Herbst: Tammany Hall revisited? Hlaudi the Jester while Zuma holds the sword.

The SABC and its COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng are still hogging headlines as they remain defiant against an Icasa ruling that the editorial policy is unconstitutional. Retired journalist Ed Herbst, the thorn in the state broadcaster’s side, digs deeper. In his latest investigation, Herbst uses SABC board member Nomvuyo Mhlakaza as a case study. She is married to an ANC MP, which again smacks of shameless nepotism. Herbst says the SABC has gone back to the days of the John Vorster era where the board had no black people, today it has no white people. From one extreme to another, despite the mandate of the SABC to be representative of all South Africans. More fuel for the SABC fire that you won’t get to see or hear, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s happening. Another lengthy contribution that is well worth the investment. – Stuart Lowman

By Ed Herbst*

Ed Herbst, former television journalist
Ed Herbst

“It’s hard not to admire the skill behind Tweed’s system … The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization.”

Kenneth Ackerman, Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York (Viral History Press, 2011)

As I watched the SABC news conference on 11 July, a Faustian, tragicomic farce, two thoughts were uppermost in my mind; the first was that while Hlaudi Motsoeneng was the court jester, the hand on the sword was that of Jacob Zuma. The second was a forlorn hope – that foreign diplomats were not watching it, that Moody’s was not watching it.

That evening I tuned into The Justice Factor on eNCA and a third troubling thought intruded – we are approaching a watershed moment in our history – the municipal election on 3 August. Will the election be free and fair?

Running amok

Justice Malala’s first guest on his programme was Solly Mapaila, South African Communist Party second deputy general secretary and he reiterated the points he had made in a Business Day article a week earlier. The SABC board, he said, was dysfunctional and “running amok”. He stressed and reiterated his organisation’s view – the ICASA ruling on censorship was legally binding.

This view is buttressed by a Facebook post by a Durban lawyer, Ian Cox:

“On 26 May 2016 the SABC issued a statement that it ‘has noted with concern the recent turmoil arising from violent service delivery protests in various parts of the country. The SABC as a public service broadcaster would like to condemn the burning of public institutions and has made a decision that it will not show footage of people burning public institutions like schools in any of its news bulletins with immediate effect. We are not going to provide publicity to such actions that are destructive and regressive.’

“On 3 July the ICASA complaints committee ruled that this statement “was invalid from its inception” and recommended that the Council of ICASA directs the South African Broadcasting Corporation to withdraw it retrospectively with effect from the date it was issued.

“The council considered the recommendation and issued a statement yesterday (11July 2016) in which it concurred with the recommendation of the complaints committee.

“This decision is final and binding on the SABC and can only be set aside by judicial review. The decision remains binding on the SABC, however, until it is set aside by a court.

Picture: Twitter @MoveMag
SAA COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Picture: Twitter @MoveMag

“It is a criminal offence to ignore a ruling issued by ICASA punishable by a period of imprisonment of up to one year and/or a fine not exceeding one million rand.”

One can but hope that the SABC’s legal department will advise the board and Motsoeneng accordingly, but I would not bet on it.

Mapaila also pointed out to Malala that the SABC board had been inquorate for the past two years and that any decisions taken since then were accordingly null and void.

The board became inquorate when Communications Minister Faith Muthambi ended the membership of three of its number who had the temerity to express concerns about the man who is so loved by Baba.

As Mapaila pointed out to Malala, this led to the SACP recalling the chairperson of parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communication, Joyce Moloi-Moropa.

I have always contended that the SABC is South Africa in microcosm and as an example one look no further than board member, Nomvuyo Memory Mhlakaza, a staunch Motsoeneng supporter, and ask how she got there.

Due diligence

First, one has to take cognisance of the due diligence procedures which the ANC utilised in this regard. In a September 2013 article the Sunday Times pointed out that the short list for the SABC board was drawn up by Luthuli House interns.

The board is supposed to represent all South Africans but the fact that it does not contain a single white person or a single Afrikaans-speaking person sends a very clear message to minority groups in this country ahead of the 3 August municipal election. Afrikaans is the third most spoken language in the country after isiZulu and isiXhosa but with one important distinction – it is a lingua franca for more ethnic groups than any other language in the country. Furthermore, Afrikaans advertisements on the SABC’s Afrikaans transmissions,  TV and radio, provide significant income for the state broadcaster.

If you can’t beat them, join them. In the era of B J Vorster there were no black people on the SABC board – now the reverse pertains…

In a 2013 editorial – headlined “ANC has hijacked airwaves to gain political profit” – the Sunday Times asked a valid question: “How will ANC MP Buti Manamela’s wife, Nomvuyo Mhlakaza, serve the interests of South Africans better than broadcast policy expert Kate Skinner?

“This unashamed manipulation of parliamentary processes is nothing but the ruling party’s hijacking of the SABC before the elections.”

The question was answered by the IFP representative on the Communications Portfolio Committee, Liezl van der Merwe.

Clearly angry, she pointed to Buti Kgwaredi Manamela, National Secretary of the Young Communist League and ANC MP and said: “Sadly, at the last minute, the ruling party seemingly bowed to pressure to advance specific candidates, and expertise took a back seat. How else does one explain the appointment of a senior manager in the office of the NYDA, Chairperson? What exceptional skills made her the best in the pool? Or was the fact that she is an ANC Youth League stalwart and is married to a senior ANC MP the overriding factor here? Only time will tell.”

Well, time has told, but how the ANC MP’s must have howled with mirth at the time. Did van der Merwe not understand how the system worked? Had she never read Michela Wrong’s book about how the same system works in Kenya?

No experience

You have to understand though, why the ANC considers Nomvuyo Mhlakaza fit for purpose even though she had no experience of broadcasting before she was appointed to the SABC board.

Was she not part of the ANC Youth League – which is home to the middle-aged Oros (see from 1 minute 19 seconds on this YouTube clip) – the very snouters who planned and executed the chaotic R100 million World Festival of Youth and Students?

When asked how this event and the expenditure of this almost incomprehensible amount of money had benefited South Africans, particularly the poor and marginalised, the ANCYL pointed out what they contended was obvious – the Festival provided the inspiration and impetus for the Arab Spring – which would not have happened otherwise…

The second guest that night on the Justice Factor was Vuma Mashinini, chairman of the IEC who lists on his CV the fact that he was formerly a special projects adviser to the Presidency.

At times he struggled to answer the central theme of Malala’s interview: will the election be free and fair?

In that context, I must acknowledge a sense of foreboding.

In 1994 we did not walk, we strutted like pouter pigeons as smiles cracked our faces but, back then, we had Madiba.

Things are different now.

Back then I was sent to the airport in Cape Town as an SABC television news reporter to cover the arrival of the newly-elected members of parliament. I approached the first two I recognised, Ronnie Kasrils and Marcel Golding. They were full of nervous but optimistic energy. So, too, was I. I was one of the 68% percent of the white population who supported F W de Klerk’s call to end apartheid during the referendum held two years earlier, the first group – to my knowledge – in humankind’s history that had relinquished political power while still retaining military control.

Less optimistic

Kasrils and Golding are, I think, less optimistic now.

For me the denouement came with a prescient article written for Daily Maverick three years ago by Nic Borain and I winced when I read this sentence: “Today it’s wall-to-wall pussy (nothing new there) and bowing and scraping and frigates and flybys and the cash is flooding in to a degree that he can start being choosy about where it comes from.”

I desperately need to return to the days when the leader of our country was someone I was proud of.

In his magisterial book, The Mbeki Legacy (Zebra Press 2008) Brian Pottinger divides the ANC into “Classic” and “Lite” the latter summing up, for me, the Zuma and Motsoeneng faction of the ANC.

For me, they don’t come “liter” than Hlaudi Motsoeneng but my sense of embarrassment as I watched the SABC media conference was tempered by empathy – for the people like Makhudu Sefara in whom the SABC COO evokes pain rather than mirth.

The ANC is at war with itself and Hlaudi Motsoeneng is the litmus test of which faction will emerge victorious. That much was obvious when Communications Minister Faith Muthambi ignored a Luthuli House summons to attend a meeting on the day that the SABC held its press conference. The next day Gwede Mantashe provided more evidence of this polarising, internecine strife at a Luthuli House media briefing, saying that: “If you defy the decision of [a Chapter 9] institution, you will learn hard”.

With an election only weeks away the ANC can ill afford the damage that the SABC in general and Hlaudi Motsoeneng in particular are doing to its reputation and standing.

We are, however, not powerless, we are not voiceless.

Which will ANC supporters eventually choose. Will it be ANC Classic and a return to the values of ethical probity or will it be Tammany Hall revisited?

  • Ed Herbst is a pensioner and former reporter who writes in his own capacity.