The Department of Communication has been at the heart of the information war room against the pandemic. Today it came before the Portfolio Committee on Communication of the National Assembly and the Select Committee on Communication of the National Council of Provinces to outline its plan of action to streamline government communication.

A unified and consistent message is necessary to keep South Africans informed of government rules and regulations and to adhere to what is expected of them in various stages the lockdown period.

MPs asked what changes the department has made in its operational plans to ensure that people are well informed in rural communities. They also asked about efforts to distribute printed information to communities.

The Acting Minister of Communication and also Minister in the Presidency, Mr Jackson Mthembu, responded: “We have packaged the Department of Health messages into pamphlets to cater for various communities in their relevant languages to ensure that government information regarding the pandemic is understood by all South Africans.”

Also, we have taken advantage of SABC radio stations “to reach rural communities. And we have secured talk shows on community radio stations to extend the reach of our communication.”    

“We have also beamed all media briefings by government to rural community radio,” added the Acting Director-General at Government Communication Information Services, Ms Phumla Williams. “In addition to that, we have utilised the loud hailers and drones to reach far-flung rural areas,” she said.

Members of the committee also asked if government communication on the virus catered for people living with disabilities or are printed in Braille. There was no satisfactory reply in this regard, it seems to remain a challenge.    

Members urged for a unified message in order for government to win the confidence of the public in the fight against the pandemic. Inconsistent communication, clouded by contradictions is a very serious issue, they said. Minister must be told to stick to one communication message, as conveyed by the president.

The Minister of Communication duly assured them that “all ministers are now part of the council. Going forward, there would be a unified message in this regard to curb any alleged perceived communication inconsistencies.”

Mr Mthembu invited the Members of Parliament to raise an alarm if there is any such behaviour of such a practice in future. “Where you come across of instances where there is miscommunication among government messages please touch base with us and alert us to that so that we can deal with it. What we don’t need is the misinterpretation of government messages.”

 On misinterpretation, some members suggested that the department should in future have pamphlets that states what is expected of the public on various levels of lock down. Because often people misinterpret that.

Members of these committees also wanted to know how the department is dealing with fake news, which can cause so much damage to government communication efforts. “We are monitoring fake news persistently. We have also involved private companies in this regard,” said the Acting Deputy Chief Executive of Government Communication Information Services, Ms Khusela Diko. “We are proactive in this area. And we have introduced a manual in this regard. It’s not yet a perfect process that we have embarked, but we strengthening our capabilities to strengthen our response to fake news.”

Asked how much the country has lost in revenue due to cancellation of incoming tours by tourists. The minister replied: “Yes, we have lost revenue in this period. When people can’t fly, or come to our country, tourism industry loses revenue. We have yet to quantify it.”

Some members pledged for transparency in relation to the continued ban on tobacco and alcohol. Stating that these need to be explained in detail to do away with inconsistencies in how they are seemingly handled currently.

The Minister was unequivocal in this regard. “Tobacco attacks the respiratory organs. If we allow it to be available for sale, we would not be doing justice to the campaign to fight this respiratory pandemic. Its current ban is based on health reasons.”

On alcohol he responded: “In most cases people don’t enjoy drinking alone, but with friends. If we allow the sale of alcohol, we would also be defeating our fight against the pandemic.”

He reminded South Africans that “we do sell cigarettes and alcohol under normal circumstances, but we are in an abnormal situation and we cannot act as if it’s business as usual.”  

In other countries’ presidents communicate with their citizens at regular intervals. Why does our president not do likewise, the minister was asked. Other presidents may appear in public at regular intervals, but ours “speaks to us when it is necessary. When he gives broad guidelines. When there are major announcements to be made that govern various regulations that are expected in various levels of lock down,” the minister said.    

According to the minister, at the heart of the fight against the pandemic is change of behaviour. “We can do our level best to communicate all the precautionary rules and regulation in the fight against it, but what is critical now is that we need a change in behaviour in order to win the war against the pandemic now and after it.”  

“When you think we are not doing what we ought to do tell us we will concede to that. We can only learn from your collective wisdom.”

Abel Mputing
8 May 2020