Covid-19 communication in Mpumalanga: A case study on how not to communicate

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant lockdown, has exposed some fault lines in how government communicators at different levels disseminate information to the public.

What will arguably be remembered as the most remarkable Covid-19 miscommunication is undoubtedly the confusion on the prohibition of selling tobacco products. After president Cyril Ramaphosa had earlier said it would be lifted, the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma later contradicted the president.

Could the threat to test the legality of the National Command Council to court be the aftermath of a communication blunder?

No system is foolproof, but the delay in correcting the communication pitfall led to some commentators drawing their own conclusions – viz. that Dlamini-Zuma was hitting back for losing against Ramaphosa at the ANC’s 54th National NASREC conference in December 2017.

Apart from that communication drawback, the national government communication system appears to have seamlessly sprung into action without any delay and regularly informed society about the developments on the disease. The appointment of a seasoned communicator, Jackson Mthembu as the minister responsible for the Government Information and Communication System (GCIS) was most probably the best timed intervention.

They set-up a dedicated data-free website with updates about the developments around the Covid-19, a Whatsapp account where people are required to save the number, 0600 123 456 to make enquiries about the disease, and a Twitter account, in addition to the department of health’s own website.

Of course, for those who need detailed information and analysis are able to visit the National Institute for Communicable Diseases website.

Maybe most of the local governments can be forgiven for failing to communicate during this period, because the COMTASK processes hardly touched this sphere of government, since the release of the report in 1996, but information dissemination efforts of some of the major cities should be commended.

COMTASK was the intervention by the then Government of National Unity to transform government communication from an apartheid propaganda machinery which was characterised by a culture of secrecy, disinformation and restriction of freedom of expression and media, to a people oriented communication system which recognises the public right of access to information, freedom of expression and a transparent and accountable government.

While the communication efforts of provinces like Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape deserve praise for communicating relevant Corvid-19 messages during the lockdown, the same, however, cannot be said about provinces like Mpumalanga.

For most provincial government communicators, the national lockdown was like the longest paid leave.

As a media practitioner based in Mpumalanga, it became a luxury to get information, not only because some of the communicators were not available, but also because they were not communicating information that the public could use.

The information needs of the citizens of the province went beyond the statistics that the department of health was providing. Citizens wanted to know the specific towns where the virus was detected, but the provincial DOH, to this day, only publishes statistics per municipality.

This past Sunday, Mbombela had 8 positive and 3 active cases. But Mbombela is not a small dorpie. It has a population of about 696 000. Thus, the cases could have been at Phola in Hazyview or Kathyville in Barberton in the North-South corridor. Or they could have been at Kaapmuiden or Ngodwana in the East-West corridor.

Citizens want assurances that those infected are in quarantine, whether by themselves or placed in government managed centres. They want to know that all the people they came to contact with have been traced successfully, and whether they were tested and what the results were.

People want to know how to deal with the loss of salaries. SMME’s wanted to know when they’d be paid for services already rendered to government. The needy wanted to know how they’d get food parcels, how frequent and for how long. Government employees wanted to know when they were going back to work. Learners wanted to know when schools are resuming. People wanted to know about the Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme, etc.

Communicating the face of a politician instead of the message

It appears that some government communicators’ preoccupation was the promotion of the reputation of the politicians instead of meeting the information needs of the public.

Leading the pack was Mpumalanga premier, Refilwe Mtshweni-Tsipane’s office. They branded sanitisers with her face, and not a single symbol which shows that the sanitisers were from government, or that government money was used to procure them.

To date, every little statistic of the Covid-19, even if a person has recovered on his or her own during self-quarantine, the media release from the provincial department of health shows the face of health MEC, Sasekani Manzini. There was a time the province’s statistics never changed for almost two weeks, the department would just change the date, but ensure that Manzini’s picture was ever present.

The most bizarre communication oops was the department of social department, which at some point, seemed to have even outsourced its communication to Malawian Shepherd Bushiri and his church. The church issued at least two media releases about MEC Thandi Shongwe, claiming that she thanked Bushiri for donating food parcels.

Departmental spokesperson, Comfort Ngobe, disappeared from the radar of investigative journalists when asked to prove that the DSD had sent out requests for donations to all churches in Mpumalanga as he had claimed.

“Good afternoon. We will respond in 48 hours,” he said on 19 April 2020, and that was the last time it was heard from him. Almost a month later, Ngobe, who once had a reputation of being a responsive communicator, had not only failed to respond, but has uncharacteristically, ignored text messages and telephone calls.

The ruling party did not want to be outdone in the communications’ blunders. Controversial ANC  regional leader, Ngrayi Ngwenya, caused another communication chaos, when he announced in a video message on social media that he was distributing food parcels on behalf of Bushiri. This raised eyebrows, given that the information in the public domain was that the church had made donations to the department of social development, but it appears that this consignment never reached the DSD.

Provincial government websites on lockdown holiday

Almost all the provincial government websites have gone inactive, some have information that is older than the Covid-19 crisis. The only latest media release in the provincial government website about Coronavirus was issued by the MEC for Cogta, Mandla Msibi, announcing the suspension of initiation schools in the province.

The last media release from the department of health’s website was on 3 July 2019, and the last media release in the Premier’s Office website was on 1 July 2019. This means that the last communication to the public that does not like social media was before premier Mtshweni-Tsipane delivered her first state of the province address at the 6th provincial legislature.

Premier’s spokesperson, Sibongile Mkani-Mpolweni, seems to be one of the few government spokespersons who make full use of social media, in particular, the Whatsapp, as a communication tool.

The former SABC journalist has consistently been posting information on the OTP (Office of the Premier) Whatsapp account. Unlike some of the communicators, there have been less of the portraits of her boss in her media releases. Her boss’s face is not on the government Facebook page.

Cogta department’s spokesperson, George Mthethwa, was arguably the most accessible government communicator during the Covid-19 period – he always and promptly responds to media enquiries. He also created a Whatsapp group for the media as back as March this year, before the relevant department –  the provincial DOH.

His department’s website, however, is not useful at all. Their last media release was in January this year, meaning that all the media releases that he’s been releasing during the Covid-19 period ended up in the Whatsapp group.

For the department of health, communication was reduced to booking media slots on the two SABC radio stations and some community radio stations, and advertisements in the conservative white-owned media.

Departmental spokesperson, Dumisani Malamule also started a Whatsapp Group in mid-April 2020, named MP Health media contacts. As the name suggests, the Whatsapp group was meant for for the media.

Communicating through Whatsapp, however, deprives society of information because the group members are journalists, and only very few members of the fourth estate publish what appears to be propaganda. In fact, the more the departmental spokesperson sends media releases with the face of Manzini, the more media ignore Manzini’s face and use the statistics instead.

Supervisor-subordinate communication

Government created websites to ensure that those who are not on social media, such as Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter can have unhindered access to information held by the state, but few, if any, of the communicators in the province seem to acknowledge that.

Most of the government communicators appear to either disregard or are unfamiliar with the principle of two-way communication, which promotes the culture of democratic participation.

Mpumalanga politicians seem to prefer to speak to citizens as though they were employees or subjects of the state. Citizens are spoken to than communicated with. It was a not only a one-way communication with no feedback, but it was also a downward only communication, like a supervisor issuing instructions to subordinates. Hence radio and conservative media have been their preference instead of critical and investigative media.

When politicians appear on the radio stations, there are battalions of praise singers who always hog the telephone lines to prevent people with different views access to the studios. They even share information on Whatsapp groups where they urge each other to “defend” and sing praises to the politician who’d be on a radio talk show.

Facebook non-communication

Facebook seems to be the most preferred communication channel for most government communicators. Almost all the departments have a presence. But it seems that some of the administrators miss the almost real-time nature of social media of interactivity.

At one point, the department of health’s Facebook page had over 70 comments, but not a single response was forthcoming from the department.

“This page is useless,” said one follower, named Well B Max, “they don’t update us with Covid-19 latest results and cities affected like other provinces do.”

Others were questioning why the statistics for Mpumalanga were fluctuating. For example on 18 April, the province had 26 infections but a few days later it was down to 23, but the Facebook administrator didn’t bother to respond to the concerns.

Some followers claimed that the screening that the department was talking about was mere registration of people’s details, such as identity numbers and contact details

“I was bothered by what was supposed to be corona screening and testing that was done at our village. The health workers had no infrared thermometers nor testing kits, only a book/ papers taking down people’s names and ID numbers. That was as good as nothing, your website shows no email so I can send my complain,” read a comment from Glonny Mahlalela from CunningMoore B in Bushbuckridge.

The health department, arguably, takes the crown for being the most unresponsive from a communications point of view, and the media has not been spared. Media enquiries from investigative media take days before being responded to.

Mpumalanga’s departments of education and community safety, security and liaison have been updating their Facebook pages consistently on events affecting their constituencies.

Surprisingly, the department of human settlements’s Facebook page has been very active in providing very valuable information, but not surprisingly, the department has not been using the information from the province’s department of health, but the NICD as their source.

Human settlements was operating more like a provincial information source because they were able to gather valuable Covid-19 related information from various national and provincial departments, and have been very consistent. But like all other departments, the department’s website was last updated in January 2020.

While, the provincial department of health failed to provide the explanation on the fluctuating numbers in Mpumalanga, Ziwaphi – The New Era sought explanation from the national DOH and within hours, they responded.

“We made a commitment that we would report the numbers to the public as we receive them from NICD at the time. Sometimes the NICD then subsequently discovers duplications and they make corrections and clean up the data.

“Therefore since we have that pact with the public the public also needs to understand they will see some results of data clean up and correction

“Some followers claimed that the screening that the department was talking about was mere registration of people’s details, such as identity numbers and contact details,” said national department of health spokesperson, Dr Lwazi Manzi.

Face to face communication

The provincial health department has declared Nkomazi local municipality the epicentre of Covid-19, which means that most resources and efforts should be directed to that municipality, but there’s very little information coming from the area, except the efforts of municipal spokesperson, Cyril Ripinga, who was featured a few times on SABC TV.

Regrettably, Nkomazi municipality is very remote and rural without means of communication, thus when the SABC has visited the area, there really must have been a newsworthy story. But being the epicentre for Covid-19 is newsworthy enough.

When a rare communication opportunity presented itself in April when minister of health, Zweli Mkhize, was visiting provinces to assess their state of readiness in dealing with the Covid-19, provincial authorities hosted him at Ermelo in Msukaligwa municipality.

The municipality as a whole did not have a single case at the time. In fact, since Mkhize’s visit, only one case has been reported in the entire municipality. Nkomazi had already been identified as the province’s epicentre of the virus. The decision by the provincial health authorities to divert Mkhize to Ermelo instead of the Nkomazi, still boggles the mind.

It thus came as no surprise that at the end of his meeting with the health workers, Mkhize said he was satisfied with the province’s state of readiness to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. But would he have said the same if he had been to at least one of the two hospitals in Nkomazi?

It is, however, not Mkhize alone who has not been to Nkomazi. Premier Mtshweni-Tsipane has reportedly not been to Nkomazi, the epicentre, since the outbreak of Covid-19. Health MEC, Manzini, has only been there once, but didn’t bother to visit any of the hospitals to assess their state of readiness.

There is no better communication statement, during a crisis, than being visible at the point of the crisis.

Nkomazi is the area where the premier and the MEC for health were supposed to be camping daily, like the premier of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal-Natal who are frequent the epicentre in their respective provinces. The Nkomazi and Mpumalanga public wants to know where the quarantine centres for Nkomazi are, instead of being told that there are quarantine centres in Zithabiseni, about 300 kilometres from Nkomazi, even the MRTT hospitality college in Kanyamazane.

The public wants to know if the number of beds in Tonga and Shongwe hospitals is sufficient to cater for those infected. They want to know if there are ventilators at the hospitals. But this is the information that the health authorities seem would not have wanted minister Mkhize to know about, because the health system in the province is in tatters.

Hospitals in Nkomazi are ill-equipped and the staff undertrained to face the pandemic. According to information from some health workers, the hospitals only two ventilators each and the nurses are not trained to use these.

It’s still a mystery why the number of infections in Nkomazi has remained this low, 20, at the time of publishing this article, given that the municipality is bordering Mozambique and Swaziland. The law enforcement agencies on daily basis arrest scores of people who cross illegally from these two countries into South Africa, making it difficult to prevent people who may be infected from entering South Africa.

Some of the Mozambicans who enter South Africa illegally daily. This picture was taken in January 2020.

Judging by the attitude of the health authorities towards Nkomazi, the subliminal message that health authorities are sending is that while the area has been identified as the province’s Covid-19 epicentre, the province’s plan to combat the spread from the epicentre still remains unknown and vague because it’s not geared towards arresting the problem urgently.

But, how did we come here?

First, part of the blame should be apportioned to the former premier Ndaweni Mahlangu era of purging civil servants who were working in their predecessors’ office. Those who became redundant as a result, were all told to “go to communication”. That’s how some of the communication sections started.

Second, communication, like all other professional disciplines, demands scientific knowledge. The question is whether the short courses that some institutions in South Africa offer to our government communicators and the experience that they acquire in their environment are adequate to provide such knowledge.

Third, Mpumalanga province, like other government departments nationally, tended to recruit celebrity journalists, mainly from the South African Broadcasting Services to be communicators. The transition from journalism to communication was easier for some than others.

While some have performed their work diligently and professionally, others have struggled and brazenly violated the code of ethics of professional bodies and see themselves as praise singers of their political heads than messengers of government communication. They constantly display their loyalty to the politicians by putting the politicians’ faces on even the smallest piece of paper.

Facebook accounts bear the faces of the MECs than the symbols of the provincial government, such as the province’s coat of arm. It was as though the MECs were the government and their portraits were the message in an apartheid-like Bantustan fiefdom. While the blame should go to the communicators, but it is expected that the politicians themselves were supposed to guide on this one unless they see themselves in a contest of who would inherit the crown of being the province’s next cult leader.

Granted, one of the objectives of crisis communication is to minimise reputational damage. In the case of the Coronavirus crisis, no reputational crisis was in the offing. But in the case of some of the communicators in the province, the reputation of the political heads became more important than the message that the victims were longing for, to the point of manufacturing a reputational crisis for the very politicians they were trying to promote.

At the time of writing this opinion pieces, the provincial department of health was launching another Facebook based video communication, featuring some of the province’s best health professionals.

Better late than never.

The initiative received praises from some of the Facebook followers of the department’s account. A cursory look at the initiative indicates that the department was introducing health communication, which is equally important, even though there’s more valuable and reliable information already available online from the NICD website and the World Health Organisation.

The question, however, remains, what will cause the department to respond to queries this time, when they have failed since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic?

If one were a prospective communication student, the most important lesson that one could learn from the manner that the province handled the Covid-19 communication is – how not to communicate.

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