South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Op-Ed: Faith Muthambi goes to Parliament

Op-Ed: Faith Muthambi goes to Parliament
Faith Muthambi, the chair of Parliament’s Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

If you can wrap your head around the text of Minister Faith Muthambi’s address in Parliament on Tuesday (we’ve helpfully included it for you) it may take you a few moments to shake your head and bounce back to reality. But unlike the fictitious Alice, when you do, you may find yourself very worried indeed. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

We’ve all had them. Those days when, trying to follow someone’s argument, you feel like you’ve tumbled into Wonderland or are having an interview with Being John Malkovich’s Dr Lester.

You’d like to point out where they’ve misunderstood, but their explanations are so convoluted – and so skilfully dodging the issues raised through sheer surrealism – that you end up too baffled to disagree.

Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi’s address to Parliament’s portfolio committee was a bit like that. Muthambi was to appear in front of the committee to address various issues plaguing the SABC, from controversial editorial policy changes to implementation of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s (Icasa’s) order to withdraw its previous ban on footage of violent protests. Also on the agenda were the axing of well-known journalists, the broadcaster’s financial health, and its various legal battles.

Spoiler alert: In case you haven’t seen the updates yet, Muthambi pretty much denied everything. In between, she took some well-aimed swipes at – among others – Jimi Mathews, the DA, other media, and those she called the protectors of white interests. (Read Muthambi’s prepared statement.)

And in the end, the committee dismissed a proposal for an inquiry into the chaotic state of affairs at the SABC.

It was an exquisite deflection of the central issue of press freedom. Criticism of the SABC was neatly countered with criticisms of other media. Valid concerns were dismissed as sinister plots. The SABC was, in fact, safeguarding media freedom. And throughout was a regular chime ringing out a single command: patriotism. The “apex” of the SABC’s promise is to promote patriotism among South Africans. We must have patriotism.

But Muthambi, it seems, has confused nation-building with ANC-government-building; just as she may have confused the notion of a public broadcaster with a state broadcaster. The line maybe fine to some, but it is there.

The timing of the discussion was significant. Muthambi has been a busy woman. She will speak at the inaugural New Brand Forum hosted by Brand South Africa on 24 August (Wednesday). Reminder: Brand South Africa says one of its “key strategic imperatives” is to “proactively develop strategies that will shape and build the country’s image and reputation, in order to coherently articulate the nation brand identity”. On 25 and 26 August, Muthambi will host a Media Transformation, Accountability and Diversity Colloquium in Freedom Park, Pretoria. The ownership of “influential media assets” should reflect the country’s diversity, she said of the colloquium, calling for a “plurality of voices”. And earlier this week, she briefed the Government Communication and Information System to communicate government-led efforts more clearly.

In Parliament on Tuesday, Muthambi appeared alongside senior SABC executives, and bafflement began at the starting blocks. Right at the outset, chairman Humphrey Maxegwana insisted that the committee had never agreed to launch a parliamentary inquiry into the public broadcaster. DA Shadow Minister of Communications Phumzile van Damme insisted it had.

Stalemate.

Then the testimony began. The SABC had not changed any policy, Muthambi said. It had simply taken an “editorial decision”. Everything was well and good at the SABC. It was financially stable – in fact, it was ploughing back into the economy. (In 2013, the auditor-general issued the SABC a disclaimer opinion.) It had never censored anything.

Freedom of expression,” went on Muthambi, “doesn’t extend to the propaganda of war.”

There was a great deal of talk of propaganda. And censorship. And interference with media freedom – by everyone except the government and SABC.

It is interesting to note that when the mainstream print media took a negative posture on their coverage of government, none of these NGOs marched to print media buildings demand that there be fair and just coverage of South African stories,” she argued, adding that eNCA had not provided coverage of former journalist Phakamile Hlubi’s criticisms of their newsroom either. This, Muthambi added, “exhibits symptoms of editorial decision, or ‘censorship’, as they call it now”.

Muthambi’s lengthy statement centred on a handful of key points: The ministry had never interfered at the SABC; the SABC had never really made a policy decision but merely an “editorial decision”; any intervention at the SABC now would amount to government interference; and sunshine journalism was merely a defence against relentless negative propaganda that was destroying the rainbow nation.

But despite its apparent role in building national cohesion, the issues discussed regarding the broadcaster were internal and should be handled internally, Muthambi said:

Our view is that these are in fact operational issues which need to be resolved by the board as the accounting authority for the corporation.

Failure to observe this key constitutional and policy provision would, in fact, render the ministry as interfering with the duties of the board and management of the public broadcaster. This is something we have not done in the past, and that we do not wish to do in the future.”

If you’re hearing a choir of angels at this point, we don’t blame you. But there was more. On the decision to fire eight of its journalists in July – those who had opposed the ban on airing of violent protest footage – Muthambi stressed that all but one had been reinstated. The role of the Labour Court in this decision went unmentioned.

Also unmentioned was the alleged rise in expenditure on golden handshakes. News24 reported on Tuesday that the SABC had paid an executive millions in a settlement agreement which the executive was contractually bound to keep confidential. (He denied it.) Last month, other reports indicated that the SABC’s previous CEO, Frans Matlala, had settled with the broadcaster for a cool R18-million. The DA – never one to miss an opportunity – said they would call for an investigation into wasteful expenditure on such settlements.

But there is no crisis at the SABC. Nothing to see here, folks.

I don’t know what you mean by censorship,” Muthambi said. (Except when the term referred to other media.)

I think the inquiry should be on why there is so much interest in the SABC. There is an agenda. We need to understand who funds these NGOs,” Hlaudi Motsoeneng chimed in.

The SABC was a key informer and educator of people, in contrast to mainstream media, Muthambi continued. Mainstream media were feeding “propaganda” to the public.

We cannot,” she stressed, “allow a situation where the public is misled.”

In any case, argued Muthambi, defence of the fired journalists was “protection of white interest and in this case, protection of white journalist [sic] at the SABC.

We support only four of the eight suspended journalists – Jacques Steenkamp; Foeta Krige; Suna Venter and Krivani Pillay.”

The decision to stop airing violent protest footage was certainly not politically motivated nor done without consultation, she added. According to Muthambi, the SABC had made provision for public comments on the changed editorial policy.

We embarked on a process of public consultation in 2013 and stakeholder meetings were held with more than 30 organisations. Almost 2,000 people attended the hearings and we received 216 submissions on the draft policies.”

By the end, it became clear that there would not be an inquiry.

The Committee welcomes the explanations provided and has committed itself to continuous engagement with the SABC,” said Maxegwana. “We have listened to the SABC and the minister on the issues. We are going back to finalise that process but it’s very clear, listening to the SABC, that we don’t need an inquiry. This is what these members were saying.”

(Read Maxegwana’s statement.)

But Van Damme stood firm, saying the DA would follow up on the inquiry, which had been agreed to in principle.

And so another episode of the SABC soap opera closes. Ironically, for all the talk of nation-building, perhaps the SABC’s greatest unifying role has been to draw together the public, activists and journalists in protest. And Icasa, Media Monitoring Africa, the Helen Suzman Foundation, Right2Know and countless others – they now stand confounded, playing the role of Alice, in Wonderland’s mystifying trial. Wish them luck. They’re going to need it. DM

Photo: Communications Minister Faith Muthambi addresses a media briefing at ahead of her department’s budget vote, 15 July 2014. (Photo: GCIS)

For more incomprehensible explanations, see:

Gallery

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