Anton Harber

Forcing the issue

2007-01-12 10:04

Anton Harber

Imagine if sometime in the next few months the SABC lined up all the possible successors to President Thabo Mbeki and questioned them live on air about their policies and their suitability for the top job.

It is a task only the giant SABC could really pull off. Once they were doing it, no candidate could decline to be there, as it would define the field. Each of the potential presidents could be made to lay out what they would do about HIV/Aids, the education system, the health system - all the most pressing, difficult and testing issues. They could be asked about questions of character, experience and skill.

Then we would know what each one stood for, how much they had thought about the tough issues and what they would bring to the job. If Jacob Zuma continued to say no more than he would follow ANC policy, then he would be laughed out of court as a leader who refused to lead.

We would move away from judging others on their records as business leaders, but be able to see who has some bright ideas to breathe fresh energy into the transformation and nation-building process. We would see who has clarity and charisma, and who is at ease with public interaction of this sort.

Most important of all, it would stimulate an exciting national debate about the critical issues, and lay out the options for us all to think about. It would put the politics back into politics. It would be a triumph for transparency and accountability, lifting the presidential race out of smoke-filled backrooms and dropping it into the public arena.

Practice journalism, not politics

Doing this would be a massive public service - exactly what we would expect from the national public broadcaster - and if they did it well they could keep the focus on issues and policies, and away from petty personal politics. It would show that the SABC is serving country, and not just party, practicing journalism and not politics, and that it is willing to stick its neck out to break new ground for our democracy.

It would also attract, I expect, the biggest audiences of the year.

I raise this prospect because I believe that - contrary to what many nervous analysts are saying - the ANC presidential race is potentially the best thing to happen to us in years and could set the tone for our future democracy. But this will only be the case if the media can break the ANC taboo on candidates declaring their ambitions and force the fight into the open.

This has already started to happen. Candidates are quick to deny their plans, even when we all know they are adjusting their business affairs, building up teams around themselves and getting their allies in place for the campaign. They deny it when we all know it is true.

The sooner the media breaks down these rules against candidates declaring themselves the better. For the ANC, it will reinvigorate their branches, boost their active membership and beak down the top-down political patronage that spawns corruption and mediocrity.

So this is my challenge to the SABC: show us what you are made of. Take the lead. Give us a demonstration of what a great public broadcaster can do. Force the issue.

This presidency will give you hell, but the next one will thank you.

  • Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Wits University. Read his blog at

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