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TV opinion

Will broadcasting history repeat itself?

Thinking of the Snuki Zikalala example: If Cyril Ramaphosa succeeds President Jacob Zuma, can he, given his apparently sincere convictions about media and broadcast freedom, retain Hlaudi Motsoeneng at the SABC?
"With no one to give him the party line, Zikalala is hedging his bets and sitting on the fence, lest he be accused by one of the many factions in the ANC of siding with either Zuma or Mbeki. He cannot risk that. He will probably wait to see which way the wind blows on the Zuma saga before he adopts the triumphant party line. That is how state broadcasters function.

"That is what SABC News has become under Zikalala. But spare a thought for the poor man. It cannot be easy being a news commissar, especially when the party from which you take your cue is so divided and the levels of mistrust are so high."
- Jacob Dlamini ANC at SABC still studying Shaik Judgment, Business Day 14/6/2005.

A decade ago, Jacob Dlamini was one of our brightest and best journalists but he graced the pages of our newspapers - as political editor for Business Day - for all too brief a time. His book, Native Nostalgia, (Jacana 2009) is a lyrical tribute to his courage and his political acuity. Today he is an Open Society Fellow and a researcher at Barcelona University. He holds a PhD from Yale University on the political and environmental history of the Kruger National Park.

Cyril Ramaphosa: “Delight us, amuse us, educate us, challenge us! And occasionally, just occasionally, annoy us, for we do not pretend to be saints and to know it all. Confront us about service delivery failures...
Cyril Ramaphosa: “Delight us, amuse us, educate us, challenge us! And occasionally, just occasionally, annoy us, for we do not pretend to be saints and to know it all. Confront us about service delivery failures..." (Image: GCIS)
Dlamini's comment in 2005, which anchors this article, prompted Snuki Zikalala to appoint legal counsel to write a letter to Business Day, threatening to sue the newspaper for defaming him. (What seemed to have particularly angered Zikalala was Dlamini's accusation that he was a "news commissar".) The threat of litigation was risible given the subsequent finding of the Zwelakhe Sisulu/Gilbert Marcus Commission of Inquiry into the Blacklisting Scandal. Their finding, in turn, was buttressed by the condemnation of Zikalala, the SABC board and SABC spokesperson, Kaizer Kganyago by Judge Neels Claassen in the South Gauteng High Court on 24 January 2011.

Business Day editor Peter Bruce simply published the letter in the newspaper without comment and nothing further was heard from Zikalala - or his lawyers.

Here is how Dlamini defined, in his 2005 Business Day article, Zikalala's quandary: "As news commissar, Zikalala determines the SABC's line on stories. But he is also a party hack who must, as per his deployment by an ANC-dominated SABC board, push the party line at the SABC. This deployment business works on the assumption that there is a party line to push. But the model crashes when a party is so divided there is no obvious line. That is Zikalala's dilemma."

Does this have any relevance today?

Scarred

In broadcasting terms, Snuki Zikalala's career was defined by the rise and fall of President Thabo Mbeki and they were not happy times, neither for the SABC as an institution nor for many of the people who worked there.

In like measure, I believe, Hlaudi Motsoeneng's future career at the SABC and his legacy will be defined by matters that should not be determinants of his professional status, Nkandla and the Spy Tapes. If they sink President Jacob Zuma, then Motsoeneng could well sink with him.

Dlamini's Business Day reference at the close of 2005 to the deep divide within the ANC - and the role that Zikalala was playing - was prescient and the denouement came two years later at the 52nd National Conference of the ANC in Polokwane.

Zuma's 60/40 victory in the Polokwane voting was not expected by his opponents so perhaps news personnel sympathetic to Mbeki at Auckland Park could be forgiven their bewilderment. They had used the SABC's immense reach in an attempt to ensure a third term for President Mbeki and there would be a price to pay.

Shortly after Polokwane, Zikalala's contract ended and it was not renewed. He left, blaming 'white racism' for his fate, something that was belied by widespread satisfaction at his departure, a sense of satisfaction that bridged political and ethnic divides.

A far more succinct explanation for his departure came from Professor Jane Duncan: "There was no way they were going to be able to survive at the SABC in the Zuma era because of what they had done for Mbeki."

Unlike Zikalala and his ilk who seemed unaware of growing dissent against President Thabo Mbeki, the current Zuma faction sympathisers at Auckland Park cannot be unaware that support for him appears to be waning.

In one of his recent newspaper columns Max du Preez predicted that President Zuma would be not serve out his full term.

The portents have been there for some time and public dissatisfaction is growing despite the efforts of the senior SABC news managers to keep this fact from the 27 million plus people who rely on Auckland Park for their news coverage.

Falling dominoes

Since the humiliation of President Jacob Zuma at the Nelson Mandela memorial service in December last year, opposition has grown not least because widespread protests against poor service delivery, collapsing municipalities and the like. Since the EFF's "Pay back the money!" exercise in parliament proved that the "Stalingrad" tactic of the President's legal advisers was no immovable object, the extent of public approval for their action has been significant. Both Cosatu and Numsa have, in effect, backed the EFF by supporting the Public Protector's constitutionally backed call on Zuma to personally contribute towards the costs of Nkandla. The countrywide disaffection with Zuma is reflected daily on the front pages of our newspapers - "Zuma under siege" is a common theme of the headlines.

The "Vote no" campaign by ANC veterans like Ronnie Kasrils and Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was another portent along the way as was the decision by Abahlali baseMjondolo before the 7 May election to endorse the Democratic Alliance. Similar dissatisfaction seems to be slowly increasing in the upper echelons of the ANC.

Hlaudi Motsoeneng: I believe, from the SABC's side, 70% should be positive [news] stories and then you can have 30% negative stories...
Hlaudi Motsoeneng: I believe, from the SABC's side, 70% should be positive [news] stories and then you can have 30% negative stories..." as quoted in Mail & Guardian. (Image: SABC)
If Jacob Dlamini was correct in averring that Snuki Zikalala was a "news commissar" then can the term not be used to describe his similarly ANC-deployed successor because, according to the Mail & Guardian, Zikalala's tenure was 'halfway benign' in comparison?

Cyril Ramaphosa

That question could well be answered if our current deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa succeeds Zuma.

In 1992, two years before the ANC succeeded the National Party, he wrote of the SABC: "If the SABC is to play a constructive role ahead of our country's first experience with democracy, informing the electorate rather than attempting to persuade them to vote for a particular political party, it is necessary to replace those who currently control the SABC with others who are committed to democracy and to an electorate empowered by accurate and impartial information."

He expressed similar views on media freedom when he delivered the keynote address in Cape Town in June this year at the annual Nat Nakasa Award ceremony for Courageous Journalism. Entreating editors and journalists to acknowledge government's achievements fairly, he also asked them to highlight its shortcomings vigilantly.

"Delight us, amuse us, educate us, challenge us!
"And occasionally, just occasionally, annoy us, for we do not pretend to be saints and to know it all.
"Confront us about service delivery failures.
"Condemn us when children die of contaminated water.
"Expose us when we abuse state resources.
"Remind us of our responsibility to lead in an inclusive manner in order to address the deficit of trust and confidence that permeate in our society today.
"Be dismayed and report load-shedding and drug stock-outs.
"The story of girl children dropping out of school because they are pregnant should be written in a manner that exposes deficiencies in our public policy.
"Incidences of municipal police taking bribes instead of prosecuting reckless drivers are our shameful story too, and should be told.
"In a word, continue to be critical, speak your minds to the extent that it balances the story of hope, progress and missed opportunities. Empower us to understand our world and our own deficiencies."


Dismissal

How does one reconcile such sentiments with Motsoeneng's dismissal at four minutes and eight seconds into this interview with Justice Malala of the entire corpus of South African newspaper editors, reporters and columnists as "propaganda poisoning the mind set of people"?



How does one reconcile Ramaphosa's principles on media freedom and the need for a politically neutral public broadcaster with Motsoeneng's "70% good news formula"?

How does one reconcile Ramaphosa's principles with the role Motsoeneng and his subordinates played in censoring the booing of President Jacob Zuma on 10 December last year?

Should Ramaphosa come to power and Motsoeneng remain in control of the SABC, then will the former's publicly expressed sentiments on the people's right to be kept informed not ring hollow?

What was expedient for the Zuma administration was that Zikalala's contract was coming to an end when President Thabo Mbeki was ousted in September 2008.

There would have been outrage if Zikalala had been given a golden handshake so the ANC waited and, at the end of April 2009, his contract expired and he was no longer at the helm of the SABC. Motsoeneng's current contract will expire towards the end of President Zuma's final term in office.

It would be interesting to hear Jacob Dlamini's opinion on the current situation at the SABC and to see whether Motsoeneng's career path will mirror what happened to Zikalala.
    
 

About Ed Herbst

Ed Herbst is an author and a prize-winning reporter. He worked for SABC television news for 28 years but left in 2005 without other employment in prospect because of the pervasive news and other corruption at all levels of the corporation. He is also a fly fishing enthusiast.
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