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21 August 2014 12:02 (South Africa)
South Africa

His master's voice: An excerpt from 'Who Rules South Africa'?

  • Mandy de Waal
  • South Africa
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As Mangaung gets closer and the bloody power battles within SA’s ruling party intensify, the ANC is struggling to maintain the myth of a united party. As always, the SABC is doing its best to promote the fiction of an undivided alliance, in between fighting its own conflicts that mirror those within the ANC. In this extract from their new book Who Rules South Africa? Paul Holden and Martin Plaut dissect SA’s fraught public broadcaster. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Who are the suzerains in the many-headed hydra of South African politics? 

Public lobbying for prized positions is outlawed by the ruling party, but the road to Mangaung has witnessed fierce factionalism with bloody stand-offs at the ANC’s recent policy conference, which was followed by the murder of pro-Zuma stalwart Wandile Mkhize in Kwazulu-Natal. In the wake of Mkhize’s death, political pundits predict that the ANC leadership struggle – which will see its denouement in the Free State – could be more ruthless than Polokwane.

The ANC is straining to maintain the myth of a united party, what with party ruptures haemorrhaging from the front pages of independent media, which feature regular inside scoops of a political leviathan bleeding from self-inflicted wounds. 

Those who rule still have the public broadcaster in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, but the SABC – which dominated the post-Apartheid media landscape – is declining in influence, say authors Paul Holden and Martin Plaut. 

The pair’s new book, Who rules South Africa? Pulling the strings in the battle for power, focuses on SA’s mutable political hydra and the epic brawls inside the ANC, which of course determine access to resources.

In this extract from their book, Holden and Plaut look at how factionalist coverage of politics at the public broadcaster is hurting its reach and influence.

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Extract from “Who Rules South Africa?” by Paul Holden and Martin Plaut 

Created during the Apartheid era, the SABC was initially conceived as a public broadcaster and established along very similar lines to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Indeed, the original SABC charter was written in 1933 by John Reith, the first Director General of the BBC (he also wrote the public broadcasting charters for Canada, Australia, India and Kenya). The original Reithian principles included a belief in the power of the public broadcaster to educate and improve, as well as a firm commitment to political neutrality and independence. Ironically, as Ruth Teer-Tomaselli observed, "The translocation of the BBC ethos to South Africa in the 1930s suited the National Party’s policy of Apartheid after the 1950s, as neither Reith nor the NP recognised black Africans as part of the listening/viewing audience except on white terms." Considering Apartheid’s hegemonic project, it was unsurprising that, under the NP, the SABC shifted from being a public broadcaster that projected a multiplicity of views to being a state broadcaster, projecting only the state-sanctioned version, and filling the airwaves with virtually unceasing Apartheid propaganda. 

Thus, in the post-1994 period, the general public’s relationship with the media would largely be shaped by whether or not the SABC – whose media infrastructure and reach dwarfed those of any independent media outlets – would be reconstituted as a public rather than state broadcaster. In a country with persistently high rates of illiteracy, radio penetration has always been the biggest avenue for delivery of news and events. A 2007 study by Statistics South Africa found that 9.5 million households owned a radio – 76.5% of the population. By comparison, only 900,000 households (7.2 % of the population) had access to the internet and the alternative media sources this made available. 

By far the majority of radio listeners tune in to SABC stations, the biggest of which are African language stations. The two largest radio stations in South Africa are Ukhozi FM (broadcasting in Zulu) and Umhlobo Wenene (broadcasting in Xhosa), which attract 6.38 million and 4.76 million listeners respectively. Television coverage, too, is dominated by the SABC. According to the SABC’s own figures, its television network – of three free-to-air channels and one pay TV channel – attracts a daily viewership of 17 million adults: 74% of the total adult viewership. These figures far outstrip the reach of the largely independent print media, which has also faced reduced circulation figures in line with the rest of the international media. In the first two quarters of 2011, for example, the core circulation of daily tabloids and broadsheets was measured at just over 1.3 million – a drop of 300,000 from a recent peak of 1.6 million in 2007.

The SABC was rapidly transformed, with a focus on demographic representativity quickly changing the population and character of its newsrooms and support staff – a move that any viewer with a memory of the dour and biased pre-1994 coverage has to celebrate. Yet, despite a high-minded editorial policy that "strive[s] to disclose all the essential facts and... not suppress relevant, available facts, or distort by wrong or improper emphasis", there have been frequent complaints that the SABC has shown a distasteful executive-mindedness in its reporting and coverage. The claims were hard to verify for the first decade of the SABC’s existence – the vagaries of media interpretation often preclude a simplistic judgement about the political bias of media content. But, by the mid-2000s, hard evidence started to emerge that substantiated worries that political control was being exercised, either directly or indirectly, over the SABC’s news coverage. 

In June 2006, for example, both Karima Brown and Pippa Green, both of whom had served in senior positions in the SABC, wrote articles that indicated that political pressure and self-censorship had led to a distortion of coverage. "The organisational culture and ethos at Auckland Park newsroom [the head SABC newsroom] promotes self-censorship," Brown wrote in a damning column in Business Day. "Under the guise of transformation, the SABC has been all but hi-jacked by a clique of self-serving government lackeys who believe they alone know what the public should see and hear. These individuals are not just in news management. They are on the SABC board, in the newsrooms and they even include senior journalists." Green, meanwhile, worried that "when top managers of the SABC are appointed more for their perceived political loyalties than professional experience, judgment is often blurred and many dance complicated two-steps to do what they think will please those in power."

Both Brown and Green were writing mainly about the activities of one Snuki Zikalala, a former ANC commissar in exile (where he received a doctorate in journalism from Bulgaria’s Sofia University), who was appointed to the position of managing director of news and current affairs during Mbeki’s presidency. On 20 June 2006, the Sowetan ran a story alleging that a number of experts ? William Gumede, Aubrey Matshiqi, Karima Brown and Vukani Mde ? had been blacklisted on Zikalala’s orders. All the experts banned were considered to be critical of Thabo Mbeki and his administration. The story broke the dam walls: soon, further examples of blacklisting and bias in the newsroom came to light. In one of the more damning allegations, it was claimed that coverage of the 2005 Zimbabwe elections had been subjected to gross manipulation, partially by banning both Moeletsi Mbeki and Elinor Sisulu from being interviewed on the country ? a decision that Zikalala later confirmed under oath, claiming that they were out of touch with developments in the country. Not coincidentally, both had already indicated their distaste for the Mugabe regime and were critical of Mbeki’s "quiet diplomacy" approach to Zimbabwe.

Nine days after the Sowetan story ran, a Commission of Enquiry was appointed by Dali Mpofu, SABC Group Chief Executive Officer, to assess the allegations. The resulting report was highly critical of both Zikalala’s actions and the lack of internationally benchmarked editorial standards. Perhaps as a result of this, the SABC went out of its way to keep the report secret: it has still not been officially published, although a draft version was leaked to the Mail & Guardian and made available online. A full airing of the facts was only achieved when the Freedom of Expression Institute decided to take the broadcast regulator, Icasa, to court. In a judgment delivered in January 2011, the court ran through a number of incidents in which experts were banned or coverage actively manipulated, the most notable of which was the manhandling of the coverage of Zimbabwe’s elections. Surveying the evidence, the judgment was damning about the conduct of the SABC and Zikalala in particular: "The evidence reveals a number of incidents in which the SABC’s News Management and Dr Zikalala in particular, manipulated its news and current affairs, that they dishonestly tried to cover up this manipulation when it was publicly revealed and that the SABC’s Board subsequently failed to take any action when the manipulation and dishonest cover-up was exposed by its own Commission of Enquiry."

The end of Zikalala's tenure at the SABC raised the hopes that such obvious manipulation would fade into the background. Unfortunately, persistent claims about executive interference in the operation of the SABC have continued to surface. The SABC has been in the near-permanent throes of a governance crisis, rocked by frequent resignations and allegations of political interference in the make-up of the board. The most recent flare-up occurred in February 2012, when it was alleged that the board had attempted to "parachute" Hlaudi Motsoeneng into the position of Chief Operation Officer, despite the fact that the SABC was interdicted from making an appointment to that position by the High Court as the previous hopeful, Mvuzo Mbebe, believed that he had been given the green light by the previous Communications Minister, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri. Motsoeneng had previously been fired by the SABC in 2007 after an internal investigation into various wrongdoings, including the falsification of his qualifications. In the course of a year from his re-appointment to the SABC in 2011, he was promoted three times. "What instruction, which we as the SABC do not know about, does the board have from Luthuli House?" an unnamed official queried.

Admittedly, the governance crisis at the SABC (in terms of constant resignations and contested appointments) has been somewhat overshadowed by a related problem, namely endemic fraud and corruption. In September 2009, the Auditor-General published a report that pointed to widespread financial mismanagement. In certain cases, the sums were not insubstantial: a total of R174 million was awarded in seven separate tenders despite the tender hearings not meeting minimum requirements; a R326 million contract with a consultant was entered into by two senior SABC employees despite not having the authority to do so; and a two-year investigation between 2007 and 2009 had found R111 million in irregularities such as double payments, overpayments and needless repurchasing of show licences. An astonishing 1 465 employees were found to have interests in outside companies, which made it difficult to countenance the absence of any central register of these interests or employee approvals. And yet, despite the report and its recommendations being presented in 2009, the SABC was forced to admit to Parliament, during a hearing in March 2012, that "there was little or no implementation of the recommendations at 30 November 2011".

Whether or not the viewing public intends to punish the SABC’s perceived bias and corporate dysfunction by withholding their ears and eyes has been an open-ended question to which there has been no definitive answer. However, figures released in mid-March 2012 suggested that the SABC was beginning to lose a substantial number of viewers of its news programmes to the independent commercial station, e-TV. Between October 2011 and January 2012, the SABC was reported to have lost over a million viewers during the news timeslots across its three channels, while e-TV reported a 100,000 viewer increase. For the National Union of Mineworkers, the figures could only be construed as the audience recoiling at political bias: "The NUM is not surprised by these developments as the SABC particularly its television component has long ceased to be a public broadcaster and turned itself into a self-promotion propaganda instrument for certain factions. The National Union of Mineworkers congratulates e-TV, a private broadcaster which almost adequately fulfils the mandate of a public broadcaster for refusing to be drawn into narrow factionalist coverage." DM

This is the first part of a two-part extract from Paul Holden and Martin Plaut’s “Who Rules South Africa?” The second piece from Holden and Plaut’s book on SA’s complex power alliance will look at this country’s independent media and its relationship with the ANC.

Read more:

  • Who Rules South Africa? The Threat From ‘Democracy Lite’ – By Martin Plaut on African Arguments
  • South Africa: Who Rules South Africa? Negotiating the Complex Web of ANC Politics on AllAfrica.com 
  • Mandy de Waal
  • South Africa


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