SABC sit­u­a­tion evokes par­al­lels with Zim­babwe

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

BIZARRE as it may seem, Zim­babwe’s rul­ing Zanu-PF and Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe re­main ob­jects of ven­er­a­tion for South Africa’s black na­tion­al­ists.

The ANC reg­u­larly ex­changes fra­ter­nal salu­ta­tions with its coun­ter­part “van­guard lib­er­a­tion move­ment” across the Lim­popo. The EFF, that neo-fas­cist off­shoot of the ANC, much ad­mires the dis­pos­ses­sion of white farm­ers and is keen to ap­ply the same for­mula here. Nei­ther seems par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about the fact that ZanuPF’s dis­as­trous poli­cies have laid waste to what was once a di­ver­si­fied, vi­brant econ­omy. Zim­bab­wean GDP is now con­sid­er­ably less than half of what it was at in­de­pen­dence in 1980, while in neigh­bour­ing Zam­bia – it­self hardly a poster child of sound eco­nomic man­age­ment and good gov­er­nance – GDP tre­bled over the same pe­riod.

In re­ac­tion to curbs on im­ports from SA through Beit­bridge – the food and con­sumer goods pipe­line that keeps the Zim con­sumer’s nose just a whisker above obliv­ion – an­gry small traders torched a gov­ern­ment ware­house on the bor­der, the un­rest spread­ing else­where in that coun­try.

Then, in re­ac­tion to the Zim­bab­wean trea­sury yet again de­lay­ing salaries for pub­lic ser­vants, who ac­count for 83 per­cent of gov­ern­ment ex­pen­di­ture, there was a na­tional stay­away an­nounced for Wed­nes­day. The stay­away, says the Zim­babwe broad­caster, has been a com­plete fail­ure, although pic­tures of shut­tered shops tell a dif­fer­ent story.

But in an econ­omy in such dire straits, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter, says Zim­bab­wean economist John Robertson: “There isn’t much work be­ing done in the fac­to­ries any­way, so this will not make much of a dif­fer­ence.”

SA is a long way from trans­mo­gri­fy­ing into the Zim zom­bie. But the re­sponse of SA state and ANC struc­tures to de­te­ri­o­rat­ing cir­cum­stances and in­creas­ing un­rest is not dis­sim­i­lar, es­pe­cially when it comes to try­ing to ex­er­cise so­cial con­trol. The Zim­babwe Broad­cast­ing Corporation epit­o­mises the type of state en­tity that SABC chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Hlaudi Mot­soe­neng has wet dreams about. Its pub­lic char­ter has been ruth­lessly de­based, so that it op­er­ates unashamedly as the pro­pa­ganda arm of Zanu-PF.

Like their Zim­bab­wean coun­ter­parts, SABC TV jour­nal­ists are no longer al­lowed to show footage of pub­lic vi­o­lence. Like his Zim­bab­wean coun­ter­part, Mot­soe­neng is com­mit­ted to the SABC hav­ing “pos­i­tive sto­ries”, which chimes per­fectly with the ANC s elec­toral motto of hav­ing “a good story to tell”.

The prob­lem for both broad­cast­ers is the truth is es­sen­tial to a thriv­ing democ­racy over the long run. Reality is not changed by pro­pa­ganda, it is merely cam­ou­flaged. With­out fac­ing some­times un­pleas­ant truths, na­tions can­not ad­just and adapt.

So the more a broad­caster dis­torts reality, the more par­lous the sit­u­a­tion be­comes. Which, in turn, ac­cel­er­ates po­lit­i­cal de­mands for more “good” and fewer “neg­a­tive” sto­ries.

That is why Zim­babwe has reached the point that mere neg­a­tiv­ity is ap­par­ently a crime that can land you in jail. This week its Postal and Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Reg­u­la­tory Au­thor­ity said on na­tional tele­vi­sion that any­one in pos­ses­sion of so­cial me­dia or SMS mes­sages that in­cite vi­o­lence or “that may be deemed to cause de­spon­dency… will be ar­rested”.

The au­thor­ity also said so­cial me­dia and cell­phones were be­ing used to dis­trib­ute “abu­sive and sub­ver­sive ma­te­ri­als” and warned that those re­spon­si­ble would be pros­e­cuted, af­ter us­ing their SIM card reg­is­tra­tions to track them down.

Th­ese are sin­is­ter shades of Ge­orge Or­well’s dystopian 1984. How­ever, they are moves sug­gest­ing des­per­a­tion and in a modern, elec­tron­i­cally seam­less world, are more to be scorned than feared.

Even in Zim­babwe, which has spent al­most many decades per­fect­ing the me­chan­ics of despo­tism, start­ing with the Ian Smith years pre-in­de­pen­dence, the state pro­pa­ganda broad­caster has di­min­ish­ing in­flu­ence. It is not be­lieved and many peo­ple find the truth else­where.

Mot­soe­neng’s SABC will meet the same fate, but it’s hap­pen­ing faster, partly be­cause there are other cred­i­ble free-to-air broad­cast­ers. And while there is lit­tle cost to the in­ter­net be­ing switched off in a Stone Age econ­omy like Zim­babwe, as has hap­pened in­ter­mit­tently this week, in a highly- so­phis­ti­cated econ­omy like SA it would cause sub­stan­tial eco­nomic and rep­u­ta­tional dam­age.

Most im­por­tantly, SA also dif­fers from Zim­babwe in that there is still a healthy tra­di­tion of re­sis­tance. The pop­u­lace here re­mains un­cowed.

SABC jour­nal­ists have protested and re­signed. Some ANC lead­ers and the SACP have bro­ken ranks with the Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zu­maMot­soe­neng axis to lam­baste Mot­soe­neng’s lead­er­ship.


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