Leonard Gentle

The editor of The Journalist spotlights developments at the SABC, arguing that the democratic role of the public broadcaster is being rolled back under the guise of economic austerity.

Two events have been noteworthy in our South African news over the last month or so. One is the US Presidential election, which saw Joe Biden win against Donald Trump, and the other is the mass retrenchment of staff at the SABC here in South Africa. The former was touted in much of the media as a pivotal moment in the history of democracy while the SABC retrenchment was treated as a mere economic basket case – an unpopular “State-owned Enterprise” getting its just desserts.

The news that the SABC is to implement a long-term retrenchment programme under which hundreds of employees will be dismissed came during a very unfortunate time for those media workers affected.

The downsizing is presented as part of a “turn-round strategy” – the glib ploy much loved by employers and governments everywhere.  Angry staff and their unions have gathered to fight these dismissals, with some success as even SABC Board members are not unanimous in the need for retrenchment and they have had some short-term success in getting a few retrenchment letters withdrawn.

There is no good time to lose your job and to experience that at a time of Covid 19 and a near 40% unemployment rate, real unemployment rate (not the cooked up definition, which excludes “discouraged workers” of StatsSA mythology) is particularly bad.

But this is also a bad time because the media throng is obsessed with a narrative from the government, particularly treasury, and the elite. This narrative has two components – a political one that says that the SOEs are nothing but cesspits of corruption and patronage – and an economic one that says that what South Africa needs now is economic austerity. This means a programme of reducing the size of the fiscus, cutting all public spending and solving “the SOE problem” by doing everything possible to have Big Business profiteer through new rounds of privatisation and commercialisation.

So if you’re a worker at Eskom, PRASA, SAA or the SABC it’s a terrible time to speak about trying to save your job. As it is to be a nurse, a teacher, a sewage worker or anything associated with public services and speak about better pay.

There are of course a number of social forces in SA – some labour voices, social movements and progressive economists – who do take up the challenges of contesting the logic of economic austerity and seek to expose the neo-liberal sources of the systemic corruption in South Africa. We won’t go into those here.

But for all the elite voices who want to finger low-hanging SOE targets to justify their mas for austerity the SABC is probably the easiest target.

Who can forget Hlaudi Motsoeneng as COO?, the warnings by then chairperson, Ellen Zandile Tshabalala that journalists’ phones were being tapped by the parties?, the refusal to air campaign adverts of opposition parties?, the banning of protest images? Who can forget Hlaudi Motsoeneng selling the SABC archives to DSTV/Multichoice? The list is endless…

This list encourages elite commentators to single out the SABC as simply a dis-functional SOE, a corporation incapable of making money and so dependent on the begging-bowl extended to the fiscus while serving as a ANC government mouthpiece. This conflation of the categories of a business (which is a private interest that must make a profit or go bust), a state (which is an aggregate of the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and the bureaucracy), and government (which is the ruling party in the executive) is typical of the neo-liberal era.

But the SABC of the democratic era is a Public Broadcaster, which, despite all the real shenanigans over the 30 years is accountable to the public (and not the state, or the government or commercial interests). If we lose this, even in this caricatured form, we lose something in the battle for democracy. The SABC is not as the then Communications Minster, Faith Muthambi, said in 2015, simply a “state-owned corporation” with the government as the “sole proprietor”.

At a time when mass retrenchment at and downsizing of the SABC is being implemented it is time to reflect on the SABC – both as a vehicle for democracy and as a register of what a democracy might be.

Notwithstanding the proliferation of commercial media, community media and social media the main source of information and entertainment for the poor majority in SA is the SABC, particularly the indigenous African language radio stations. Downsizing the SABC and thinking that commercial vehicles –which charge for services – would fill the gap is to abandon the majority in this so-called “information age”.

The call for social distancing, the wearing of masks and increased levels of hygiene in this period of Covid 19 requires a high level of public trust for effective implementation. This would not have been possible without the SABC as the main vehicle of communication.

South Africa is also a country in which what many on the Left called the “national question” still hasn’t been resolved. Colonialism didn’t forge a nation and segregation and apartheid deliberately constructed and froze racial and tribal differences with only whites recognised as citizens. For a democratic South Africa to forge a nation out of these divisions requires a vehicle that transcends language and location. While schooling and education can play the decisive role in this goal, the SABC as the public broadcaster is uniquely placed to be the one means for national conversation.

Uniquely, amongst all the so-called SOE’s the SABC, at least officially, separates the issue of ownership – the state – from control – the public. Again, at least in law, the public can make submissions for representatives on the SABC Board, who cannot merely be fired by the government.

To the extent that this formal commitment is actually practised – the SABC as a Public Broadcaster is a register of whether we are a democracy.

To lose this dimension of being a public broadcaster is to ape the 2015 roll-back of Faith Muthambi and, under the cover of economic austerity, collude in turning the SABC into a poorer version of a state broadcaster.

For this reason we need to support SABC staff fighting mass retrenchments and start a greater public debate about the SABC being a real public broadcaster and that drawing on the national fiscus to expand the SABC is not about “throwing money at SOEs” but about advancing democracy in South Africa.

This must go alongside ensuring there are a range of media voices, and not just commercial media – community radio and TV, NGO, trade union, social movements and other platforms – which should also be able to draw from public resources for support. It is precisely because the SABC has been so much a government propaganda voice (both during Apartheid and in the democratic era) that the need for public-control over the SABC must go hand in hand with real media diversity.

Of course, what eclipsed the SABC story in public comment over the last month was the 2020 US Election.

People in the USA do not have a one-person-one vote system for their President or their Senate upper house. The USA is a federal country composed of states which emerged out of the mid-19th century Civil War fought between the North and the South over the issue of African slaves. With the North victorious in preventing the slave-holding Southern states from seceding, the white elite grafted a Constitution which both excluded African-Americans from the vote and also gave Presidential elections to an Electoral College made up of state representatives in proportion to the number of slaves they owned.

And it legislated a Senate Upper house which gave each state two representatives regardless of the size of their populations.

Although waves of struggles over the decades in the 20th century gave rise to reforms that saw African Americans win voting rights in the 1960s, the Constitutional system of the 19th century locked in an undemocratic senate as the Upper House and an Electoral College for the Presidential Elections. The Federal system also locked in a two-party system of the Republicans – the original party of the abolitionist and economically conservative Northern industrialists – and the Democrats – the original party of the slave-holding South. Mass movement of freed slaves to the North in the 20th century and the welfarist policies of the New Deal Democrats saw the two parties? flip over, with African-Americans choosing to use their votes for the Democrats, alongside Hispanics and other minorities alongside liberals, trade unionists and the like.

Unlike in Africa, Latin America and Europe and Asia the US’s two parties are not the outcome of struggles by social movements. The poor of the US have a client relationship with the big parties?. They vote, and voting numbers are traditionally very low, on the basis of benefits promised. The political parties?, in turn, canvas on the basis of appealing to big money interests – who pay for their campaigns – whilst appealing to perceived “values” amongst the poor (religion, immigration, foreign wars etc.).

But with the rise of the USA as the world’s imperial power after WW1 and its need to project that power during the Cold War after WW2 this deeply flawed caricature of a democracy was somehow hidden and an ideal-type “American Democracy” was presented as the model to be aspired to by Africans, Latin Americans and Asians.

In this regard the US continued what its predecessor as the world’s imperial power, Great Britain, did as it withdrew from its colonies. Whereas Britain, or the United Kingdom as it wants to be known, does not have a written Constitution, but relies on past treaties, charters and landmark rulings, it insisted on written Constitutions, which could guarantee property and settler rights, for its ex-colonies like Ghana, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

With both Britain and the USA, it was a case of “Do what we say” and not “Do what we do.”

To be sure the Trump presidency in the US did mark a period of major dislocation and threats to the world – from the “trade wars” with China, the aggression against Venezuela and Bolivia, the further encouragements to Israeli aggression against the Palestinians, the withdrawal of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

But the Trump-Biden elections have offered few possibilities that a Biden Presidency would do anything different, so the media hype about an existential crisis is an exaggeration. If anything, the Trump 2015 campaign “to make America Great Again” was echoed by the Biden camp’s 2020 promise to return America to its former, presumed, “greatness”.

Of course, by way of comparison the SABC retrenchments do not nearly have the global significance of the US elections.

The USA – which we are told to watch as the world’s exemplar of democracy – does not have a national public broadcaster, while we in South Africa do. We won our version of democracy not on the backs of black slaves but through mass struggles. Now are being cajoled into rolling back even the limited democratic gains we won, like a public broadcaster, under the guise of economic austerity.