Max du Preez

Too many Jimis in South African politics

2016-07-05 06:54

Max du Preez

There are too many Jimis in South African politics and public life.

By this I mean people who serve as Zuma-ANC lackeys against their own better judgment and conscience, but who don’t have the guts to do the honourable thing and stand up or quit.

I have known Jimi Matthews since the late 1980s when he was still a cameraman. He progressed to become a respected newsperson and senior news manager. He was “one of the guys”; he was a pro and quite popular in journalism circles.

Senior journalists were surprised when he went back to the SABC in 2012, because by then the rot had already started spreading in the state broadcaster. He privately told colleagues that he wanted to make news covering by the SABC more professional and credible.

Matthews repeated that after his resignation last week. He was “under the mistaken belief” that he “could be more effective inside the SABC than outside”, he said.

He failed miserably at doing this. The last few years he took the lead in reinforcing the idea of a state- rather than a public broadcaster by, inter alia, limiting the news coverage parties in opposition to the ANC got.

Climate of fear and uncertainty

Back in 2012 already the media reported on an unsigned letter to Matthews by senior SABC journalists complaining about the “climate of fear and uncertainty” in the SABC news rooms.

Matthews wasn’t a victim, he was often the initiator and promoter of this climate - the same climate he now calls “the corrosive atmosphere” that has “impacted negatively on my moral judgment”.

Senior news people at the SABC feared him and didn’t get his support when they fought for journalistic integrity. (It was so blatant that I tweeted a day before his resignation: “Jimi Matthews is a sell-out in the true, old-fashioned sense of the word”.)

But the Jimi we knew before he became a SABC boss and saw again after his resignation obviously knew and understood that what he was doing was unethical, dangerous and unconstitutional. Why did he, as officially the most senior employee at the SABC, continue right until last week’s dramatic mea culpa?

That’s why I say there are too many Jimi’s in public life. I have asked this very same question of many other people in senior positions that I had known as decent, honest and principled citizens who became political whores during the Zuma presidency.

Journalistic iciness

The explanation, I think, is a combination of fear, greed and a lack of guts. Fear of revenge, of being called disloyal, fear of the “cold” outside the ANC, of accusations that they “betrayed the revolution” and strengthened the DA, EFF and/or Numsa.

Many of these people also say they’re trying to change the ANC or the government from within. But in the process they do things that are directly in conflict with the principles they claim to espouse.

In Matthews’s case, he even stated in a sworn affidavit before a court as late as last week that Hlaudi Motseneng was a godsend to the SABC and was more or less irreplaceable. He simply couldn’t resist the pressure when asked to vouch for a lunatic he very well knew was destroying the SABC. After his resignation Matthews said the SABC would be better without Motsoeneng.

Matthews realised at the age of 61 that the world in which he spent almost four decades of his life, the world of journalism, had turned very hostile to him. Old friends and comrades didn’t want to be seen with him any longer. Hlaudi was a national clown and Jimi was his sidekick.

The journalistic iciness was beginning to overwhelm the cosiness of being a political insider. And then he took his bag and he walked out.

The SABC has become a metaphor for the decline of the ANC.

During the Mandela presidency, Zwelakhe Sisulu was in charge of the SABC and it experienced a golden era of being a proper public broadcaster – I know, I worked there between 1994 and 1999.

More Jimis must pack their bags

When Sisulu left during the Mbeki-presidency, a Bulgaria-trained political commissar called Snuki Zikalala started the process of turning the SABC into a state broadcaster. (I was fired unceremoniously for not respecting the SABC leadership, a charge I could not deny.)

Hlaudi is the new Snuki, but in the Zuma era every negative tendency or shortcoming of the ANC is being amplified a thousand times.

I know it has become a bit of a cliché, but it is still apt: Nelson Mandela brought out the best in the ANC and Jacob Zuma the worst.

It is time for more Jimis to make a stand or pack their bags.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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