At the height of its budget crisis in 2010, the SABC was forced to raid its archives for ancient drama series to fill up the spaces in the schedule left by commissioning failures and general mismanagement. No rerun, however, could compete for absurdity with the farce that is Polokwane II: Return to Auckland Park.
Phil Molefe, the broadcaster’s head of news, is on “special leave” following a clash with the corporation’s newish chief executive, Lulama Mokhobo, over editorial control. She wanted to see his daily news diary — apparently because she was worried about “excessive” coverage of Julius Malema — and he resisted, citing the importance of editorial independence.
It is a replay of then-chief executive Dali Mpofu’s 2008 suspension of news chief Snuki Zikalala at a time when the corporation was a key ANC battleground and the two men were on opposing sides.
Unfortunately for Molefe, the SABC’s chief executive carries the additional title of “editor-in-chief”, a designation that licences managerial interference in the newsroom and, indeed, more or less demands it. There has always been controversy about this dual role, which the SABC board has consistently laughed off.
Can we conclude from all this that Molefe is a champion of press freedom, standing up to the tyranny of politically motivated bosses?
Not necessarily. He played a key role in the SABC’s botched attempt to smear the Mail & Guardian with false corruption allegations on behalf of a major ANC donor — an episode the corporation was forced by the broadcast regulator to apologise for — and has overseen a pretty dismal period for its docile news operation. Certainly, he did nothing to trouble Luthuli House seriously until he lost out on the chief executive position.
If he has now rediscovered the willingness to challenge authority that he once displayed as a journalist at this newspaper, it is perhaps understandable that his bosses ask whether he is motivated by a desire to get back at those in the ANC whom he might see as complicit in passing him over.
The situation at the SABC is further complicated by efforts to gain control of bloated salary bills, epic mismanagement and outright corruption.
Powerful people are seeing their access to cash — whether in the form of a pay cheque, or the opportunity to hand out contracts — seriously threatened, and they are fighting back against those who are responsible.
To point all this out is not to approve of a situation in which the chief executive holds editorial powers that are ripe for abuse. In fact, the situation illustrates nothing so clearly as the way in which the ANC’s cadre deployment policy propagates the party’s factional divisions across so many of our most important national institutions.
There is no way to determine whether Mokhobo is trying to limit political influence on the news by either of the ANC’s main camps and clean up the corporation, or whether she is obeying her master’s voice, as the youth league suggests.
Although we respect the record of Jimi Matthews, who is acting in Molefe’s stead, our trust in the SABC, most of its board and most of its management is too broken to sustain an argument either way on the face of the available evidence. Only one approach will ensure that the ANC gets news it cannot complain about: total independence and a commitment to quality that is the hallmark of great public broadcasting. Until that happens, South Africans will increasingly get their news elsewhere.