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Opinionista

To the Crossroads and Back: Jimi Matthews and the SABC

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John Matisonn is a former senior United Nations elections official, Independent Broadcasting Authority councillor, and long-time political and foreign correspondent. He is the author of Cyril’s Choices, An Agenda for Reform; and God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s Future Through its Past.

Was this the last straw? On Friday Jimi Matthews provided an affidavit saying SABC journalists don’t need to film violent protests because the police have their own cameras. “Where there are members of the South African Police Service in protests, especially violent protests, the police have their own photographers and cameras to cover the situations as this conduct is criminal in nature in terms of the law.”

The Jimi I know could not have written that sentence. But if he didn’t, he still signed it. By Monday, there was no escape from the horror. Time to give up the ghost, and the perks.

Those of us who remember Jimi as the courageous cameraman lugging heavy equipment to record apartheid’s dreadful carnage can only hang our heads in mourning for the lost years. His resignation as nominal head of the SABC is a sad climax to the tragic decline of our Constitution’s ambitions for a challenging public broadcaster.

Sadly, there is nothing secret about all that has happened at the SABC. The rot did not start with Jacob Zuma, and to take back the SABC it’s time for those who had a hand in SABC interference before Zuma to come clean.

Jacob Zuma and SABC Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the architects of its continuing fall, probably know little and care less about the preparation prior to 1994 for a new, decent SABC that would stimulate debate about the problems that would confront a new democracy. The hope was there, and it was embraced by people of all colours and backgrounds. They wanted an independent public broadcaster that would reflect South Africans to themselves, speak truth to power and provide a platform for substantive debate.

It would also challenge official truisms. It’s now obvious the ANC did not come to power with effective plans for the complexities of this economy. Sadly, it chose to ignore many committed non-racial experts in the fields of migrant labour or electricity or medicine. Exiles out of touch with a complex society chose to dismiss well intentioned advice.

The SABC is 80 years old this year. Local radio avoided news or controversy before the SABC. It was started by the founder of the BBC, Lord John Reith, who was brought to South Africa by then Prime Minister General Barry Hertzog to study the country’s system and recommend a solution.

Reith, whose name remains a byword for quality at the BBC, was a contradictory, crusty Presbyterian, loyal to empire but with a Scot’s scepticism of Whitehall, and a child of his time whose South African diary showed his contentment with excluding blacks from the franchise. If he had a virtue, it was total commitment to controversial broadcasting that avoided influence equally from politics and business. His scientific background made him a believer in disinterested debate on important matters.

The result of the South African Broadcasting Act Reith wrote was steady progress towards a useful national public broadcaster. Believe it or not, television had first been seen, in embryonic form, eight years earlier, in 1928. By the 1950s, under the Nationalist government, South Africa fell behind the rest of the world, in both connection to the world and in technology. Less sophisticated southern Rhodesia had TV in 1959, but it was only in 1976 that South Africa was allowed to follow.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, each time someone inside the SABC showed a spark of free thought, he or she would be slapped down. Sometimes the morning current affairs radio shows tried to do proper interviews, then someone would be fired and it would be back to square one. Good people cannot take it for long.

When the chance came leading up to 1994, grassroots supporters around the country pushed for a public broadcaster that was “free, fair and open”. Conferences were held. It was true that the outgoing white government supported it because it feared losing all power, and the ANC supported it because it still had no power. But the principle of an independent public broadcaster was adopted by all.

The free market argument that you don’t need one did not get much support: there would always be needs the market would not satisfy – languages like Venda and Tsonga and Seswati, for example, just don’t get advertising, yet South Africans speak those languages and must be catered for.

I think there was general satisfaction with the fresh, balanced coverage of the democratic election (disclosure – I was in charge of SABC’s 1994 radio election coverage).

Zwelakhe Sisulu was a successful CEO. He was from ANC aristocracy, but he did not behave like a crony. He wanted to be fair. The Sisulu name gave him some protection. After that, it got harder. The lessons were soon forgotten by the powerful. One CEO replaced another, one board following another.

When the Constitution was being drawn up at Codesa, some wanted the SABC to be a Chapter Nine body, its independence to be constitutionally protected. But the decision was taken that it made more sense to protect the broadcast regulator – now the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) – because it regulated the SABC and everything else.

That did not work. Parliamentarians went behind the back of the process and interfered. The SABC executive realised the regulator was being bypassed, and began lobbying MPs instead of taking their case to ICASA. The rest followed.

Dr Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, kept on as communications minister by Mbeki for 10 years despite evident failure to advance the information economy, proposed laws to take control of executive appointments.

The ANC did not stand up. Under Zuma it got worse.

Last year the SABC was due for another new board. As has become common, finding the best was not on the agenda. Nor, indeed, was diversity. The chair so chosen turned out to have misled the committee about a university degree. Nobody spoke up. We have become so rule-bound that a fake degree is fatal because it’s fraud, but a lack of suitable expertise to build the institution is beside the point. (Disclosure: I was one of the unsuccessful candidates.)

Jimi held on as long as he could. He made compromises that embarrass him. Middle age creeps up as your household obligations reach their peak. Finally, he had to have his soul back. DM

John Matisonn is the author of GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, and host of CTV’s BETWEEN THE LINES.

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