DG Phumla Williams: Steering government communication

Friday, May 29, 2020

After at least eight years as the acting Director-General of the Government Communication and Information System, Phumla Williams has now been given the nod by Cabinet to officially take over the reins at the GCIS. 

On her first day on the job since Cabinet’s announcement, Williams cuts a formidable picture in a blue dress, black cardigan and matching black face mask - the latter signifying the tough times the country finds itself in. At 08:15, the seasoned public sector leader already has her hands full with a pile of documents at the GCIS headquarters in Tshwane, when she sits for her interview with SAnews.

Reading, she says, offers the perfect escape from the everyday rat race of rummaging through government documents. When time permits on weekends, Williams can be found with her head buried in a page-turning medical thriller.

“I just love medical thrillers and from time to time, I read motivational books, but I think I tend to relax by reading fiction,” she confesses, letting out what her peers have come to know as the typical hearty giggle that is associated with her. 

When she gives medical thrillers a break, Williams's home is filled with the aromas of a hot home cooked meal, she prepares herself.

“On weekends, my passion is cooking and I think I compete with my son because he takes after me. It's like we share the kitchen. This weekend, this one is cooking, and the next weekend, this one is going to be serving. I think I push myself quite extensively on weekdays but I try to reserve some time to relax at home, and to do my cooking and reading.”

But with GCIS at the heart of government communication - one with an ever beating pulse, weekends filled with new recipes and imaginary stethoscopes and surgeries are few and far between.

This has certainly been the case, with South Africa and the world over in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has to date infected 27 403 and claimed the lives of 577 people in the country.

With the mammoth task of driving awareness around the pandemic, Williams’s appointment as Director-General could not have come at a more opportune time to offer the organisation stability after years of acting in the position.  

“I think any public servant who knows the Public Service Act and knows the regulations, would know that there was something not right. In that respect, I’m glad that it is sorted out because if we are serious about governance and complying with the Public Service Act, we need to strive to do things correctly. I’m glad that it is finally done and it is done properly,” she says of her appointment.

The journey has, however, not been easy, with Williams describing it as a “painful one”.

In 2018, Williams, during her testimony to the Zondo Commission investigating allegations of State Capture, spoke of a difficult time she had to endure in her career.

“The eight years have been painful but I have tried as much as I can to do what I am employed to do as a public servant, so in that respect I am relieved. I have now found myself being appreciated to a point of not being [seen] as a care taker.

“I have been given a responsibility and I think I’m going to continue doing it the best way I do it because I don’t want to take the view that because I was acting, I was not doing what was expected of me. I was doing what was expected of me but this is a bonus that it is finally sorted out,” she says.

With a degree in Public Administration and a Masters in Public Administration (MPA), both from the University of South Africa, and a wealth of experience in the public service, Williams did not let the difficult period deter her.

The making of a leader

Before joining government in 1995, Williams worked in the African National Congress (ANC) and was based in Swaziland and Mozambique during the 1980s.

She cut her teeth at the ANC head office as an administrator in the organising department and the Department of Information and Publicity between 1991 and 1994. It was during this time that Williams laid the ground work that would steer her future course.

Her work experience in both provincial and national government provided her with extensive experience in governance issues in the public service.

It was this experience that saw her lead the GCIS finance department as its Chief Financial Officer from 1998 and 2009, until her appointment as the department’s Deputy CEO in 2009.

Following the departure of then CEO Mzwanele Manyi in 2012, Williams became acting DG.

With the title now finally under her belt, Williams says she dreams of a “seamless” government communication system that sees communicators speak with one voice.

“I think the dream for me is if we can get to a point where we master the system itself because I think the founders of this organisation were envisaging 'one message, many voices', that will cascade from the top right down to district level.  

“My vision is that if we can get to that point where our system is seamless and it is effective, consistent and reliable - that is what we should be aiming for. That is one thing I will strive for, as long as I am in the public service and I still have the strength to make sure that system succeeds,” she says.

But this still remains the ideal that government communication is yet to reach, says Phumla, as it is also presented with an ever changing communication landscape compounded by digital technologies and the fourth industrial revolution.

Driving the GCIS into the future

In terms of how GCIS is embracing the digital space, the Director-General says taking into account the country’s socio-economic make-up is key.

“When I look back, we have done quite a lot in terms of embracing the digital space because that is where everybody is going.

“It is going to be important for us to strike that balance because South Africa is still a very unequal society. We may be moving at a sprint's pace in an urban area but we need to understand that whatever we dispense or communicate on those platforms, we need to cater for people who are still not in that space and don’t have access to information.”

While looking for ways to fuse the fast-paced digital world with communication, Williams - making reference to the COVID-19 communication response - says the general sense is that government is doing well.

“Everybody is saying that government has done very well in communicating and I want to concur.  I think when there is a crisis in government, we seem to rally quite well. From the time we were put into action through the NATJOINTS [ National Joint Operations and Intelligence Structure], we have come a long way, pulling all the resources of communication into one pot and making sure that we speak in one voice,” she says.

Williams attributes the glowing response to government’s communication during the COVID-19 pandemic to two key things: a political principal that is in tune and passionate about communications, and a good working relationship with the media.  

“It helps when you have a political principal who has a passion for communication, and who also understands the importance of taking information seriously. He [Minister Jackson Mthembu] has been leading from the front and made the job of officials much easier,” Williams says.

On the importance of a clear message and good working relationship with the media, Williams says the value of this has been evident in the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.

Through widespread media coverage, Williams says government’s message of awareness on what COVID-19 is and how to protect oneself from it has reached every corner of the country.

This, she says, is as a result of the educational work done by several media outlets.

Making special mention of one of her favourite radio stations, uMhlobo Wenene, Williams says the media is carrying the critical work of educating communities.

“The media has been amazing. In fact, there has been an avalanche of information on COVID-19. One of the stations that I tend to listen to is uMhlobo Wenene and there is so much that they are investing in educating communities.

“I think in general, the media has played their part in moving along with government in an attempt to stem the tide,” she says.

With Williams's appointment cementing her as the GCIS’s first female DG, her word of advice to young people who want to follow in similar footsteps is to draft a mental roadmap rooted in their passions. This, she says, will act as a lodestar to the trajectory of their career.

“I give people the advice that I never had when I started working. The approach that I always give to young people is that sometimes, salary should not be the main thing that drives you.

“My passion of advising young people, which starts with my kids at home, is that don’t go and work to be working for the rest of your life. This country needs to transform our economy and it will only transform our economy if young people also start saying: 'I want to do it for myself',” she implores. 

With government hard at work to support and cushion up and coming entrepreneurs, Williams urges young people to grab the opportunities presented and to establish themselves as key role players in the country’s economy.

“Government is putting in place huge sums of resources to boost upcoming young people, who want to start businesses and there is ample space in this country to drive that economy.”

With her sights firmly set on ensuring the GCIS remains a relevant and responsive tool of government communication, coupled with her wealth of experience, Williams is no doubt well postioned as the captain that this ship needs to steer the organisation into the future. – SAnews.gov.za