South Africa

Analysis: Government’s bewildering (apparent) change of heart on Hlaudi

By Stephen Grootes 4 July 2016

It is a moot point in South African politics that the SABC is contested terrain. It is something people fight over, as conservatives and not-so-conservatives do over the BBC in the UK and NPR in the US. If the point man for Thabo Mbeki’s ANC was Snuki Zikilala, the pointman for President Jacob Zuma’s ANC has been Hlaudi Motsoeneng. He has behaved as one can only do when assured of full support by the Number One and only person who matters. But the ANC itself now appears almost split on the issue. In public, it has gone from appearing to back Motsoeneng to doing an about-turn, and demanding an inquiry into what is happening at the broadcaster. It’s a revealing decision, because it tells us, once again, that Zuma cannot have everything his own way. And that the ANC may well be more worried about votes in Gauteng than we thought. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Monday last week Jimi Matthews resigned, spectacularly, on Twitter. His letter spoke of the pain of the decision, of his own failure to help people who needed it, and of a culture where one person made all the decisions; it was, he said, “corrosive”.

On Tuesday, the ANC gave its reaction. The party’s national spokesman, Zizi Kodwa, said it was unhappy with Matthews. In an interview with the SABC (You couldn’t resist, couldn’t you… – Ed), Kodwa said “it’s opportunistic of him and it’s not a matter that we would have expected of him as a professional and a seasoned journalist. If he was genuine as an employee of the SABC, given the challenges that he talked about in his letter, he should have approached the board, the management, even the minister and I’m certain that if anyone has the interests of South African people, he would not have made SABC a laughing stock in the manner he has.”

There may be different ways to interpret that statement, but it seemed clear the party was furious with Matthews, not just for resigning, but for resigning so publicly, and for pointing the finger at Motsoeneng so clearly.

Later that day, the Communications Ministry issued its own statement, a comment surely cleared, if not written, by Faith Muthambi herself. She appeared to echo Kodwa’s comments, saying, “It is unfortunate that Mr Matthews decided to turn his resignation into a social media issue, without raising his concerns internally, nor communicating his concerns with the Ministry of Communications. The timing of his resignation is suspect.”

The use of that word “suspect” seemed deliberate; it was part of creating a narrative that Matthews was part of a political agenda.

Then, however, things appeared to change quite dramatically. The ANC’s national spokesman was reported first in the Sunday Times, and then in an interview with EWN, saying that “the allegations of censorship, we take them very seriously… We hear of this person called Hlaudi who is making all the decisions, we take this very seriously”. He went on, “We must not institutionalise an individual, it looks like every decision is taken by him, and if that is true, then there is something wrong with the governance structures, it cannot be that serious decisions are taken by just one person.”

Now, you may feel you need to check, but the identity of the ANC’s national spokesman did not actually change last week. It is still Z. Goodenough Kodwa. The change of heart surely means something has shifted within the ANC’s top structure. Why has the ANC gone from playing possum over the SABC to suddenly getting involved? And being quite so personal about it as well? It’s no secret that Motsoeneng is in charge there, he tells everyone that he’s the “engine room of the SABC”, that he is the person who instructs on-air staff on what to do, and more often, what not to do. So why, suddenly, is the ANC waking up to this?

There are several things that happened between Kodwa’s first statement and his second. First, there were protest marches outside the SABC in Auckland Park and in Cape Town. Kodwa made the mistake of going on to urban-dominated Twitter to attack the protesters. He found huge opposition there, some of which was led by 702’s Redi Tlhabi (which, of course, makes her a close colleague of this writer). Other people strongly criticised him as well.

Also on Twitter, @TitoMboweni decided enough was enough, and made his own comment:

On the SABC, I am breaking ranks with the “predominant view” and standing firm on press freedom. Taking the lead from historical ANC positions.

But of course, there must be more to it than a little bit of turbulence on Twitter. The ANC is not in the habit of listening to commentators, no matter how powerful they may be, and Mboweni has been safely ignored in the past. However, there is another divide in the party that make more sense.

We know for certain that Muthambi is very fond of Motsoeneng. She has supported him at every turn, every court decision against him; every wrongful act he has performed, she has backed him. We know through her that her feelings for him are nowhere near as strong as Zuma’s for Motsoeneng, after she explained. “But Baba loves him so much, we must support him.” (“Baba” of course is a term referring to Zuma.) Despite his various protestations, Motsoeneng is very much Zuma’s man.

We know also that the ANC is not always as 100% behind Zuma as we might think. Earlier this year, when the Hawks were putting pressure on Pravin Gordhan, in what looked very much like a fight between Gordhan and Zuma (a battle likely to resume after August’s local elections), the ANC, speaking through Gwede Mantashe himself, made its support for Gordhan clear. This was new territory, and the start of a dynamic that appeared to be muted by the ANC’s decision to stop its inquiry into claims the Gupta family were offering people positions in the Cabinet.

Now, suddenly, we seem to have the ANC going against Zuma’s man, in what looks like an echo of that situation.

There could also be an even more interesting reason for this. If you had to list the ANC’s problems, right at the top would be the issue of Gauteng, and the number of votes it stands to lose in August’s polls. It’s no secret that while Ekhuruleni seems safe, Joburg and Tshwane are not. It has to pull out all the stops in both places. Voters in these areas have access to far more than the SABC. They would have been aware of the stark contrast between the coverage of the recent Tshwane violence on the SABC, and of the coverage by commercial radio stations and, and of how the protests were covered by newspapers both independent and Independent.

And the ANC’s earlier stance on the SABC simply looks dictatorial, like someone who wants to crack down on independence of the media, something many South Africans take seriously.

There is also the problem of the person concerned. Motsoeneng runs the risk, among some constituencies, of being seen as a less than competent. His comment that he “doesn’t believe in science” was widely ridiculed. His diktat around a 90% local music quota is far more likely to lose him support than to gain him support in the longer run. He has alienated not just listeners from Lotus FM who are used to a staple of Bollywood fare (and are now having to listen to Afrikaans music…. seriously!), but also everyone who used to listen to Metro FM. Which is, by the way, the biggest English radio station in the country.

This could mean that the personality of Motsoeneng is someone the ANC would, and should, want to get away from; in a long run, he is going to harm them far more than help them.

There are also the other members of the alliance to consider. The SACP has long led the charge opposing Motsoeneng, and has often criticised him. To her eternal credit, the former head of Parliament’s Communications Committee, Joyce Moloi-Moropa, resigned from that position rather than be a part of a process that saw the committee adopting an illegal position. Moloi-Moropa is the SACP’s Treasurer. And the party knew what was coming, because of the fact that Blade Nzimande’s wife, Phumelele Ntombela-Nzimande, was one of those ousted by Motsoeneng.

Meanwhile, there has been the curious silence of Cosatu. Its president, S’dumo Dlamini, said he didn’t want to “swim in muddy waters”. While the situation at the SABC may be complicated, that is surely not an excuse for standing by and doing nothing. And certainly the SACP has not felt that that “mud” was a good reason not go get involved. Especially when workers are getting suspended and charged.

All in all, this tells more than just that the ANC is conflicted on this. It tells us, once again, that society, South Africa, is bigger than just Zuma, and the ANC. It shows that the party is still concerned about the consequences of its actions, and that there are certain lines it cannot, yet, cross. This is important. The question is, will this always be the case? DM

Photo: Hlaudi Motsoeneng, chief operating officer of the SABC, holds the corporation’s first quarterly media briefing in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 28 January 2015. Picture: SAPA stringer



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