SAFTU demands a free, democratic and accountable SABC

The South African Federation of Trade Unions is alarmed at President Zuma’s long delay in approving the new SABC board. The Interim Board’s term of office expired at the end of September and the organization therefore remains leaderless until the new permanent board is in place. This leaves control in the hands of executive officers.

Just when there seemed to be some hope that the public broadcaster was recovering from years of looting and mismanagement, there is now a fear that it is being recaptured by the corrupt faction which sought to use it as a vehicle for their propaganda and who were responsible for the SABC’s descent into both financial and political bankruptcy.

The SABC 8 journalists – who were fired, and later reinstated, for objecting to former Chief Operating Office (COO), Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s policy of no longer airing footage of violent protests – have written an open letter in which they register their “alarm and deepest disappointment at the reckless abandon to which the public broadcaster has descended. We are extremely concerned at the governance crisis at the SABC. We believe that a recapture project of the public broadcaster is afoot…

“We will not allow our short-lived, recently gained freedom of expression to be rolled back. It has been nine days since the term of the Interim Board has expired. However, there has been no political will to remedy the governance crisis at the broadcaster”.

The SABC’s purpose ought to be to inform, educate and entertain all South African communities and to reflect the diversity of our cultural, linguistic, political, religious, sporting and social heritage and to be a platform for democratic and uncensored debate.

Before 1994 it was just a propaganda weapon for the apartheid regime, spewing out racist lies and concealing the crimes of the National Party elite and their big business allies. Then, for a brief period in the early days of democracy, it became the most important medium through which the majority received news and participated in debates. This helped to empower especially the poorest South Africans after years of being fed lies.

But this democratizing process was stopped in its tracks as both Presidents Mbeki and then Zuma used the SABC to advance their factional interests, and in Zuma’s case to add it to the long list of public institutions which his cronies used as an ATM machine to enrich themselves.

Hlaudi Motsoeneng in particular turned the SABC into a mouthpiece of the thieves who are looting our economy, and used it for the enrichment of himself and his cronies. He also treated his staff and service providers with contempt and tolerated no opposition to his dictatorship.

He also initiated the policy of banning images of violent protests and promoting only ‘good news’ stories, and he negotiated the outrageous deal with Multichoice which, in return for getting an SABC news channel on DSTV, the SABC handed over rights to archives which are part of our national heritage to a private company.

As a result of this looting the SABC was bankrupted. Its 2016-17 annual report showed that the auditor-general gave it an adverse audit opinion and recorded a staggering loss of R1.1bn. This has further threatened its ability to deliver on its public mandate, particularly local programming.

The SABC 8 fear that the real reason for Zuma’s delay is that he wants to use the extra time to enable the Minister of Communications Ayanda Dlodlo, on his behalf, to appoint or extend the contracts of executive officers who would continue with the agenda set by Motsoeneng.

The SABC 8 claim to “have been told today, by acting Group Chief Executive Officer Nomsa Philiso that the Minister is currently preparing herself to extend the contracts of the current acting executives”. As they say, the Broadcasting Act “makes absolutely no provision for the ministerial appointment of executive members; in fact the act frowns on such…

“If the Minister proceeds with such plans she would be usurping the powers of parliament or a board that should have been appointed by parliament. We wish to inform the executive arm of the state that we do not belong to them but to the people of South Africa via their public representatives – the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa.”

They also note with concern, “a reported meeting held at Luthuli House, wherein we believe it was said that the SABC news division is ‘the only propaganda tool left to the African National Congress’; and that the loss of this ‘tool’ would be resisted by the governing party.”

They add that “the acting COO has installed herself at the apex of this process, thus continuing with the practices of Hlaudi Motsoeneng under whom she gladly served. This is why we call on the presidency to ratify the board members so that we can institute the measures to ensure editorial independence, such as the Editorial Forum, as envisaged in the Broadcasting Act, clause 13 (b) which calls on board members to be committed to fairness and freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.

“We call upon parliament to hold the executive to account and bring the corporation in line with the governance principles outlined in the Broadcasting Act. We cannot proceed in this fashion for much longer.”

SAFTU fully agrees with these demands. Given that the media is dominated by big business who use it to defend the interests of their class and the country’s wealthy elite, the public broadcaster has a vital role to play in opening up channels for alternative views and democratic debate, but it will never do so as long as it is run by a corrupt faction whose sole aim is to stifle attempts to uncover their looting of state resources.

The federation will continue to campaign for a truly independent media which reflects all the people of South Africa, especially the workers and the poor whose voice is still largely unheard the commercial media.

We shall press ahead with plans for a workers’ and socialist media hub, which will provide a platform for all those who want to see the end of a capitalist system and a democratic socialist society, in which, in the words of the Freedom Charter “All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands”.

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