Melanie Verwoerd

"People don't learn"

2016-07-06 11:23

I don’t often agree with Julius Malema. This Sunday I did. Commenting on the former acting CEO of the SABC, Jimi Matthews’s revelation that people in government put pressure on them not to report on Malema and the EFF, Malema said: “People don’t learn”.

In the mid-eighties I visited the UK as an 18-year-old.  It was during the height of the state of emergencies in South Africa and my political awakening was at a very early stage.

Whilst at Oxford, my partner and I sought out political exiles from South Africa. For weeks we sat with people like the late Tshepiso Mashinini, younger  brother of Tsietsi Mashinini of the 1976 protests, who revealed to us a South Africa we did not know.  I was stunned into silence by what we were told and showed. One after the other these young people lifted their clothes to reveal the irrefutable proof of torture and brutality by the South African police and intelligence services. One night, exhausted by days of discussion, I asked Tshepiso: “How is it possible that I can be 18 years old and not know any of this?” “Because Apartheid has succeeded in selling the biggest lie to whites,” Tshepiso answered. “And of course the SABC is the biggest lie machinery of them all”.

Four weeks later I returned to South Africa a different person. Everything I had held to be true, had shifted. All the institutions I had always had faith in and those who occupied those bodies were now suspect. The lies I and millions of others were told, revealed. I was furious at the betrayal, but held a particular anger against the SABC, not only for the deliberate distortion of the truth, but for the selective choosing of what we could see and hear, influenced by regular calls from political masters in the government.

Reign of terror

My search for truth eventually led me to become a member of the ANC. I did so because they were different. The people I met were people of principle and convictions. They held up a moral compass and had a disciplined commitment to do what was right. Their guiding document was the Freedom Charter and eventually the Constitution, both documents aspiring to a society that would embody the best of what humanity could offer: equality, freedom, human rights and freedom of speech.

But: “People don’t learn”….

At first it seemed rather funny. The CEO of the SABC, after lying about his academic qualifications, wanted his organisation’s cameramen to retrain because they made him look short.  Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise have the same problem, so you could sympathise.  But then it suddenly all started to sound and look too much like a repeat of the bad horror movie from the eighties. Open lines (call-ins from the public) were stopped to prevent negative comments about the governing party and president. This was followed by an instruction not to cover the destruction of property during violent protests. No coverage of the protests against this very problematic form of deciding what we can see and not see (which, by the way, is my simple understanding of “censorship,” Mr Motsoeneng), was allowed either.  When journalists rightly raised objections, they were suspended.

In the City Press on Sunday, Jimi Matthews talks of a reign of terror at the SABC by Motsoeneng. Suspended economics editor at the SABC, Thandeka Gqubule, confirms this and talks about the “hamba kahle” approach – toe the line or you’re out. According to the City Press report, Motsoeneng would frequently say in newsroom briefings that the presidency or minister was furious about certain reporting – thus adding to the culture of fear. Then on Sunday comes the most damning revelation of all. There was pressure to not report on the EFF and Malema.

Of course we could say, what does it matter? In an era of social media, censorship becomes a totally defunct concept. If anything the media often has to play catch-up with social media reports. Unlike the 1980s we have different media outlets, so there is more choice. The problem remains that a huge number, almost 80% of people in this country, still rely on SABC radio and TV for news and current affairs. This is why the Broadcasting Act, compels the SABC to provide news and public affairs programming which meets the highest standards of journalism, in a fair, impartial and unbiased manner. Surely they are now in breach of these provisions?

Corrodes democratic and moral fibre of society

The main problem with censorship is that it corrodes the democratic and moral fibre of society and is often seen as the main indicator of a move from democracy to dictatorship. For these reasons any form of censorship will almost immediately have an economic impact, since international investors and rating agencies don’t look kindly on any threat to freedom of speech.

What really pains me, is the ANC’s response and lack of support for the journalists. The official line remains that the ANC is against all form of censorship. Yet, they seem all too happy to benefit from the SABC management’s editorial interference. Worse still, after Jimi Matthews resignation, ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa attacked him for leaving. Following the protests and march by journalists last Friday, Kodwa suggested that the motive behind the protests was to “capture the corporation”.  He also insisted that the SABC should be left to manage  its own affairs. 

I have met Thandeka Gqubule, who has been suspended and who led the march on Friday. I am sure Zizi Kodwa knows her too. She is a hugely impressive, highly skilled former lecturer in journalism. She is clever and principled and one of the few people who are still brave enough to speak out. I fail to understand how she would be trying to “capture” the corporation?  And, yes, the SABC should be left to manage its own business, but that should be to give us news without bias or prejudice. So either someone should tell the presidency and the Minister that, or else tell Hlaudi Motsoeneng to stop lying when he uses their names to justify his actions..

Former Minister for Broadcasting, Jay Naidoo, said last week that the SABC can no longer be called a national broadcaster. I agree.  History judges harshly those that feed lies. Inevitably people find out and rise up against it. We have done so before in this country and will do so again. So the ANC and government need to act fast. That action will have to go beyond the ANC’s request yesterday to the Minister and SABC Board to brief them on the matters and  whether Motsoeneng has abused his powers. After the whole qualifications fiasco, I am surely not the only one, lacking faith in the SABC Board and Minister’s ability to do a thorough investigation or objectively report on the matter. 

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and member of the Broadcasting and Communications Portfolio Committee. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

*Only comments that contribute to a constructive debate will be approved by moderators.

Read more on:    sabc  |  julius malema  |  hlaudi motsoeneng

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