Along came Stella

2018-12-19 06:01

About 10 years ago, this lowly newspaperman took a pair of visiting Ghanaian editors on a night tour of Johannesburg, the city that — according to respected theologians — was created by God on the eighth day after he had rested well.

We gallivanted all over town and ended up at an establishment where we enjoyed copious amounts of cranberry juice, iced tea and milk shakes. During our tour, we passed the towering public broadcaster’s building in Auckland Park. The looks on their faces as they stared up at the imposing structures and the sprawling complex were priceless. They spoke about how the Ghanaians had just a bland downtown building.

It showed how we as South Africans, particularly those in power, really do not appreciate the jewel we have in the SABC. Instead of treating it as a treasured child, the powers that be abuse it and stunt its growth and development.

You can’t fault South Africans who, when observing the current crisis at the SABC, are moved to sigh and shout out loud that they have seen this movie before. In this movie, we see the SABC plunge into crisis, emerge from crisis only to fall into another.

The current crisis comes at a time when the situation was its most hopeful in a very, very long time.

The interim board that took over when the last one collapsed had done sterling work in stabilising the corporation and beginning the turnaround.

The full board that took over from the interim structure was one of the strongest and most credible in the SABC’s history. The management that came in and was supposed to work with the board in executing the turnaround was also top drawer.

With Faith Muthambi and her stepson out of the way, it appeared as if the long and gruelling journey to recovery was properly under way. No one had any illusion about the work that had to be done, and the length of time and the resources that would be required to get the job done.

Then, along came Stella.

It would be unfair to place full blame on the new minister for the crisis because she found it already brewing. She was the gunslinger who rolled into town and forced the crowds on the main street to scamper to safety.

Much good was expected of Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams when the president appointed her to the portfolio a few weeks ago.

She is one of the bright stars on those very dim ANC parliamentary benches. She has also matured since the days when she used to behave like an English football yob when “debating” and heckling in Parliament.

There is no doubt that she will do well in most of the functions that fall within her portfolio. But on the SABC, I’m afraid, she is likely to be a flop. This will be through no fault of her own — it will be because of the ANC, the party that she belongs to.

The ANC has this terrible sense of proprietorship over the SABC.

Regardless of which faction is in ascendancy at the ANC, it has an uncontrollable desire to dictate to the SABC, and it forgets that a public broadcaster belongs to the public and not the party in power.

Those who sit in Luthuli House want an SABC where they can run through phone calls and summons, and be able to direct or reprimand.

Those party cadres who are in the high echelons of power want to be able to insist that their ribbon-cutting ceremony in Lehurutshe is covered or that their boring speech about yet another plan is carried in the news bulletins.

Fortunately, many of the journalists at the corporation have been professional and strong-willed enough to resist the undue pressures, but many of them have found themselves being made uncomfortable or even forced out. So the ANC has won some and lost some on this score, but the net effect of the interference is that it has created a succession of crises at the broadcaster.

It has also meant that those who inhabit those tall buildings in Auckland Park and the regional offices around the country are prevented from being their greatest selves. For you cannot be your greatest self if you are constantly fending off unwanted attention.

There was a lot of misplaced hope last year when Parliament conducted an inquiry into the SABC board and the affairs of the corporation. While the probing of the opposition members of the ad hoc committee conducting the inquiry was expected, it was the hard attitude of the ANC members that surprised many. There were simply no kid gloves for those who came before the committee. It was hoped then that this was to be the new attitude of the ANC towards the broadcaster, that the governing party was at last learning to respect the SABC. This lasted a while.

The interim board and the permanent board were largely given space. New energy was injected into the corporation despite infrastructure falling apart and the coffers running dry at a rapid pace.

When former minister Nomvula Mokonyane started making strange noises and behaving like others who had previously been in the post, it was clear that we had been witnessing a false dawn.

Then, along came Stella. When the gunslinger rode into town and began shooting wildly into the air, the false dawn was confirmed.

What South Africa must know is that their SABC can work. It can proudly sit alongside the world’s top broadcasters and be the undisputed champion of broadcasting on the continent. If only the ANC would leave it alone.

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