By Dr Tafataona Mahoso
PRESIDENT EMMERSON MNANGAGWA last week expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of a sector which has been my pre-occupation and occupation for half my career, the sector of internal public communication, meaning the way in which the people communicate with their popularly elected Government and the way that Government, in turn, communicates with them between elections.
It is the responsibility of the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services and the public entities falling under its purview to facilitate and manage that relationship.
I do not have a transcript of His Excellency’s full remarks, but I remember reference to the need to make sure skilled cadres are recruited to critical positions in information.
I understood that to mean hiring people who know the difference between mere praise-singing and effective strategic communication, otherwise referred to as public ‘messaging’.
The purpose of my intervention is merely to share my limited experience in that sector with particular emphasis on which skills are plentiful, which skills are missing and how they should be ‘fielded’ or ‘articulated’.
In my view, the first skill is the hardest to pin down and yet very critical: for lack of appropriate language, we may call it relational intelligence, ethical intelligence or patriotic intelligence.
Some call it the ability to inspire a conducive work culture within a department or section or the whole country.
In small organisations, they sometimes call it emotional intelligence.
During the liberation struggle, this skill or quality was summed up by the expression: ‘Iwe neni tine basa’.
A freedom fighter was not supposed to be concerned about fighting to liberate his family or village or province only.
But what I have noticed, especially from the time of the Inclusive Government, otherwise misnamed the Government of National Unity (GNU), is the gradual but alarming replacement of: ‘Iwe neni tine basa’ with, ‘Isu hatina basa, tine nzara, toda kumbodyawo’.
The people saying this may be highly skilled, individually and technically, but they lack the skill to select and field a competent and effective team because such a team requires not just individual skills but a melding of talent, skill and generational experience which cannot be achieved by one who says: ‘It is my turn to eat. Those who have been eating, OUT!’
Labour economists and social psychologists should study what is called the workforce and work ethic to explain the causes of this destruction of the work ethic and true patriotism in the work place.
I can only hazard a few guesses about causes of the new malaise.
One contributing factor seems to be a series of crises to which our people have been subjected over the last 35 years: Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP); the HIV and AIDS pandemic; illegal sanctions; hyperinflation and erosion of livelihoods; mass emigration (border jumping); and, recently, decimation of what was left of the economy by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Literally, we saw the culture of: ‘Iwe neni tine basa’, being replaced by: ‘Takamirira donor redu’.
This even became part of opposition politics: ‘My donors are richer than yours’.
But now, the donors have their own crises in Europe. The employer is now treated as a poor replacement for the departed donor!
That means rampant corruption.
And here, the State happens to be the biggest employer. So, we are up against a tall order.
The net effect of these developments is what the new dispensation and the President are up against when the President says: ‘Nyika inovakwa nevene vayo/Ilizwe liyakwa ngabanikhazi’.
Call for a properly nuanced ‘new dispensation’
Perhaps this is the one area where the public communicators failed.
At the beginning, the motto for the new dispensation was ‘Operation Restore Legacy’.
This emphasised the need for continuity and unity around the foundations created by the liberation struggle and the First Republic which that struggle ushered in.
The President’s speech at the inaugural Conference of the War Veterans League as one of the leagues of ZANU PF, in fact, succeeded in balancing continuity with innovation and reform.
But by that time, overzealous opportunists were already disturbing that balance, compensating for their lack of experience by labelling experienced hands as ‘Mugabe’s people’ or ‘old guard’, which labels paradoxically served to tarnish the President himself as among the longest serving of ‘Mugabe’s people’.
But in reality, Zimbabwe is much, much too small to carve into ‘Mugabe’s and Mnangagwa’s people’ or anyone else’s people.
Yet opportunists used to saying: “My donors are richer than yours” did not hesitate to say: “You are Mugabe’s people; but we are Mnangagwa’s people.”
This muddle and the challenges it posed for the public communicators became evident right at the beginning, that is at the All-Stakeholders Media Indaba in 2018, organised by the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, at Pandhari Lodge in Harare. That conference focused on removing media legislation left behind by the First Republic while leaving out the most obvious requirement: A programme of national research and surveys to discover what had happened, what was happening, to the relationship often called ‘media and society’ between the phasing out of the First Republic and the ushering in of the Second. Binary labels were meant to get rid of people with long experience which seemed to overshadow the new arrivals and to expose their inexperience and incompetence.
Yet much of the research and surveys needed to find out where the media and society were now could have been done easily by those discarded as ‘old guard’.
At the 2018 All-Stakeholders Media Indaba held in Harare, it did seem as if the function of researching future prospects for media development and for the media and society relationship, that function was being delegated to donor-funded media NGOs and activists whose constitutional mandate was, at best, unclear.
Meanwhile, genuine efforts by relevant Government departments to provide induction and training for the new people in the information and broadcasting sector did not help once the binary labels of ‘old guard’ and ‘new gate-keeper’ had been fixed.
The same persons with long experience were needed to provide the induction, thereby increasing resentment by the newcomers whose fast promotion to high posts was exposed through the induction sessions.
Foolish newcomers even suspected that the induction system was a conspiracy by the ‘old guard’ to humiliate new arrivals by exposing their lack of skills and lack of experience and, therefore, delaying the old guard’s overdue departure.
As the President said last week, the focus should have been, and should continue to be, on programmes that distinguish the ‘new’ in the ‘new dispensation’.
And the President’s speech at the War Veterans League remains a good ideological guide on that balancing.
But the sensitivity and balancing implied in the President’s key note address to war veterans could not be achieved by merely focusing on projects bringing in new information gadgets, new infrastructure and new radio and television stations.
Much work still needed to be done on how all the new equipment as well as new radio and television would/should enhance the ‘media and society’ relationship to which is what I think the President was referring last week.
Lack of research and analytical skills among the new people in the information sector
After the inauguration of the Second Republic, one remembers a recurring conversation which went roughly as follows:
Q: What is going to be the media and information policy of the new Ministry?
A: We will sponsor the Freedom of Information Bill; repeal AIPPA; and amend the BSA (Broadcasting Services Act).
Q: What will you do after repealing AIPPA and amending the BSA?
A: We will open up the airwaves.
Q: What will happen after all these changes?
A: For the most part, the media and media practitioners should regulate themselves like in other democracies. So we will sponsor the Media Practitioners Bill.
Emerging issues on the ground
First, it is clear that self-regulation by media practitioners, apart from violating the Constitution, does not address the future and nature of the media industry, the owners of all those media houses, radio and television stations, the employers of most of the media practitioners.
The conversation approximated in the preceding passage assumed that the nature of ‘the media’ and its immediate future were known and obvious.
There was no need for research and surveys to make findings ahead of policy recommendations.
But by 2021-2022, a number of public institutions and security agencies began to express disquiet about lack of national research on the impact of digitisation, technological convergence, and social/political polarisation on public messaging.
The local national effects of these fast developments on that relationship called ‘media and society’ were not part of the media policy conversation.
A number of media practitioners and House of Assembly members were spearheading media reforms on the basis of sponsored tour studies they had undertaken in Kenya and Sweden but their subject(s) of focus excluded the local institutional concerns about the impact of digitisation, technological convergence, political/social polarisation upon public messaging.
The concerned national institutions were watching effects of media-related political and social polarisation in places such as Kenya (2007-2008), the US (2016-2022), Brazil (2022-2023) and Ukraine, on-going.
If thorough research were to be carried out, it would suggest that the self-regulation of conventional journalists being proposed in the Media Practitioners Bill had already been overtaken by developments in the media terrain.
In their daily work and orientation, conventional journalists were now being driven by social media whose practitioners and owners were not covered by the Bill.
In the meantime, the global and local response to the COVID-19 pandemic did not just bring back the need for media regulation.
It actually forced every major institution, Government department and corporation to operate a media house of sorts in its own right, thereby raising new questions about the role of the conventional Information Ministry in the face of such rapid changes.
Public messaging strategies in the era of the information glut
In their public messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO and public health ministries of different governments operated from the assumption that most people were or would be snowed under an avalanche of ‘information’ half or more of which would be wrong, inadequate or misleading.
Therefore, they focused their messaging on empowering individuals, groups and institutions with information for self-help.
They sought to strengthen the mindset for self-help. They saw their roles as focusing on usable accessories and usable research results for self or institutional empowerment.
Some of the local indigenous responses to this empowerment research have become permanent after the pandemic has dissipated.
Where there used to be one-or-two local herb remedies for flu in supermarkets, one can now find more than a dozen.
The most dramatic response at the height of the pandemic was perhaps the arrival of the ‘zumbani bunch’ in some downtown supermarkets around Zimbabwe.
Information gadgets and accessories will become more and more available to our people.
How are the public entities in the media and information sector researching these developments and advising the people and the State?
Even more critical: How will this proliferation of gadgets and accessories affect the ‘media and society’ relationship?
What is going to be the future and nature of ‘current affairs’?
The President, last week, was concerned with the effectiveness of ‘current affairs’ programming and messaging for the people and their Government.
Elections are around the corner.
We must all take heed.