/ 28 June 2012

The timid and ugly state of the SABC

Producer protest: An unhappy crowd outside the SABC.
Producer protest: An unhappy crowd outside the SABC.

On Monday evening, April 30, SABC1 broadcast a special episode of the popular soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. The episode was so special that the channel rebroadcast it at the same time on Tuesday. And then again on Wednesday. Was the retransmission a technical error? A test by the channel to see whether any of its viewers were fully conscious? Or further proof that, at the SABC, someone is always asleep at the switch?

The SABC did not account for the oversight. It is too special to apologise or explain. Long-time observers of the broadcaster could be forgiven for viewing the mishap as a metaphor: the same paltry, predictable episodes repeated over and over; the endless mismanagement and incompetence and corruption and collusion; the dizzying sense of déjà vu.

No wonder soap opera is so popular in South Africa: it is the one medium that accurately reflects our political reality. (President Jacob Zuma’s daughter, Gugulethu, plays a character in Isidingo.)

If the SABC requires more commercial programming, they should commission more soaps. There could be a soap about the ANC Youth League (The Young and

the Restless), a soap about Zuma’s family (All My Children), a soap about our various police commissioners (Dirty Sexy Money) and a soap about the politicians jostling to become the country’s next president (Mad Men).

There is the phrase “spin cycle” as it applies to political messaging and then there is the phrase as it applies to washing machines. In terms of the SABC, both versions are valid. Thus, the June 10 report in Sunday World about the departure of two high-level SABC executives and the subsequent tension between the corporation’s chief executive and acting chief operating officer – Lulama Mokhobo and Hlaudi Motsoeneng, respectively – is reminiscent of April’s surprise (and still officially unexplained) suspension of Phil Molefe, the head of news and current affairs.

Shadowy suspensions

The Molefe story is itself reminiscent of dozens of shadowy suspensions, culminating in an episode in May 2008 when, with no adult in charge and the back of the broadcaster broken by petty politics and government interference, the SABC all but imploded.

As with the eurozone, one sometimes suspects that instead of attempting to mend the SABC we should have encouraged it to implode so that a more pragmatic, viable, durable and modern broadcaster could emerge from its ashes. Unfortunately, we let the SABC live (the government bailed it out with R1.47-billion) and it continues to die.

When an honest history of the SABC is eventually written, it will, for the most part, be a history of complicity. In terms of its mandate to entertain and inform a diverse indigenous audience, the broadcaster is less Freshlyground than Ground Zero. The paucity of original programming is only too apparent. The question is no longer whether news coverage is influenced by the government, but by how much.

Of the broadcaster’s upcoming digital migration, almost no substantive information has been released. What will these channels feature? Who will supply the programming? Who will supply the funding outside of the loan for R1.2-billion the SABC recently requested from the government? The lack of information is astonishing from an organisation that calls itself “your partner in democracy”. When will the SABC delineate the difference between state and public broadcaster and determine exactly which it is?

The SABC is clearly still in crisis. In a March 23 interview, Kate Skinner, former co-ordinator of the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting coalition, recounts how she witnessed “the coming and going of five ministers, four SABC chief executives, three SABC boards, two chairs of the communications parliamentary portfolio committee and the resignation of five SABC board members since 2010”.

Legislative protection

And things have only got worse since March. Mokhobo has not inspired much confidence since her January appointment. In May she complained in Parliament that the budget bouquet packages offered by MultiChoice and its competitors and targeted at lower-income households were encroaching on the SABC’s viewership. Surely this is a scenario the SABC should have intuited a decade ago?

Mokhobo’s plan to have “legislative protection” against viewers who refuse to pay their licence fees and her idea to make satellite providers responsible for the payment of those fees (a marvellously tidy and completely unfeasible instance of passing the buck) are neither realistic nor especially coherent.

Attempting to oversee today’s SABC must be an impossible proposition. One recalls Meyer Khan’s quip that repairing the SAPS was like “trying to fix a bus full of people while it was running downhill”. And that is not where the SAPS analogy ends. When Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, then acting police commissioner, reported to Parliament in mid-April that “high-ups” tell the police who to investigate, one suspects he could just as well have been talking about the SABC newsroom.

If Mokhobo wants to succeed at her job, she should take heed of the youth league’s advice in April after Molefe’s suspension: “She should know from the beginning that all SABC chief executives who lead the public broadcaster with a narrow factional agenda and mandate never last at the SABC.”

But does anyone ever last at the SABC? Will the SABC itself last?

The broadcaster is doubtless regarded by many South Africans as “too big too fail”, but it should not be. It exhibits in miniature – and not coincidentally – all that is wrong with our government today. It is neither bold nor beautiful. Yet it could be innovative, engaged and socially aware once again.

For that to happen, it must be radically reconfigured, streamlined, scaled down and made honestly accountable. Ultimately, this may be an impossible ideal, but the SABC, as it now stands, does no one any good.

Roy Robins has written widely for newspapers and journals. He was online and associate editor for Granta magazine in London and edited New Contrast in South Africa