After the latest round of court action by the SABC, its chief operations officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, and communications minister Faith Muthambi – which they lost – South African civil society could be forgiven for wondering if it will ever end – and how much it will land up costing taxpayers. Estimates are that the SABC has forked out up to R2 million so far, but that number is far from final as eNCA is reporting that the public broadcaster will be taking the case to the Constitutional Court.
Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi, co-ordinator for civil society activist group, the SOS Coalition, said the SABC saga would “continue until we see radical interventions from government. It’s a real shame that the ANC has resolved to regulate media through some or other iteration of the MAT”.
Phamodi said of great concern was the fact that the ANC “want to clean up house externally when they’ve failed outright in dealing with the SABC crisis because, as much as they claim to not be influencing what happens at executive level, they are the ruling party/alliance after all.
“I don’t think that any of us will disagree with the fact that media must be transformed (beyond mere black faces on boards and executive positions), but if the ruling alliance wants us to trust it with leading this process, they must begin at home first, by transforming the SABC and wresting it from this catatonic state of dysfunctionality,” he told The Media Online.
Interestingly, it’s a view shared by South African Communist Party general secretary, Blade Nzimande, at the party’s recent media transformation summit. While Nzimande is fully in favour of the print media being subject to regulation, he also had a few choice words for the SABC.
Addressing the summit, Nzimande said, “… I will finish with a final reference to what should be a source of pride but is instead, one of growing shame and embarrassment: our public broadcaster.
“It has, indisputably, been hijacked by a tiny cabal of self-promoting individuals, abusing political access to materially advance themselves, at the expense of the SABC itself, and of the millions of people it should serve,” he said.
SCA hands down judgment
On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) handed down a unanimous judgment, co-written by judges Visvanathan Ponnan and Mahomed Navsa, dismissing the appeal by the SABC, Motsoeneng and Muthambi that the COO was were not subject to recommendations by the Public Protector.
“The public protector cannot realise the constitutional purpose of her office if other organs of state may second-guess her findings and ignore her recommendations,” said the SCA, adding that Advocate Thuli Madonsela had not “exceeded her powers or… acted corruptly”. They held that neither the minister nor Motsoeneng raised grounds for a review of the Madonsela report in court. Instead, the reasons they gave for ignoring her recommendations that Motsoeneng be suspended prior to facing a disciplinary hearing was that they had appointed Mchunu Attorneys to investigate the report, When Governance and Ethics Fail.
That course of action was “… in our view, was impermissible,” said judges Navsa and Ponnan, saying that without a court review of Madonsela’s report, the SABC was “obliged to implement her findings and remedial measures”.
“If indeed (the SABC) was aggrieved by any aspect of the public protector’s report, its remedy was to challenge that by way of a review. It was not for it to set up a parallel process and then to adopt the stance that it preferred the outcome of that process and was thus free to ignore that of the public protector,” said the judges.
The SABC, in response to the judgment, said it had “noted” the SCA’s ruling but had still to read the full judgment. But not surprisingly, just a day later, eNCA reported that the SABC would appeal the SCA judgment, and would take the case to the Constitutional Court.
Step down, Motsoeneng
Civil society and opposition parties, however, are clear on what the SABC should do, and that is to suspend Motsoeneng immediately, as the Public Protector recommended in her original report.
James Selfe, commenting for the Democratic Alliance, said, “The SABC is now compelled by the Court to institute the disciplinary proceedings as is ordered by the Public Protector. The disciplinary proceedings must begin in the next 14 days and be completed within a 60-day period. Mr Motsoeneng, however, must now be suspended with immediate effect”.
The Economic Freedom Fighters agreed, saying the judgment added weight to its campaign to get President Jacob Zuma to ‘pay back the money’ he used to upgrade his personal home in Nkandla. “We call on President Zuma to do the right thing – commit to pay back the money. Give us a date and time and the method of payment, so that the South African people can once and for all move beyond this question,” the EFF’s spokesperson, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, said.
The ACDP’s Steve Swart said the party welcomed the SCA ruling “that the Public Protector’s remedial findings cannot be ignored and can only be reviewed by a court of law. This finding makes eminent sense, given that the Public Protector is a key Chapter 9 institution, in the fight against fraud, corruption and maladministration in the public sector”.
While the Motsoeneng case is bound to be dragged out still further, as is President Jacob Zuma’s refusal to follow the Public Protector’s remedial actons regarding Nkandla, in particular that he should pay back some of the money spent, is there not a degree of ‘Hlaudi fatigue’ and some difficulty in maintaining public interest and outrage in the goings on at the SABC?
Difficult to maintain public interest
“It’s really difficult,” says Phamodi. “We’re in a context of information overload, short-term memory and a deficient political discourse. We see this reflected in the ways that much of the mainstream media represent the SABC story. The public interest is why this story is so important, yet the mainstream media seem to be largely focused on the theatrics and spectacle of it all.
“Barring three or four titles, there is a dearth of really nuanced and well considered thought leadership about what’s at stake if we should lose this fight against the cancer that is eating the SABC from the inside out. And I must point out that that cancer is not Hlaudi – he is just a symptom of the malaise that has taken root at Auckland Park. There is something far bigger and more sinister that is happening that is killing all future prospects of a working, thriving and groundbreaking SABC,” he said.
As an activist at the forefront of the struggle for the soul of the SABC, Phamodi says he maintains focus as he was a “child raised by the SABC. I know what it can do for young and old people alike through citizen empowerment using mass communication as the tool. I’m a prime example of the impressive work that the SABC can do for this country,” he says.
SABC has crucial role to play
“More broadly, however, we recognise that the SABC has a crucial role to play in empowering the people of South Africa and deepening our constitutional democracy. Without a democratic and open mass communication medium operating in the public interest, we have no meaningful access to information. Without access to information, we have no meaningful ability to exercise our freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression, we have no meaningful ability to agitate for and realise the constitutional democracy we desire and deserve as a nation. That is what keeps us going – the risk to our hard-won freedoms.”
While the Public Protector’s office is still to formally comment on the judgment, a tweet sent by Madonsela gives some indication of her feelings.
IMAGE: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Advocate Thuli Madonsela at the Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture held this week/ Benny Gool Oryx Media