Disturbingly — but not surprisingly, given the polarisation in South African politics — the start of party electoral campaigns has been marred by the acrimonious debate over the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) live coverage of President Thabo Mbeki’s address at an African National Congress rally in January.
Opposition parties have vehemently protested that the broadcast was blatant bias and that the SABC had no business giving free mileage to the ANC. The SABC countered that the president was entitled to have all South Africans as an audience.
As usual, in the heat of the debate, the importance of the argument and the critical perspectives that need to be addressed were lost in the mud-slinging.
This is a perennial and crucial question: just where do we draw the line in terms of coverage of state functions versus those of parties?
The issue is complex, but its intricacy does not render it insoluble. Election bluster should also not detract society from coming to terms with it.
The SABC is a public broadcaster and it should not be seen to favour any political party. It is imperative also to realise that Mbeki, as the leader of the ANC — a party that draws support from three-quarters of South African voters — should be given space to articulate his message to the nation.
This is especially true given the acerbic criticism that he is hardly ever around for South Africans to know what he really thinks or does about critical issues. And, interestingly, this criticism comes largely from opposition parties.
His supporters assert that whatever Mbeki has to say in his private or public capacity — consider the furore raised by his personal comments on Aids — has to be accorded space given its effect on the country. On this basis, the argument has validity.
His critics’ problems arise when they claim the same privilege as the ANC. The reality of South Africa is that the opposition is hideously weak — no party has more than 10% support of the electorate. In 1999, the Democratic Party’s strength was one-sixth of that of the ANC.
On this basis, it is difficult to see why parties with less than 1% support — more than half the opposition parties in Parliament — should be accorded the same coverage as a party that has more than 10-million supporters.
The debate must be divested of its electioneering undertones to come up with workable solutions and policies.
Debates over access to state resources are not new to South Africa and have been resolved. Party funding by the state is proportional to party support and only those in Parliament benefit.
A situation must be avoided where chancers claim unwarranted coverage. It is plainly ridiculous, for example, that Majakathata Mokoena, the president of the newly formed Economic Freedom Movement, should be given the same coverage as Mbeki.
The SABC should also get its act together. It is a serious flaw that today — after 10 years of democracy — there is still no clear policy on its coverage of election campaigns. The fact that the SABC editorial team went on ‘gut feeling” that Mbeki was going to address national issues at the ANC rally in Pietermaritzburg — and was disappointed that he talked about ANC issues — reflects a serious lack of vision.
One way to confront this issue is to change the nature of campaign coverage. Instead of speeches, only debates should be covered. In this way, politicians will be robbed of the carte blanche to bluster as they usually do, getting away with untested views.
The ANC as the incumbent, and given its strength, should be persuaded that its power will not be threatened should other parties be given a chance to air their views.
And here I am referring to those represented in Parliament, especially the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance.
This is important, not only for reasons of transparency, but for these parties to come out of the woodwork and state concretely what they offer voters.
Ironically, the criticism that Mbeki’s messages are vague and that South African voters are out of touch with his thinking can be thrown back at them.
For example, it is very much debatable whether the majority of voters — especially black voters, whom the DA claims it is incorporating — really know what party leader Tony Leon and the DA stand for beyond their election posters, except perhaps for the notorious ‘fight back” kind of politics popularised in 1999.
From a ruling-party perspective, this would be a chance to see some of these parties really shoot themselves in the foot. For example, it would please ANC strategists to see Leon on an SABC broadcast, haranguing trade unions and affirmative action.
Hoary messages such as that advocated by Mokoena — that trade unions are obsolete and the pipe dream that he is going to grow the economy by 15% per year — will finally be exposed to voters for what they are.
Dr Thabisi Hoeane is a lecturer in the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University Grahamstown. He contributes regularly to national print media. His PhD was on South African Electoral Studies and Democratisation.