Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 14 June 2017

Dear Minister Nathi Mthethwa: Defend the country’s creatives

As a Minister of Arts and Culture it behoves you to be a fierce defender of the freedom of expression especially in trying times where it has become fashionable to gag those who speak truth to power. The practitioners of the arts, media practitioners as well as people who lead intellectual thought look up to you to defend such freedom. So what are you going to do?

The last time I wrote to you were in charge of the police and you were swiftly redeployed following the Marikana tragedy for which at least no finger pointed at you. Poor Riah Phiyega took the fall for you and Ubaba and strangely the Farlam commission let you off the hook. In my last letter to you I spoke without any success about the 1,500 criminals that were on the pay roll of the police under your watch I am sure you had your reasons why no radical decision was taken to fire those police immediately, police who clearly gave the government a bad name. I mean these are people who were found guilty of all kinds of nefarious deeds like murder and rape. Government continued to spend money on these criminals despite the high crime rate that our citizens suffered, despite the horrible crime statistics that showed us that something drastic had to be done. In another democracy you and I know that you would have been asked to quit or quit out of conscience for just these two incidents that I have mentioned. But this is South Africa where there is very little accountability that has come to be expected of political leaders. These incidents also gave me a distinct impression that you are not necessarily a man of radical actions even where it is clearly called for. So what has changed…. I wonder?

You may wonder why I am starting you off so far away but I thought there is a correlation between these mis-steps and your latest gimmick that seek to rubbish one of the most fundamental freedoms that Oliver Tambo and many other freedom fighters fought for: the freedom of expression. As a Minister of Arts and Culture it behoves you to be a fierce defender of such the freedom of expression especially in trying times where it has become fashionable to gag those who speak truth to power. The practitioners of the arts, media practitioners as well as people who lead intellectual thought look up to you to defend such freedom.

In my recent interaction with you I was highly impressed about what you had to say about how we ought to tell the African story without fear or prejudice. A story that has so much success and hope. I had no idea that as you were saying this you had up your sleeve something as cowardly as using advertising spend to force the hand of media to report positively about government. The story I started off with –Marikana – was a negative story that every single newspaper and media house worth its salt had to tell. It was a story that painted the ANC government in a bad light. A police force under your watch and direct responsibility killed miners whose only sin was to ask for a R12,000 salary. The story of the crime statistics is a negative story. It tells of a war we are losing against criminals, it tells of a level of helplessness even of a Minister of police who admits to Parliament that some 1,500 police officers found guilty of heinous crimes are still wearing blue. This was reported as a bad story in almost all newspapers. Despite this war the top brass of the police are as disorganised as ever with no permanent leadership in the Hawks and crime intelligence and no permanent Commissioner of Police as we speak.

I don’t have to remind you that the Concourt found that the President of our republic violated the Constitution followed by the entire parliament. This was a story that would never have seen the light of day if it was not for courageous journalism in this country. Under your watch as a minister of police, the SAPS did not arrest the runaway costs of the Nkandla upgrades – the story left government looking very bad. Oh, how can I forget that through the courage of Mzilikazi wa Africa your police commissioner was found guilty of corrupt practices related to the police headquarters and subsequently fired for this expose that came from the front pages of the Sunday Times …. All these stories were told without fear or favour and all the papers that carried them did so without worrying about government threatening them with pulling advertising. This is what is expected of what is known as the ideal public sphere. Where government and its people can meet at a common place of accountability.

Your suggestions to change this situation of bad publicity is to cancel advertising to those who don’t give you positive coverage. To camouflage this you use flowery language that those who are targeted will be those that do not share the transformation agenda. You will have to help us point out who these are. Will the papers that exposed the tragedy of Marikana qualify? Will the Sunday Times that exposed your police commissioner of corruption be seen as sharing your transformation agenda or not? Will those who exposed the corruption of Nkandla be seen as anti-transformation? Who are these great media that will qualify for your largesse? What will they have to do once they qualify – will they be expected to “behave themselves” when they come across corruption in government? Will they be on probation until the next story of corruption? Have you thought about whether whistleblowers will no longer give them stories of your corrupt colleagues who continue to raid state coffers daily?

Minister Nathi, let’s talk frankly. The ANC needs every help to change the narrative – but you are going about this the wrong way. To change the narrative you have to change the behaviour. You can also partner with the media not antagonise them. This media that you spend money on, can be persuaded through your financial muscle to do a few things:

  • Create standing features that educate people about their culture;
  • Simplify tons of research that gathers dust in millions of PHD and Masters thesis at South African universities;
  • Promote authors in south Africa who have written books in all our languages;
  • Create standing features of different arts and cultural focuses;
  • Promote new and upcoming writers journalists and authors;
  • Partner with universities to simplify some of the learning materials;
  • Create sections for political education; and
  • Train specialist journalists to focus on different areas of social cohesion identified at the social cohesion summit a few years ago.

I can go on an on before I reach a part that says you will cut their advertising. Government is lazy to extract maximum value for their advertising and instead of using that financial muscle to get value you only seek to influence coverage in a crass manner that will only open you up for attack as haters of free expression. There should be a mutual engagement that will improve how government can better reach its citizens. The reality of the matter is through these suggestions government will create an environment of empowered citizens who will be able to discern propaganda from facts when these are found in any of these publications. How is your bizarre stance consistent with the call by Gwede Manatashe to business that it must not tell the ANC what it wants to hear?

Comrade Nathi the youth league seems to think you are ready to be the chair of our movement. Is this where you will lead our movement to? Where we use strong-arm tactics to persuade people of our political views? Is that the south Africa we deserve? Is that the South Africa that Nat Nakasa died for?

I look forward to your considered reply and intend never to rest until the government reverses this regressive stance against this basic freedom even if I have to spend my last breath on it.

Yours Frankly, Onkgopotse JJ Tabane. DM


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