Fixing the Ministry of Communications

Former Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane. Photo: ANA

Over the last few years one of my passions has been to observe how one of the most important ministries of our government has been destroyed by numerous strange appointments and bizzare decisions. The Ministry of communications has been at the centre of so many economic woes of our country you don’t have a clue! 

The latest terrible tenure was Minister Faith Muthambi who single handily added to the reputational woes of a government already discredited by Jacob Zuma’s unfortunate tenure in office. Muthambi was probably one of the worst appointments even by Zuma’s and the ANC’s low standards fuelled by cadre deployment. When I saw Ramaphosa appointing you a part of me was relieved but I must say it was not without nervousness for you given the failures that Muthambi and other predecessors in that ministry have suffered.

So I thought I should ask to have a word with you in recalling some of the things that I believe you need to avoid at all costs and some of the things that I believe must be in your in tray urgently. I am writing this letter probably as a late reaction prompted by what has been going on especially at our beloved state broadcaster the SABC – a place infested by corruption and credibility deficit with innocent people now facing retrenchments because of the bad decisions of henchmen of the Zuma administration.  

This week cabinet once again had egg on its face with 10 billion rand down the drain because of bad decisions linked to the unending sag of failure to get our act together on digital migration. 

My advice to you has only four things you must get right to make a success of that portfolio: Firstly appoint a credible and competent head of the GCIS. It is actually astounding that since the departure of Jimmy Manyi this government has not appointment a permanent head of the GCIS. The caretaker head Sis Phumla Williams has done her best to hold the fort for years but truly you need fresh blood with new ideas in that department. A government that has not bothered to have a permanent cabinet spokesperson for over six years cant be taken seriously in reputation management. The result of this omission – the culture you and three of your predecessors have continued – is that you now have a leaderless crop of thousands of communicators who have been depressed and demoralised for the longest time. 

Secondly, avoid interference at the public broadcaster but don’t be hands off in rebuilding its credibility. Just recently we learned that the Chairman of the SABC and the CEO were camping outside the cabinet lekgotla begging for funds. This must never happen under your watch. You need to ensure that the SABC is properly funded to do its job. In this regard the funding model of the SABC is the most effective intervention you can make. Your relationship with the broadcaster cannot be loud diplomacy but creative partnership where you do your bit and the board does its work. 

We are tired of spats between ministers and the SABC. Take a free advice from me most of your predecessors have the SABC as their downfall. Read the parliamentary report on the failures of governance a the SABC under the faithless one and you will know what I am talking about. Just recently serious allegations of interference in the hiring and firing of key staff were levelled at your NEC colleagues Jessie Duarte and Ace Magashule. You need to reign your colleagues in and stop this. Create political cover for your board by ensuring that the era of political interference is over. We hear of rumours that some of your colleagues already want to dissolve the board as it is seen to be too independent. Ask Muthambi who tried to usurp the powers of the board for herself – she did not live to see another day in that job! The courts have also pronounces on this matter.

Thirdly, prioritise digital migration. Almost all your predecessors have not met their digital migration deadlines. This was their downfall. The benefits of digital migration outstrips anything you will ever achieve in the remaining few months of your job as communications minister. This can be your lasting legacy because everything else you are doing now wont matter much in a few months but migrating SA to digital platform will persist for years to come and make us a competitive nation. How you are going to explain the set top fiasco that has already cost the country ten billion rand boggles my mind. 

Finally focus on transformation and diversity of the media industry while building a good relationship with all media. One of the failures of your predecessors was to support new and upcoming media including community media. The GCIS spend so much money on vanity pockets such as the propping up of the ANN7s of this word when community radio stations can not even pay their broadcasting satellite fees. Imagine if you were to help scrap these fees in order to redirect the funds to building their capacity?!

Imagine if you were to ensure that half of government advertising spend was spent on community media instead of the half-hearted approach taken by some of your predecessors. These stations are dying daily Minister because your colleagues would rather be on Power FM with 100 000 listeners than on Jozi FM with 600 000 listeners. Thousands of rands are unjustifiably spend on such vanity media projects instead of empowering community media. A quick audit will reveal that some government departments have spent nothing at all on community media – the question then becomes who exactly is your constituency?  The MDDA is poorly funded and will never be able to transform the media industry when you don’t give it the necessary resources.

I hope these humble suggestions wont fall on deaf ears. Remember you only have 8 short months to make your mark and you have in your hands an instrument that can help tell a good story of government work of the last decade but if these four things are not addressed you and I will meet at the unemployment queue come June next year. 

Lebo Keswa is a Rhodes Universty Journalism and Politics graduate and a Media Consultant. She writes in her personal capacity.