Editorial: The ANC must back off and let the SABC be

The report from the commission of inquiry into editorial interference at the SABC during the years of state capture makes for chilling reading. From wanton abuse of the public broadcaster by ANC politicians and Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s North Korea-like behaviour to the terrorising of staff by “enforcers”, the report chronicles a microcosm of South Africa during the wasted decade. It makes it clear why the SABC is on its knees holding a begging bowl.

Motsoeneng – who was the chief operating officer – effectively acted as chairperson, chief executive officer and editor in chief. He was the uber-ruler who would not be questioned, despite the arbitrary nature of his decisions. During his reign of terror, he was aided by ANC politicians including former communications minister Faith Muthambi, who stood to benefit from having a buffoon who was only good at barking instructions in charge of the broadcaster.

Although it found no direct evidence of instructions coming from Luthuli House, the commission said that the “spectre of the ANC hovered over the newsroom”.

The commission, headed by veteran journalist and former Press Council executive director Joe Thloloe, found that “the SABC suffered from the capricious use of authority and power to terrorise staff, and to deflect the corporation from its mandate and its editorial policies.” It found that the organisation was “crippled by pain, anger and fear; by frustration, anxiety and apathy; and by inattentiveness, detachment and helplessness”.

The commission could not come to a conclusion regarding the motives of those who abused power, and could not say if it was “sheer incompetence, personality disorders, or for monetary gain”.

It did, however, make some strong recommendations, though some feel these do not go far enough. Most of them were structural and internal. They will help to fix the culture.

We believe that, inasmuch as they will help the corporation heal and go some way towards insulating it against political interference, the ANC carries much blame for breaking the SABC and must shoulder the responsibility and help to fix it.

The best way to do this, we suggest, would be to stay away. Let government support its recovery and oversee policies at a macro level. But the governing party, which has been responsible for much of the toxicity at the SABC, should wean itself off the need to control it.

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