by Martin Plaut, ICWS Senior Research Fellow
On Friday 27th of May this year South Africa’s state owned broadcaster – the SABC – announced that it would will no longer broadcast footage of people destroying public property during protests.
The SABC’s Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, said that the destruction of public property was disrupting the lives of many, and that as a responsible public institution the SABC would not “assist these individuals to push their agenda that seeks media attention. As a public service broadcaster we have a mandate to educate the citizens, and we therefore have taken this bold decision to show that violent protests are not necessary,” he announced. The SABC argued that continuing to broadcast this material could “encourage other communities to do the same”.
The decision caused an outcry. A range of institutions, from the Helen Suzman Foundation to trade unions attacked the decision. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, described the decision as censorship. Phumzile van Damme the DA spokesman blamed Motsoeneng for what was taking place: “It is also under Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s tenure that the SABC has ramped up a programme of censorship at the public broadcaster.”
A group of senior SABC journalists attempted to defy the ban and eight were fired. Pressure on the SABC continued to grow, with appeals to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). When ICASA ruled that the ban had to be reversed the SABC at first suggested that the body was merely making a “recommendation” and not a ruling.
This did nothing to assuage Motsoeneng’s critics, which by this time included the ANC and the main trade union movement, COSATU. Eventually, even the ultra-loyal Communist Party (SACP) weighed in, calling for his resignation.
Finally, under intense pressure, Motsoeneng caved in. The SABC agreed to reverse its policy and show images of violent protest. ANC officials, speaking off the record, welcomed the decision, saying that the “mismanagement” of the corporation by Motsoeneng and the board was coming to an end. “There is no more place to hide, and their actions will be exposed,” said a senior ANC source. “We cannot be ruled by individuals who have no clue what it takes to run the SABC. The sooner this ends the better.”
A culture of censorship
What is so sad about this state of affairs is that none of it is necessary. The SABC was modelled on the BBC and should have been immune to outside pressure.
But this has never been the case.
During the long years of apartheid, leaders like John Vorster and P. W. Botha were notorious for watching the evening news on the SABC with the phone at the ready. They had little hesitation in demanding changes to the news. After 1994 there was a hope that this culture would be a thing of the past, but clearly it is not. A number of BBC senior journalists joined the SABC soon after Nelson Mandela came to power, but they were gradually edged out and finally resigned in disgust.
The problems are now endemic and deeply ingrained. As Thandeka Gqubule, one of the journalists sacked by the Corporation, put it, “The protest policy is only a sliver of the slew of policies and draconian anti-journalistic practices.” She maintains that the environment inside the SABC is toxic and inimitable to ethical journalism.
“You can withdraw the protest policy, but still have an environment that is not conducive to the practice of ethical journalism in the SABC”, Gqubule said.
“We don’t see how this striking down of the policy alone can solve the problems of the corrosive environment and the other forms of censorship that continue to prevail,” she said: the SABC had to live up to the mandate that was drafted for it in the run-up to the 1994 elections. “A free, balanced and fair SABC was a precondition for the first democratic elections. It needs to be a public institution that promotes universal access to the airwaves. That is what we are fighting for and that is what we will not yield. We will not flinch. We are going forward with the struggle.”
ANC control of the media
The SABC is not the only broadcast media, as it was during the days of apartheid. It now has a range of competitors in M-Net, DStv and E-tv. But when it comes to radio the SABC is unequalled. Its 19 radio stations broadcast in all the major languages and have an unparalleled reach. Their ability to broadcast to people in the most remote rural areas is one of the reasons the ANC still enjoys far greater public support in these parts of the country than it does in the towns.
The ANC has in recent years gone out of its way to try to gain control of the print media. This has been done via an Indian family – the Guptas, who are closely aligned with President Jacob Zuma and through Iqbal Surve, another Zuma ally.
A study of the media terrain by Reg Rumney made the point that Surve took control of important Cape Town morning paper the Cape Times, purged its independent editor and created an attack machine for the ANC, taking on the opposition.
Rumney concluded that: “Overt ownership-driven partisanship in the media resurfaced, symbolised by the launch of The New Age, which promised to provide balance to what the ANC government saw as unfair media coverage, to show the “glass half-full” instead of “half-empty”. The impact of The New Age is hard to discern. Along with the ANN-7 channel on DSTV, also owned by the Gupta family, who are close to President Jacob Zuma, The New Age has done little to contribute to the national debate, with a newspaper that has declined to be audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulation.”
The Chief Operating Officer of the SABC, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, continues to survive in post, despite a blizzard of criticism. The reason for this is not hard to discern. As one noted commentator put it, he has the backing of President Zuma: “Hlaudi Motsoeneng will therefore remain indomitable and his grip on the public broadcaster will be impossible to break until his usefulness to Number One expires.”
Perhaps the only really optimistic note in this bleak picture is that there has been genuine public outrage at the machinations of the SABC. The sacked journalists have been supported by public donations in excess of $26,000 – more than four times the original target for the campaign.
All the major political parties have now come out in their support, but as long as Jacob Zuma remains the president of the country there can be little prospect of a truly independent public broadcaster. Trained by the KGB and the East German secret service, Mr Zuma has little appetite for free expression of opinion. In his mind it is the duty of the media to engage in “patriotic” reporting of the kind that Vladimir Putin would admire.