Editorial: Hlaudi Motsoeneng is just the tip of the iceberg

It is seductively easy to personalise the SABC’s problems and hang them all around the neck of its chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. His tin-pot dictator act (we sure hope it is an act) has the same irresistible gravity as the buffoonery of Donald Trump who, like Motsoeneng, cannot possibly believe all the nonsense he spouts.

But there has long been a desire on the part of the ANC and the executive to reel in the public broadcaster from the position it is guaranteed in the Constitution – that of free-roaming reporter and commentator.

Remember Snuki Zikalala and his overwhelming loyalty to the ruling party, which went beyond his allegiance to the Constitution or his sense of service to the people of South Africa?

Faith Muthambi, the present minister of communications, is only the latest example of slavish loyalty towards a leader, in this case President Jacob Zuma, seeking to subvert the SABC. She is not alone. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, for instance, would once have happily ripped out its vocal cords rather than have it so much as whisper criticism of Zuma.

Old-timer SABC staffers have been startlingly sanguine about the state of the organisation for some time, possibly because they had seen worse: an apartheid regime that grew increasingly panicky as its grip on power slipped, for instance.

This makes it all the more concerning that, as of this week, some of those old-timers have started using phrases such as “it has never been this bad”.

Is it coincidence that this comes as the ANC worries that its grip on major metros is slipping?

It is simple to make the link, and so connect the ANC to apartheid censorship in an attempt to shame the ruling party into long-overdue positive action on the SABC. But again the oversimplification is not helpful. The roots of the trouble at the SABC long predate the August 3 local government elections, or the drop in support for the ANC in urban centres.

It is structural and fundamental; it will not pass in September or in 2017, just as it will not magically change if Motsoeneng is somehow unseated.

It is heartening to see civil society organisations come out on to the streets in support of the embattled journalists at the SABC. There is hope that the judiciary, the last remaining line of defence of democracy, will again step in, this time to censor the attempts at censorship at the SABC.

But it cannot end there. The communications minister must be brought to account, and so must Parliament. Both have failed the nation.

Motsoeneng must not be allowed to become the scapegoat that, in turn, allows them off the hook.

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