Wednesday, April 16, 2014

He who controls the SABC, controls much of the country

By Stephen Grootes

Once again the SABC is being accused of general naughtiness when it comes to politics. But this time it’s serious. The corporation has been accused by the DA of refusing to flight its TV and radio ads for political reasons, and the Icasa ruled in the opposition party's favour. What’s odd is that the SABC has a pretty good track record of giving political parties airtime during election periods. This time, it seems, is different.

The other day a younger colleague stopped at my desk and said, with some emotion, that he simply couldn’t believe the SABC had decided to refuse to flight the radio and television advert for the DA. He’s a young man, and thought that the decision was appalling, and a clear abuse of the corporation for political ends. I was struck by his emotion: Why, I thought, did he care so much? I thought about it for a while. And then it struck me. I have been covering stories about politics, and particularly about the SABC, for so long, that I simply wasn’t surprised. At all. I was about as non-gobsmacked as I was upon hearing that Fikile Mbalula had labelled the media a bunch of losers. As surprised as I was when Gwede Mantashe lashed Ronnie Kasrils. In fact, I was as unsurprised as that day that President Jacob Zuma was re-crowned Number One at Mangaung.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I think. About how cynical some of us have become, about how some of us are now so used to certain things that we don’t even notice the pattern. In a discussion I had with some other younger people[Everyone around you is young nowadays, Stephen – Ed] the subject of some recent adverts for the South African National Defence Force came up. They’ve been splashed on certain billboards, and on the front page of City Press. They simply feature the former heads and current head of the force, with their names underneath.

Factually correct, yes. Inspirational? Whatever.

Again I felt almost nothing about it. It seemed such obvious electioneering by subtext that it simply passed me by. The Defence Force has, of course, denied the claim. So strongly, in fact, that it would take a brave, and perhaps armed person, to make said claim in person in front of one of their bases.

The fact is, we’ve been living with this for some time. Just in this election phase. The Gauteng provincial government decided, in its branding wisdom, that this was the year to add the colours green, yellow and black to its corporate logo. Look, we’d always wondered about the wisdom of using blue in the first place, but now, we’ve come to a strange, possibly indefensible position. Again, the strong denial; the “how dare you?” tone in the face of accusations.

This is the year 2014. It is time for us to celebrate twenty years of democracy. That is a good thing. We should celebrate. We should look back at how far we’ve come, and perhaps take stock a little. And part of that should be about partying and realising that if we look behind us, we have covered much ground. So it was inevitable that there would be advertising campaigns around saying as much, and that this would end up conflated with the election cycle.

You can imagine being Helen Zille in this case. Either you decide you are going to celebrate as the Western Cape Provincial government, in which case you help your political enemy, or you decide not to. And in that case, get painted into the “want to bring Apartheid back” corner. It could well be argued that the level of advertising by government departments around the freedom celebrations is, as Mantashe might say, a matter of where you sit.

Having said all of that, what’s happened with the SABC does cross a line. The corporation claims that the reason it’s decided not to flight these ads is because their mention of the Marikana shootings could be seen as an incitement to violence against the police. Really? Then surely the corporation should simply not have covered the shootings at all. And, as has been pointed out by many other people, what about the Andries Tatane case, then? He died at the hands of police, and we all saw it in the SABC television news bulletins.

This can’t go both ways. It can’t be fine to be shown in news, but not in a political advert.

It’s important to look at the content of the advert, and at the platform that the SABC controls. This is not a piece of television aimed at Sandton. It’s aimed at people living in Soweto, and in some rural areas. It’s aimed at your natural ANC voter, who voted for Mandela and Mbeki, and probably for Zuma just five years ago.

To reach that constituency, you need to go through the SABC. Only it, funded by government money and those wonderfully popular TV licenses, can be heard and seen in those areas. If you want to reach both rural KZN and the rural Eastern Cape, you go through Hlaudi Motsoneng. And the Hlaudification of the SABC has now reached the stage where even if it tries to do things with the absolute best of intentions, people are going to ascribe political motive to it.

That’s not because they’re too cynical. It’s because it is pretty obvious that that is what Motsoeneng’s role at the SABC actually is. How else do you explain the current situation? And the pride with which he’s taken other political conversations off air? And the fact that the corporation’s Chair, Ellen Tshabalala, has been quoted as saying that people “shouldn’t vote for opposition parties”, and clearly doesn’t feel any skaam about it whatsoever?

All of this would be easier to bear somehow if we had good reason to believe that the people who stand above the SABC could be trusted. In the same way that we all feel good about the legal system because of the Constitutional Court, maybe we would feel a little better about the SABC if ICASA were clearly impartial. The organisation itself has complained about being underfunded and under-resourced. But when the DA lodges a complaint and is told to wait longer than electoral law allows just for the complaint to be heard, you would have to have grown up in a different country in an easier time not to be cynical. Again, when you ascribe motive, you have to look at the track record.

With ICASA, perhaps no one looked at the law. And then got one hell of a fright when the DA went to court when the law is obviously so clear. During an election time, a complaint has to be heard within forty-eight hours. ICASA was so obviously not complying with that law that it would be an open-and-shut-costs-to-the-DA-in-a-matter-of-moments case.

The fact is, this looks as a tighter election than we’ve had in the past. And someone, somewhere, has decided that government institutions need to do more to help the ANC than in the past. And this election isn’t even that tight! Imagine what it could be like if things get tighter. Imagine what the SABC could be like in 2019. Or government departments in 2024.

This is not going to get better with time. It is only going to get worse. DM