Public image: South Africa’s then health minister Zweli Mkhize receives a Covid jab in February
Public image: South Africa’s then health minister Zweli Mkhize receives a Covid jab in February © Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images

A report into “irregularities” in the funding of Covid-19 communications in South Africa — published by president Cyril Ramaphosa in September — has resulted in widespread public outcry, and not just about the R150m ($10m) that had been spent.

The scandal — known as “Digital Vibes”, after the South African company that received the money — has come to symbolise how corruption and weak governance have undermined the country’s ability to deliver crucial health information to citizens.

Africa’s most industrialised nation is also the one that has been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and desperately needs to promote mass vaccination. Yet, even without self-inflicted reputational damage, government communications about Covid face a struggle to cross South Africa’s linguistic and economic divides.

In the report, South Africa’s anti-corruption Special Investigating Unit concluded that Zweli Mkhize, the then health minister, had exerted undue pressure in 2019 to ensure that cronies gained control of health communications through Digital Vibes.

Chris Vick, a public relations specialist with CovidComms SA, a volunteer group working to improve pandemic public communications, says that not only did Digital Vibes use up resources that could have been spent on better Covid-19 messaging, it actually worsened one of the biggest obstacles to convincing South Africans to take Covid risks seriously.

After a litany of graft scandals in the ruling African National Congress party over the past decade, and many more years of failure to provide basic services to the poorest, “the biggest problem is that there’s a trust deficit that exists in terms of people’s attitudes to the state,” Vick says. “Digital Vibes made a huge contribution to that trust deficit.”

Health minister Joe Phaahla — seen here visiting a ‘health train’ outreach scheme in September — apologised for the ‘devastating saga’ of Digital Vibes © Gallo Images via Getty Images

Mkhize resigned and has been succeeded by Joe Phaahla, his former deputy. This month, Phaahla apologised “to all South Africans for this very unfortunate and devastating saga”.

While about one in three adult South Africans are fully vaccinated, take-up rates are flagging, reducing the country’s chances of hitting the World Health Organization’s global target of vaccinating 70 per cent of the population by mid-2022. Clear health messaging is vital, but the task is significantly complicated by linguistic diversity.

Under its constitution, South Africa recognises 11 official languages and, while English is the lingua franca of business, politics and South Africa’s internet, it is far from the most widely spoken. Many people rely on media other than the internet or even television, yet the state’s communications have been typified by English-language televised addresses by Ramaphosa or online briefings.

CovidComms SA has focused on translating and simplifying core messages into as many languages as possible — including Khoikhoi, which rarely has official recognition. “It is still science, but it is science in plain language and it is science in your mother tongue,” Vick says.

Radio has also been vital for reaching communities beyond the largely English-language “information dump” of the government messaging, says Pontsho Pilane, who presents a health slot on Motsweding FM, a station that broadcasts in the Setswana language spoken largely in South Africa’s north-western provinces.

“South Africa’s digital divide is real,” she says. “Radio is the biggest medium in South Africa.” About 1.7m Motsweding listeners tune into the morning show where Pilane is a regular. While it can be a challenge — the Setswana words for “hand sanitiser” or “quarantine” are not part of everyday language — she says listeners send in a lot of questions that reveal concerns about vaccines or Covid that communicators might not otherwise hear.

“Most people are just scared because there’s not a lot of information out there” about issues such as side-effects, Pilane says.

South Africa has had experience of communicating about public health emergencies before, particularly its high rates of HIV infection.

In rural or remote areas without easy access to media, these often took the form of large in-person gatherings, which could quickly spread knowledge and break down myths. But coronavirus is so infectious that this approach has not been possible during the current pandemic. “None of these communication methods works because of the way the virus spreads,” Vick says.

Instead, health workers who go out into local communities have been the most effective front-line messengers, though this is time-consuming. They can also advise patients on how to deal with conflicting communications on Covid and on other widespread diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis.

“A lot of people went off their ARVs [antiretrovirals] or chronic medication because they were afraid of going to the clinic,” Pilane says. In the earlier phases of South Africa’s lockdowns, some patients seeking help for non-Covid ailments were wrongly turned away by clinics. “There was a lot of miscommunication around that,” she adds.

At the same time, Pilane is not looking forward to explaining the Digital Vibes saga to listeners. The time that could be spent demystifying scientific studies or vaccine information, will instead be a reminder of why government messaging is little trusted in the first place. “Digital Vibes is a slap in the face of South Africans,” she says. “This does not make it easier.”

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