South Africa, Media

Analysis: The Good Ship SABC and its many course alterations

By J Brooks Spector 5 July 2016

The national radio and television broadcaster had a difficult history as “his master’s voice” until it was liberated along with the rest of the country in the 1990s. But it has again fallen on evil times, although Tuesday’s astonishing events give some hope for change. Is there something else that can be done to move it further? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

Back in the early 1970s in South Africa, the country’s broadcast media effectively spoke with one voice – that of the government owned, government guided and directed SABC. This included some stridently pro-government broadcast editorials and commentaries, in addition to its astonishingly slanted news coverage.

And until 1976, it was only via radio frequencies – domestically in English, Afrikaans and several African languages. Television only came to the country at the beginning of that year, and only after long opposition by National Party politicians who warned that television would spread lies and foreign propaganda, it would destroy the country’s morals, religious feeling, and ultimately it would be the undoing of the very fabric of apartheid South Africa.

Private commercial radio, aside from music on LM Radio, beamed from a more relaxed Mozambique, was still well off into the future. Listeners with shortwave sets could tune in the BBC or the VOA (which also broadcast on a rather iffy medium wave frequency from a relay station in Botswana) – and maybe Radio Moscow if the atmosphere was right. And a few listeners also listened to the ANC’s clandestine shortwave station, broadcast from well beyond the border of South Africa via a dodgy signal. But it was a rare person who ever listened to it routinely, given that it was a crime to do so.

The country’s print media largely consisted of firmly National Party government-supporting Afrikaans language daily and Sunday papers; a pro-business English mainstream press with a sub-segment, largely the Rand Daily Mail, The Cape Times and the East London Daily Dispatch, that sometimes demurred over government policies (while subject to constant pressure to toe the line in order to placate advertisers), or, somewhat more rarely, expressed views actively opposed to the government’s policies. Too strong an opposition to the government party line could, and sometimes did, land an editor in court, in prison and then out on the streets, looking for a new job. And the so-called black press such as The World were tightly in the pockets of their respective owners – the same big media houses that owned the other papers.

Back then, modest demonstrations of editorial independence and journalistic ethics about reporting the news as it really was so enraged the government they launched a secret operation – what became known as the Info Scandal – to set up a pro-government English language newspaper, The Citizen, aimed at English-speaking South Africans and then to find a willing partner in the US to purchase The Washington Star, then a still-powerful voice in the nation’s capital, and then to turn that daily into an obedient lapdog, supportive of South Africa.

Back then, there was, of course, no internet; there were no blogs and no social media. And virtually every remaining independent black media voice had been brought to heel. Even the famous Drum magazine of Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Anthony Sampson, Zeke Mphahlele, and Nat Nakasa of the magazine’s glory days in the 1950s and early ‘60s had long since become a pale shadow of its former stature.

Back then, living in South Africa as a foreign diplomat interested in engaging with the country’s media, I soon found we could be seriously circumscribed in even our normal activities. Of course my colleagues and I dealt with foreign journalists eager to glean insights from our local acquaintances – beyond the usual official sources. Moreover, we paid attention to and gave respect to local – frequently black – journalists (and the occasional editor) who wanted to tell someone more than they could safely write and print. And they were also interested in keeping open their own lines of communication with the outside world, beyond the limits of their current, straitened circumstances, and our office was useful to them on that score.

But, as the hard struggles of the 1980s became the cataclysmic changes of the 1990s, the country’s media had an extraordinary efflorescence as well. Commercial talk radio stations such as Radio 702 became a key channel for people of every background and political persuasion to air their views openly, in an increasingly free, increasingly intoxicating atmosphere. Newspapers like the Mail and Guardian (founded by a few editors and writers made newly redundant when the Rand Daily Mail’s corporate owners closed it down due to a precipitous decline in advertising revenue and government pressure), South, Saamstad, Vrye Weekblad, and The New Nation (with some of these journals often subsidised by sympathetic foreign foundations and other donors) increasingly pushed the envelope in their reporting, thereby bringing a wealth of new, often angry, yet surprisingly hopeful voices to the attention of readers.

Television, of course, remained under strict government control, at least for audiences who could not see VTR showings of weekly news broadcasts brought in from the US in the American libraries in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Soweto, Cape Town and Durban. Meanwhile, the local news broadcasts continued their largely anodyne content of bland government support, offering an anaesthetised version of actual events. Even a sharply militant, sustained strike, a boycott, or a wide-scale popular mobilisation received bland coverage as the usual “unrest in the townships”, in contrast to being more accurately described as part of a social revolution occurring in real time, just down the road. This helped feed the myth, still voiced by some, that “we just didn’t know what was going on”.

Right up to the day of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, as a vast national and international media contingent crowded the prison gates, SABC-TV’s live broadcast announcers found themselves dumbfounded, live, on air, as to how to describe the fact that the world’s most famous political prisoner was about to walk out of that gate to the cheers of a great throng. This became especially apparent when the eagerly anticipated moment of Mandela’s release was repeatedly delayed. The on-air announcers had virtually no fall-back of archival video material on Mandela’s life and times to draw upon (given his heretofore banned, imprisoned status), and they had no in-house analysts they could really call on for commentary or to explore the larger context of this event, as everyone waited and waited for the prison gates to open.

Over the next several years, it initially seemed as if the clouds had parted, a great miasmic fog had lifted, the trumpets blared, and South Africa’s public media had received a tremendous intravenous dose of energy drinks. The state broadcaster was redesigned and invigorated and with it came an infusion of people eager to tell all those new, astonishing and much more comprehensive stories. People like Max du Preez, Jacques Pauw, Sylvia Vollenhoven and so many others became presences in the newsroom and with the network’s related public affairs programming.

A new charter situated the SABC as a public broadcaster not beholden to the government of the day and not supposed to be the handmaiden for government flacks. But Sic gloria in transit, however.

Eventually, the SABC’s airwaves and its content were brought to heel by a succession of feckless boards, board chairs, and CEOs. More recently, the entire institution came under the sway of a mercurial striver, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a man who first came to the SABC as a secret high school dropout, became a producer in the regional office in Bloemfontein, and eventually was promoted to group COO where he would drive successive CEOs out of the door and on to pasture. His deft hand at keeping close ties to the politically potent, including an excellent guess that Jacob Zuma would rise from the politically dead and return to even greater power than before he had been dumped as deputy president, all helped bolster Motsoeneng’s power in the SABC.

In more recent times, in carrying out his management rampage, the COO began his witch hunts among reporters and editors over which news could be reported – and how it would be reported if it were deemed safe enough for public consumption. He proclaimed that positive news must outweigh negative stories. And then he arbitrarily decreed that the radio channels would henceforth sharply regulate any call-ins on call-in shows. Then came the ruling that the radio channels must carry 90% local content and then another that television channels would substantially follow suit. These came without any forward planning, audience surveys, research or analyses over the impact of such decisions on advertising, listenership and viewership – or even budgetary projections over the impact of already paid for but now unusable foreign content. (Yes, local content producers such as singers and composers are pleased by these decisions as it is a pocket book issue for them, but listeners and viewers may not be so forgiving in the long run as long as their consumer preferences are ignored.)

Along the way, he trebled his own salary, ducked court decisions and findings by the Public Protector that he had acted unlawfully, and wriggled away from admitting that he was, effectively, a high school dropout, rather than a well-trained and educated, highly experienced manager perfectly suited for his role as the ruler of all he surveyed. His rocket-like progress inevitably recalls the lines in the First Lord of the Admiralty’s famous patter song, When I was lad and the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, HMS Pinafore. Hlaudi’s rise and rise might have been achingly funny if it didn’t so closely echo the snide mockery in Admiral Joseph Porter’s words about himself:

When I was a lad I served a term
As office by to an attorney’s firm
I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor
And I polished up the handle of the big front door
I polished up that handle so carefullee
That now I am the ruler of the Queen’s navee

But the suspensions of and disciplinary hearings for a handful of leading reporters and editors for insubordination (or something or other) has now, seemingly, brought this particular kettle to a stiff boil. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa is due to rule on the legality of the COO’s diktat that no violent protests destroying public property could be broadcast for fear of encouraging additional bad behaviour on the part of citizens (despite its obvious newsworthiness); and the Constitutional Court will similarly be approached over the COO’s suspensions of those journalists.

And then, remarkably, astonishingly, just a week after the governing party’s spokesman, Zizi Kodwa, had gone on record as fully supportive of Motsoeneng’s news policies, the former party spokesman and now chief parliamentary whip, Jackson Mthembu, appeared at another news conference to insist that for this enterprise to run properly, the SABC needs much more than any old “Tom, Dick or Harry” (or Hlaudi, presumably) at its helm. Further, he announced that the corporate governance at the state broadcaster was now in an embarrassing, total state of shambles; and that the communications minister (the representative of the government’s shareholder rights with SABC) would be asked to explain to the party’s bigwigs just how this great, unholy mess is now going to be sorted out.

Moreover, just in case anybody had any questions about one final point, news censorship such as now taking place at the SABC was definitively not ANC policy. If this had been a movie, at that precise moment there would have been a cutaway to a close-up of a now furious COO Motsoeneng, about to ride off in some serious high dudgeon over this public reprimand.

But, of course, it is still early days. Yes, the COO had been allowed to overextend, and overplay, his reign of terror and caprice at the SABC; and yes, the ANC had been forced to claw back some on this; but the proof of this particular pudding will be in whether or not the broadcaster’s policies, news values and attitudes, and overall management and corporate governance, all actually change. And perhaps most important, it will be if Mr Motsoeneng is not so subtly asked to move right along, perhaps to become appointed as South Africa’s ambassador to a small, isolated island country somewhere well out into the South Pacific. And then if a top-flight, thoroughly independent board is appointed; if an experienced, tough CEO is also appointed with a mandate to clean things up; and if the news division is allowed to regain its respectability and the respect it once had earned back at the beginning of the new era; then the giant supertanker will be said to have changed its course.

In the meantime, perhaps the best thing most people can consider doing is simply to cease watching or listening to the SABC – until this big ship definitively changes its course – and thereby affecting its ratings and listenership and advertising to keep the pressure on it. Oh, and there is one other thing, perhaps.

Maybe now is also the time for all the independent analysts and commentators (besides those who had already been blacklisted from being called upon earlier) brought on to SABC radio and television to help explain and discuss national and international issues simply to decline any such invitations, thereby depriving its airwaves of some larger legitimacy, until this particular Augean stable over in Auckland Park has been thoroughly purified of its taints and the priests are called in to sanctify the new regime. DM

Photo: The SABC Broadcast Centre headquarters in Auckland Park, Johannesburg (Mike Powell, via Wikimedia Commons)

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