The SABC & a democratic future

Posted on October 21, 2017


It was the 40th anniversary of South Africa’s “Black Wednesday” this week, the day in 1977 that saw the apartheid government crack down on opposition media, journalists and pro-democracy organisations. It comes at a time when access to reliable information and its free flow is everywhere under threat.

Yet access to honest, truthful information is the lifeblood of democracy and a constant threat to the venal and corrupt, whether in politics or business. Which is why political and business elites have always tried to manipulate the flow of information, to tailor news to their own ends.

To do this, they seek to control the content of print and broadcast media by means that range from bullying, bribing or simply taking over or establishing content producers, be they newspapers, radio or television stations. Some politicians also appear to believe that a tightly managed media will enable the masses to be controlled; that it is the media that directs how people think and behave.

But lying to the public on a consistent basis simply does not work, as authoritarian regimes the world over have discovered. However, on a short term basis, propaganda and the distortion of facts can be extremely dangerous. At the very least, it sows confusion, can help to sway electoral choices and, in extreme cases, such as Rwanda in 1994, can even be used to exacerbate ethnic tensions and trigger genocide.

Control of the media is, therefore, very useful to individuals and groups with political and economic agendas. So big business, as much as politicians and political parties, will often try to strangle access to the honest, truthful information that is essential to any form of democracy.

However, within the present economic and social system, business interests cannot be stopped from buying or otherwise exerting influence over commercial media or, sometimes with the connivance of politicians, establishing or buying up media outlets. There are clear examples in South Africa and these then become, often overtly, the mouthpieces of sectional interests.

But, as a parliamentary democracy, still governed by a fundamentally egalitarian constitution and Bill of Rights, propaganda and manipulation can be — and is — exposed. And at the heart of the free flow of reliable information should be the public broadcaster, especially in a country with fairly low literacy levels and a multitude of languages.

This makes the SABC a special case and why it has always been a target of the political elite. Under the apartheid regime it was run by that government within a government, the Afrikaner Broederbond.

It was a governance system that was dismantled with the 1994 transition to non-racialism. But political interference did not stop. A new crop of politicians started doing the same, the difference being that their actions were exposed. They continue to be exposed, but the shenanigans and the crisis at the SABC is far from over.

What has happened at the public broadcaster is one of the reasons that South Africa has fallen several places, to 31, on the international Freedom of the Press index. That position — judged by Reporters Without Borders — still puts the country squarely in the upper quartile among 180 nation-states. Number 1 is Norway while North Korea holds the last place, just below Eritrea.

But in common with much of the rest of the world, South African media freedom is being eroded. It is a constant battle to keep from sliding down a very slippery slope.

And the prime focus of that battle is the SABC. So it is truly time for every concerned citizen to come to the aid of the SABC’s honest media workers and their unions, the the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers’ Union and the Communication Workers’ Union.

Last week, in a “joint communique” the unions threatened strike action in an attempt to rid the crisis wracked SABC of the political interference and economic pillage that has all but crippled the institution. Along with many other groups, their prime demand was the appointment of an SABC board.

That long delayed demand was met this week, but the unions want much more: they want the removal of all those, often “irregularly appointed”, managers and others who were part of the intimidatory regime that illegally sacked journalists while also effectively bankrupting the SABC.

In the shadow of Black Wednesday, it is a battle that must not only be fought, it must be won for the sake of a democratic future.