Fri Oct 21 22:20:47 CAT 2016

Maseko - a different kind of spindoctor

By unknown | Jun 23, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

You'd want to believe Themba Maseko. Something tells you its OK to trust him.

You'd want to believe Themba Maseko. Something tells you its OK to trust him.

His is the sort of face that, if Robert de Niro has made his characters the perfect scumbags in such flicks as Cape Fear and The Fan, gives his every word the veracity of gospel.

As head of the Government Communication and Information Service (GCIS), Maseko is tasked with speaking for Pretoria and you somewhat believe him when he says he's no propagandist, no Joseph Goebbels.

An avid reader - biographies among the genres he voraciously reads - work on Joseph Goebbels, the chief of Nazi propaganda, isn't likely to be among those Maseko thinks would help a great deal in his line of work.

"Our task is to take the best possible information to the public; try to highlight all the gains; the good the government has made. Some people would say that propaganda is meant to deliberately twist information in order for people not to see the real truth. We don't do that," Maseko says.

He admits there's a thin line between communication and propaganda: "There is indeed but my view is that 'give out the information; let the public decide'."

Without ever setting out to do so, he evades the question about master fibber, the late Parks Mankahlana, but says something quite honourable about himself - he does not spin.

"I believe that as a communicator you can never communicate to mislead, misinform - either the journalists or the public. It's unacceptable."

He adds: "If you don't know something, the best thing is to acknowledge that you don't."

This is a first! Which part of Spindoctorville does this guy come from?

He's misread policy documents before and went on to make statements, he says. "But as soon as I realised I made a mistake, I'd go back to publicly apologise for the inconvenience.

"I try to be as honest as possible."

His mantra is: "Don't pretend to know everything."

Like a breath of fresh air, Maseko is indeed a different kettle of fish. He's not cut from the same cloth as that of Goebbels, Mankahlana and their ilk.

He took over from another loyalist, Joel Netshitenzhe, the behind-the-scenes ANC man said to be the next best thing after Thabo Mbeki and Pallo Jordan in the brains stake inside the ruling party.

"A daunting task" is how Maseko refers to the job of being the mouth of government.

Of Netshitenzhe, he says: "He was an NEC member and you'd say he was more familiar with policy decisions. Joel was also head of policy and communications, so a lot of the Cabinet decisions, before they even became formal government decisions, would have had to go through him."

Maseko says he does not have this distinct advantage.

But a strong relationship with Netshitenzhe helped him a lot, he's the first to admit. "There were times in the initial stages when I needed assistance and guidance, and he was always a phone call away. I'd have loved to have had him handing over the job to me over a long period but there was no time," Maseko says.

He was told, he says, ''This is your responsibility; go run with it."

He turned this disadvantage - the absence of Netshitenzhe - into an advantage.

Essop Pahad, another man known for his own version of the truth, was his immediate boss when Maseko started. The Minister in the Presidency told the new man "don't try to be Joel; be yourself".

"I told him I knew that I did not have to imitate Joel. I have to bring my own style, my own personality, my own knowledge about the job into it."

So when he began, he says, he not only had to meet "Joel's standards but my own too".

"My task was to begin to build Cabinet as the highest level of government into a brand. I needed to communicate decisions of Cabinet in a manner that made them very accessible to the ordinary man in the street."

Today, he says with a tinge of pride, "we've achieved that quite a bit".

But how does he ensure he doesn't speak at cross purposes with, say, individual ministerial spokesmen?

"It's one of the bigger challenges we face in terms of sending out coherent messages," he says about what he describes as a fairly decentralised system of communication.

"We do have instances where one arm articulates one position which tends to be contrary to the position of another ministry. But we are putting in place structures and processes to try and make sure there's sufficient communication between communicators inside government so that when ministers take a position, it's something we'd have been properly advised on."

But overall, he says, the system works very well despite the fact that once or twice, glitches have appeared "in which case the solution is taking the matter back to Cabinet for a proper decision".

Thereafter it would be up to Maseko, with the conscience of a priest, to do reparations.

"I'd come back and acknowledge the boob and state the formal government position as X,Y or Z."

This he would do, he says, with the utmost sensitivity: "You don't want to be seen reprimanding or criticising people. You do this without necessarily embarrassing any member of Cabinet."

But does the message from the powers-that-be, top-down as it is, filter through?

"We are making progress. I don't think we are where we should be but I think there's always scope for government to communicate much better. The shortcoming in the system is that we don't communicate quickly enough, we allow stories to go into the media before we've had time to think them through. Sometimes when we finally find time to state our case, the message is not clear."

But he's adamant "we are turning the corner - there's an increasing realisation that communication is an important element of what government does to get the public to understand why certain decisions were taken and what they mean to the man on the street."

Communication, communication and communication sounds like an overkill for someone who, though he never practised, trained as a lawyer.

He comes from the famed University of Zululand, where he cut his teeth in student politics with Azaso until he leapt to adult politics with the SACP in Gauteng.

His CV shows a lot of work in the area of education, from the time he was secretary of the National Education Coordinating Committee to a stint as managing director of the Damelin Education Group.

The Diepkloof, Soweto-born Maseko has two boys - a 16-year-old who plays a mean round of golf and a 13-year-old budding soccer star. Dad himself plays both - golf off "a decent single digit handicap" while, on the wrong side of 40, he still kicks a soccer ball around.

He reads lots of politics and lots of current affairs. "Others I'm obliged to read are the newspapers in the country. Everyday."

He surfs the net a lot "to see how government is reported on" and watches news on TV "to know what's happening around the world".

The winds of change inside Luthuli House will inevitably make a turn at the Union Buildings. Where will he be?

"Fortunately, or unfortunately, my contract comes to an end soon after the elections. I think I've done my time in the public sector."

Unlike others who want to ride into the sunset with Mbeki, when Maseko says his time is up you don't get the feeling he's running away from the tsunami called Zuma.


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