Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

The government must speak to the people not the media

The government does not need to fight or over-invest in the media.

In fact, it can afford to keep its distance and insist on factual, accurate, correct and truthful reporting.

It is an open secret that not only is the media overly juniorised but its professionals are so underpaid and demoralised they cannot uphold their own standards. In fact, the media does not understand how the government works. The government’s history of delivery, for instance, shows that it does well without it.

If the people of this country were asked to choose between a media without government stories (which are misunderstood as propaganda) or a government without mainstream media that speaks directly to the people, they would choose the latter.

Engaging the media on how to correctly cover government stories, improve its battered image, improve its poor standards plagued by poor research, lack of skilled staff and junior writers does not benefit the government.

Instead it is mistaken for interference with so-called freedom of expression. The government should re-examine its programme to shift it towards selling its message directly to the people.

Instead, the talk about a media tribunal, the Protection of Information Bill, Limpopo textbook saga, Nkandlagate and other negative stories have entangled the government, especially members of the portfolio committees, in controversy and disputes. This distracts the government from its main agenda, to deliver to the people.

Government needs to develop a new communications strategy that delivers the message directly to the people. Adverts and advertorials in newspapers, media briefings, press conferences or a one-on-one with an editor does not, necessarily, work.

As a government that is the product of a former liberation movement embedded among the people, the government — through the Government Communication and Information System, for instance — must create structures and platforms where its messengers, that is, the political principals or communicators can speak directly to the people.

And if the messengers can speak directly to the people — in their own language in their own space and place — there is a greater chance for them to internalise the message. In fact, they become messengers themselves.

We all know that when it comes to President Jacob Zuma, for instance, one of his distinguishing characteristics is his intuitive connection to the people on the ground. They identify and relate to him because they see him as one of their own.

In the Africa the government operates in, the messenger is a message.

If you ask me, Jacob Zuma does not exactly need the media, for instance.

The media needs him.

Far too many government communicators have become elitist, disconnected from their target audience and constituency.

This new communicator must be a part of the community, understand its needs, aspirations and hopes.

For freedom of expression to flourish, the government must be seen to encourage information and knowledge sharing and a critical exchange of views, especially in indigenous languages.

And this is something the media does not exactly encourage, not only because it does not know or understand indigenous languages but it tends to publish only those that agree with its perspective.

The communicators must make it easier for the people to take ownership of government programmes and have a sense of belonging in making this country work — deliver the government’s mandate to create an empowered, fair and inclusive citizenship.

There should be very little place or consideration for the media, specifically one that is not concerned with and completely at one with the urgent need to empower the people through information and knowledge so that they can be active agents of the change they want to see in their lives, in their country.
The biggest challenge is the government spokespeople who think appearing in the media is a big achievement. An obsession with mainstream media, popular newspapers and TV programmes, which are not, necessarily, the best vehicle to reach the people.

Of course it cannot be wrong to understand or appreciate modern media and use it to enhance government communications.

But when it becomes the primary and dominant means of communication and does not speak the same language as the people of the country, then there is a problem.

In the last three elections, we have seen how the ANC, for instance, had negative coverage but always found ways to intuitively connect to the people and emerge victorious.

Countless times, the media predicted the governing party would suffer major losses in voter support. This did not happen. The media is completely out of touch with the people, the society it covers.

The people want to be spoken to directly, not through a middleman or interpreter.

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    • Truth be known

      @Sandile

      I cannot believe what I am reading. I really look forward to the comments that follow.

    • Tofolux

      @Sandile, I totally agree. It is an open secret that media does not enjoy the confidence of the public at large. I therefore suggest that we MUST and SHOULD allow the current Parliamentary broadcasting to be shown on SABC instead of the pay channel tv. It will enjoy mass appeal and citizens will be able to grasp first hand as to how parliament operates procedurally etc. It will also be plain for everyone to see the sheer hypocrisy of how the opposition is portrayed in media vs not only their performance in WCape but also their shallowness in govt. The ruling party has never had any help from media in fact they operate in tandem with the opposition. Hence it begs the question, why should they be considered if the public at large do not believe in them anyway?

    • African

      Normally Mr Memela’s blogs are wise and insightful. However this is a thin argument in favour of state propaganda in terms which Mr Goebbels might have used. Not a great argument – especially as the most dumbed-down media source, the SABC, is already little more than a government broadcaster. In its essence this is an argument not only for political loyalty, but also for severe ‘dumbing down’ or reducing all stories to the lowest common denominator. It is not a wise viewpoint.

    • Reader

      “The people want to be spoken to directly, not through a middleman or interpreter.” Maybe. But I suspect the greatest middleman is the peoples own intellect, which is seen as highly undesirable by a government that does not respect intellect. Possibly the middleman seen as most undesirable by the state (or party) is the middleman of individual intellect, judgement, wisdom, education and insight. All of these concepts are not held in high regard by the current government – despite the evident intellect and usually wise words of the author of the blog.

    • Heinrich

      “Instead, the talk about a media tribunal, the Protection of Information Bill, Limpopo textbook saga, Nkandlagate and other negative stories have entangled the government, especially members of the portfolio committees, in controversy and disputes. This distracts the government from its main agenda, to deliver to the people”.

      No, Sandile. It is the self interest of the ANC and the greed of its members, which prevents delivery to the people.

      Thank heavens for the media for keeping an eye on this.

    • The Creator

      For a long time the ANC essentially ignored the private media, and could afford to, because the private media was relentlessly hostile to it. This was an ambiguous blessing, because while it meant that the private media would expose corruption and misconduct, it also made up a lot of stuff out of whole cloth and there was no counterposing media voice to expose the private media when they lied. However, as Memela rightly points out, the interesting thing about this process is that it had no impact on the electorate, who increasingly supported the ANC even as the private media’s attacks on it grew more strident.

      However, at this time, the public media — the SABC — was more critical of the government and the ANC than had been the case before 1994. Therefore, the SABC could potentially fulfil the role of a media independent of the private media’s propaganda role (which is ironic, since the reverse had been true before 1994). Arguably, the decade after 1994 was the SABC’s best time, a time when it was often possible to fact-check the press via the SABC. But this was always unstable because the ANC, inevitably, abused its control over the SABC — or, at the very least, appointed people to control the public broadcaster who toadied to the ANC and thus created a climate in which the public broadcaster was almost as unreliable as the private media.

    • The Creator

      However, the Zuma era did see a major shift. The reason was that Zuma enjoyed the support of the private press (the owners of which were using him to overthrow Mbeki and gain control of the ANC). As a result, Zuma shamelessly exploited this support, leaking disinformation (the Ngcuka smear and the Masetlha faked e-mails being only early examples of the private press pretending that obvious lies might be true in order to promote Zuma) and thus becoming dependent on the private press, as much as he was dependent on the owners of the private press for his funding.

      When Zuma took power, he also abused it to make the public broadcaster far more of a mouthpiece for his own public relations than ever before. Zuma’s incessant presence on the airwaves is embarrassing — the SABC’s “Presidential correspondent” fulfils much the role of the BBC’s “Royal correspondent”.

      Of course, Zuma has to pretend to have an adversarial relationship with the private press, because if he admitted that the private press were backing him, people would ask why the multinational white capitalists who own the press were supporting him — and the answer is quite obvious and would damage his standing in the african community. In practice, however, the Zuma ANC works very hard to get a good image in the media. Meanwhile, all the media is now speaking with one voice — a lamentable state of affairs, but very convenient for mendacious spin-doctors.

    • bernpm

      Dear Mr Mamela, if I hear you correctly, you are calling for a government controlled press. So the government can tell us what they are doing or intend doing for us……or not?

      We would never hear about the “faux pas” of our popular trio of female ministers until they give interviews to foreign radio stations.

      Along those lines, the Government could block all electronic traffic to protect themselves against the stuff passed around by all these incompetent journalists and other news agencies who are feeding us with lies, fabricated suggestions and other fantasies about the actions of our brilliant team of civil servants.

      Back into time: Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the likes….. Keep in mind that they all failed, even long before electronic traffic existed. Watching the world news, we see more and more protests by large chunks of populations all over. SA has its fair share.

      Most of our politicians do not climb on a soap box to address these people. It would present an excellent opportunity to talk directly to the people (as you suggest they should) without interference from these incompetent and biased junior reporters. Would it be possible that the leaders are scared to be held accountable to their promises??

      Good news in the press will come to the top as soon as there is more genuine good news than bad news. The government has the frequency of the occurrences of good news mostly in its own hands.

      Silencing the media would not be one of those good…

    • bernpm

      Anecdotal on how news can travel if of interest to the people:

      WW2, The Netherlands. The German regime had ordered all radio sets to be handed over to be replaced by controlled radio speakers over the telephone network.

      My father was naughty and kept his radio hidden in a cupboard. He could receive stations from England including the Dutch radio station from London. comparing the “war news” between the English and the Germans was interesting.
      Members of the underground typed it out in multiple copies and my brothers and I would bring it around to selected addresses.

      I am sure that there will be enough people in SA who can and will boycott a controlled press.

    • Tofolux

      @ The Creator,I must say you give our President far too much credit for having such an iron-fist ability to CONTROL our govt.
      @Sandile, the comments of the Creator is a case in point. If every citizen knew the mechanics of govt, they would never make the kind of allegations that has notably been made. In reality, there is no way possible for any President to exact this kind of control over our State. There are far too many procedures and processes in place for him to do this unless he is meeting someone somewhere in some dark corner quite frequently (maybe every hr) so that he has this ”control” everyone dreams about. However, this thinking and motivation stems from the controlling nature of govt experienced under the apartheid state and it seems that some in general have not moved from this thinking and understanding. Hence if our Parliament was shown live on SABC our citizens will be able to distinguish(correctly) between propaganda and reality.

    • Belle

      If memory serves me correctly, less than 50% of voters actually voted in the 2009 elections. Effectively only 38% of the electorate voted for the ANC …. so they do NOT have the support of ‘ The Majority’, as you claim, Sandile.

      IMO the problem is not about enabling the the government to speak directly to the people, but for the government to LISTEN to the people who employ them to govern. This certainly does not happen.

      Regarding government ‘speaking directly to the people’, they appear to be moving in that direction already. – The New Age, SABC. Ace Magashule’s R40 million website are but a few examples.

      Has it occurred to you, Sandile, that the most effective way government can communicate with people is through visible, efficient, reliable delivery of of cost-effective high-quality services?

    • Ant

      These populist theories about the media and govt are based on the premise that the govt does a good job and are maligned. Nothing is further from the truth. That is why they introduce a cover up Bill so that their utter failure can’t becomes news. “Kill the Messenger” and no one hears how incompetent they are…simple…rather than lift their game…

    • http://www.tiltrepublic.com CS

      This seems like the most sinister thing I’ve read in a while, government controlled interplay is certainly one of the most toxic proposals in the pretend pipeline of our online dystopia. I’m saddened by the very prospect, that this post was entirely bereft of mirth or irony has made it somewhat worse, if you’re going to be this dodgey Mr Melema, be funnier.

    • Jens Bierbrauer

      “The government must speak to the people not the media”

      What a good idea. Hayibo.com ran out of money. This is a perfect solution.

    • Just a Thought

      Well if government decided to talk directly to the people, it would only ever address its voter support base, which they already do prior to every election. Everybody who holds an opinion contrary to the government position would constantly be in the dark and unable to understand the broadcasts anyway. This is because the only reason the ANC give speeches in english is in response to mainstream media. So if you take away media coverage i woudl officially become “the other” and my taxes would just dissapear into a black hole and i would never know why service delivery is so poor. Worst idea ever Sandile….