Among the most memorable tributes paid to Zwelakhe Sisulu, who died last month, were those that recounted his role as the first chief executive of the post-apartheid SABC. He had come not only from an iconic family of the liberation struggle, but also from a robustly independent, anti-government newspaper, New Nation, which he had pioneered as one of the key "alternative" newspapers in the apartheid era.
Sisulu was an obvious choice to become chief executive of the SABC. It was also no accident that the broadcaster was the first institution to be "transformed", with new legislation predating the first election. It was, in retrospect, a perfect time to do this: there is an inverse relationship between access to power and enthusiasm for free media, and at that time no one had real power.
This is a lesson learnt, more bitterly in later years, at the broadcaster when it became a vehicle not for a particular political party, but for factions in the ruling party. Soon after Thabo Mbeki lost the ANC presidency at the Polokwane conference in 2007, an SABC staffer remarked to me that it was "funny" how the then head of news, Snuki Zikalala, had become "more objective".
Zikalala had once, infamously, blacklisted various people, including Sisulu's sister-in-law, Elinor, so there was, amid the sadness, something deeply ironic about holding the well-attended memorial service for Zwelakhe at the SABC – where Elinor Sisulu now sat in dignified mourning in the front row.
That politicians use the media to advance their agendas is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. The founding fathers of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson, were seldom shy to use advertising (or its withdrawal) to manipulate newspapers' views. And John Adams, the second president of the US, signed into law a Sedition Act, set to expire, conveniently, on March 3 1801 – the day before a new president was inaugurated.
South Africa, in those golden days of hope and early freedom, was better. Joe Thloloe, a veteran journalist who joined the editorial management of SABC TV news, recalled how Sisulu had told him: "Don't ever look over your shoulder, because I will protect you from the politicians." And Allister Sparks, who became head of news after he had stepped down from the board in 1997, described Sisulu as a "heat shield".
But the transformation that Sisulu drove embraced more than just editorial independence. There was the gargantuan task of trying to represent all 11 official languages equally. Many sneered at the impracticality of 11 languages at the time and the public broadcaster was probably the only institution in South Africa that took the constitutional imperative seriously.
Mediation and arbitration
I joined the SABC as political editor of radio news late in 1994 and had to build a team that could cover Parliament, the constitutional negotiations and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in all 11 languages. To be honest, we never managed all, but we did pretty damn come near it. It was a creative place, too. I already had my "quota" of Afrikaans-speaking reporters, but I was allowed to hire the poet Antjie Krog as a "specialist" reporter. Her ear for sound and her attuned eye for change made our radio reports sing. Who else, now or then, could describe the queen as looking like "anybody's auntie from PE, with a handbag from John Orr's and skoentjies [shoes] from Stuttafords"?
Our reporters found new words in some of the African languages for everything from "hit squads" to "mediation and arbitration". And, unlike in the past when African reporters reported for their particular radio stations, now there was one newsroom with common editors, common stories and eventually, we hoped, common values.
Who can forget the power of the public broadcaster when it aired, live on all its stations, Nomonde Calate's anguished scream of despair and grief as she recounted how her husband had been murdered by the security police? Or the haunting recital by the granddaughter of the Reverend Isaac Wauchope, the chaplain on the ill-fated SS Mendi, of the death song the 800 black servicemen chanted as the oceans rolled over them in 1917?
Commercial broadcasters cannot match this. The best among them run cracking news teams, but there simply is not the time or space for current affairs programmes (as opposed to talk shows) that can bring the world to listeners through sound. More recently, there have been stories that can only have been done by a broadcaster with a foot in every province: the prelude to the Marikana massacre was covered in detail before the event by reporters rooted in that region. Weeks before the killings, AM Live's Xolani Gwala on SAfm hosted a prescient if acrimonious debate between the two rival unions at Marikana.
And the story of another police killing – that of the community leader Andries Tatane in Ficksburg last year – was broken by the SABC only because its provincial reporters had been tracking the rising discontent in the area.
Challenging place to work
TV reporters Chriselda Lewis and Yolisa Njamela spent weeks working on a story that exposed the sale of fake matric certificates in Hillbrow and Lewis has done several others that "show the impact on urban working-class people of anything from loan sharks to bogus doctors to backstreet abortionists", as Jimi Matthews, head of TV news, said.
The Sunday Times's Mondli Makhanya in a recent column acknowledged an "excellent" SABC report on living conditions on the mines, and Business Day's trenchant Aubrey Matshiqi (himself a victim of Zikalala's "blacklisting") wrote that a report by the SABC's Thulasizwe Simelane on political killings in KwaZulu-Natal had broken his heart because it reported "the effect the killings have on families".
Notwithstanding these pockets of excellence, the public broadcaster has always been a challenging place to work. After Sisulu left, those challenges grew. Political interference grew – and peaked during the time of the 2004 board that brought in Zikalala to head the news. But this is not unique to South Africa. In France, each time the government changes, the board and executives of the public broadcaster start casting their eyes around for other jobs.
What is unique in South Africa is this: the SABC is probably the only public broadcaster in the world with such a wide-ranging public broadcast mandate that is almost completely funded by the private sector. By law, the SABC has to broadcast in 11 languages (it does 13 on radio), run a minimum number of hours of bulletins and current affairs programmes on radio and TV and run a quota of educational and children's programming, yet the government contributes just 2% of its funding. Licence fees contribute about 11% and advertisers pay the lion's share.
The theory is that the one commercial channel on TV and the three commercial radio stations can cross-subsidise the public services. Yet of the SABC's recent chief executives only Peter Matlare (appointed by the Vincent Maphai-board and driven out by the Eddie Funde-Christine Qunta board in 2005) managed this. He left his successor a R400-million surplus and increased local content and news bulletins on TV and radio, only for the surplus to disappear over the next five years. How this happened has been the object of investigation by both the auditor general and the Special Investigating Unit. The current board inherited a R1-billion debt and a loan with a strict government guarantee.
So much of the initial focus was on stabilising the finances of the broadcaster and not on programming. This has changed somewhat with a new request-for-proposals book being issued (worth about R140-million) so that the SABC can play its role as a proper public broadcaster again and stimulate the local-content industry.
To some extent, this has happened: TV programmes such as Ga Re Dumele and Gauteng Maboneng have both attracted wide audiences. On radio, considerable effort has been put into better programming. It has reaped rewards: SABC radio has increased its audience share to more than two-thirds of the total South African audience. Ukhozi FM alone has grown to more than sevenmillion listeners; Umhlobo weNene has more than six-million. Nothing in print can match this. Even the Sunday Times, which boasts a circulation of more than 460 000, cannot come close.
At least 26-million South Africans get their news from SABC radio and nearly 25-million from TV. This alone must be a reason to ensure that the broadcaster works well. Fortunately for the country, we have strong civil society organisations such as the Save our SABC Coalition, a voice of conscience for the broadcaster.
Unfortunately, the stakes are high, both politically and financially, and the battles bitter. The challenge today is not only to ensure that the SABC is sustainable, but that it actually serves a broad, diverse public and not narrow interest groups.
This was the vision that Sisulu espoused. It is a vision that has been tainted and tarnished, but it is still one worth pursuing. "If you give up on the SABC," Barney Mthombothi, an erstwhile head of SABC news once said, "you give up on democracy."
Pippa Green heads the journalism programme at the University of Pretoria. She is also a member of the SABC board, but the views expressed here are her own