The minister of the newly created communications portfolio, Faith Muthambi, has in effect been sidelined after a disastrous first three months in office.
She struggles to speak in public, appears extremely nervous in interviews and alienated her party when she controversially defended Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s appointment as the SABC’s chief operating officer, despite a damning report about his original appointment by the public protector.
A source told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday that Muthambi had been sent for media training three times since her appointment.
Now, veteran minister Jeff Radebe increasingly appears to be taking over her responsibilities and she has been relegated to a less public role.
The move has been some time in the making. Muthambi was supposed to address journalists on August 7 – a routine briefing on the outcome of a Cabinet meeting, according to an advisory sent out beforehand. She confirmed she would be at the briefing and promised one-on-one interviews to journalists from two publications.
When journalists arrived, there was no sign of her and Radebe handled the briefing, telling journalists she had other engagements. Since then, he has been leading the weekly press conferences on Cabinet meetings.
Public face of government
A month later, the shift to Radebe as the public face of government communications was further
demonstrated when, at a press briefing in Cape Town this week, he announced himself as the chairperson of the interministerial committee (IMC) on information and publicity. He said it was the first of a series of media briefings “where we will share with the media key developments in government and address issues in the public discourse”.
A senior government official with intimate knowledge of the communication ministry said on Wednesday there was a feeling that “she is out of her depth”. “Every time she makes a presentation or speaks for the government publicly, we cringe. I know several ministers complained about her lack of confidence and inability to articulate government programmes and strategy,” he said.
Responding to the M&G‘s questions, Muthambi said that, historically, Cabinet matters were the responsibility of the presidency. “There is no such thing of me being sidelined,” she said from China on Thursday.
She said communicating Cabinet decisions was no longer the responsibility of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), which had been integrated into the communications ministry. “There is a difference between Cabinet and government … Minister Radebe will communicate on Cabinet decisions. I will be communicating on what government is doing … on the three tiers of government,” she said.
The current arrangement is a far cry from the ANC’s grand plan for the ministry to be a powerful tool to disseminate information about and improve the government’s brand.
The M&G broke the news of the new ministry shortly before the May elections, and senior sources said it would be central to changing the image of President Jacob Zuma’s administration.
“One of the first embarrassing scandals of the new administration was, ironically, from her department,” said the official, referring to Muthambi’s defence of Motsoeneng’s appointment. “She did not know how to deal with a crisis. The president and his government are still facing bad publicity and her department has not turned around what it is supposed to do,” the official said.
Muthambi’s decisions on Motsoeneng appeared to shock her more senior ANC colleagues, who count on ministers to act on collective decisions made in their relevant subcommittee meetings within the party’s national executive committee. But Muthambi failed to show up at the ANC communications subcommittee led by Lindiwe Zulu in the month she took the decision.
“As ministers, we are expected to engage with the ANC subcommittees. We are implementing policies and decisions of the ANC,” Zulu told the M&G at the time.
But a Cabinet minister defended Muthambi on Thursday, given the history of poor management of GCIS.
“She did not appoint herself. It is not about Muthambi but failure of our administration to the implement a viable and sustainable communications strategy. We first hired Jimmy Manyi [as head of GCIS] and were forced to let him go. The presidency hired Mac [Maharaj], who had to answer to his own issues and is always defensive and now we cannot even employ Manyi’s replacement.
“Faith has her own issues. I agree that she is not suitable for such a high-pressured job and she doesn’t have the skill to handle government communications. It’s tough. But what support system is there for her? We wanted a propaganda machinery but we are sabotaging it ourselves and her,” said the minister, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak on the issue.
Radebe shied away from questions about the duplication of roles.
“Muthambi is part of the IMC,” he said at this week’s briefing. “There is no contradiction between the IMC and GCIS in the sense that the GCIS is the engine of government’s platform to communicate.”