/ 17 July 2014

Assault on democracy unites a nation

The appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as the SABC's chief operating officer has united political parties in outrage.
The appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as the SABC's chief operating officer has united political parties in outrage.

The saga of Hlaudi Mo-tsoeneng’s appointment as the permanent chief operating officer of the SABC, after an unacceptably long and controversial tenure acting in the same position, has united South African political parties – including the ANC – in ways no issue has in recent times.

A broad range of the public and organisations in civil society, including trade unions and freedom of expression and media activists, has also expressed strong opposition to the Motsoeneng appointment. Talk radio and call-in programmes have been consumed by the saga.

The collective opposition to his appointment and the alarm bells that have rung are a recognition of the nature of the threat to our society posed by this appointment. It is, make no mistake, a calculated assault on our democratic freedoms. The SABC’s reach across all social groups and its accessibility nationally make it the most representative of all South African media institutions.

The strong opposition to and moral outrage at the Motsoeneng appointment proves that South Africans are offended by this assault on a public institution that has the potential to be a home for all.

It is also clear that South Africans believe qualifications and merit matter. They protest that the appointment of unqualified individuals to the management of the public broadcaster is no way to defend democracy.

The protest is an affirmation of the idea that a public broadcaster needs an educated and qualified management that understands the complexity of providing independently sourced information and a diversity of programming in a changing broadcasting landscape.

Further, Motsoeneng’s appointment is also a calculated insult to the millions of South Africans striving to get an education and get on in life. It undermines all the national efforts to instil in young people the idea that only through education can they develop themselves into worthy people.

Nothing proves the fact that Motsoeneng’s lack of appropriate qualifications matter more than his own pronouncements about the role of the media and actions at the SABC in support of his beliefs.

He has confirmed that he is a threat to the independence and autonomy of the public broadcaster: he is on record asking for what has become to be known as “sunshine journalism”, in which all the positive things the government has done are given dominant and prominent coverage. Conversely, all the acts of bad governance, maladministration, corruption and the betrayal of people’s aspirations are underplayed or actively suppressed.

In this regard, Motsoeneng represents a direct threat to editorial and programming independence, which is at the core of a broadcasting regime that supports free expression and is not a megaphone for “his master’s voice”.

It is important to point out that you cannot gain experience on the job for something you are not qualified for. The SABC, if well managed by qualified and experienced people, would be the voice of all South Africans and a space where the broadest range of South African voices are heard. It would be a space where all South Africans see themselves and people like themselves in television programmes.

As though his dangerous pronouncements were not enough, Motsoeneng recently advocated the licensing of journalists, a censorious practice that would constitute yet another calculated assault on the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of expression and of the media. It looks as though Motsoeneng’s lack of qualifications actually embolden him to make statements that are not only ignorant but also harmful.

To make matters worse – and as a direct result of his lack of qualifications – Motsoeneng’s pronouncements on news values and the licensing of journalists have nothing to do with the core of what a chief operating officer of a public broadcaster has to do. In particular, they have nothing to do with the operational challenges facing the SABC, which, if not addressed,

could undermine its long-term viability.

For a large majority of South Africans who rely on the SABC’s extensive radio and television services as their only regular and ­accessible source of information and entertainment, that would be a real calamity.

What has outraged South Africans is not only that Motsoeneng brazenly pushes such antidemocratic views at a time when we are reflecting on and celebrating 20 years of efforts to build a lasting democratic dispensation, but also that, given his position in a public institution, this kind of agenda represents a lowering of that institution’s standing and a national embarrassment.

Motsoeneng’s kind of bravado not only represents a low point in public conduct but is also a danger: if not stopped, it could become a cancer that eats out the core of our democratic values, undermining what many people struggled to create.

Although Motsoeneng did not appoint himself to the position he now holds, he has not been shy in defending the appointment and occupying that office as though he had the legitimacy to do so.

The SABC board and Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi, who have defended the appointment, bear a greater responsibility. The board’s failure to respond to the report of the public protector, which noted Motsoeneng’s fraudulent qualifications and his occupation of the acting position as illegitimate, counts as one of the most flagrant lapses of accountability in post-1994 South Africa.

The board members who voted for this appointment should ask themselves – and Parliament should ask them – why they should not resign or be removed by means of the appropriate processes.

It is shocking that, despite the storm of protest and strong criticism, the minister (in an article in the Sunday Independent) sought to dismiss the protest against Motsoeneng’s appointment as mere noise that will distract from efforts to stabilise the SABC.

She seems oblivious to the fact that this appointment is the equivalent of placing a bad-governance bomb under the public broadcaster: it could blow its editorial and managerial integrity to smithereens.

It is not the people protesting against the appointment who are against stabilising the SABC. Rather, it is the minister herself, the board and its chairperson who do not want to regularise appointments.

Because the ANC and its allies, as well as the relevant portfolio committee in Parliament, have denounced her support for the appointment, it could be said that she is on her own.

The presidency, which was thought by many to be a supporter of Motsoeneng and possibly the reason for the minister’s quick move to confirm him in the position of chief operating officer, has now distanced itself from the appointment, saying it had nothing to do with it.

Muthambi has, however, put President Jacob Zuma in a serious predicament. Ministers serve at his pleasure. Some in the media have reported that her actions could only be explained by his support, but now the president has to take action against her for not ensuring there was a proper response to the public protector’s report and for not being certain that the appointment followed proper procedures, which it seems it did not.

As president of the ANC and as part of the collective leadership of the ANC, Zuma will have to take action against her for what can be described as bringing the ANC into disrepute and undermining its standing in society. The ANC has often, when accused of seeking to undermine media freedoms, pointed out that it fought to bring media freedom and freedom of expression to South Africa.

Yet actions such this appointment, and the minister’s defence of it, signal the opposite. Such actions can only undermine the ANC’s justifiable claims to have struggled for an independent and not a state broadcaster.

Perhaps Muthambi does not realise that, despite its reduced majority in the May elections, the ANC is still a party with a large and diverse membership, among them people who have genuine qualifications and are capable of competing for positions in the public and private sectors.

Zuma also has to take action against Muthambi because the storm of public protest represents the voice of South Africans appalled by this calculated assault on democracy.

As president of the country, he has to defend employment laws from this insidious subversion, which amounts to undermining the constitutionally guaranteed independence of the public broadcaster and its ability to advance the freedom of expression of all South Africans.

The public protector is launching yet another probe, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance are going to court about this appointment, and so is the Media Workers’ Association. This is commendable action in defence of our democracy. A new probe is not needed, though, if the SABC board responds by rescinding the appointment and if the ANC and Parliament act on the matter.

Should a nation’s efforts and scarce financial resources be spent by the public protector, and at least two political parties, on a matter that is so obviously indefensible?

South Africans deserve better. Our democracy is too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of the ambitions of one unqualified man or the agenda of those who support him. The public resolve against this appointment should not waver. Simply, too much is at stake.

Professor Tawana Kupe is a deputy vice-chancellor and a media studies academic at Wits University