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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Daily Maverick by Ranjeni Munusamy.]

What gives Hlaudi Motsoeneng his wings? It is a question that must be asked in light of his astonishing bravado and ability to fend off public pressure, court rulings and political heat. Motsoeneng and the SABC board vowed to defy the ruling of broadcasting regulator Icasa and also thumbed their noses at the ANC. Other than to caution the SABC not to act like “a bull in a Chinese shop”, it seems the ANC is unable to rein in the swashbuckling Motsoeneng and his support cast. That is because Motsoeneng is part of an elite gang of “untouchables” who survive through their curious relationships with Number One.

President Jacob Zuma said a few years ago that he sometimes felt like fleeing South Africa. Speaking to a group of journalism students in September 2013, Zuma said this was because the South African media reported so negatively about the country. “When I go out, people envy South Africans, they wish they were South Africans because they say we are doing so well, we are succeeding … they love it. But when I am in South Africa, every morning you feel like you must leave this country because the reporting concentrates on the opposite of the positive,” Zuma said.

The president has raised the matter a number of times, saying journalists need to be more positive and “patriotic” in their reporting. He said he discovered the idea of “patriotic reporting” when he visited Mexico. He was apparently told that in order to help Mexico succeed, the media did not wash the country’s “dirty linen” in public. He was seemingly not told about the intimidation journalists in Mexico face from criminal syndicates and that they refrain from reporting on crime because of the sheer desire to remain alive, not out of patriotic duty.

Zuma told the journalism students that the South African media claimed to act as the society’s watchdog, but “they were never elected”. “If we say we are reconstructing South Africa, what kind of image do we want to create, and who determines it and for what reasons?” he asked. The media is the main agent to change the thinking and shape the approach, Zuma said, but he was not sure what contribution the media was making to create this image of South Africa as a wonderful country. He said while reporting should help society be informed, it should also be in a “decent” fashion.

When you read this, the thread of Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s thinking becomes apparent.

The flamboyant SABC chief operating officer might be on his own power trip but the ideas about the role the media should be playing in society are not his own. Well, perhaps some of his more outrageous declarations, such as floating the notion that journalists should be licenced and wanting to make SABC reporters wear uniforms, were his own bizarre thoughts. But his imposition of a 70% quota of positive news on SABC bulletins and using the public broadcaster as a tool to shape public opinion did not develop out of his own thought process.

When Zuma spoke to the journalism students he was also critical of the use of headlines and graphic pictures to sell newspapers. “You must have attractive headlines, not for the interest of the reader, but to attract the reader to buy,” he said.

The SABC’s decision to not show visuals of acts of violence during protests appeared to be a rather strange call for a public broadcaster. In a statement released at the end of May, the SABC said the destruction of property in protests were regrettable and “continuing to promote them might encourage other communities to do the same”. The SABC did not say whether the decision was informed by any research showing evidence that media reporting of violent protests resulted in copycat behaviour elsewhere.

However the statement did quote Motsoeneng saying the following: “It is regrettable that these actions are disrupting many lives and as a responsible public institution we will not assist these individuals to push their agenda that seeks media attention. As a public service broadcaster we have a mandate to educate the citizens, and therefore we have taken this bold decision to show that violent protests are not necessary.”

This is in line with Zuma’s views about the media being able to changing thinking and shaping public opinion to favour the government agenda. The SABC’s new editorial policy might not have been an instruction from the president but Motsoeneng’s decision certainly does seem to be an interpretation of Zuma’s views.

This is perhaps why he remains so convinced that he is doing the right thing and could explain his defiance in the face of mass opposition to this decision.

The SABC said on Monday that they would challenge the ruling by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) against their policy to ban footage of violence.

“I don’t know why people want to dictate for the SABC but we as SABC we are clear on what we are doing and we still believe that we are within the Broadcasting Act. We are within the regulations,” Motsoeneng said, adding: “We are not going to change anything.”

The SABC chairperson Professor Mbulaheni Maguvhe said they believed their policy was correct and therefore they would not comply with the Icasa ruling.

This wilful defiance of a Chapter Nine institution caught many people, including the ANC, by surprise. Speaking at a media briefing on Tuesday, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe warned the SABC management that such defiance would have serious consequences. “If you defy the decision of [a Chapter 9] institution, you will learn hard,” Mantashe said. He did not mention the last person who learnt the hard way not to defy a Chapter Nine institution but a Constitutional Court judgment declaring that the President of South Africa violated the Constitution is now written into history.

“Our view is that we are hoping the people in the SABC will realise that to defy everybody in society doesn’t make them a better public broadcaster,” Mantashe said, adding that they should not behave “like a bull in a Chinese [sic] shop”.

But Motsoeneng is bullet proof, able to deflect whatever criticism is fired at him.

He shrugged off last week’s bombardment from Jackson Mthembu, the ANC chief whip and communications subcommittee chairperson, who condemned the lack of qualified managers and expertise at the SABC. “You need to ensure that we have people who know how to run an institution as big as the SABC. You can’t bring any Tom, Dick or Harry to run the SABC,” Mthembu said.

This was not the first time Mthembu launched a scathing attack on Motsoeneng. After last year’s ANC national general council (NGC), Mthembu said the SABC could not be led by people who are “nincompoops”. Mthembu said in October that the ANC needed to find out what was the source of instability at the SABC. “We need to get that from the shareholder (government). Who are the people who are there? We also need to ask ourselves who the hell did we put in there?”

It would seem that the ANC is still struggling to get those answers.

In Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, Motsoeneng has a veritable human shield. She has ensured that Motsoeneng was permanently appointed as COO, disregarding the court judgments and criticism from her own party. On Monday she did not bother to show up at the ANC national working committee meeting despite it being made clear that they wished to discuss the SABC matter with her.

Although Mantashe refused to see her absence as defiance, this is not the first time Muthambi has snubbed the ANC on matters relating to the SABC. She was even bold enough to question the NGC resolutions on her portfolio and has continued to pursue an agenda in conflict with the ANC decisions. Muthambi, like Motsoeneng, enjoys special protection, appearing confident that her defiant behaviour will not have negative consequences for her career.

But who can offer such special protection? An elite group of people seem to enjoy special immunity and all of them appear to have direct lines to the president. They include former Crime Intelligence head Richard Mdluli, who still lives off the state through his protracted suspension, South African Airways board chairperson Dudu Myeni, who continues to cause turmoil at the national airline, and South African Revenue Service commissioner Tom Moyane, who remains in his job despite his immediate boss Pravin Gordhan wanting him gone months ago.

When it comes to invincibility however, the Gupta family is in a league of their own. The ANC recently tried and failed to tackle their grip on the state and they continue to use their relationship with the president to control the levers of power. Motsoeneng is now attempting to scale new heights on invincibility by snubbing the Public Protector, the courts, Icasa and the ANC. The ANC has deferred the SABC matter to Parliament, but given how the ANC caucus has previously pandered to the president, it is unlikely that they will succeed in holding his chief propagandist to account.

Perhaps a horridly crass painting by controversial artist Ayanda Mabulu might be the only way to depict this curious relationship between the president and his elite league of untouchables. His hand is never directly visible in what they do, but their invincibility is testament to the special political protection they enjoy.

Hlaudi Motsoeneng will therefore remain indomitable and his grip on the public broadcaster will be impossible to break until his usefulness to Number One expires.

South Africa at a Glance
57 700 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.5% y/y in December 2018 (CPI) & +5.2 y/y in December 2018 (PPI)
2.2% q/q (3rd quarter of 2018)
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