A past minister of communications, Jay Naidoo takes on his former colleagues and how they deal with the media. He speaks to Peta Krost Maunder, editor of The Media magazine. Naidoo believes the South African government must “grow up” and, as leaders, “they need to unify rather than divide; and have less arrogance to get more work done”.
In an interview about the media and communications, Naidoo came down hard on his former comrades in government about interfering where they shouldn’t, and being politically arrogant rather than working together.
Naidoo – former minister of Post, Telecommunications and Broadcasting (1996-1999); minister in the President’s Office responsible for the Reconstruction and Development Programme (1994-1996); first Cosatu secretary general (1985-1993) – is pleased to be in a position where he is not in government and can speak his mind about the core values that underpin the “struggle for freedom”.
Naidoo left government in 1999 to start J&J Group, an investment and management company with long-time colleague and fellow activist, Jayendra Naidoo. “Big Jay”, as the former minister is affectionately called – because of his comparative political standing rather than his size – set up J&J Development Projects Trust in 2007 to focus on social development and the role business can play in fighting poverty and inequality.
He chaired the Development Bank of Southern Africa (2000-2010) and chairs the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (since 2003). He is also a member of the Global Health Advisory Panel of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and on the advisory committee of the International Telecommunications Union, among other internationally acclaimed NGOs.
His love for and dedication to South Africa remains unchanged.
One of the most obvious examples he gives of how government interference has had a totally negative impact is in relation to the SABC board. “Parliament appointed a board of highly respected, competent, committed people and they should have trusted them to do their job and judged them by their deliverables,” Naidoo says. “The board should have been left to do what it was mandated to do, rather than have to deal with political interference of the worst kind – which divided them.
“The minister should not attempt to micro-manage such an institution. He should have allowed the board to do its damn work – it is outrageous what was going on.”
He goes on to say that “the tragedy” is that the SABC is filled with such great talent “who are now working in an institution that is tarnished as being ‘his master’s voice’.”
So why is Naidoo concerned about issues relating to the media? Essentially, he is committed to the original values of the ANC, Cosatu and the mass democratic movement of the 1980s that stand and fall on people being able to have a voice.
“It is not just about the media, it is about the type of society in which we live. We fought to have a voice and to express ourselves freely,” he says, and the media is an essential component in doing that. “The media, that very important pillar of our society, is under enormous threat right now because of the proposed Protection of Information (POI) Bill and the punitive Media Appeals Tribunal. After all we have fought for, we stepped back to build a society of secrets,” he says. “Is that the type of society we want? It flies in the face of our traditions and our promise of a people-centred democracy.”
Naidoo explains that he believes the issue is about a leadership that is open and accountable and does not shy away from debate and scrutiny; “a leadership that is confident in itself to lead from the front and not from behind heavy closed doors.”
Having said that, he explains that “the issue of accountability is central to this on both sides”, and that the media cannot be absolved from its ills.
“The media is far from perfect. It needs to take a long, hard look at itself. It needs to look at the quality of its reporting and coverage; the investment on the part of media owners and editors in diversity; in journalistic talent and retaining that talent; and in ensuring the sustainability of the media at a time when the sector is under financial threat all over the world.
“We have a serious juniorisation in our newsrooms and we are simply not investing in training and ensuring investigations are done properly,” he says. “This has led to severe criticism, which is legitimate in the way that the media conducts itself. The media is not above the law and there are definitely two sides of the coin. There needs to be greater investment in a more robust and accountable media.”
He also agrees with government that diversity in the media is essential, and it is not happening. “But instead of using a club, we need to come to negotiated agreements.”
Naidoo also speaks out about the government’s handling of the communications regulator. He says: “Government needs to allow ICASA to do its job and extend its access so that it can investigate collusion and ensure competitive tariff charges, among other things.” He explains: “ICASA has a fundamental role in governing this sector and must be allowed to do it.”
However, he applauds the new communications minister Roy Padayachie for withdrawing the draft Public Service Broadcasting Bill recently. He calls the notion (within the Bill) of the public giving 1% of their personal income tax to the SABC “ridiculous”.
Naidoo says: “A great strength of South Africa is its single tax system, and we would fall apart as a country if the tax system starts being fragmented. This has been the downfall of other countries.”
In general, Naidoo says he is impressed with Padayachie. “He is open and clearly understands the importance of listening and dealing head-on with conflict. There are many diverse opinions and he has to attempt to unify this sector. It appears like he is trying to build unity.”
In response to a question on the former minister of communication’s decision to rethink the choice of digital standard from European to Brazilian, Naidoo says: “Whatever happens, we need to choose the one standard that is integrous with our economic partners.
“All we ask is that government is sensible and logical about its decisions, using common sense,” he says. “Its not rocket science.”
Naidoo explains that government needs to listen and work closely with the private sector. “Government needs the private sector and we should be looking at implementing serious partnerships to implement our economic goals.”
He appeals to people involved in sectors in the media to raise their voices, saying that organisations like SOS: Support Public Broadcasting and the Right2Know Campaign are heard, and do, indeed, make a difference. “I understand that the new minister met with the SOS coalition and his decision to scrap the Public Service Broadcasting Bill followed that meeting.”
This bodes well for media, but Naidoo reiterates that, for South Africa to be a success, it needs a shared vision and “leaders to listen to us and unify not divide us”.
This interview was first published in The Media magazine.