The government is often frustrated when it has to communicate with citizens through the media. Next year, one department plans to short the circuit, getting those citizens on its wavelength, in a manner of speaking.
After a few false starts, the department of international relations and co-operation is convinced that Radio Dirco will be on the air (or at least on the web) early in 2013. It is also convinced that it will manage to steer clear of propaganda and questions about another R40-million a year government radio station.
"We're hoping to go live in January," said department spokesperson Clayson Monyela, who generated the idea. "If there is a delay, it will definitely be in February."
Radio Dirco was due to launch in September, then in October. But the production facilities are ready, possible hosts and analysts have been approached and soon, the department believes, the foreign affairs arm of the government will be on the air.
"There is definitely a gap in terms of how the South African government communicates with South Africans generally, but more so a department like ours with the mandate we have," Monyela said.
"We can't rely on soundbites of 30 seconds on SAfm or an hour on [Talk Radio] 702, or an opinion piece in a paper once a week."
Hence Radio Dirco, a 24/7 online radio station on which, for instance, the government's position in favour of a United Nations resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya and its disclaiming of subsequent attack sorties can be explained. On such issues, Monyela said, "no matter how we explained it in press conferences, it didn't come through in the manner we wanted it to. If we had a platform where we could do it step by step, maybe people would understand."
Similar frustration has been expressed by everyone from the president down: a mediated message tends to fall short of their expectations. So, instead of holding press conferences just for the press, the department intends to live-stream them. Instead of fighting for a slice of the news cycle, it wants to create its own. It is betting South Africans, locally and abroad, will be interested.
If it turns out nobody is interested, the loss will be minor. Drawing mainly from department communications staff and volunteers, the expected cost will be in the region of tens of thousands of rands.
The real risk is being seen as a taxpayer-funded propaganda tool aimed at those very taxpayers. Monyela vehemently denied that there was any such intention and believes the content will speak for itself on that score.
The precedent Radio Dirco will have to disprove is Radio RSA, a shortwave station launched in 1965 by a government besieged by what it considered a hostile local and international media.
By just about every metric (other than the eventual fall of apartheid), Radio RSA was a knockout success. Its shortwave transmissions regularly blanketed the continent and reached as far afield as the United States, where older ham radio operators still reminisce about its "informative and entertaining" news shows.
Letters from listeners from around the world praised it and expressed astonishment at how positive the situation in South Africa was, especially compared with the other news reports they were subjected to.
After 1994, Radio RSA morphed into Channel Africa, although not without drama, including a Cabinet decision, later rescinded, to close it down. Funded from the foreign affairs budget, it currently subsists on a grant of about R40-million a year from the department of communications. Although run by the SABC, it is considered an "administered project" falling outside the control of the state broadcaster.
Channel Africa carries little to no stigma as a propaganda tool, although its official mandate includes supporting foreign policy. The international relations department said it had no contact with Channel Africa and no influence over its output.
Asked whether Radio Dirco risked highlighting the cost of Channel Africa, the channel did not respond. The department of communications was unconcerned about any overlap between the two.
"Channel Africa is an important asset for South Africa, in the same way that the BBC World Service radio is to the United Kingdom and other similar services are to their countries," the communications department said in a written answer.
"The current allocation is minuscule, considering what the channel does on the continent in terms of fostering regional integration and selling South Africa to the world."