Democracy depends on sound information — and no state interference

Posted on February 1, 2021


Covid-19 highlighted a range of structural faults in society;  faults we know more about because information was relayed to us.  In the process, and with the advent of social media, we have also become increasingly aware of how information can be — and is — distorted and of the damage fake news can do.

In the recent past, most conspiracy theorists, bigots and assorted rumour mongers tended to have their views restricted to their social circles or to the tavern, pub, and braai.  But now, even the most inane and poisonous views can have digital access to millions.

Coming at a time of economic crisis and when political and financial elites are widely distrusted, there are many people seeking desperately for straws of hope to cling to as they fear drowning in a sea of uncertainty.  At the same time, they also look about, often frantically, for who or what may be to blame — and are offered candidates galore.

Bill Gates, 5G towers, vaccines, the Illuminati, aliens, the Bilderberg group….the list is long and extraordinary.  And sometimes the nonsense is announced with authority by individuals who hold senior positions in churches, trade unions and the judiciary.

This is why clear, accurate, factual information and open debate featuring diverse views is vital. Certainly in any society that lays claim to being democratic, let alone one where the government repeatedly expresses the aspiration to “end poverty and inequality”.

South Africa fits this bill and also has a still relatively strong trade union movement, much of which has a proud history of struggle not just for the rights of workers, but for the community as a whole. It is a fact that raises the question of the role that trade unions could — and perhaps should — play in trying to ensure that the channels to reliable, factual information and meaningful debate remain open and are, where possible, expanded.

This issue had particular resonance this week with the revelations that emerged at the Zondo Commission about the apparent bribery and manipulation of media by the State Security Agency.  Every citizen, let alone organised labour, has a right to be deeply concerned.

There should also be concern about the ongoing crisis at the SABC.  It had another airing this week, with unions to the forefront.  One of the two unions still recognised at the SABC, the Broadcasting Electronic Media and Allied Workers’ Union (Bemawu) lost an appeal against cost-cutting retrenchments at the deeply indebted broadcaster and the Cosatu-affiliated Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) continued to threaten a strike and blackout.

They are both correct in protesting against the SABC board targetting mid-level workers for cost-cutting retrenchment.  However, both unions — the CWU in particular — have some work to do to restore their credibility since they played a part in the toxic political mix and the growing debt at the SABC.

It is now widely acknowledged that this mess was largely the responsibility of the previous regime overseen by the now notorious chief operating officer (COO) Hlaudi Motsoeneng in tandem with then communications minister Faith Muthambi.  When questioned about her appointment of Motsoeneng, Muthambi reportedly retorted:  “Baba [President Jacob Zuma] loves Hlaudi.  He loves him so much, we must support him.”

And support him many did, even although public protector Thuli Madonsela, in her report “When governance and ethics fail”, had called for disciplinary action.  Motsoeneng, she noted, should be disciplined for “dishonesty…abuse of power and improper conduct in the appointments and salary increments for several employees”.

There was no such immediate action.  Instead, a “Hlaudi Motsoeneng Coalition”, supported by the CWU, was launched to campaign for the COO.  As I reported:  “Bemawu members looked on aghast, but the union did not adequately react”.  The CWU also went on to invite Motsoeneng and Muthmabi as guests of honour to a union gala dinner.

By then, the third union at the SABC, the Media Workers Association (Mwasa) that had called for the broadcaster to be placed under administration, had been “de-recognised”.  So it is little wonder that many SABC employees steer clear of unions.

They should not.  But neither should they be led by the nose by any union bureaucracy perhaps blinded by patronage.  Worker unity is especially crucial in a sector that should be dedicated to providing accurate information “the people” require to make decisions to enhance democracy.

Failure to organise and unite will see more of the same:  interference at state level.  There were good examples of this during the Muthambi/Motsoeneng regime and, during the apartheid era, the SABC was very much a state-controlled propaganda vehicle.

The attempt this week by state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo to block revelations — aired widely by the SABC — to the Zondo Commission should be a worrying sign.  As indeed should be the rejection of the court decision on SABC retrenchments by communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

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