We spend so much time down the rabbit hole nowadays it can be quite hard to remember what “normal politics” used to be like. But, amazingly, on Wednesday the story around the SABC, the battle for control of it, and the tussle over Hlaudi Motsoeneng got even weirder. The SABC’s chair, Professor Mbulaheni Maguvhe, broke with the tradition of rolling over and playing dead when the ANC tells you to. Instead, he basically told the party to go jump, made probably defamatory statements about some of its members, and claimed his board was “leaving a legacy of stability”. All on the same day that musicians clashed with the SACP outside Auckland Park while Vuyo Mvoko explained how Motsoeneng was no different from Snuki Zikalala, who was no different from Jimi Matthews. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
This writer has been covering the SABC for over a decade. In that time, boards have come and gone, Zikalala went from being a commissar to having to deal with ANC Youth League members storming his tent at Polokwane because they wanted to see his face when Thabo Mbeki lost, Dali Mpofu arrived and left (pocketing the kind of money that only Mxolisi Nxasana has since matched), and various editors of various political stripes have disappeared. But in the last five years, Motsoeneng has dominated. When the current suspended CEO, Frans Matlala, was appointed, Motsoeneng was the person in charge of the press conference. Despite the fact that members of the board were present. The fact that it was obvious that he outranked them tells you everything you need to know about the SABC.
But on Tuesday afternoon, it seemed his time was over. The Chair of the ANC’s Communications Commission, Jackson Mthembu, had had enough. His criticism of the corporation, and of Motsoeneng, was enough to make even Richard Poplak, that hardened observer of the squishier aspects of our politics, squeamish.
But the insanity was just beginning. On Wednesday the Midday Report broadcast an interview with Maguvhe, someone who is very much in Motsoeneng’s corner. Context is important here. It is almost impossible to think of someone who has survived in their post once the ANC has publicly said they want them out. Even if there has been a court case and the ANC has lost, that person has been paid out. But that person never, ever, fights back, or gets someone to do it for them.
There is a line. If you see Maguvhe, it’s the one just behind him.
His main claim, incredibly, is that the ANC is only speaking out against him because “some members of political parties, including the SABC, have business interests… they want the SABC to collapse to purchase the stations and channels”.
You may want to stop for a moment. Shake your head. Roll your eyes around. Breathe in. Breathe out. And think about what he has said. That the ANC literally only said what it said, because some of its members want to buy the assets of the SABC, “they want the corporation to collapse”.
This is a person literally taking on the might of the ANC, Luthuli House itself, and making defamatory comments while doing it.
It’s hard to improve on that. But, amazingly, the rabbit hole continues to deepen. When pushed, and pushed hard, about who was consulted on the decision to ban the broadcast of images of violent and destructive protests, Maguvhe is adamant:
“We did consult, we spoke to stakeholders.”
But who are they?
“We did have various meetings with stakeholders in different provinces about this matter, and people are not happy with this footage.”
“I’ll give you an example, the king of the baVenda is unhappy about such footages, the king of amaZulu, and other stakeholders are unhappy, we did contact stakeholders about this matter.”
When pushed further, he said:
“Investors are backing this decision, investors are also part and parcel of stakeholders, I’ve only mentioned a few.”
Notice: no names are mentioned, these “investors” will remain a mystery, and of course, no organisations, no groups, no institutions, no research, no political parties, no government entities, no churches, and no one else is mentioned.
It is hard not to believe that this was a decision made on the hoof, with no real research. And Maguvhe may claim that they believe in research, but we know that Motsoeneng doesn’t “believe in science”.
Perhaps more worrying are the authorities that Maguvhe went to first – two traditional leaders. Senior leaders of course, with large constituencies. But in no way can they be claimed to be authoritative for the whole country. And why are they special, why not, say, any Xhosa leaders? No doubt the abaThembu king would have plenty to say on this issue…. But more important, what about the urban majority? Clearly Maguvhe doesn’t think that they matter.
Tellingly, Maguvhe doesn’t believe that any of the political parties are worth consulting. The ANC and the DA and the EFF between them make up over 90% of the vote at the last election. They have all condemned this decision. Maguvhe says that doesn’t matter, he can’t and shouldn’t listen to political parties.
Eventually the interviewer, by now growing a little frustrated (hey wait, that was you, wasn’t it – Ed) asked how he could continue to believe this decision about the footage of protests was correct when almost all of formal society, political parties, NGOs, people in the urban street, disagreed with it.
“But what do you think when the Youth League of the ANC says our decision is right, what do you say when MK says our decisions are right, what do you say when artists say our decision is right?”
It’s a robust response. But it’s amazingly revealing. Once again we have the bought aspects of the movement; the same people who support President Jacob Zuma no matter what, the same people who support the Guptas no matter what, the same people who support the Premier League no matter what, are lined up behind Hlaudi Motsoeneng, and his version of the SABC, no matter what. (The only one he missed was the ANC Women’s League.)
But when the issue is put to Maguvhe in a different way, that almost everyone disagrees with him, he says:
“When people don’t like you, you must know you are doing the right thing; when they love you, then you are dancing to their tune.”
What an amazing line of argument. It basically justifies Hendrik Verwoerd.
Well, the question now is what next? Those who know Jackson Mthembu, who remember him from his time as ANC spokesman, will know he will not take this sitting down. And he isn’t. He has already told EWN that Maguvhe is talking nonsense with his claim about business interests, and he says they will not allow the board to “show the nation the finger”. And, perhaps more important, he suggests that maybe “it’s time for divorce” for the board.
But if we dig deeper, there could be another dynamic. We know that Communications Minister Faith Muthambi will back Motsoeneng no matter what. We know Zuma backs her. Therefore, presumably, Zuma backs Motsoeneng. So, is this another of those situations that shows clear blue water between Zuma and his party? Perhaps. If it is, this could open up another front between the two, along with the rift over Pravin Gordhan.
We will probably find out after the elections. After all, once Alice emerged from the rabbit hole of Wonderland, it was time for her to go Through the Looking Glass. DM
Photo: The SABC Broadcast Centre headquarters in Auckland Park, Johannesburg (Mike Powell, via Wikimedia Commons)