An unabashed bit of pro-Mbeki propaganda

2007-12-08 00:00

It was amateur hour on the South African Bootlicking Corporation this week, with a ludicrously indulgent “interview” with President Thabo Mbeki, broadcast simultaneously on 15 radio stations. And rather than the “state of the nation”-type address that it was supposed to be, the broadcast came across as an unabashed, sad bit of propaganda for the president, as the African National Congress gears up for perhaps the most important congress in its 96-year history.

Plagued by technical failures, mis-cues, dropped calls, and an intermittent, eerie electronic feedback that made Mbeki sound as if the broadcast was from outer space, the event was a pathetic affair, more reminiscent of an attempt at student radio by particularly maladroit first-years than professional coverage by the national public broadcaster.

Professional is difficult for the SABC not only because of its technical inadequacies. Its default mode when dealing with ANC politicians is instinctively unctuous. The SABC’s political editor Abbey Makoe was particularly oleaginous as he pucker-pecked the backside of the president with ingratiating remarks and the kind of soft-serve questions that wouldn’t challenge a 10-year-old.

Responding to criticism of the blatantly manipulative timing of the broadcast — just as thousands of ANC delegates puzzle over who they will elect as party president — the SABC had belatedly announced that Jacob Zuma would also be given air time. It will be interesting to see whether the 100% Zulu Boy gets an equally fawning reception from the SABC’s journalistic lightweights. He probably will, given that their continued employment could depend on his favour if, as now seems increasingly likely, he becomes the next president of the party and then the country.

The broadcast was expected to draw around 21 million listeners and was originally scheduled for two hours. By the time it petered out after just an hour and a quarter, it was difficult to believe that any more than a handful of party faithful, some political commentators and Mbeki’s mum were still listening.

Even the phone-in part, which one might reasonably have hoped would ignite some unscripted debate, was a failure. Questions were taken from only a handful of rambling, virtually incoherent admirers of the president. Nor was there any attempt at demographic representivity: all the callers were black and only one was female.

Despite Mbeki’s meandering and wordy style, the flame flickered for a moment or two. He warned against those who were spreading lies in order to advance their presidential candidacy but, unsurprisingly, Makoe failed to fan the fire and ask who these scurrilous fellows might be.

The ANC, said Mbeki with unintended irony, has its own standards of morality. “Even when it is painful and difficult, the ANC should not tell lies. It would be a mistake to think that people are fools and will be misled forever.” Truth will out.

A real journalist would have taken this gap to ask about issues such as the suspension of the national public prosecutor when he tried to arrest the national police commissioner or the ongoing stench of corruption from the arms deal. The SABC’s finest hack could only manage a few admiring clucks. For all one knows, he might have been dribbling in awe but since this was radio not television, we will never know.

One wonders why the president, an astute politician, would allow such a banal and ultimately counter-productive charade. The sycophancy of the SABC and the intricate replies and condescending tone of the president will have confirmed again to his enemies and critics some of the reasons why they oppose his re-election.

Since the SABC now has been compelled by public pressure to give Jacob Zuma equal time next week, it has handed Mbeki’s opponent a golden opportunity just before the congress to upstage the president. Some warmth, a joke or two, and a few sharp knife thrusts at the presidential abdomen should carry the day for the populist street fighter.

How much better it would have been for public discourse (and probably Mbeki) if the SABC had dared to schedule a debate between the two men. But the toadies at the SABC wouldn’t dream of that.

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