From devil’s box to di­ver­sity: 30 years of SABC television

As the broad­caster marks an­other mile­stone, Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mza­mane warns that this ‘supreme ed­u­ca­tor and in­former’ needs to be bet­ter in­formed it­self in or­der to meet its man­date

Sunday Times - - Insight & Opinion - im­bongi, Mza­mane is a nov­el­ist and short-story writer

BE­FORE its in­tro­duc­tion into this coun­try, television was re­garded as the devil’s own box, for dis­sem­i­nat­ing com­mu­nism and im­moral­ity — even if, their trea­son­able hor­mones run­ning riot, dom­i­nees of the Dutch Re­formed Church (known in my time as the Na­tional Party at prayer) broke the Im­moral­ity Act with glee­ful im­punity and with­out as­sis­tance from television.

We have tra­versed some dis­tance since those dark days when we ex­pe­ri­enced sun­set at mid­day, and we have forded many streams on the road to democ­racy. I want to in­vite you to come with me down me­mory lane to look at some mile­stones on our long walk to free­dom of ex­pres­sion, lest in our eu­pho­ria we for­get and be­come struck by some col­lec­tive am­ne­sia.

The SABC be­came the ide­o­log­i­cal repos­i­tory of and chief apol­o­gist for apartheid, of­fer­ing a broad­cast­ing pol­icy char­ac­terised by an un­abashedly pro-gov­ern­ment stance, and pro­gram­ming for the white mi­nor­ity. It was dom­i­nated by its con­troller for 20 years and chief or cheer­leader, Piet Meyer, who re­mained a full-blown Nazi un­til his death. Dur­ing the 1930s, many bright young Afrikan­ers went to Europe to study. There, they were in­spired by fas­cism, which was gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity in Spain, Italy, Por­tu­gal and, no­tably, Ger­many. Afrikaner in­tel­lec­tu­als be­gan to use the word apartheid dur­ing this pe­riod.

Television was in­tro­duced to the coun­try on Jan­uary 5 1976, af­ter a pro­tracted, some­times painful, and of­ten comic de­bate. Television had long been op­posed by the Min­is­ter of Posts and Tele­graphs, Dr Al­bert Hert­zog, on the grounds that, among other things, it showed blacks and whites liv­ing to­gether. Plans for television went through only when John Vorster, prime min­is­ter from 1966 to 1978, dropped Hert­zog from the Cabi­net in 1968.

But if television was late in com­ing to South Africa, there was noth­ing tardy about the way the state set about se­cur­ing con­trol of the new medium. Meyer, who was to re­main head of the broad­caster un­til 1980, be­came chair­man of the Broeder­bond, set up to ad­vance the in­ter­ests of Afrikan­er­dom, in 1960.

Meyer had firm ideas about the role the SABC should play in the life of the na­tion, as he was to ex­plain to the gen­eral coun­cil of the Broeder­bond in 1977: “We must har­ness all our com­mu­ni­ca­tion me­dia in a pos­i­tive way in or­der to gather up Afrikaner na­tional po­lit­i­cal en­ergy in the strug­gle for sur­vival in the fu­ture . . .”

The first ca­su­alty un­der Meyer’s reign was SABC Di­rec­tor-Gen­eral Gideon Roos. De­spite be­ing a pi­o­neer of Afrikaans broad­cast­ing and a fer­vent sup­porter of the NP, Roos was an ob­sta­cle to Meyer’s de­signs be­cause he saw the broad­caster’s role as a re­porter, not as a pro­pa­gan­dist. Roos’s pow­ers were whit­tled away and he fi­nally re­signed in 1961 when Meyer, who had stacked the board with Broed­ers, an­nounced the SABC would have its own edi­to­rial pol­icy.

In 1978, P W Botha was elected prime min­is­ter af­ter oust­ing his ri­vals in the wake of the Info Scan­dal. This was a scan­dal which turned on the state’s ma­nip­u­la­tion of the me­dia — or, more pre­cisely, the state’s ex­tra-par­lia­men­tary use of pub­lic money to ac­quire its own voice in the English lan­guage press. The Cit­i­zen news­pa­per is a legacy of those trou­bled times. But for all that, the Botha regime, like its suc­ces­sor un­der FW de Klerk, had no qualms about con­tin­u­ing the state’s ma­nip­u­la­tion of the SABC.

Bri­tish broad­caster and au­thor David Har­ri­son, re­flect­ing on the pe­riod, points out that un­der the broad­cast­ing Broed­ers: “No min­is­ter can of­fi­ci­ate at the open­ing of a dam or power sta­tion with­out the at­ten­tive pres­ence of an SABC cam­era.”

TV images of the prime min­is­ter and Cabi­net min­is­ters visit­ing home­land states and be­ing re­ceived by “grin­ning acolytes and singing chil­dren” pre­dom­i­nated. Safe for­eign guests were in­ter­viewed at length on TV while even the mildest crit­ics of the regime, such as He­len Suz­man, could ex­pect only tightly edited snip­pets — al­low­ing the SABC to main­tain a fa­cade of ob­jec­tiv­ity.

Take note that those who refuse to learn from his­tory are doomed to re­peat the mis­takes of the past. And South Africans are most adept at that.

I have had the good for­tune to be as­so­ci­ated with the na­tional broad­caster in its trans­for­ma­tive years. Dur­ing my ten­ure at the SABC as a board mem­ber, the cor­po­ra­tion, un­der Zwe­lakhe Sisulu, em­barked on sev­eral pol­icy op­tions — no­tably to right-size the cor­po­ra­tion but in re­al­ity to rid it of dead­wood and to align per­son­nel with the coun­try’s de­mo­graphic fea­tures in gen­der, race and (dis)abil­ity terms.

Nei­ther process ever sat­is­fies ev­ery­one. The pol­icy to bring in un­der-rep­re­sented groups was de­cried as racism in re­verse. I was priv­i­leged to sit on a com­mis­sion that in­ves­ti­gated com­plaints of heavy hand­ed­ness and in­com­pe­tence lev­elled against the new black po­lit­i­cal “com­mis­sars”.

Three sig­nif­i­cant fac­tors, which no one dared com­ment upon openly, emerged from the com­mis­sion and gave me con­sid­er­able in­sights into the work­ings of the cor­po­ra­tion. First, there was fierce con­tes­ta­tion and re­luc­tance from pre­vi­ously priv­i­leged group­ings to re­lin­quish con­trol of the news­room (where real power re­sides), and th­ese group­ings were wont to use free­doms guar­an­teed all South Africans by the Con­sti­tu­tion cyn­i­cally to un­der­mine the as­pi­ra­tions of the un­der-rep­re­sented ma­jor­ity.

Sec­ond, there was con­tempt in some white quar­ters inside and out­side the cor­po­ra­tion for black lead­er­ship, con­tempt mas­querad­ing out­ra­geously as “con­cern over fall­ing stan­dards” — with­out any­one ex­plain­ing whose stan­dards were be­ing com­pro­mised.

Third, as the SABC emerged as the voice of the voice­less (and some­times and in­evitably of the gov­ern­ment that speaks for the voice­less) the com­mer­cial press (largely white) be­came quite nat­u­rally the last bas­tion and de­fender of white hege­mony.

The pub­lic broad­caster has, in­deed, come a long way since the days of Piet Meyer.

The ma­jor achieve­ments have been in terms of re­vers­ing the legacy of apartheid — that is the only “re­verse” I see — and im­plant­ing the new ethos that pro­motes democ­racy, non-racism, non-sex­ism, and non-dis­crim­i­na­tion.

One of the most im­por­tant chal­lenges that con­fronts the na­tional broad­caster is pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment— and I do not mean week-long cour­ses that only serve to en­trench half-lit­er­acy and in­com­pe­tence.

I have been at pains to en­gage SABC CEO Dali Mpofu and his pre­de­ces­sors, Zwe­lakhe Sisulu and Peter Mat­lare, to re­lease staff for post-grad­u­ate pro­grammes in broad­cast jour­nal­ism, in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy etc. We can­not be con­tent to re­place il­lit­er­acy with half-lit­er­acy. I have still to read a sin­gle hon­ours, masters or doc­toral the­sis writ­ten by an SABC em­ployee on staff de­vel­op­ment.

The SABC is the supreme ed­u­ca­tor and in­former. But you can­not in­form if you are your­self ill-in­formed, in the same way that you can’t ed­u­cate if you are your­self scared of be­ing ed­u­cated.

Hav­ing suc­cess­fully dis­lodged apartheid ap­pa­ratchiks from the SABC, the new demo­cratic or­der wants to be care­ful not to re­place them with its own ap­pa­ratchiks. I need say no more on the mat­ter that is the prin­ci­pal re­spon­si­bil­ity of the SABC board as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the en­tire rain­bow spec­trum of the new South Africa.

I have few il­lu­sions about this: the bat­tle for the heart and soul and mind of South Africa con­tin­ues, and it will be lost or won in the news­rooms and stu­dios of the SABC.

If there are con­tra­dic­tions in some of my for­mu­la­tions, it is the duty of the SABC board and man­age­ment to rec­on­cile them so that 30 years from now we can cel­e­brate our win-win sit­u­a­tion in our liv­ing rooms, pubs and she­beens. In the fi­nal anal­y­sis, as Aimé Cé­saire points out, “There is no mo­nop­oly to truth and beauty; and there is room for us all at the ren­dezvous of vic­tory.”

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