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Trust has been lost in the SABC, but we can­not give up on the idea of its role in a demo­cratic SA, writes

CityPress - - Voices -

For al­most 20 years I have been work­ing with the SABC ei­ther through di­rectly com­mis­sioned work or in later years as a co-pro­duc­tion part­ner. In this time, I have been both en­thused and de­pressed about the at­tempts to democra­tise the air­waves.

In 1997, hope still abounded and ac­tive steps were be­ing taken by the SABC to trans­form from a state to a pub­lic broad­caster. Vested in­ter­ests in­side the SABC ac­tively blocked many gen­uine at­tempts at change, more of­ten than not be­cause they saw their in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive power be­ing un­der­mined. This group was made up of largely white se­nior man­age­ment, but not ex­clu­sively so.

That said, when I be­gan my life in TV, pri­mar­ily as a free­lance cur­rent af­fairs jour­nal­ist, the SABC al­lowed me to take a crit­i­cal look at the SA Com­mu­nist Party, a Re­serve Bank whis­tle-blower, rape vic­tims and HIV-pre­ven­tion pol­icy, and the “shoot to kill” type polic­ing of the “Bush­men” in the North­ern Cape.

By the early 2000s, af­ter a con­sid­er­able bout of sim­i­lar TV jour­nal­ism at the newly es­tab­lished free-to-air broad­caster e.tv, I moved into long-form doc­u­men­tary work.

At this stage, there was only one com­mis­sion­ing ed­i­tor for doc­u­men­taries across all three SABC chan­nels, who had a to­tal of 14 half-hour slots avail­able for com­mis­sion­ing. But there was hope. In 2003, plans for a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of doc­u­men­tary slots was un­der way on SABC2, the only chan­nel with a clearly de­fined pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing man­date.

The at­tempt to re­alise the new adopted man­date was very patchy. Get­ting the na­tion in con­ver­sa­tion with it­self be­gan to take a back seat due to a con­flu­ence of fac­tors.

The new con­text of a mul­ti­chan­nel en­vi­ron­ment in South Africa led the SABC to re­spond typ­i­cally, like the mo­nop­oly it was, be­liev­ing it had to copy the sort of the pro­gram­ming of the com­mer­cial chan­nels that were tak­ing au­di­ences away. This proved cat­a­strophic, as they failed to re­alise that peo­ple ex­pected in­for­ma­tive and high-qual­ity prod­ucts from the pub­lic broad­caster. Qual­ity fac­tual pro­gram­ming was cut back and bud­gets were badly af­fected.

Co-pro­duc­tions, where the SABC was usu­ally only one of a few part­ners, still took place. It was usu­ally only through such projects that we saw qual­ity doc­u­men­taries on our screens and drama se­ries that at­tempted to push the en­ve­lope. Then two ma­jor things hap­pened that set the SABC into a steep down­ward spi­ral.

The first was the bat­tle over po­lit­i­cal con­trol of the SABC in 2007, lead­ing to crit­i­cal voices be­ing si­lenced. Later, the board got it­self in­volved in se­ri­ous in­fight­ing, which mir­rored the fac­tion­al­ism in­side the ANC ahead of the Polok­wane con­fer­ence.

The process saw its func­tion of over­sight be­ing crit­i­cally un­der­mined very shortly be­fore the eco­nomic storm in 2008 that saw a mas­sive de­cline in ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue.

The next thing, in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­ers were owed hun­dreds of mil­lions of rands.

The SABC’s fi­nanc­ing model was run­ning into trou­ble even be­fore the great re­ces­sion of 2008. The ANC’s Polok­wane con­fer­ence of 2007 passed a res­o­lu­tion to pro­vide the SABC with 60% of its fund­ing from the state – to os­ten­si­bly al­low it to meet its man­date un­fet­tered by au­di­ence fig­ures and ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue, which had be­gun to fall.

In hind­sight, maybe the res­o­lu­tion was sim­ply an at­tempt to bring the SABC more firmly un­der state con­trol so that it could as­sist gov­ern­ment in meet­ing its de­vel­op­men­tal ob­jec­tives. What­ever the ra­tio­nale, we were wit­ness­ing the un­der­min­ing of in­ter­nal at­tempts to run an in­de­pen­dent, im­par­tial news and cur­rents af­fairs ser­vice. In its place was a creep­ing re­turn to a state broad­caster where jour­nal­ists were slowly be­com­ing lit­tle more than spokes­peo­ple for gov­ern­ment and the gov­ern­ing party.

Since 2005, or­gan­ised chaos has reigned at the SABC, with eight CEOs com­ing and go­ing. State cap­ture has be­come a blind­ing re­al­ity. In at­tempt­ing to get my lat­est film, Min­ers Shot Down, screened on the SABC, I sub­mit­ted the film the mo­ment it was ready, in March 2014. I knew from what was go­ing on at the SABC that the film would only have a hope of be­ing screened if it won some crit­i­cal ac­claim. But award af­ter award failed to shift any­thing.

In­stead, the only com­mit­ment the SABC was pre­pared to make was that it would make a de­ci­sion af­ter the Far­lam re­port was re­leased. The wid­ows of min­ers killed in Marikana in 2012 turned up at the broad­caster’s doorstep ask­ing for them to show the film. The SABC spokesper­son de­nied any knowl­edge of the doc­u­men­tary.

Then the film re­ceived an In­ter­na­tional Emmy six months af­ter the re­port was re­leased, and the SABC stated that they had not turned the film down.

A meet­ing was called by the head of TV; in at­ten­dance were the head of SABC2 pro­gram­ming, the head of ed­u­ca­tion and the act­ing group ex­ec­u­tive for news and cur­rents af­fairs.

The dis­cus­sion was sur­real and it soon tran­spired that most of the big­wigs had not seen the film. SABC chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Hlaudi Mot­soe­neng’s re­turn from sus­pen­sion was on the cards and I de­cided to play it safe rather than be sorry. Con­se­quently, I gave the film to e.tv.

Fol­low­ing the news that e.tv was air­ing the film, I re­ceived an email from the SABC head of TV, which Mot­soe­neng was copied into, giv­ing scant rea­son for their re­fusal, other than that e.tv was screen­ing the film.

Trust has been lost in the SABC by those of us who can af­ford to opt out. But giv­ing up on the idea of the SABC be­com­ing a pil­lar of a more demo­cratic South Africa would be akin to dig­ging our own col­lec­tive grave.

De­sai is a Jo­han­nes­burg-based film maker who runs film and TV com­pany Uhuru Pro­duc­tions. He is a well-known in­dus­try ac­tivist in­volved with mem­ber­ship of the SOS: Sup­port Public Broad­cast­ing Coali­tion The fea­ture-length ver­sion of Min­ers Shot Down

screens on e.tv to­mor­row at 10pm

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