After five years of crisis management and hopping from one scandal to another, President Jacob Zuma wants an information ministry, based on the Zimbabwean, Chinese and Russian models, to clean up his image.
His spokesperson Mac Maharaj is earmarked to become the minister of information, assisted by the current international relations communications head, Clayson Monyela, as director general.
Zuma is likely to return as president and, according to officials close to him, he is determined to tidy up his first-term mess with the new “propaganda ministry” and by restructuring his government. This entails recreating the post of a second deputy president to monitor performance, phasing out some ministries and dropping some ministers.
Zuma reconfigured the government when he came to power in 2009 and split some departments, created new ministries and changed the names of others.
The information ministry was apparently identified as being central to re-imaging his administration and leaving an impressive legacy.
Government sources said research on and preparations for the ministry are at an advanced stage.
The ANC head of communications, Lindiwe Zulu, said the ministry was one of the options proposed during discussions at the ANC’s 2012 conference, but it was not adopted as a resolution. She said the congress left it to government to decide on a suitable way to improve government communication.
The Mail & Guardian spoke to three sources – two senior government officials with intimate knowledge of the plan and an ANC national executive committee member.
Maharaj is the preferred candidate because of his age (79), seniority and relationship with Zuma. The M&G understands that other candidates initially considered were ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu and Zulu.
Monyela and Mthembu both said on Thursday that they are not aware of the discussions, and Maharaj said the mooted ministry is “totally out of my knowledge”.
But a government source said: “The rationale is that the combination of Maharaj’s political acumen and Monyela’s innovative approach to government communications will result in a powerful propaganda machinery in Zuma’s second term.”
Zulu said that the ANC had discussed possible ways of improving government communication because its weakness is “a sore point in the ANC”, but that she knows “nothing” about the establishment of the information ministry.
Even if there was such talk, “it would have been a discussion by the officials of the ANC”.
The new information department is likely to be the nerve centre of government propaganda.
“The department will be the central source of communication and information on behalf of all spheres of government on a daily basis,” one source said. “Countries like Zimbabwe have taken a similar route.”
It would incorporate BrandSA and the Government Communication and Information System, and also influence the country’s foreign public relations, complementing the work of the department of international relations and co-operation.
Number of models
The ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) is said to have discussed a number of models, including the Zimbabwean one established by Zanu-PF’s Jonathan Moyo. South Africa’s will consist of a mix of several such systems, including features of the Chinese communist, Russian, British and American models.
A senior official in the presidency said: “The model used by the Chinese and Russians, in particular, has impressed us … Also, how the United States influenced public opinion on its war in Iraq.”
He said the government’s communications is criticised for “having no coherent strategy, failing to set the agenda, being reactive, lacking visible, sustainable campaigns [and] a slow response to issues. Government communicators were also slammed for not being robust and bold enough, failing to tell positive stories and generally leaving government ‘exposed’.
Part of Zuma’s attempt to leave a “positive legacy” is to “act tough on corruption”.
A senior government official told the M&G that Zuma is concerned about the largely negative media coverage he has received since he became president in 2009.
“Zuma feels he has gotten a raw deal in his first term. If you look at service delivery, he has not done very badly but it’s the scandals that are remembered.”
Government departments will still have their own communicators, but the information department will be the “key state propaganda machinery”.
“Every morning, we must wake up and know which department is going to issue what statement,” one of the sources said.
An ANC NEC member said that discussions about weak government communication and a new information ministry are being fuelled by “an onslaught on both the government and the president”.
The last time South Africa had a prominent information ministry was in the 1970s. But the propaganda war that it launched on behalf of the apartheid state ended in the Muldergate scandal, named after the information minister in the John Vorster Cabinet, Connie Mulder. Mulder clandestinely used millions of rands in secret funds to set up front companies and establish the Citizen newspaper.
The scandal broke in 1977 and led to the collapse of Vorster’s government the next year, with PW Botha taking over as head of state.
The Zuma information ministry is part of a massive restructuring of the fifth post-apartheid government.
He wants a second deputy president for the country, in addition to his ANC deputy Cyril Ramaphosa. Democratic South Africa had two deputy presidents, but that came to an end in 1996 when FW de Klerk pulled his National Party out of Nelson Mandela’s government of national unity.
Adding another deputy president requires a two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution.
An ANC source said the party was confident that if it did not muster a two-thirds majority at the polls, it could still get the support of opposition parties for the necessary change to the Constitution.
It is believed that ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete will enter the Union Buildings’ west wing in the position, with the role of monitoring performance in all spheres of government.
The case for doing away with the ministry of performance and monitoring emanated from the fact that “no minister is considered senior enough to oversee the performance of his colleagues in Cabinet. You need to elevate that responsibility to a deputy president,” the presidency source said.
This is the main reason why Zuma’s government is considering the position, although his office has denied this. The plan is to collapse the departments responsible for governance under one deputy president, leaving the other to support the president in shouldering the other responsibilities of the state.
“This would accommodate both [former deputy president and current ANC chairperson] Baleka Mbete and Cyril Ramaphosa, and would also address the gender question,” one of the government sources said.
A new deputy president will also be charged with overseeing the performance of the provinces and municipalities. This means that Collins Chabane, the current minister responsible for performance, will either be kicked out or reassigned.
Zuma is expected to trim his Cabinet further by scrapping five ministries – national planning; performance monitoring and evaluation; women, children and people with disabilities; co-operative governance and traditional affairs; and economic development.
He has been widely criticised for having a bloated Cabinet, which was increased from 28 to 34 ministries when he took over five years ago.
In February, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe told ANC volunteers in King William’s Town that the party was discussing a new ministry for small and medium enterprises and co-operatives, to drive job creation.
The co-operative governance department is considered a failure because, regardless of who has led it, “it has been making no impact”, according to a government official. “Service delivery protests are happening under its watch and municipalities are in disarray.”
The women’s ministry is also “equally weak” and some in the ANC have recommended that it be merged with social development.
Zuma is also said to be mulling changes in the economic cluster. Some ANC leaders have been advocating that former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni should take over as finance minister.
Maharaj said he was “totally ignorant” of plans to close down and reconstitute some ministries.
But another senior government official said it sounded “reasonable to speculate in that direction”.
“Whether it’s happening because there is a need to accommodate powerful politicians or to improve service delivery is something else. The president has got to balance political considerations with service delivery considerations.”
‘Good news’ radio sleeps
The government already has most of the platforms to tell its “good news” stories, including a radio station.
Last year in October government communications stepped into the digital space, with the international relations department launching the Ubuntu radio station. “South Africa has a good story to tell and we have done extremely well over the past 20 years. But this story is not being told,” said the department’s spokesperson, Clayson Monyela at the time.
His contention was that local media were failing to tell this story, or to create any meaningful debate around it. The department therefore had to intervene to elevate the conversation. The resulting 24-hour station would be available via online streaming and cellphone apps, with segments being sent to traditional SABC mediums to broadcast.
The goal was to tell people about South Africa’s foreign relations and to “tell African stories from Africa’s perspective”. Shows would be hosted by a range of people, from diplomats to academics.
“It’s going to be a platform to change the views and opinions [of listeners] as well as getting inputs that can help shape South Africa’s foreign policy going forward,” said Monyela.
It claimed to be the first station on the continent to be run by a government institution for “noncommercial purposes”. With the department already owning most of the equipment, the set-up and running costs would be R1-million.
But it is hard to judge the quality of the station, with its tagline of “South Africa’s diplomacy in action”, because of a stagnant website this week. Now, six months after its launch it seems the 24-hour stream has gone to sleep; there are also none of the promised apps.
Its Twitter feed mostly links to press releases from the department’s website, and only has 2 000 followers. It also strays from diplomatic relations, quoting the president speaking at the official Freedom Day rally. – Sipho Kings
How apartheid state tried to spin the news
In the 1970s the apartheid government under then prime minister John Vorster was ruling over a pariah state.
Its traditional allies in the West had publicly turned against it, with mass protests in the streets of capitals across the world. Everyone seemed to be part of what the government dubbed a “hate South Africa crusade”, recalls the South African History Online website.
Local publications were accused of only focusing on the bad news – and not telling any good stories.
The state then decided that agencies would have to give more positive viewpoints on the country. So in 1973 Vorster turned to his information minister Connie Mulder. He proposed that R64-million be taken from the defence budget to be used for propaganda.
International news agencies would be bribed to tell more positive stories; the Washington Star was targeted for purchase. Money was laundered through Swiss bank accounts, with the bureau of state security and the finance ministry taking the lead in the secret campaign.
To guide the message locally, the Citizen was established as a counter to the liberal Rand Daily Mail. To make this seem legitimate, the newspaper was officially owned by millionaire Louis Luyt, but the funding came from the state.
This was the only part of the scheme that seems to have succeeded (with the Citizen still running today, albeit under totally different ownership).
In 1977 the Rand Daily Mail broke the story, which became known as “Muldergate”, named after its chief architect. The ensuing scandal toppled the government and led to the rise of PW Botha to top office. – Sipho Kings
A previous version of this article stated that Lindiwe Zulu was not aware if this ministry would be implemented. However, she said while it was discussed at the ANC’s 2012 conference, the proposal did not become a congress resolution.
A previous version of this article stated that in order to change the Constitution, the ANC would need a simple majority. This is, in fact, incorrect. The party would need to attain a two-thirds majority in Parliament.