Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the SABC’s unloved Chief Operating Officer and infamous Jacob Zuma yesperson, didn’t want the country to see violent protests that are wracking it almost daily. Principled SABC journalists stood up against him; the acting CEO walked; the institution he professes to run is on the verge of the meltdown. For weeks, or rather, for years the ANC gave him their tacit support. That bull run seems to have come to an end. By RICHARD POPLAK.
Sometimes a press release lands in your inbox, and the force of its argument — the blinding clarity of its world-creating rationale — changes how you see things. So it was with a recent electronic missive sent on Monday by one Mlondi Mkhize, who serves as the National Spokesperson for the ANC Youth League. It was entitled “HANDS OFF SABC HANDS OFF and PLEASE let us allow quitters to quit.”
For some years I’ve been meaning to write something substantial about the South African political press release, a genuinely subversive literary genre that hasn’t earned anything close to the artistic or academic scrutiny it deserves. We find none of the tame sentences of the MFA graduate in this radical medium, none of the careful prose and respectful orthography that usually makes reading such a bore. We encounter instead an aggressive form of literary impressionism, depicting the world as it feels to live in it right now. None of these works will win the Caine Prize, sadly, but they are meticulous acts of fiction, or more appropriately, of universe building. Galaxies implode; galaxies are born; the writer hits “send all”. The two current champions on this endless authorial hamster wheel are the EFF’s Mbuyeseni Ndlozi, and Cope’s Farouk Cassim. Among a small coterie, their work is legend.
Before I offer a sample of Mlondi Mkhize’s oeuvre, we require some context. The SABC has been in the, ahem, news lately, mostly because of the ministrations of its pint-sized Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. I first interacted with little Hlaudi at the Independent Electoral Commission in May 2014, shortly after the culmination of the national election campaign. I found him to be a charming fellow — all back slaps and bonhomie. He wore a fine suit and wore it well, even if he appeared to have marinated his eyeballs overnight in a generous dram of single malt.
Lately, however, it did seem as if the power had gone to his head. Like a deranged version of Robert Mugabe in an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, he has hired a praise choir to follow him around, and he’s engaged his own camera operator, a human selfie stick whose job it is to make him look tall. He claimed not to know what “censor” means, on account of it being an English word. (This was a joke. I think.) Hired “irrationally” according to a judge, and backed by communications minister Faith Muthambi (“but Baba loves him, he loves him so much,” she is said to have said), Hlaudi Motsoeneng is the only media bigwig the Zuma era could possibly have generated.
What has Hlaudi done now to so offend the news-crazed citizens of Free Mzansi? Nothing more than his job. Unqualified to run so much as a car wash, Motsoeneng managed to work his way up the state broadcaster’s corporate ranks by displaying the sort of slavish loyalty that ends up transforming previously disadvantaged cadres into Bentley owners. Shockingly, political commentator Justice Malala earlier this week described Motsoeneng as a “mediocrity” – a slander only slightly more inaccurate than if he’d referred to the COO as “towering”. It is Motsoeneng’s precise intention to drive the SABC into the red, to make it a broke-ass ward of the state, to humiliate its board members, to purge itself of independent-minded journalists, to erase any signs of violent discontent on the streets, to reduce genuine political opposition to a circus sideshow, to ensure that no outside ideas infiltrate its “90 percent local” mandate, to render it a vuvuzela farting out a useless war cry for a flailing governing party.
Was the Jacob Zuma regime supposed to tolerate (and bankroll) an independent state broadcaster critical of his policies and willing to cover the violence those policies caused on the streets? That would be truly stupid. Which brings us to Zuma’s most obedient Orc-lets, the ANCYL, and their magic realist Dadaist press release. It kicks off thusly:
The African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) has noted the recent attacks directed at SABC as an institution. These attacks are not only directed at SABC but these attacks sort to implicate the leadership of this institution. These attacks have seen some in our country suggesting that there is something wrong at SABC or its leadership thus a need for a probe. In the view of the ANCYL these attacks are nothing but acts of cowardice. We want to remind these cowards through the words of William Shakespeare in the book tittle Julius Caesar that “Cowards die many times before their deaths, The valiant never taste of death but once”
[it should hopefully go without saying, but sic]
Wait, is Julius Caesar considered local content?
For a taste of what Hlaudi was able to marshal to his cause, for an example of the machine-shopped piggishness that a genuinely wily cat like Hlaudi can mobilise without even bothering to lift a finger, let’s go back to the ANCYL guff:
We […] want to pass a message to the likes of those who have resigned from the SABC management to stop using SABC as means of seeking further employment. We want to call the quitters to stop complaining about decisions they were part of but could not win the debate inside structures of SABC but now decide to use other platforms to vent their inability to provide leadership. Those that have resign must go relax at home. Keeping inline with what they do best quitting they must quit speaking about the SABC they have been tried and have failed unfortunately they are not tried and tested.
Jesus, where to start with this one? But don’t confuse the above incoherent mind-fumble for anything other than what it was: the party line. Wasn’t this just a parroting of ANC National Spokesperson Zizi Kodwa when he claimed that any dissent was an aim to “capture” the institution by people with “agendas”? He even started his own hashtag: #SaveOurSABC.
Dig it: the SABC’s once-respected acting CEO, Jimi Matthews, walked out in spectacular fashion. Then Special Assignment executive producer Busisiwe Ntuli, SAFM Current Affairs executive producer Krivani Pillay and senior investigative reporter Jacques Steenkamp sent a letter to the COO, begging him to stop making “unconstitutional pronouncements”. They were suspended. More journalists were suspended, leading to a media protest outside the SABC. Former leader of Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi showed up, but Hlaudi didn’t have time to chat – he was off to the Durban July.
More drama than an entire season of Generations. And still, the ANC were cool with it all. “Hands off the SABC hands off.” Taking Kodwa’s lead, the Orc-lets had been allowed to enjoy the last word.
Until Tuesday, that is. The press conference invite has none of the literary elements of the press release, and that was certainly the case regarding the e-mail urging journalists to join Jackson Mthembu, serving in his capacity as head of the National Executive Committee’s sub-committee on communications, at Luthuli House for a powwow.
At 03:00 sharp on Tuesday afternoon, Mthembu kicked off by correctly noting that during the fight for liberation, people in this country died for the sorts of media freedoms now entrenched in our Constitution. He incorrectly stated that the ANC had done whatever it could to protect media freedoms (um, the Secrecy Bill? Overfunding the Gupta media outlets? #SaveOurSABC?) “Any policy changes or editorial decisions by the SABC that in anyway limit these freedoms can never be sanctioned by the ANC, nor do they represent the policy views and aspirations of the African National Congress,” said he.
“The ANC stands opposed to any actions that infringe on our people’s rights to hear and see what they want to hear and see. The ANC also stands opposed to any infringement of journalists’ rights to practice their craft.”
So there it was. And it got worse, or better, or something.
“We want people qualified to run the SABC to run the SABC.”
“We are also a recipient of the terrible corporate culture at the SABC.”
“We are not happy with the expertise at the highest level of the SABC. No wonder you have such decisions being made.”
Body blow after headshot after body blow – it was hard to watch. In order to deal with all of this, Mthembu said that the ANC had summoned Minister Muthambi to Luthuli Lair for a meeting next Monday, and it is expected that, if she shows, she’ll bring along with her members of the board.
Does the ANC back the seven journalists who stand to lose their livelihoods because they were good at their jobs? Mthembu seemed to imply that the ANC was in their corner. “If journalists are sufferers, then we have to stand with them,” he said. Perhaps my colleagues still stand a chance of being rightfully reinstated. But who knows these days, right?
Jackson Mthembu – ANC stalwart, man of the world – professed to have no clue who was protecting Hlaudi, and no clue who was “undermining processes” at the SABC. Anyone in South Africa could have helped him out: Minister Muthambi doing the bidding of Zuma and his faction. We all know the game.
Two years ago, Julius Malema warned Hlaudi that when Zuma was done with him, the COO would be discarded “like a used condom”. Personally, I would like to think used condoms are handled more delicately than Mthembu’s handling of Hlaudi. It just makes good hygiene sense.
But still. In a scenario in which “public discourse” is governed by algorithms belonging to six white Silicon Valley billionaires and their billionaire venture capitalist pals, it’s refreshing to know that someone like Hlaudi still exists – an old-school infocrat willing to pull on the asbestos gloves and shove his arm up an entire society’s asshole. Enough with the inscrutable intermediaries, our Hlaudi refuses to cede the kill switch to a bunch of nerd coders and their Mac Books. He doesn’t want Indian math geniuses or American stockbrokers to deny us entire multiverses of un-knowledge, to edit our little worlds for us. He wants to reach out into the ethersphere and tweak the frequencies himself. He wants to create a reality that makes his master happy, that makes his master.
Hlaudi is analogue. Hlaudi is digital. Hlaudi is the future of the past.
Sadly for him, like so many of Zuma’s favourites, he’s cathode ray in a flatscreen world. It’s now time for the ANC to start shopping for a sleeker, faster, sharper model – one that will probably be no less fixated on creating a world his or her master hopes to rule over. They’ll just have to do it with better production values. DM
Photo: SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng (Original photograph by Steven Lang)
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