Faith Muthambi 'showed us the middle finger'

Communications Minister Faith Muthambi reportedly ignored an ANC instruction to withdraw the controversial Broadcasting Amendment Bill. (David Harrison, M&G)

Communications Minister Faith Muthambi reportedly ignored an ANC instruction to withdraw the controversial Broadcasting Amendment Bill. (David Harrison, M&G)

The Cabinet says it is an attempt to stabilise the SABC. Others, including the South African Communist Party, believe it will turn the public broadcaster into a state broadcaster, with all the potential for abuse that that implies.

But to get the Broadcasting Amend-ment Bill passed, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi may have to face down not only the opposition and the ANC’s alliance partners in Parliament, but also the ANC, which she has again defied. The Cabinet approved the draft Bill in early November, and it is due to be tabled in Parliament in the coming year.

This week, four ANC sources – two members of the party’s subcommittee on communications and two national executive committee members – said Muthambi had shown the ANC the middle finger by refusing to accept instructions to withdraw the Bill.

Although its content is not yet public, a notice introducing the Bill suggested it would end the process that sees SABC board members appointed in a transparent process in Parliament, in which all parties participate. Instead, a nomination committee would be established to make recommendations to the minister of communications.

The Bill also seeks to reduce the number on nonexecutive members of the SABC board, and to change the process for their removal.

But the proposed changes have not gone down at all well in the ANC.

“The ANC fought hard against a state broadcaster in 1994. We demanded a system that will be good for democracy and ensures journalistic independence,” said a member of the ANC communications subcommittee this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“This takes us back to a situation where the minister will decide what happens to the SABC. The current system gives members of the public power to decide who is appointed to the SABC board. If the minister is given power to appoint the board, the process will not be transparent or even democratic … Almost every South African will reject this Bill. We fought hard to change SABC from state to a public broadcaster. Nelson Mandela fought so hard for us to have a public broadcaster he even called FW de Klerk to order for opposing the idea. We can’t change it now.”

Jackson Mthembu, the head of the ANC communications subcommittee, would not comment, saying the matter was still under discussion.

An ANC national working committee member and the small business minister, Lindiwe Zulu, said: “I can’t deny there are issues [regarding the Bill], but I don’t want to make comments when there is a chairman.”

She said the ANC would continue to discuss the matter even if the Cabinet had approved it. “There are processes that needs to be followed. There is the executive and there is ANC. We [the ANC subcommittee] still need to have a conversation about it.”

This is not the first time Muthambi has defied the ANC this year. She did so when she recommended that the Cabinet should opt for television set-top boxes without conditional access when South Africa migrates from analogue to digital TV. The ANC wants the set-top boxes to be manufactured with conditional access.

The plans to change the SABC’s underpinnings have come in for widespread condemnation, and have exposed the ANC to much criticism.

Announcing the Cabinet’s decision to approve the Bill last month, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said it aimed to develop and implement a corporate governance model that ensured long-term stability and sustainability of the SABC.

“Government is committed to a strong, independent and relevant public broadcaster, which is accountable to the shareholder, the public and Parliament,” he said.

Not everyone bought that line.

Sekoetlane Phamodi, the co-ordinator of the Save Our SABC campaign, described the Bill as untenable. Had the intention been to cut costs, he said, this would not be achieved by reducing the number of board members. Instead, the SABC needed to review its allowances to its executives and board members.

Phamodi said the decision by the Cabinet to approve the Bill was a clear indication that the ANC had lost control of its own executive.

“When the ANC removed [former president] Thabo Mbeki, they said he was operating outside ANC processes. Why are they not taking the same action against the minister?” Phamodi asked.

William Bird, of Media Monitoring Africa, described the move to amend the Bill as a “tragedy ... We are profoundly disappointed that such a clearly unconstitutional draft Bill would be approved by Cabinet. It presents a real danger to the independence of the SABC specifically and the media in general. To legislate such direct interference by the minister and to negate the role of Parliament and undermine our democracy in this way is simply outrageous. We will be fighting it,” Bird said.

Both the communist party and the Democratic Alliance have made it clear they would oppose the amendments. The SACP’s second deputy general secretary, Solly Mapaila, told Business Day the Bill would give future ministers of communication “direct control over the SABC”.

“It [the SABC] could become an instrument of individuals, which is dangerous,” Mapaila said.

SACP sources have linked the sudden resignation of its treasurer, Joyce Moloi-Moropa, as the head of Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications to the Bill.

Moloi-Moropa, who has clashed with Muthambi several times, had earlier told the Mail & Guardian that she would not seek redeployment from that position. “Stepping down, no I will not,” she said in the second week of November. “It is not an individual matter but a party matter.”

Shortly thereafter she did just that.

In a letter published in City Press, Moloi-Moropa said she had, in the course of her duties, been forced to take positions and pursue policies that differed from those of the governing party.

“I met serious challenges beyond what I can carry and therefore cannot successfully deliver the mandate vested in me to the best of my abilities,” she wrote. “I do need to indicate that, in the course of my duties as chairperson of the portfolio committee on communications, I was increasingly placed in a position of having to accede to pursuing policies I understood to be, at worst, in conflict with those of the ANC or, at best, at variance with those policies.”

Approached for comment, Muthambi spokesperson Mishack Molakeng said: “The Broadcasting Amended Bill was approved by Cabinet for submission to Parliament. The parliamentary process opens up an opportunity for the public to make inputs as the Bill has not yet been passed as an Act”.

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004. Read more from Matuma Letsoalo

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