Why's the ANC angry with the SABC? – Politicsweb, 18 July 2016

John Kane-Berman asks whether Mantashe & Co. are suddenly concerned with media freedom, or is there another motive at play?

By John Kane-Berman

What exactly does the ANC want with the SABC?

The secretary general of the African National Congress (ANC), Gwede Mantashe, has deftly put himself on the side of the angels. "An ignorant society cannot be a democratic society. Someone should whisper in the ears of the people at the SABC that they cannot behave like bulls in a china shop," he proclaims. In so doing, he echoes outrage at the axing of journalists, the suppressing of news of public violence, and all the other antics of the current apparently untouchable regime at the SABC.

It is tempting to dismiss the spectacle provided by the battle between the SABC and the ANC - or at least part of the latter organisation  - as our very own Circus Maximus. But there is more at stake than public entertainment, enjoyable though that certainly is.

The SABC is not your average state-owned enterprise to pack with comrades and loot for personal or party-political gain, although it naturally fills that role too. Nearly 80% of adults watch its main television channel, while listeners to its radio stations far outnumber those of commercial and community stations. Some 85% of people whose home language is Zulu listen to the main Zulu station. In the case of Xhosas, the equivalent figure is 81%.

There are few "centres of power" as easy and enticing to capture, especially if you need to win the "battle of ideas" against "neo-liberalism" on the one hand and "ultra-leftism" on the other. These are key objectives of the National Democratic Revolution to which the ANC regularly reaffirms its commitment.

They are, of course, incompatible with the notion of an independent and politically neutral public broadcasting service. But nobody can accuse the chief operations officer of the SABC, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, of being a slouch in doing his duty by the National Democratic Revolution. If he can be faulted, it is for not employing the necessary dissimulation and finesse that the National Democratic Revolution enjoins in its "strategy and tactics" documents so as not to frighten the horses - or, as Mr Mantashe counsels, smash too much china.

So what is the real reason for the anger expressed by Mr Mantashe and other ANC officials?

Is it genuine concern for media freedom? Is it fear of antagonising all journalists if it does not put a stop to the victimisation of their brave colleagues at the SABC? Are they having sleepless nights at the thought that the SABC's behaviour might damage the ANC in the forthcoming municipal elections?
Is the source of their anger the defiance of their wishes by Mr Motsoeneng and other SABC officials?  Is it, in the words of the South African Communist Party, the "personality cult" that has supposedly taken over at the SABC? Or is it jealousy that Luthuli House has lost control of the SABC to President Jacob Zuma?

Nearly three years ago a former journalist, Inkatha Freedom Party MP, and SABC board member, Suzanne Vos, wrote of how "some of us in the belly of the beast came face-to-face with the ugly reality of cadre deployment gone mad and the arrogance and incompetence of many (not all) of those deployed in critical positions of authority" at the SABC.

In October next year, the ANC will no doubt launch various events to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the clampdown on newspapers and journalists by the previous government in October 1977. It is tempting to believe - or hope - that there are enough people in the ANC willing to defend a free press as well as turn the SABC into a free broadcasting service. It would, however, be wise to be vigilant lest the real agenda of those who are so angry at Mr Motsoeneng is simply to put him back under the control of Luthuli House or deploy another cadre in his place.  

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.

Read the column on Politicsweb here.