When South Africans head to the polls next Wednesday, there will be real questions about the extent to which they will be voting in a fair environment. The debacle at the SABC has played itself out against the backdrop of looming elections. The issuing of editorial edicts that are against the spirit in which the public broadcaster was established and the sacking of journalists who have elected to speak out have dominated headlines in the last few months.
The suing and countersuing, the sackings and the reinstatements, the press releases and the tweets from disgruntled former employees; all of these have made for compelling reading. Yet they risk distracting us from a far larger problem. South Africans are in danger of losing sight of the fact that the public broadcaster’s implosion has taken place at precisely the moment when the body needs to be a trustworthy source of news, information and analysis.
More than 20-million people are reached on the SABC’s various media platforms each day. The SABC far outstrips the reach of commercial radio and television stations. In other words, the tone and content of SABC coverage can make or break an election. When a regional or commercial radio station is accused of bias the implications are serious. When the SABC decides to go rogue, however – as it has in this election cycle – the effect is profound. It impacts on the ability of our most economically and geographically peripheral citizens to participate in the democratic process.
Indeed, one could argue that it is a testament to the maturity of the 200 political parties and 61,000 candidates who will be participating in the polls that they have not yet approached the courts on the basis that the elections cannot be expected to be fair in the current media environment.
On the face of it, it would seem that even within the ranks of the ruling party, the nonsense at the corporation’s Auckland Park offices has been a bit rich. The crisis at the SABC seems to have exacerbated existing divisions in the ruling party. On one side we are led to believe that an array of old-school ANC stalwarts are openly questioning the moves at the SABC. These include old hands like Jackson Mthembu and Jesse Duarte who many say represent the traditional values of the party. They – and others like them – are seen to be fighting for the ANC’s redemption.
Facing them down on the other side of the ring are Zuma and his proxies. These are the bad guys. We are led to believe that they are so thoroughly compromised that they are prepared to do the president’s bidding, whatever the cost. This crew is seen to be intent on choosing factionalism and materialism over morality. Hlaudi Motsoeneng has become the face of impunity alongside the Guptas, the Zuma Twitter Defence League, the ANC Used-to-be-Youth League, the ANC You-Should-Be-Ashamed-to-call-yourself-the Women’s League, certain Premiers-Who-Refuse-to-be-Called-a-League-even-though-they-are –a League and the entire Cabinet of Compromise.
Sadly, however, both the battle for the soul of the ANC, and the warring factions duking it out, might as well be fictional. Regardless of who is “good” and who is “bad” within the ANC, the effect of the chaos at the SABC is that we are days away from local elections and South Africans who tune into the public broadcaster have been denied a proper opportunity to hear and see the full picture of protest, dissent and disagreement across the country.
The crisis at the SABC has shown South Africans that the ruling party will stop at nothing to win an election. While many journalists have rightly focused on the crudely biased editorial changes affecting the SABC, the sad reality is that the broadcaster is likely to report a R500-million loss when its financials are tabled in Parliament in September. The figure already stands at R395-million.
Just as the ANC was prepared to spend millions of taxpayers’ rands to destroy the credibility of the Public Protector in defence of its wayward and hapless president, the party has clearly been comfortable trashing the public broadcaster in service of an electoral win. This idea – that the winner takes all – is deeply damaging to the notion of democracy.
In such an environment, it is difficult to see the ANC’s faux-bickering as anything but manipulative. Those who have begun to speak out against the unholy trinity of Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, Chief Operations Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, and Board Chair Professor Mbulaheni Maguvhe, seem to be playing a tactical game.
Sadly, people who have historically voted for the ANC and are now disillusioned by the current leadership are looking for signs of hope. Those leaders who are prepared to admit that there is tension represent an important constituency within the party. Leaders like those within the Gauteng leadership give sceptical voters a reason to continue to believe in the ruling party. For people who have been members of the ANC for decades, signs of internal criticism are good. They bolster ANC support by buttressing the idea that changes are afoot.
The tensions keep the broad church together. Those on one side stay in because they think their protagonists will win, and those on the other do the same. Regardless of their views, both sides of the ANC will vote ANC.
In the end then, even these critical voters are prepared to overlook the effect of the ANC’s actions, focusing instead on the intentions of the individuals they support within the ANC. The party continues to attract people who believe in the historical mandate of the ANC. This of course is no blueprint for the future.
In the long term, those who love the ANC must choose to vote against it. It has become evident in recent years that reform will not come from within. The only incentive for the party to turn towards the light and away from its current tendencies will come from a significant set of electoral defeats. Until the ANC loses members and voters, it can never rise. Those who love the party must learn to take the long view. They must punish it at the polls – as it has punished us all in recent years.
This is no easy ask: Key opposition parties have to prove themselves worthy of new voters. Yet the beauty of local elections lies not in the big parties but in the vast array of choices voters have. It bears repeating: There are 200 political parties and 61,000 candidates participating in this election. In other words, despite the grim SABC drama and the best efforts of an ANC that has become a master of manipulation, South Africans are stepping forward – insisting on being the noise and the change and the solutions this democracy so desperately needs. DM