Minister of spin out of control

Faith Muthambi was meant to become the mouthpiece for the government but infighting has made the communications department unworkable. (David Harrison, M&G)

Faith Muthambi was meant to become the mouthpiece for the government but infighting has made the communications department unworkable. (David Harrison, M&G)

The department of communications is in disarray with its minister, Faith Muthambi, facing off against defiant senior management.

Senior sources said the relationship between her and her managers had become dysfunctional and, at times, resulted in screaming matches.

Eight government sources painted a picture of a minister battling to implement the changes needed to get her new department off the ground because of the resistance from within.

The situation is said to be so fraught that the department’s management team, particularly those from the former Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), refuse to account to her and have told her that “she does not know what she is doing”.

The department of communication however has denied that the department is dysfunctional, and that relations between managers and Muthambi were tense.

“The minister enjoys a cordial and professional relationship with members of the departmental [executive committee], its [management committee] and all staff. 

“This has created an environment for frank but respectful conversations in which organisational strategy and performance can be discussed,” said Muthambi’s spokesperson, Ayanda Hollow.

He said neither the minister nor the acting director general have received any formal complaints from any staff member, adding that it was therefore not clear “which of the perceptions have informed your question”.

High-profile resignations
Muthambi has accused most of her senior staff of undermining her and says the deputy directors general have refused to follow orders.

In turn, they accuse her of “interfering and meddling”, “not understanding the business of government” and “bad leadership”.

“It is such an acrimonious situation [that] when you go to those meetings, you know for sure that it would be tense and very bitter,” a highly placed source said.

“No work gets done … and the thing is GCIS was a well-oiled machine [when it was an independent agency]. We always got a clean audit, we did our own thing and accounted to the presidency. Now it is just petty politics.”

Muthambi is accused of attempting to hire and fire staff members on whim and of redeploying others who question her decisions.

“She has come with a team of outside people who aggravate the situation. They are all hellbent that there is a plot against the minister,” the same source said.

The tensions have led to several high-profile resignations, including that of Muthambi’s former spokesperson, Bongiwe Gambu.

The deputy directors general are said to be ignoring Muthambi and reporting directly to  Presidency Minister Jeff Radebe.

The former acting chief executive officer of the GCIS, Phumla Williams, left Muthambi’s communications department. She opted to work for the interministerial task team on communication after Muthambi apparently questioned her willingness to work under her.

Now the deputy directors general (DDGs) in the department are said to be ignoring Muthambi and reporting directly to the minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, who chairs the interministerial committee on communication and publicity. 

“[GCIS] exco [executive committee] and the minister don’t talk any more. So now you have a situation where they do things without her and, when she goes to meetings with Minister Radebe, she hears things for the first time,” the source said.

Radebe could not be reached for comment.

Unauthorised ads
At the centre of the latest controversy in the department is the issue of adverts, alleged to have cost R1.6-million, that appeared in the New Age in December without the authorisation of the accounting officers.

A senior GCIS manager said the adverts appeared on December 19 without being cleared by the deputy director general responsible for it.

“Everyone was asking each other, ‘Who did this?’ We don’t have a budget for it and it was really unnecessary,” the senior manager said.

Another source said Muthambi had personally ensured that the adverts were placed in the newspaper.

“We were all shocked when we opened the paper. None of the DDGs were told about it. She just did what she wanted to do,” the senior manager said.

Muthambi could not be reached for comment. Her spokesperson, Ayanda Hollow, said she was attending a Cabinet lekgotla.

Re-establish the GCIS
Last month President Jacob Zuma issued a proclamation to re-establish the GCIS, which was dissolved in October to become a unit in the department of communications.

His decision followed the department’s failure to fulfil its mandate, which was to centralise all communication and be the mouthpiece of the government. But Muthambi seemingly failed to do that and Radebe was seconded to deal with the fiasco.

The dissolution of the GCIS was met with stiff resistance by its staff, but a source close to Muthambi said the minister was simply doing her job by disbanding the unit.

“It is quite embarrassing for her to now be expected to communicate that GCIS is being reinstated,” the source said.

The atmosphere is so tense that Muthambi no longer uses speeches drafted by senior GCIS staff members.

“Everyone was positioning themselves for either a CEO [chief executive officer] or DG [director general] positions and would write the speech in such a way that suited their agenda,” a source sympathetic to Muthambi said. “They thought she was a fool that she would just accept the speeches and read them as they are.”

When Muthambi announced that the GCIS would be dissolved, she told the staff that whoever disagreed with the decision was free to leave.

In a speech she delivered to staff in October, Muthambi encouraged employees to “let go of old cheese” and “find new cheese”, quoting from the book Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life.

The Mail & Guardian understands that she told those who disagreed with her that the “civil service is wide” and they could be redeployed outside her portfolio.

If they chose to stay, they needed to work with her to find new cheese, she said.

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice.
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