Francis Herd put Minister Bathabile Dlamini rightly and squarely in the hot seat in a recent interview on SABC News. This is the work of a news anchor doing her job.
The dust from the SASSA debacle and its public interest still fills the room and questions about it should not be off limits even though the minister has since been deployed to a new portfolio. Dlamini resented the probing. She perceived it as hostile treatment. She was visibly upset. She shot back by accusing Francis of undermining a fellow woman and failing to prepare her for this line of questioning. Why should the gender of Francis be relevant to this line of questioning? When was any question off limits for a politician? The topic of the day was in fact children - the vulnerable children dependent on social grants. Francis needed no permission nor does she owe any apology. She was doing the work of an ethical journalist.
Anything less would have turned this interview into yet another infomercial just like Bathabile Dlamini’s interview last December on Real Talk with Anele Mdoda. It emerged that the Department of Social Development paid R500k for that interview without disclosing it to viewers. This non-disclosure is unethical in the world of journalism and violated the SABC’s own editorial policy. The misuse of these funds by the department is a separate matter altogether.
The embarrassment lead to an SABC board apology and has caused the ratings of Anele’s Real Talk to plummet. This seems to have contributed to her departure from the show by the end of this week. Even though Anele claims to have never known about such payments for soft publicity – and, yes, there were several – it looks like Francis Herd was going to make sure that she put the public interest first as a journalist.
Dlamini may not realise it but she has now well and truly put herself in the hot seat. If she thought Herd was doing so, she is mistaken. Although Herd was direct and firm, it was Dlamini’s response that turned the heat up on her own seat. It's called a self-destruct button. This is going to follow her for some time still. It is reminiscent of the arrogance of Hlaudi Motsoeneng when he unilaterally decided the editorial policy of the SABC news teams in the run up to the 2016 local government elections.
We remember well the valiant stand of the now famous SABC8 against Hlaudi Motsoeneng as he spun his web of fear and capture around the SABC. Given the reach and important role of the public broadcaster, this battle was such an important victory for our democracy.
Thanks to the SABC8 and the work of Makhosi Khoza’s subsequent Parliamentary Committee, helped along by a vigilant civil society, Motsoeneng eventually left the SABC with his tail between his legs. Those brave journalists paid a high price. Suna Venter is no longer with us. While she may have died of “broken heart syndrome”, who knows how much the stress of that battle and the death threats she faced impacted her heart condition?
One of the cornerstones of our democracy is the freedom and independence of the media. The battle for it is still on in South Africa today across all platforms. May media consumers be awake to the click-bait strategies of catchy and misleading headlines. May civil society keep the narratives honest. May sound and transparent editorial policies be applied.
May the media owners and moguls be held accountable. May the referees blow their whistles when the media players go off sides. May unnamed sources who sow lies and half-truths be exposed. May brave and ethical journalists prevail. Our still young and fragile democracy depends upon it.