Africa without taking a particular stance, in effect contradicting the 70% good news position, Davis asked whether this meant she disagreed the SABC- 70% good news position. The Deputy-Minister refused to answer the question and this led to another intervention by the chairperson.
Davis put forward another question to Pumla Williams, asking why was 10% of the government advertising budget or 10 million rand spent on advertising in the New Age, a paper with relatively weak circulation. A further question was directed towards the Department of Communications asking if it a media report claiming that 1.6 million rand was spent on a single advertisement in the New Age profiling the Minister of Communications, without approval from the Director General, both accusations were denied.
In conclusion it was clear from the meeting that the mandate of the Department of Communications remains unclear and the introduction of ‘performance measures’ from the presidency further muddies the water around the purpose of the Department. The chairperson was ready to intervene to protect the Department from answering awkward questions and that the Deputy-Minister had chosen to engage in a distracting rant rather than dealing with the issues at hands.