Editorial: South Africa needs tough communicator


A new year holds the promise of a fresh start and that is as true for the government and its officials as for anyone else.

Jimmy Manyi treated the Government Communication and Information System as a resistance organisation to what he perceived as a hostile media. (David Harrison, M&G)

South Africa is a forgiving place and there are many who would like to see, say, the image of President Jacob Zuma rehabilitated.

Taking advantage of that predisposition requires decent communication. Good government communication is always important, and the role of the Government Communication and Information System is crucial.

This week, we report on the search for a new head of the system. Hopefully this time around the government scrutinises the person it plans to appoint more carefully. The head of that organisation is more powerful than some national ministers and more crucial to the success, or failure, of government projects than many directors general, a point that is vividly illustrated by the disaster that was the tenure of Jimmi Manyi in the job.

Manyi treated the Government Communication and Information System as a resistance organisation to what he perceived as a hostile media. He tried to expand and fortify the institution, building an empire of considerable power – even as he failed in some initiatives. He did not succeed in establishing an effective, direct medium of communication between the national government and citizens, but with a bit of luck and a lot of money his successor could.

Similarly, his attempt to centralise both government communications and government advertising spending was not an unqualified success, but he did create a foundation for a system that could be used to advertise the work of the government better, or punish media outlets that do not toe the line.

Manyi may not have been responsible for the default culture of secrecy in much of the state, but he helped to implement it. Whoever succeeds him will need a set of rare, and sometimes incompatible, attributes. The head of the organisation must be willing to be tough with both the media and political heads when necessary, but not go to war with either. He or she must be politically attuned and connected, with a fair amount of backing and cover, while have little to no ambition of establishing a political career. A government communications chief must be a great manager and technocrat, but also be something of a theorist, preferably one with a glass-half-full developmental mind-set. She or he must maintain a public profile and be at the forefront of national debate, but not for the wrong reasons. Credibility is critical, but credibility among disparate groups: political primaries, the public, the governing party, the opposition and the media.

Manyi failed in many of these respects, and South Africa needs better this time around. Running the organisation is a tough job in a tough environment, with a great deal at stake. But it is not impossible and a selection process that is geared to unearthing a candidate who possesses all of these attributes and has the intention to serve both government and the broader public (as opposed to a political faction) will surely identify the right talent.

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