At the Topography of Terror monument in Berlin, Germany, a sign at the entrance to the museum reads: “Berlin 1933-1945 Between Propaganda and Terror”. The sign is a reminder of the central role the propaganda machinery played in Nazi Germany’s era of persecution and terror. Adolf Hitler’s chief attack dog was Joseph Goebbels, who directed the propaganda machinery to acquire total power and control the minds of an entire nation. The reign of terror would not have been possible without effective indoctrination and complete control of every aspect of communications in Germany through the Second World War.
The problems at the SABC started long before the matric-less Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s rise to power. The SABC was a key instrument of apartheid South Africa’s machinery and with its size and reach, through 19 radio stations and now four television stations, the “public” broadcaster has continued to serve as a powerful political tool. During the democratic era, the SABC has been on a constant ebb and flow with financial crises and senior management coming and going. There have been phases in the past where censorship and editorial bias were prevalent, but they pale in comparison to the Era of Hlaudi, with a wholesale takeover of editorial policy and programming.
When it comes to survival tactics, it is only President Jacob Zuma who can rival Motsoeneng. Both are able to shake off scandals, adverse court rulings and damning Public Protector reports, and are somehow strengthened by them. Perhaps their common invincibility is the secret to their alliance.
Motsoeneng was fired from the SABC in 2007 when he was a current affairs producer at Lesedi FM. He fought his way back into the public broadcaster despite a long drawn-out labour dispute that brought to light the fact that he misled the SABC about his qualifications. Motsoeneng was appointed as the general manager responsible for board and stakeholder relations in the group chief executive officer’s office in February 2011, a position that opened his path to the top job. In December 2011, he was seconded to act as chief operating officer and has been an unstoppable force since then.
In February 2014, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released a report, “When Governance and Ethics Fail”, which found that Motsoeneng was “unethical” and “dishonest” about claiming to have a matric certificate. She also found that his conduct was irregular and he was guilty of maladministration for improperly escalating people’s salaries. The remedial action prescribed by Madonsela was that the SABC board should take disciplinary action against Motsoeneng.
The Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that Madonsela’s report could not be ignored or second-guessed. The Constitutional Court judgment in the Nkandla matter removed all doubt about the standing of Public Protector reports, and even the president now has to comply with the remedial action prescribed in his case. While Zuma has agreed to pay back the money, Motsoeneng continues to dodge the rulings against him. He wriggled out of censure though a farcical SABC disciplinary hearing and was permanently appointed into the position of COO.
He has unchecked power, including over programming and news. Motsoeneng has gone from silly antics, such as ordering television news coverage of his colourful life, including a group of religious leaders praying over him and receiving a “bride” as a gift, to censoring news and suspending journalists. He has banned coverage of violent protest action and negative news about Zuma because he “deserves a certain degree of respect as president of the country”. The SABC has canned shows featuring the views of editors and analysts, and journalists at the broadcaster have become progressively constrained about what they can say and who they can interview.
Motsoeneng’s penchant for ludicrous statements and perspectives on journalism have escalated to bizarre levels in recent weeks. He told City Press recently that SABC employees were expected to “sing the song and talk the talk of the SABC”.
“If the SABC releases a statement, our employees can’t say ‘the SABC said this’; they must say ‘we are saying this or have decided on that’. They can’t report like other broadcasters when they are part of any SABC decision,” Motsoeneng told the paper. “I have been thinking maybe our employees should have uniforms so that they can understand unity,” he professed.
Speaking at a media briefing this week following the sudden resignation of acting group chief executive officer Jimi Matthews, Motsoeneng denied that his actions constituted censorship:
“I don’t even know what censorship is. What is this censorship thing? It is English so I don’t know it. There is no censorship here,” he said.
The SABC has now suspended six journalists who have expressed their concerns about the strict editorial stance of the broadcaster. At a staff meeting on Tuesday, Motsoeneng told SABC employees to comply with his rules or to leave the broadcaster. The Star reported that Motsoeneng said at the meeting:
“If you are at the SABC, there is leadership, and if the leadership says you must turn right, you must turn right. If you turn left, you must get off the bus.”
The paper quoted an employee as saying:
“He said he was going to charge people and discipline them. His tone was very harsh. He also said the three suspended journalists may survive the axe but those standing in solidarity with them may lose their jobs.”
Director of Media Monitoring Africa William Bird says many SABC staffers are worried about being victimised and the atmosphere of fear at the broadcaster is growing. He said editorial interference was increasing with journalists being told, for example, that that they were not allowed to broadcast any analysis of the spy tapes judgment against Zuma.
The skewed editorial positioning is particularly concerning during an election period as it is unashamedly intended to project the president and the ANC favourably. Until this week, the ANC could not be directly linked to Motsoeneng’s onslaught on the airwaves. It appeared that he and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi were on their own misguided mission to keep the favour of the president. But in reaction to Matthews’ resignation, ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa said this week that the move was “opportunistic”. Kodwa was quoted by the SABC as saying that Matthews had allowed himself to be “used by those who… want to undermine the integrity of the public broadcaster”.
Matthews said in his resignation letter that there was a “corrosive atmosphere” at the SABC that had impacted negatively on his moral judgement and made him complicit in decisions he “was not proud of”.
“What is happening at the broadcaster is wrong and I can no longer be part of it,” he said. “I also wish to apologise to the many people who I’ve let down by remaining silent when my voice needed to be heard.”
Instead of being discerning about what Matthews and others have been saying about the chaos at the SABC, the ANC has opted to defend Motsoeneng’s reign of terror:
“I think clearly the intention is to add to the narrative that SABC is in disarray… he has allowed himself to be a tool to be used to attack the entire integrity of the SABC,” Kodwa said of Matthews.
Bird says the regression and assault on media freedom at the SABC has the sanction of Muthambi and the ANC. “It is astounding that the ANC has gone against its 100-year history of promoting media freedom,” Bird said.
A report by Media Monitoring Africa on media coverage of the 2016 local government elections shows that the ANC already enjoys the bulk of the voice, much higher than it did during the 2014 election campaign. The ANC now has 57% of the total media coverage compared to 38% in 2014. In comparison, the Democratic Alliance’s coverage dropped from 25% in 2014 to 16% now. The Economic Freedom Fighters’ coverage dropped from 13% to 11%. Bird said these percentages were largely affected by the SABC’s coverage patterns.
South African society has so far been largely tolerant of Motsoeneng’s antics and propaganda mission. In the context of a cycle of scandal and abuse of state institutions, the decay of the SABC is not out of the ordinary.
But through the power and resources of the public broadcaster, Motsoeneng has been allowed to infiltrate the homes and minds of millions of people around the country. He is able to do much more damage to a free and democratic society than any other state institution can by controlling access to information and people’s perspectives. Motsoeneng’s evasion of court rulings and legal procedures adds to the culture of impunity in our country. His assault on media freedom is an assault on the Constitution and the fundamentals of our democracy.
On Friday morning, the South African media fraternity begins a campaign to stand up to South Africa’s answer to Joseph Goebbels. Media freedom pickets will be held at the SABC headquarters in Auckland Park, Johannesburg and the broadcaster’s offices in Sea Point, Cape Town. The pickets are acts of solidarity with journalists forced to comply with Motsoeneng’s ridiculous editorial policies and those who have been suspended for speaking out against them. These pickets will hopefully awaken society to the clear and present danger of accepting indoctrination in an era when democratic institutions are under siege and those in power seek to hide their scandals and leadership failures.
Motsoeneng is as conceited as he is dangerous. Left unchecked, it is not just the SABC that he will destroy. It should not be forgotten that Goebbels succeeded Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, if only for a day.
Motsoeneng’s ambitions and political backers have brought him this far. Left unchecked, the SABC is unlikely to be the end of the road for the invincible Mr Motsoeneng. After successfully penetrating our living rooms, our workspaces and our minds, the sky is the limit in terms of what Motsoeneng will do next. The onus is upon us, South Africans, to decide if we will let him. DM
Photo: Hlaudi Motsoeneng with his spirit guide, Joseph Goebbels.
Are You A South AfriCAN or a South AfriCAN'T?
Maverick Insider is more than a reader revenue scheme. While not quite a "state of mind", it is a mindset: it's about believing that independent journalism makes a genuine difference to our country and it's about having the will to support that endeavour.
From the #GuptaLeaks into State Capture to the Scorpio exposés into SARS, Daily Maverick investigations have made an enormous impact on South Africa and it's political landscape. As we enter an election year, our mission to Defend Truth has never been more important. A free press is one of the essential lines of defence against election fraud; without it, national polls can turn very nasty, very quickly as we have seen recently in the Congo.
If you would like a practical, tangible way to make a difference in South Africa consider signing up to become a Maverick Insider. You choose how much to contribute and how often (monthly or annually) and in exchange, you will receive a host of awesome benefits. The greatest benefit of all (besides inner peace)? Making a real difference to a country that needs your support.
"Five exclamation marks - the sure sign of an insane mind." ~ Terry Pratchett