Consider the recent decision by the ANC to summon the SABC to answer charges of political bias and lack of balanced reporting.
The major basis for that charge, believe it or not, was explained by the ruling party’s national spokesperson, Jessie Duarte, in convoluted, nonsensical style in an interview with the Sunday Independent: “We don’t want the SABC to be an ANC mouthpiece; we want them to be objective in covering all of South Africa. We raised issues around, for example, the coverage of the (party) president (Jacob Zuma) who, whether he talks about agriculture or economics, is always shown dancing outside the Pietermaritzburg court.”
What Duarte, and the ANC, did not consider is this simple reality: Perhaps Zuma should stop singing at public platforms, and the media will desist from showing images of him singing. With Zuma’s change of behaviour on public platforms, those media practitioners who continue to create fictions of a singing president would be justifiably punished.
But on a serious note, the fact that the ruling party has the audacity to summon executives from the public broadcaster for a dressing down, should ring alarm bells. It harks back to the days of the National Party, when the SABC was referred to as His Master’s Voice, and the NG Kerk described as the National Party at Prayer. Also worrisome is the fact that the summoning of the executives was not the first time the ruling party tried to impose its power and influence on the public broadcaster. Not so long ago, the ANC was advocating for a clause in the Broadcasting Amendment Bill that would have given the Speaker of the National Assembly the power to help decide the appointment of the SABC’s board.
Thankfully, common sense prevailed when MPs in the portfolio committee on communications agreed to a decision by a National Council of Provinces select committee to scrap the provision.
(This after vocal criticism by opposition parties and pro-media freedom lobby groups.)
The fact that all these insidious attempts at eroding the powers of the public broadcaster – gradually turning it into a state broadcaster – have ever crossed the minds of the ruling party, bodes ill for the future.
One can expect, sadly, that the formation of the new breakaway party, variously known as the Congress of the People or, colloquially, the Shikota, will put even more pressure on the ANC to try its damnedest to use (or abuse) the SABC as a bulwark against the new party.
At a recent debate on the future of the SABC, the South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, who also sits on the ANC NEC, gave this concern some credence when he said that the SABC board should be disbanded as it had allowed itself to be held captive by a faction within the ANC.
By a “faction within the ANC”, Nzimande was referring to the new party. Denialism runs deep within the ANC – the new party is no longer a faction within the ANC; it has broken away and, at the time of writing, was in the process of registering itself as a fully fledged party.
Another worrisome reality is that as the two behemoths battle it out in the build-up to the elections, the smaller parties will feel even more pain; getting, as they will, caught in the crossfire. They are likely to get even less coverage on the public broadcaster.
This goes against the grain of the public mandate of the SABC. The smaller parties do deserve a share of voice, in keeping with constitutional provisions as they relate to freedom of information, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression.
Those of us in the print media will keep quiet on these stealthy moves at manipulating the public broadcaster only at our peril; one day they will come for us through their proposed media tribunal that, on the face of it, sounds very sinister and might change the face of our media forever – if allowed to succeed.
We have the voices, and we must use them at every turn in stopping the ANC juggernaut in its tracks as it systematically but properly throws its weight around to silence or intimidate media organisations.
Fred Khumalo is a Sunday Times columnist and award-winning novelist.
The SABC has denied reports of being summoned to the ANC’s headquarters. “The acting CEO of the SABC, Gab Mampone, wishes to put it on record that the allegations and claims by the Sunday Independent are not only misleading but also geared to inflame and ignite political tensions in the country.
“We call upon the Sunday Independent to provide proof or evidence to substantiate these irresponsible and unwarranted allegations,” a statement reads. Mampone did not deny that a meeting with the ANC had taken place.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (December 2008).