THEMBA SEPOTOKELE | GNU an opportunity to beef up communication

President Cyril Ramaphosa observes the Swearing-in of the new Deputy President, Cabinet Ministers and Deputy Ministers as Members of the National Executive at a ceremony held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, in Cape Town.
President Cyril Ramaphosa observes the Swearing-in of the new Deputy President, Cabinet Ministers and Deputy Ministers as Members of the National Executive at a ceremony held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, in Cape Town.
Image: GCIS

Now that the dust has settled over the announcement of the eagerly awaited newly formed cabinet of government of national unity (GNU) with different parties assuming office in different portfolios, the battle for 2029 begins in earnest with leaders contesting the shrinking media space.

Gone are the days when politicians and spokespersons would hide and hibernate from the public and only resurface on the eve of elections. As the face and voice of their respective departments, those serving in the GNU and their appointed or deployed communication cadres have their work cut out when it comes to strategic communication and handling the media. The same goes for provincial premiers and their members of the respective provincial legislatures.

To borrow from former president Thabo Mbeki, it's “business unusual” as the new political leadership roll up their sleeves and walk the talk. To win the minds and hearts of South Africans, those in positions of power, influence and authority – politicians and civil servants alike, especially ministers, premiers and provincial ministers including heads of communication and spokespersons, should wake up to the reality that the battle of ideas has now started.

The new political terrain requires media-savvy leaders and not media-shy ones and oxygen thieves that are mostly synonymous with hiding and hibernating, or worse fighting the media and accusing journalists of having agendas. Indeed, it's going to be business unusual. Those renowned for sleeping on the job must now wake up to the reality that government communication is strategic and, therefore, should set the media agenda.

They must now realise and recognise that as much as communication represents the political and administrative interface of government, communicators, especially spokespersons, should be proactive rather than reactive. Also that, as much their work straddles between political and administrative, spokespersons whether associated or aligned to a certain political party, must guard against communicating government policies while promoting party politics.

There's no time for the pulse of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) to be found wanting when it comes to executing its core mandate. We shouldn't doubt as to whether there is a pulse. As much as there are government departments led by different elected representatives from different political parties who will be vying for a piece of the cake in terms of media coverage, those settling for crumbs will pay a heavy price come 2029.

The “business unusual” milieu requires greater and better communication and co-ordination between the three spheres of the government more so, with the looming municipal elections. The GNU also calls for improved relations between the government and the media, spokespersons and journalists, and a two-way communication between the government and communities.

Also, government entities and agencies operating in silos need more integration and co-ordination with respective government departments. With communication reporting to the presidency, and specifically to the minister in the presidency, there's a need to ensure improved strategic communication between presidency and GCIS, and between the presidential spokesperson and cabinet spokesperson, a position also doubling up as GCIS director-general.

As much as there's improvement in terms of media engagement between the presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya and the media with regular press conferences, there is, however, a need for President Cyril Ramaphosa as a chief communicator and number one face and voice of the government, over and above monologues referred to as “family meetings”, to hold strategic quarterly interactions with the media.

Government communicators should also ensure their websites are frequently updated, and so are other platforms. In the final analysis, proactive and strategic communication will at the end of the day win the battle of ideas and in turn, determine the outcome of the 2029 elections. The true test starts in 2025.

Sepotokele is a journalist, communication strategist, media trainer and journalism lecturer

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