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Getting the message across

Interview - February 10, 2012
From 1998 to today – a period of monumental change in South Africa – the GCIS has been providing strategic communication support to the government

Can you briefly expand on how GCIS has been able to help the government in developing South Africa in the past 14 years?

I think that it was a great idea to create the GCIS because as a result of it there are two key issues that the government were able to do. Firstly, pure coordination; GCIS is now like the hub of communication in government. We make sure that we don’t have wild cats going all over the show, so everything is coordinated and well orchestrated. We also have to give departments proper feedback on how the messages are being carried. We provide a useful feedback mechanism to all departments. We also facilitate for departments a lot of communication back up so that we have a lot of unmediated communication that departments do. We say to ourselves: we lead from behind, to make sure that the entire infrastructure for communication is in place. We put both the President and the government in front of the people. This is the key thing we’ve been doing. In the past, it was everyone for themselves. With the GCIS we now have a centre of government communication.

Under the chief directorate your areas of responsibility are broken into seven different clusters: infrastructure, economic, human development, social protection, international cooperation, governance and justice. Which of these areas do you believe require the most amount of work, and which areas are you most proud of in terms of their development?

I think in all areas this government has been working very hard to make sure we make progress across all sectors. The challenges we sometimes face are mismatched in terms of the technological advancement and the rate of skill acquisition. We are working hard on this as well. I will mitigate that from time to time we have certain levels of important skill, and we do skills transfers followed with a program that ensures the people are able to operate with global technology. That’s what we’re busy with at the moment. The other area where we’ll be making a lot of headway is in the area of beneficiations. One of the key areas of driving the economic growth of South Africa has been the mining; this is a key sector. We have a serious wealth of mineral resources in this country, so what we’ve been doing traditionally is to have them dug up and sent to the developed countries, then they come back to us as diamonds and gold, and they get sold to us at ten times the price. What we are doing now is also within the theme of job creation, to do a lot of these beneficiations just to make sure that some of the secondary industries that benefit from these minerals and in that process we create jobs as well. That’s really the direction in which the country is growing. Not just mining, but also agro processing. We are looking at vertical integration there. We are also looking to develop our area of technology. In line with the government committing to green energy, we take these responsibilities very seriously. The other node for job creation will be around the green agenda.

“Our task, hand in hand with partners in the communication industry, including the media, is to ensure that this right is indeed realized 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.” – This is a quote taken from Dr Essop Pahad, former Deputy Minister in the office of the President, explaining the role of GCIS. Could you expand on how the system effectively communicates with the international media in order to communicate the real changes taking place in South Africa?

Firstly, the government of this country is committed to freedom of expression. Sometimes we are misunderstood. We are very much committed to free media and freedom of expression. We understand free media to mean not only should you be free from government interference, but you must also be free from business interference. You must also be free from prejudice from the journalists themselves. You must be free from the media owners. This is the kind of media we envisage for our country. There mustn’t be a situation where there is a feeling that media might be driving a particular agenda, as we want the media to report objectively and fairly, to conduct proper research and to report factually and let the communities decide what they make out of the fact. If a media house has a particular opinion it must be positioned as such, not as a fact. I’m happy for anyone to hazard whatever opinions they wish, but just don’t articulate them as fact. That’s how our posture towards media goes. I’m the government spokesperson, and we believe in total transparency. After we have a cabinet meeting, we announce all decisions that were made the next day. No one can ever ask what we’re doing as we offer total information about what has been discussed. We meet as the cabinet every two weeks, in between those weeks, we fill up the media with various information. There are many press briefings that we conduct generally. We want to make sure the public is well informed. We actually have a studio in the building, which we link up to various community radio stations. We can take a minister and, as he speaks, more than 100 radio stations will be broadcast. Everybody gets to hear what the minister has to say. We also have our own government publication called Vuk’uzenzele. It is more of an information brochure on how the government is doing on various subjects. We have this because we don’t want to interfere with the media directly. Whatever we say, the media is not obliged to regurgitate it. If they decide what we’ve written isn’t newsworthy, we have to move to plan b. Newsworthy or not newsworthy, it is important information that must reach the public. We really try to close the gab between information that is news worthy, and what is ‘sexy’ in order to sell newspapers. We need to communicate how many properties have been built, or how many more people now have direct electricity. We are a developing country, so most of our progressive information is still the boring agenda of upliftment. Media is looking for something first world; they want to know something big. Who’s coming with FDI, which big global company is coming to set up shop here? We are interested in both, but we must give feedback that so many babies have this kind of disease, and what the Department of Health are doing about it. All these things are not nice, but they are important. We still need to communicate these things. That’s what we do in terms of communicating with the media. We also have many laws in this country. The reason we have them is to ensure that you have a level of predictability. We don’t want uncertainty. What is good about our laws is that they are all constitutional. No law can be passed without a constitutional test. You may not like a particular given law, but each one is canvassed national and has been passed by parliament. Therefore, whether you like or dislike a given law, through objective means it has been tested to be a fair law. Some of our labor laws are sometimes criticized, but our labor laws are in compliance with the international community.

In view of the current debt crisis engulfing Europe, the BRICS countries are being looked to for assistance, China as a lender of last resort, Russia and Brazil for cheap accessible resources. What role can South Africa play in the crisis and what can countries like Germany expect if they look to do business here?

Firstly, as you have already stated in your opening comments, we are a gateway into the continent. We are also in a great position geographically. We sit here as a country that can provide a lot of telecommunication services. Although India is popular, from a language point of view, people in this country have a higher standard of English; we are more competitive. If you’re looking for call centers, the hub for Europe, a hub for communication must be here in South Africa. Once you are in South Africa, you are in easy reach to the other destinations. We have well developed airports; Tambo airport is up there with the first world countries. This country provides such a globally acceptable infrastructure to be able to help the rest of the continent as it were. That’s a very competitive factor. One of the most important things about our country is that we have a very stable democracy. It was attained without bloodshed. If you look at many other countries, it is quite sad. Here it was a bloodless change of guard. We continue to respect the constitution in this country. We don’t run away from the fact that we are a diverse nation, our slogan is: “united in our diversity.” So yes we have various cultural groups. Everyone must feel that there is equality within the law, and everyone is treated as a human being with a non-racial posture, which recognize all cultures.

How do you believe South Africa has developed its recognition of its cultural diversity?

Some people misunderstand non-racialism as denial. They walk into a room and do not see people as being white or black. For me non-racialism is not to be judgmental. Let whoever be whoever they are. Don’t judge them with the standard of your own culture. Understand that they have their own cultural point of view and respect that. For me non-racialism is about understanding the different cultures and respecting them at their own terms. I’m one of the misunderstood people in this country. People believe I’m emphasizing the differences where as I believe it is in recognizing differences that actually spawns true non-racialism. As an African, I do not want to all of a sudden adopt your culture for us to have a decent conversation. I want all people to respect each other’s cultures. The best of both should define what we’re trying to do. I will not change how I approach life.

The ANC recently celebrated their centennial last month – what are your thoughts on how the ANC have helped shape today’s South Africa?

This is the oldest liberation movement in the continent. When we were celebrating the centennial in January, I actually think that if people really truly understood the contribution made by this organization, we should all for that one day have total recognition for them. These are the people who from the beginning wanted a free society. Their war was not about being anti anybody, but it was about the emancipation of the oppressed. They were saying even the oppressors themselves need to be freed from their position. These are really extraordinary people. When they went in the 60’s and adopted the arms struggle it was because, in their view, they had done everything else peacefully and it was not making progress. As soon as people were willing to listen and to engage, the arms struggle was suspended and we now have a democratic dispensation. I really think that the country, the continent and indeed the world really must bow to the ANC for the courageous approach that they took to get us here. When they got into power, they were not a vindictive government. “Working together we can do more” is their current slogan. It has always been the defining feature of the movement in stating: let’s work together. We will all remain indebted to this organization.

Not only are you the CEO of the GCIS and the cabinet spokesman, but you are also the President of the Black Management Forum. With over 20 years working in blue chip companies, you have had many experiences that have contributed to your process today. If you could sight one experience from your career to date that has helped you with your current role as CEO of the GCIS, what would it be and why?

That’s a difficult question! I think with all of these things, there are many combinations of things. You must have strength of character to do this job, without it you would collapse. At some point you just face the wrath of everyone as it were. I think I was always prepared for this role on a personal level from my youth. I left home at the age of 12 when there were all kinds of riots in Soweto. I was pushed to another homeland, but I was always in South Africa. I got money through the post every month, and I needed to learn how to budget at this age. I had to make sure I had enough food for the whole month and so on. I think I matured early because of this, and I think I was able to learn courage during this time. I simply don’t give up. If I believe in something I will keep going until I get it. I was also grateful for my education. I studied Geology. Many people tend to think in three dimensions where as we think in four dimensions, the fourth element being time. We contextualize, so the role that I’m playing now with all my geology experience has helped to give me better sense of the kind of challenges I deal with here. I have thirty-four government departments that I should be ready to articulate on a whole range of things and to defend the things that they do. For all of that you need a particular level of information across the board to be able to integrate it and defend it. I can’t say that I’m not the transport department and I don’t understand this. In my position you must be clued up. It takes a lot of time in terms of research. I do a lot of reading to make sure that I’m properly equipped.

On behalf of the people of South Africa, what would you like to say to our readers in Germany with Handelsblatt and around the globe with Worldfolio?

I think South Africa is the place to be. We have serious growth prospects in terms of economy. We’re still a virgin country in a range of things; so for developed countries that want to set up shop here the opportunities are endless. We want beneficiation, but we don’t have all the technology to do it, so we’re looking for outside people to come and partner with us. We certainly are looking for partnerships with the developed world. We would also like to see all investors to regard some of our laws, in particular BEE. This provides certainty. If you have a country that is riddled with inequality, there will not be stability in that country. If you have a country with a level of affluence for everyone can look after their properties. If you have abject poverty on one side and superior wealth on the over, you create feelings of jealousy. One of the key things they should think about is: how can I employ many of the locals? How do I train them to operate my first world technology? That is our position.