A mysterious presence

The pragmatist’s view on the editorial independence of a non-totalitarian state’s national broadcaster is simple: a government will angle for whatever control it can get away with; opposition parties and the private media will try to prevent the government from getting away with much.

Looking at an enduring theme from our own broadcaster — the plea for SABC board member and news sub-committee chief Thami Mazwai’s resignation — a philosophy of expediency is especially handy. Mazwai’s lingering presence, it seems, is suited to the achievement of a particular end.

One would guess, given the public relations disaster visited upon the SABC by his declaration in Parliament that objectivity in journalism is a “delusion”, that Mazwai would have long been sent packing, to focus on damaging the credibility of less public media. As chairperson of Mafube Publishing, Mazwai oversees Enterprise and Sawubona magazines, among others.

There have certainly been enough appeals for his removal. One of the earliest, coming from the Congress of South African Trade Unions in August last year, appeared with the indictment: “The man’s views on such basic professional requirements as objectivity, fairness and independence would be bad enough in the private media; when they are expressed at the highest echelons of the public broadcaster they represent a direct and clear threat to our democracy.”

The latest appeal, as the Sunday Times reported on July 20 this year, came from Mazwai’s colleagues on the SABC board itself.

Yet the status quo remains. In a call to the broadcaster’s outgoing general manager of corporate communications, Victor Dlamini, Media Weekly learned that Mazwai is not going anywhere.

“My attitude is that you can’t have people fighting for objectivity in the news whose very basis is nefarious, illegal action,” said Dlamini of the board members demanding Mazwai’s scalp. “As far as I know, Thami Mazwai is the head of the news sub-committee and it’s going to stay that way.”

Dlamini’s grounds for terming the board members’ actions “illegal” are unclear. Board chairperson Vincent Maphai is well-known for his divide-and-rule tactics. By consulting members individually, Maphai effectively ensures that, when the board meets, only he knows the majority decision.

It is at this juncture that a wider context is needed, one more in line with William James’s assertion that “our obligation to seek truth is part of our general obligation to do what pays”.

In June African National Congress spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama responded to the furore surrounding the “upward referral” provisions of the SABC draft editorial policies by telling us of his party’s “mystification”.

What the ANC apparently could not fathom was why, when the BBC has the same regulations, there was such vehement opposition to a process requiring sensitive editorial decisions to be shifted up the SABC’s chain of command.

The bafflement was in spite of the party’s spot-on assessment of the real source of the rumpus: upward referral is read by some — especially the private media and, interestingly, the South African Communist Party — as a euphemism for “invisible censor”.

The ANC also insisted, via Ngonyama, that it had never depended on the media to achieve its liberation goals, had “no particular reason surreptitiously to control the public broadcaster” and had “neither the desire nor the programme to do so”.

In late July Business Day reported that the ANC Youth League had offered the first “public political support” for Mazwai and “scoffed at suggestions that he be axed as chairman of the [SABC] news sub-committee following his controversial views on objectivity in journalism”.

Mazwai is the most influential SABC board member on news policy, and obviously has a clearer idea than most about the meaning of “sensitive” editorial in the draft editorial policies. The Sunday Times reminded us that Mazwai objected to the SABC’s airing of Nelson Mandela’s condolences to Walter Sisulu’s family before President Thabo Mbeki’s. It must be paying someone to keep him around.

For the pragmatist, the frequent appeals for Mazwai’s resignation are reduced to fleeting battles in the eternal war for the soul of the national broadcaster. But one wonders whether the SABC staffers committed to building a new image of integrity, such as CEO Peter Matlare and head of news Jimi Matthews, find Mazwai’s presence so useful.

Media Weekly is produced for the Mail & Guardian by The Media magazine, and is edited by The Media’s editor, Kevin Bloom.

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