In his book God, Spies and Lies, John Matisonn takes readers through the history of the SABC and how it became a tool to shore up apartheid under the iron fist of the Broederbond and the Nationalist Party.
In the years immediately after the end of apartheid, there was much debate about how to position the public broadcaster as one of the main drivers to promote democracy and prevent its capture by the state as a governing party’s mouthpiece.
The power of the SABC can never be underestimated. Its historical reach beyond the borders of South Africa, through its radio stations and, when apartheid began to collapse, through its television signal is one of the factors that made the country such an influential force in regional politics.
It was thanks to SABC television that many of us were able to witness the most important moment in recent history, when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison on that Sunday afternoon on February 11, 1990, after 27 years behind bars.
Before then, when I was growing up in Swaziland, a society where the local radio station was in slow development, and living among many South African exiles who kept in touch with events at home, Radio Zulu had a tremendous influence in shaping our young minds.
From about 1990, SABC television became available across South Africa’s borders and, despite that it still harboured much of its apartheid baggage, exposed us to a world beyond our immediate environment through its news coverage, talk shows and entertainment content.
For a young journalist starting out in the trade in the early 1990s, it became an essential tool for learning not only about international affairs but also how to better report news.
When the SABC’s successful soapie Generations was launched in 1994 its reach and popularity went way beyond South Africa’s borders.
Such has been the impact of SABC in the Southern African region that when the broadcaster’s signal was blocked to DSTV subscribers outside South Africa, many thousands found ways to connect their decoders directly to Multichoice in South Africa so that they’d receive the SABC signal.
The essence of the SABC’s importance to Southern Africa’s viewing trends is to be found in the history of South African politics and how it affects the rest of us.
When apartheid ended and the country joined the community of nations, so did the world open for all of us in the region. South Africa, as the biggest and most sophisticated economy in the region, remains the gateway for its neighbours to the rest of the world.
Significantly, though, South African television offered viewers in neighbouring countries an escape from the heavily censored local television stations where even innocuous content in programming and news was not easily broadcast unless it pushed the state agenda.
This is why SABC chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s announcement that the television station would no longer broadcast images of violent protests was surprising and disappointing.
On the face of it, there is a case to be made that broadcasting such footage could lead to copycat incidents in other areas. But precedent shows that such decisions, clothed on the need to protect the public interest, do not end there.
It is such small decisions that plant the seed for wholesale censorship of state television everywhere.
In the short 22 years of South Africa’s democracy, the political landscape has shifted to a new level, giving room for further cuts on what viewers will see on television.
The robust, confrontational and often scary incidents seen in parliament during debates could easily drive Motsoeneng to announce that behavior such as that of the Economic Freedom Fighters will no longer be broadcast.
When a government arrogates unto itself exclusive right to decide what is of public interest, the list of things the public may not see becomes endless.
It is a result of the state deciding what is in the public interest that sections of South African society claim not to have been aware of the real effects of racial segregation. They were not exposed to it because the captains of apartheid, the Broederbond and the Nationalist Party, chose to keep it away from them — in the public interest.
When the list of footage that will not be broadcast grows, that window allowing other Southern African countries to see the rest of world will also close.
In my country, one often-repeated question asked by politicians of journalists when bad news is presented to the public is whether giving the public such news contributes to nation-building. By questioning journalists’ sense of patriotism they seek to control government’s accountability to the public.
Motsoeneng and his executives may have taken the decision to stop the broadcast of violent protests in the spirit of patriotism, doing their bit to stave off chaos in a country that is grappling with heightening unrest among its people.
But, as the list of news content that may have to be kept away from the public grows, a new problem will arise. The country’s difficulties could pile up without the majority of people being aware of the imminent collapse.
It may be true that matters do not necessarily have to come to that because of the country’s vast and diverse media landscape, but the SABC is the giant of all media in South Africa and the region and that cannot be ignored.
The effect of its decision to keep information away from the public should never be underestimated.
The truth is that once the culture of censoring news by state organs finds traction, it spreads like a malignant disease across all sectors.
It would be remiss for civil society, opposition parties, media activists and stakeholders in the industry to let this decision go unchallenged.
Engaging the SABC to show them that its decision is a recipe for disaster would be a good starting point. If that fails, court intervention should be sought, because this is a clear assault on free speech.
Bheki Makhubu is the editor of ‘The Nation’ newspaper in Swaziland.