GCIS on Adjusted Budget & Revised Annual Performance Plan; Remuneration of ICASA Councillors; with Minister

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Communications

08 July 2020
Chairperson: Mr B Maneli (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Video: GCIS on Adjusted Budget & Revised Annual Performance Plan; Remuneration of ICASA Councillors

The President was trusted by the population to lead the nation during the COVID19 pandemic. This was one of five key findings of research highlighted by the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) when briefing the Committee on its strategic communication focus in the fight against the pandemic.

The other key findings showed that:

  • Compliance remained a mixed picture, and was worse among the lower segment of those surveyed;
  • Sub-messages on further preventative messages and government relief measures needed further reach, especially in the lower segments;
  • People were aware that they needed to play their part in curbing the spread  of the virus;
  • The health experts followed by government were the topmost trusted sources of information on Covid-19, confirming the implementation of the government communication strategy

A R60 million budget had been allocated to the GCIS to publicise government’s response, of which R50 million was for media space, R3.9 million was for print products and distribution, and R6 million for advertising agencies.

The Committee commended the GCIS’s good performance and recognised its important role in the fight against COVID-19. Members felt that more work needed to be done to push the government’s message through to the townships, informal settlements and rural areas. They asked for a breakdown of the GCIS’s budgets in the urban and rural areas, and raised questions about strategies to assist media houses as well as community broadcasters, the process of making permanent appointments at the GCIS, and incidents of using COVID food parcels to further political agendas in Mpumalanga. They also suggested greater use of languages such as Xhosa and Zulu, the inclusion of COVID messages on the websites GCIS’s partners and on the government’s food parcels and packaging, and placing more billboards in the identified hotspots.

The Committee received a report on the remuneration of the Chairperson and councillors of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). It supported the Department’s decision of a salary freeze for the Chairperson and councillors, who earn an annual remuneration over R1.5 million, given the dire economic situation and the fact that South Africa was in the middle of a pandemic. Members asked about the implementation of a performance management system at the entity, as well as the extent of the Committee’s involvement in determining the remuneration percentage increase. 

Meeting report

Government Communication and Information System (GCIS): Adjusted 2020/21 Budget

Mr Jackson Mthembu, Minister in the Presidency [portfolio to whom the GCIS reports], said after South Africa was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) had immediately requested financial assistance from the National Treasury in order to have additional funding for media advertising and raising awareness on COVID-19. The entity had been allocated R60 million for the task to create awareness around COVID-19 among the South African population in the media.. The meeting of the day was to account to the Committee on how the entity had spent its R60 million allocated budget.

Ms Phumla Williams, Director-General: GCIS, emphasised the important communicative role that GCIS plays in the fight against COVID-19. The entity had immediately responded and initiated strategies around the communication on COVID-19, and had requested additional budget from the National Treasury. Every cent of the budget had been well spent and was in accordance with the National Treasury’s guidelines on the management of COVID-19 funds.

Ms Khusela Diko, Acting DDG: Content Processing and Dissemination, GCIS, briefed the Committee on the GCIS’s adjustment budget. She said that due to the pandemic, it had been directed and tasked to co-ordinate messaging across all spheres of government on COVID-19, as well as to educate and raise awareness on it in the country. A costed budget had been devised and submitted to National Treasury.

A R60 million budget had been allocated, of which R50 million was for media space, R3.9 million was for print products and distribution, and R6 million for advertising agencies. The GCIS had adhered to government’s standard procurement processes.

The GCIS’s strategic focus in the fight against COVID-19 was outlined, the organisational structure of the Communication Command Centre was provided, and the envisaged phases of the strategic communications were explained to Members. A range of advertising methods had been introduced, and the key strategy was to be creative. Those included billboards, posters, leaflets, Twitter and Facebook.

Key research insights on people’s awareness and behavioural patterns around the pandemic were provided to the Committee. These showed that:

  • Compliance remained a mixed picture, and was worse among the lower segment of those surveyed;
  • Sub-messages on further preventative messages and government relief measures needed further reach, especially in the lower segments;
  • People were aware that they needed to play their part in curbing the spread  of the virus;
  • The health experts followed by government were the top most trusted sources of information on Covid-19, confirming the implementation of the government communication strategy;
  • The President was trusted by the population to lead the nation during the pandemic.

Minister Mthembu commented on these key insights, and expressed his worry over the lower segments. He suggested unconventional communication methods, such as loudhailers in informal settlements, rural areas and in townships. The entity would need to work with different spheres of local government to convey the message. The coverage of radio and television media was limited among the poorest segments of the population. He also suggested that the use of drones could be considered to convey the government’s messages on COVID-19.  

Discussion

Ms P Faku (ANC) thanked the GCIS for the work that the entity had done. She agreed with the Minister’s concern, and said that loud hailing must be done in townships, rural areas and informal settlements. She also suggested using school children to convey the COVID information to people. She sincerely hoped the GCIS would get more budget in order for the entity to keep up with its good work. She pointed out that there was still room for improvement, and suggested including more languages, such as Xhosa and Zulu, in its communications. 

Ms P van Damme (DA) commended the GCIS, and recognised its critical importance in the fight against the pandemic. It was good to see money had been appropriately used by at least one governmental entity. She asked for a breakdown of the budget that had been spent in rural and urban areas, as well as in other categories, and whether the GCIS could provide non-financial support to media houses such as Media 24, where there was news about its imminent retrenchment of employees. She expressed concern over the grave impact of job losses, and commented that everyone in the country needed to pull together to reduce job losses.

Mr C Mackenzie (DA) remarked on the irony that people were not wearing masks in front of President Ramaphosa’s billboard in the photo. He asked the GCIS to be more meticulous on such details, as it sent a message to people. 

He suggested the GCIS’s website hosts should be obliged to include a COVID message on their websites, as this could be very effective.

He agreed with Ms Van Damme’s view that media houses needed the GCIS’s support. Community broadcasters were currently battling financially as a result of COVID-19, and even a resourceful media house such as Media 24 was struggling. Given the importance of community broadcasters, which formed a very important part of the three-tiered broadcast model, he was disappointed that GCIS could not direct any budget to support community broadcasters.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the government had begun to hand out food parcels to the poor population. He suggested that the GCIS should approach the manufacturers and suppliers of the food products and ask them to put COVID messages on their packaging to help raise awareness of the pandemic.

Ms N Khubheka (ANC) urged the Minister to make permanent appointments at the entity, and referred to the Acting Deputy Director-General who had made the presentation. She recognised the GCIS’s good work, and commended its efforts in reaching out to informal settlements. The entity needed to work collaboratively with local governments to raise awareness on COVID-19. She suggested it should consider placing billboards at identified COVID-19 hotspots, as this would be a very effective way to sensitise and raise awareness among the population. 

Mr T Gumbu (ANC) wanted to know how GCIS had planned to distribute the three million leaflets. Would this be sufficient to reach everywhere in the country?

Ms Z Majozi (IFP) agreed with other Members that the adjustment budget for the entity had been well spent, and expressed her support for the GCIS.

The Chairperson sought clarity on the application for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) that had been submitted late. and asked the delegation to provide more details.

Response

Minister Mthembu advised the Chairperson that the issue of the SABC would be explained by the Minister of Communication, who would come to brief the Committee later. He said that the way the government could assist the SABC, community radio stations and media houses, was to advertise on their platforms. Through the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), over R20 million had been directed towards assisting community media in order to help them to cover rental and staff operational expenses. The Minister suggested that the MDDA should be invited to the Committee so that everyone could work together to figure out a way to assist community media. 

Ms Williams emphasised the role that collaborative work with stakeholders could play in conveying the government’s COVID message. The GCIS was committed to working with community media because they were the key to reach the populations in informal settlements, rural areas and townships. It even encouraged its core teams at mayoral, provincial and district levels to utilise community platforms to advertise the government’s COVID-19 information.

She indicated that recent research, as well as the GCIS’s ground level team, had all found that it was difficult for the young population to change their behaviours during the pandemic. The young population then went on to infect old people, who were actually abiding by government’s COVID-19 precautionary measures. The GCIS’s next mission was to specifically target South Africa’s young population, in order to change their behaviours. Although young people were very informed of the government’s precautionary measures on COVID, they were also the largest population that did not abide by those rules, and then infected their loved ones. This was an urgent issue that the GCIS needed to address.

Ms Diko said the GCIS did not have a breakdown of the figures for urban and rural budget spending. Its commitment to community media was that no less than 20% of its budget should be spent on community media. However, it had unfortunately not been able to meet the target so far, but she gave an assurance that it was something the entity was working towards.

In response to Mr Mackenzie’s question, she said that Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, had issued a directive since the lockdown. The directive made it obligatory for all websites in South Africa to provide the SA coronavirus link to ensure that more people had access to the government’s information and update on COVID-19.  Also, there had been an agreement reached with mobile operators in South Africa that there should be at least two SMSs a day for government to communicate any COVID-19 related information to South African mobile users.

On product packaging, she said that the GCIS had been engaging with the private sector, such as Business South Africa, to discuss putting COVID-19 messages on the packages of food items such as bread. It had been done quite successfully in the first phase, and it planned to expand the coverage to other items.

Referring to the three million leaflets, she responded that retailers in South Africa had committed that they would be able to take some of them leaflets from the GCIS. So far, 69 600 had been distributed, and more leaflets would be sent to GCIS’s provincial offices and would then be forwarded to their relevant departments for distribution.

The GCIS had already spent its budget on billboards, and covered all the identified hotspots in South Africa. Although it was planning to expand its billboard coverage to more areas, the R60 million budget could only go so far. R47 million of the R60 million budget had already been spent, but it was considering whether to use the balance of R13 million for outdoor billboards, or to find other innovative ways of conveying the COVID-19 message. It was also thinking of putting posters on street poles.

Ms Diko appreciated the Committee’s view that this entity was the one public entity that needed and deserved more budget to carry out its function.

Mr Michael Currin, Acting DDG: Intergovernmental Coordination and Stakeholder Management, GCIS, agreed with Ms Faku’s point that there was a need for a high level of coherence in the messages of partners and spheres of government. He assured the Committee that the GCIS had a lot of communication machinery in place at both the national and provincial levels. It met with national heads of communication three times a week and had developed a comprehensive communication group for those colleagues, so when a national department was working on a project, the communication was amplified at other national departments as well, and also went down to provincial structures.

Coherence among the provinces had also been ensured. The Minister had just met with the nine GCIS’s provincial heads this afternoon to ensure the coherence of the dissemination of content, which was then sent to municipalities and districts. Regarding its rural area presence, his team had just started to go into rural areas and to go to the constituency offices of Members of Parliament to disseminate the COVID-19 message.

Many of the GCIS’s partners, such as Albany bread, were willing to put COVID-19 messages on their packaging to assist it in carrying out its work.

Minister Mthembu said that the biggest challenge for now -- which was also a global challenge -- was how to affect people’s behavioural changes so that they would wear masks, keep social distance and observe other health protocols voluntarily, instead of being policed. 

The government’s approach in combating COVID-19 and ensuring people had sufficient means to live, involved a delicate balance. It was therefore a challenging time for the government to deal with this situation. On the one side it was about saving lives; on the other, it was about economic development.

He said the GCIS had taken the initiative to fill the vacancies and replace acting positions. It had just appointed it’s Director-General, and was on course to advertise for Deputy Directors General.

He reiterated the GCIS’s role in educating and broadcasting COVID-19 information to the South African population, and said it would continue to do so. It would take some time before people would change their behavioural patterns in order to combat the virus. The message of behavioural change needed to be spread across all media platforms, including non-traditional media platforms such as loudhailers and drones.

Given the virus’s pervasive influence, he suggested that there was also need to advertise and convey information on how support could be provided to those who were already infected and those who were being affected, but the GCIS would need more funds to do that.

Follow-up discussion

Ms Van Damme raised the issue of the SABC’s unfunded mandates, and asked the Minister, the GCIS, as well as the Committee, to work out a funding model to ensure that these mandates could be budgeted for.

Ms Majozi asked how the GCIS was assisting the SABC financially, such as paying them a certain amount for using its space to advertise COVID-19 related messages.

Ms Faku said that at the previous Portfolio Committee meeting, the Deputy Minister had said that R140 million was the amount for a joint application by the SABC and GCIS, and therefore needed to get clarity on that.

Mr V Pambo (EFF) remarked that at the beginning of the lockdown, when hand sanitisers were being distributed, there were opportunists that had put their own photos on those items. He rejected this type of behaviour, and commented that combating COVID-19 should not be used by opportunists to further political agendas.

He also suggested the GCIS should consider putting a little pamphlet in the handouts in order to convey the government’s messages to a wider population.

Minister Mthembu agreed with Ms Van Damme that they needed to work out a funding model for the public broadcaster. He explained that due to the SABC’s status as a public broadcaster, there was no financial assistance to SABC, because it was only doing what it was mandated to do. However, he acknowledged that the government had not been funding SABC as it should have. He agreed that there needed to be a mechanism to find ways to fund the public broadcaster, because otherwise it would soon disappear. He emphasised, however, that the government would not let that happen.

He assured Mr Pambo that if anyone from the ANC to used handouts to advance their political agenda, they would be punished and condemned by the ANC. He asked Mr Pambo to inform the government immediately should he find such incidents, but he was not aware of any. He called for unity in the dealing with COVID-19, because it affected everyone.

Mr Pambo thanked the Minister for his response, and said he would furnish the Minister with all the information because it had already happened. Such incidents had happened in Mpumalanga, where politicians had used the pandemic to do their campaign work.

Remuneration of Chairperson and Councillors of ICASA

Ms Nomvuyiso Batyi, Director-General, Department of Communications, provided the Committee with the background and legal requirements for ICASA councillors’ remuneration. She explained its financial position, and highlighted the country’s serious economic challenges and the entity’s fiscal constraints.

She provided a brief background of the performance management system.

She said that chairperson and other councillors at ICASA, who earned above R1.5 million per annum, would have a zero rate of increase in their remuneration.

Discussion

Ms Faku asked the Committee to support the President’s decision to freeze ICASA councillors’ remuneration, given the dire economic circumstances.

Ms Van Damme said that there was an issue that she was concerned about. However, due to poor connectivity, she was not available when Chairperson probed her to continue to speak.

Ms Majozi supported the no increase for ICASA councillors’ remuneration, as the country was battling with the pandemic. She suggested that an increase may be considered after the pandemic was over. As the Department had just had a R111 million budget cut, she believed that the remuneration freeze was the right thing to do.

Ms Khubheka fully supported the President’s decision to freeze ICASA councillors’ remuneration. She wanted ICASA to clarify whether the performance management system was in place at the entity.

The Chairperson tried to engage with Ms Van Damme but she was unreachable. He suggested that if she was still unreachable by the time ICASA finished its response session, she would need to submit her questions in writing.

Department Response

Ms Batyi appreciated Members’ support for the freeze on ICASA councillors’ remuneration.

She reminded the Committee that ICASA had tabled its performance management system to the Committee last year, with the Deputy Minister present. During the tabling, the issue of legal interpretation emerged, so ICASA was still waiting on the confirmation from the Committee on the legality issue before it could proceed to work on performance management system.

The Chairperson tried to reach out to Ms Van Damme again, but she was inaudible.

The Chairperson appreciated Members’ support for the zero percent increase in ICASA councillors’ remuneration. He sought clarity on the Committee’s role in determining the remuneration. He wondered whether the Committee had no option but to agree with the Minister’s decision.

Ms Batyi explained that the Independent Commission for Public Office Bearers was the government body for determining remuneration at ICASA. It had suggested a 3% implementation initially, but the suggestion had been rebuffed by the President, who had stated that councillors whose annual remuneration was above R1.5 million should not get an increase. The budget was then sent to National Assembly for approval, so the Committee’s job was to know the situation and to approve its budget.

The Chairperson thanked Ms Batyi for her explanation. He said it had made matter clearer now, since this was the first time that the Committee was dealing with such an issue. The Committee was in agreement with the salary freeze. He wanted ICASA to report to the Committee on the performance management system, as he was sure that Parliament’s content advisors already had a legal opinion on whether Parliament’s participation in ICASA’s panel would be appropriate.

The meeting was adjourned.

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