SABC Watch

Deep political divisions are destroying the SABC

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Deep political divisions among the political elite of the day, as represented by the governing ANC alliance, are at the heart of the destruction of the SABC that is presently taking place.

There is a historical example from the days when the erstwhile National Party (NP) was ruling South Africa of how the process can be expected to play out in the end, and it is not good news for either the South African Broadcasting Corporation or the ANC.

One, almost unnoticed, sign in the unfolding SABC real-life drama of the divisions inside the ranks of the present holders of power in the country, is the fact that the South African Communist Party (SACP) has come out on the side of those rebelling against the perceived reign of terror at the SABC.

Last week the SACP announced it is planning protests at the SABC this week to demand that the public broadcaster reverse its “apartheid and draconian-styled censorship of protests”.

However, in the prevailing denialist mode the present power-bearers find themselves, the central figure in the SABC drama, its chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, chooses to put the blame for the corporation’s problems on the media, which is “hellbent on ‘setting an agenda’ to destabilise the public broadcaster”.

Historical example

Although on a smaller scale and less in the public eye, but equally intense, a similar battle raged in 1980/1 in one of the country’s then bigger media houses, Perskor, and specifically at one of its daily newspapers, Die Transvaler.

It was in the days of the battle in the NP establishment between the ‘verligtes’ (enlightened camp), who were campaigning for political reform, and the ‘verkramptes’ (narrow-minded), who were dead set against any relaxation of apartheid measures.

The de facto leader of the ‘verkramptes’ was the leader of the NP in the then province of Transvaal, Dr Andries Treurnicht, who later led a breakaway from the NP to establish the Conservative Party.

One of the intellectual leaders of the ‘verligtes’, and in fact the man who coined the terms ‘verlig’ and ‘verkramp’, was Dr Willem de Klerk. He was editor of Die Transvaler and designated to become managing director of Perskor.

A bitter battle developed between then MD of Perskor, Marius Jooste and De Klerk, who was also the elder brother of F.W. de Klerk, who was to become the leader of the NP, and the State President, taking the country into constitutional negotiations.

As political editor and member of the editorial board at the time, this writer experienced the battle at close quarters.

At the heart of the Jooste/De Klerk battle was Jooste’s insistence that De Klerk and his newspaper should support Treurnicht and his band of conservatives. Jooste was convinced that the conservatives would ultimately gain control of the then governing party.

One if his main concerns was that the ‘verligte’ stance of De Klerk and his paper could endanger some of the lucrative government contracts Perskor had at the time. These included the printing of telephone directories and text books for schools.

Jooste was also well known for his generous gifts to top political leaders. Yes, indeed, the phenomenon of networks of patronage, and all that goes with it, is nothing new.

With cabinet ministers, like the late Dr Connie Mulder serving on the board of Perskor, Jooste got the company involved in the then so-called information scandal with the establishment of The Citizen as a project of the then Department of Information.

Final outcome

In early 1981 the ‘verlig/verkramp’ battle reached a breaking point when Dr Treurnicht led a group of NP members of parliament out of the party’s caucus.

They went on to establish the Conservative Party and in the ongoing battle at Perskor Jooste fired Willem de Klerk. The next day I resigned in protest.

But around the same time, under Jooste’s management, Perskor also got itself involved in a scandal over manipulation of its circulation figures and the company’s final demise followed in its wake.

Today the company is but a memory and the in the longer run the ‘verligtes’ won the ‘war’.

Ironically, when Perskor fell apart and many of its journalist found themselves unemployed, the SABC’s newsroom absorbed a good number of them.

Motsoeneng and the past

With the present controversy surrounding the SABC’s chief operating officer, Mr Motsoeneng as an alleged frontman of the ANC and more specifically of President Jacob Zuma, one should, for the sake of balance, note that this is also not the first time it has happened.

Neither is it the first time that such an appointment has led to clashes with employees of the corporation.

When the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pik Botha, in the early 1980s became the member of cabinet responsible for the SABC, he appointed Riaan Eksteen, a senior diplomat and trusted confidant of his, in 1984 as director-general and member of the board of the SABC.

I can personally testify to the fact that during his four-year-term in this position that there were often bitter clashes between him and career broadcasters. When he suddenly left the corporation, surrounded by controversy, it was with what the then vice-chairman of the SABC board, Prof. Sampie Terreblanche, described as a golden handshake.

At the time Terreblanche described the situation as “a small information scandal”.

The controversy was “part and parcel of a pattern whereby the South African public is being kept in the dark about the real nature and causes of the crisis where information is being withheld or banned,” he said.

Conclusion

The government, the ANC, Mr Motsoeneng and the SABC will be well advised to study what happened at Perskor and the SABC in the early 1980s and mend their ways before it catches up with them – as it surely will.

by Piet Coetzer

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