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SABC: From apartheid mouthpiece to ANC megaphone

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SABC: From apartheid mouthpiece to ANC megaphone

Once apartheid’s principal propaganda tool, the South African Broadcasting Corporation was re-invented after liberation into Africa’s finest public service broadcaster – until ruling party honchos interfered. But all is not lost, says John Dludlu.

Twelve chief executive officers and three boards of directors in nine years, and a second interim board of directors in as many years in the making! The CEO, chief financial officer and chief operations officer positions are all held by interim appointments, and all the non-executive directors have resigned, leaving one of South Africa’s key public institutions without a board for months. And, to top it all, talented journalists have left. This is the story of the SA Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the country’s public broadcaster, which has been turned into a state broadcaster that fights factional battles within the ruling party.

As this piece was being written, the ANC, the ruling party, was busy compiling a list of people to be nominated as members of an interim board of the SABC. Ordinarily, this should be easy; after all, the SABC is an important institution. This time, however, it’s proving a little harder to recruit new members; no one wants to be associated with the SABC. All the last three boards have ended in controversy. For the first time since the dawn of democracy, parliament has been forced to act on the dysfunctionality at the institution. A multi-party ad hoc committee was appointed last December to probe the fitness of the SABC board to hold office. And, as the committee was hearing witness testimonies, the remaining non-executive board members resigned one by one.

Like most state institutions, the SABC has become a battlefield for various factions of the ANC. The meddling gets worse during election years of the country (such as last year’s municipal elections), and the party (December 2017).

Before 1994, the SABC was the mouthpiece of the apartheid regime, and the white government used the vast radio reach to exercise thought-control over the black African majority. In 1994, a concerted effort was made by Nelson Mandela’s administration to ensure the SABC served the needs of the public instead of just the ruling party. Three instruments were used to protect the SABC’s public interest mandate: first, the constitution; second, the broadcasting act; and then, an independent regulator which oversaw equitable coverage of all parties especially during election years. The editorial policies of the SABC are a function of a public participation process instead of just a boardroom exercise. The boards were generally composed of respected individuals, representing a broad spectrum of South African society.

After 1994, all of South Africa’s language groups were treated equally, and the SABC became a training ground for many black African journalists. The post-apartheid administrations inherited an elaborate government communications machinery to communicate their programmes. For most of Mandela’s one-term tenure and Thabo Mbeki’s first term in office, the state’s communications machinery was separate from the SABC. And the broadcaster was well run, and staffed by professionals.

The problems started around 2007 in the run-up to the ANC’s elective conference, where Mbeki was ousted by Jacob Zuma’s faction. The various factions of the ANC sought to meddle in the affairs of the SABC, and the composition of the board became a hotly contested issue. Analysts who were considered anti-Mbeki were banned from being interviewed on SABC stations.

With the Zuma faction in charge, after Mbeki’s recall, all pro-Mbeki professionals were forced out of the SABC, and were replaced by those sympathetic to Zuma. The meddling came in two forms: first, via the selection of board members and executives; and second, through the minister of communications. Over time, what was subtle interference became crude, and the lines between government communications and a public broadcast system became blurred.

The ANC’s internal divisions played themselves out in all state institutions including the SABC. And, as the party’s popularity declined, the temptation to meddle in the SABC became irresistible. Independent-minded journalists were forced out, as were committed professionals. Due process was replaced by decrees. A year ago, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who became a chief enforcer of the Zuma administration, decreed that the SABC’s 18 radio stations would play 90% local content, and the four TV channels would play 80% local content. Earlier, he had ordered that the SABC should focus on “positive news”. Ahead of the municipal elections last August, he banned broadcasts of the violent service delivery protests in black townships. This meant that hundreds of #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall and other preelection protests against unpopular candidates imposed on communities by the ANC were only covered by the independent networks. This was found to be unlawful by the regulator, and embarrassed the reasonable leaders of the ANC who distanced themselves from the move.

All these changes were made without revising the editorial policies of the SABC. In fact, the last proper review of the policies happened in 2004. News executives were ordered to ignore rallies of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters before the 2014 elections, talk shows that didn’t include ANC representatives were taken off air.

SABC is funded through a grant (for the public service mandate), advertising revenue and license fees. The latest annual report shows a qualified audit in relation to irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure. In one such display of poor corporate governance, Motsoeneng sold the SABC archives to MultiChoice, a pay-TV rival. Many employees have challenged their harassment at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, a state agency that mediates employer-employee disputes. The SABC loses most of these cases, and ends up settling them at a cost to the taxpayer.

Rival channels have stolen the march on the SABC in terms of innovation and superior content. For example, whilst Motsoeneng plays catch-up with local content, MultiChoice and regional community TV and radio stations have been producing local content for years. In more than two decades of freedom, the SABC has only launched two new channels – a 24-hour news channel, and a channel dedicated to replaying old programmes. And, the SABC has missed numerous deadlines to migrate from analogue to a digital era. It also lost rights to broadcast soccer, the sport followed by millions of black South Africans.

It’s a miracle that the SABC still produces news bulletins and doesn’t open bulletins with images of Zuma. This is because a handful of journalists have decided to stand up to the bullies. Last October, eight journalists who were sacked for refusing to follow instructions by Motsoeneng were reinstated by a high court. The Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, will soon hear their case on constitutional grounds. And pressure groups, such as Save Our SABC and Right to Know, have ensured that the SABC remains accountable and doesn’t degenerate into a mouthpiece of one ANC faction.

The interim board has its work cut out for it. First, it has to implement the recommendations of the ad hoc parliamentary committee – commission a forensic audit to pinpoint and allocate wrongdoing, and bring those responsible to account; second, it must appoint competent executives to run the corporation; third, it must ensure the executives clean up the mess caused by the previous board; fourth, it must clearly delineate the public service mandate from the SABC’s commercial interests, and work out an appropriate funding model in support of each; and finally and perhaps more important, it must stand up to all the ANC factions ahead of the party’s elective conference.

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