Following the financial collapse of the South African National Public Broadcaster, the SABC, various people, organisations and role-players who recognised the critical role of public broadcasting for the health of a vibrant democracy coalesced to form the SOS Coalition.
In that dark and uncertain time when our national public broadcaster was bankrupt precipitating the collapse of our local production sector and remained mired in political scandal, many of us rolled up our sleeves and committed ourselves to doing the hard work of rebuilding this once great national treasure to again tell the good stories of South Africa.
At the heart of our call then was the same demand we have of all media today: a coherent vision to represent and engage citizens in rich and robust dialogue with each other, this continent and the world; independence from political, commercial and other sectarian influence and control; transparency in the ways in which it does business such that it remains credible and trusted by the millions of households that see it as a mirror of themselves and a window to the world; and direct accountability to the people of this country who it serves, and by whom it is owned.
Six years later, and in the face of a pathologically dysfunctional board, and unyielding protection and reward of officials who have kept it in the news instead of making them and annual losses amounting to hundreds of millions and consistently qualified audits, can we really say ours is a visionary, independent, transparent and accountable broadcaster?
As we try to answer this question, perhaps we should start by reminding ourselves of the story of how we came to find ourselves and our SABC in this strange place.
The story starts with South Africa’s media transition, the SABC’s in particular, from a state-centric to public media which was directly tied to a nascent democratic society underpinned by the adoption of majority rule, and the cornerstone constitutional values of freedom, equality and dignity.
When the ANC was elected to govern, in 1994, the SABC was accordingly identified as the flagship transformation project that the state would undertake.
It would form the model for what we envisioned when we spoke of a transformed media: a medium that was truly democratic, credible and open, being representative, fair and impartial.
The SABC, like the media landscape we desired, would be an open and deliberative public sphere for citizen engagement in participatory communication to empower themselves, without being beholden to the whims of commercial, political and sectarian forces.
And we had that, for a while.
In the glory days, the SABC was built up to be the single largest mass communication medium in the country, which turned significant profits which it would plough right back into the development of internationally acclaimed, citizen-oriented content.
It commissioned gripping documentaries that explored our society. It was the nexus of debate about the relationship between public policy and social realities through both factual programming and local drama.
It held up a mirror to the society we were crafting, fearlessly speaking truth to power by exposing what was rotten in the public and private sectors, while also celebrating our extraordinary achievements.
We looked to the SABC when we wanted to expand our very capacity to imagine what we needed to do to build the country our people struggled for.
Fast forward some 20-something years ahead to today, and the very pillars that support a vital public broadcaster crafted in the image of a democratic society seem intractably eroded and, indeed, about to collapse. The crisis is the same now as it was at the point of its collapse, six years ago. It is a crisis of independence, transparency and accountability.
In recent years, we have seen frequent cases and complaints of political censorship and control in live and pre-recorded programming on radio and television.
Whether or not these happened on instruction, the clear reading is that this is happening in the name of the ruling alliance.
In the township communities where SOS works, we are learning that the outrageous campaign for 70 percent “good” news and the banning of the depiction of community unrest from our airwaves is being identified directly with the ruling alliance.
But this is not all they are worried about. They are also deeply fearful of the grip that corporate interests are tightening around the SABC.
Never mind the ultra-commercialisation of both the operations and content produced by the SABC. They decry the deal between the public broadcaster and its biggest rival, MultiChoice, in which the SABC handed over its archive for R100 million a year, and agreed to change its policy on Set Top Box (STB) encryption, thus decimating all future prospects for the demonopolisation of the ultra-concentrated broadcast media, at the stroke of a pen.
We were there, contesting this takeover, at the Competition Tribunal last Wednesday, where both MultiChoice and the SABC attempted to defend this rotten and indefensible arrangement.
In this last half-decade alone, we watched the once open public institution shut itself off, become increasingly inaccessible and dictate to us, its public and owners, to take its word that things are going well, simply because it says so.
What has that borne us?
Well, there’s the unholy marriage the SABC board chairperson has just celebrated with MultiChoice, with the archive as the dowry. Then there are the successive qualified audits which culminated in a disclaimer, just two years ago, and hundreds of millions in fruitless, wasteful and avoidable expenditure year-on-year in a country where the social need is vast, and the fiscus extremely stretched.
The cherry on top? The fourth brazen inflation of the salary of a singular executive director in 24 months, in the same year he presided over the R400m loss he swore to us and Parliament the Sunday Times lied about, just five months ago.
So it comes as no surprise that the SABC has dodged, ducked and dived from accountability. How many of the auditor-general’s recommendations in his 2010 report has the SABC implemented and met? Which of its highest-ranking officials, who have been found to have misconducted themselves, have been appropriately disciplined?
How much has it cost the SABC, so far, to pay the legal fees of directors defending their fraudulent misrepresentation of their qualifications to itself, and how much more will it still pay to see these cases to their end?
How many of those board members and executives who opposed and challenged the brazen looting of national assets saw themselves purged? So does it come as any surprise that brick-layers, fish and chips spaza shop owners and till operators see themselves ready and fit for service on its board?
What is to be done?
We do not only need a clear commitment from the people of South Africa and government to re-establish an independent, transparent and accountable SABC, but to actually do the right thing and fight for our public broadcaster.
We must campaign for the government to urgently force the SABC to cost its mandate, and then fund it, or it will continue to fall prey to the rapacious whims of the neoliberal forces that currently control all our media.
But most importantly, we must continue to support and celebrate the workers of the SABC who, in spite of the great difficulties that come with working in so beleaguered an institution, endeavour always to serve our information, education and entertainment needs with utmost integrity and under great pains.
If we would see a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend, then we must return the course of our SABC to the independent, transparent and accountable public broadcaster we always dreamt it to be.
* This is an edited version of a speech I delivered at the SACP’s Media Transformation Summit where I was invited as a notable speaker. It was subsequently published in The Star.