That small matter of freedom of speech

On Monday, in one of those events that happens so often in our beloved Republic that it hardly warrants a headline, the Chief Executive of the SABC resigned. Lulama Mokhobo, we are told, is leaving on amicable terms with the board. This leaves the SABC in a difficult position, just ahead of elections, as all of its top leadership are now in acting positions. At the same time, a smallish incident at Unisa has demonstrated once again that many, many people in our country are still not able to fulfill that most basic of rights in our Constitution - the right to express themselves.

The SABC is a big organisation. So big that its CEO is actually called 'Group CEO'. There've been so many of them recently, that the recruiter will probably just cut and paste the job advert from the last time and drop it neatly into the in-box of The New Age job section. But in our media market, size matters. In my view, if you really want to win an election, you need to control the radio stations. And not the ones that broadcast in English in urban areas, the other ones. Those SABC stations with listenership above the 5m mark - that broadcast in Zulu and Xhosa and Venda and Sotho.

If you can make sure that those pesky stories about Nkandla do not receive too much prominence, while the comedy that is the DA and Agang show does, you win.

Which means the SABC matters, big time, which is why we follow it so closely. So when Mokhobo decides to resign, we have to ask why? And more importantly, who takes over the show? As far as the resignation goes, no one is saying. But there is context here. There is currently a Public Protector investigation working its way through the motions (we all know them well by now: you investigate, write a report, the Security Cluster which is controlled by the ANC goes to court to stop you publishing, then Gwede Mantashe claims you're delaying it, then when that doesn't work, a former national police commissioner runs a delaying action). According to the City Press, a provisional report has made findings against Mokhobo. So maybe she just decided to go, before she was thrown out? We don't know.

But we do know one of the key players here is still Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Technically, he is the Acting Chief Operating Officer of the SABC. But to himself, he is, as legend has it, the "engine-room" of the corporation. And we know he likes to intervene. Just before the ANC's Mangaung Conference, he stopped a Metro FM debate on the party because there was "no involvement from the ANC itself". (As an aside, this led to one of the best Mantashe quotes of all time: When called by the Business Day for a comment, he said, "I have no comment; it was their dumb decision... and you can write that." And when Motsoeneng was questioned about the issue, he called a press conference to proudly proclaim that he was the one who actually pulled the plug.)

We are not dealing with someone who thinks censorship is shameful here. And he is exactly the type of media executive who's getting the upper hand.

The same seems to be true at Unisa. On Monday, the Economic Freedom Fighters member, Dali Mpofu, went to address an event there. And before we forget, Mpofu is one of those former SABC Group CEOs that dot the country. When he arrived, he was told by university management that he could not speak in public in his EFF T-shirt.

Let's think about this for a minute. He can speak. But not in his T-shirt. That surely amounts to censorship. If we have the right to freedom of expression, what you wear is surely part of that. It can be limited to an extent to public decency, etc. (although if you were to claim being nude is about expression, it would be a fun debate... and certainly one Pierre de Vos should address at some point) but certainly not to whether someone can wear a political T-shirt on a university campus.

At one point it seems he was told he could wear a yellow shirt. He pointed out that the last time he'd seen a yellow shirt was when Julius Malema's delegation to Nkandla to build a house was attacked by people wearing the same item. Eventually he wore his suit, and managed to get his red beret safely on his head.

Clearly, Unisa has a Hlaudi Motsoeneng all of its own. The university will no doubt claim, as it did when this happened before, that it was merely trying to keep the peace. That if it did not limit Mpofu in this way, there would have been violence.

This violence would have come from members of Nehawu, who strongly back the ANC and don't like Malema. But, as we said last year, that's no excuse. It's a university campus. If freedom of speech is not protected there, where will it be protected? Certainly not at the state/government/ANC broadcaster.

We must be explicit here. It would be impossible to claim that Luthuli House is responsible for this, that somehow it's pulling strings here there and everywhere all at the same time. But there is such a thing as a rising political temperature. It's what happens when you use deployment, when you as a political party make appointments to organisations that are not supposed to be political. So when you interfere with appointments at the SABC, you are going to get bosses who are not tolerant of other views, and that will filter down. When you tell your supporters to make sure that Malema does not do well, some of them, being Nehawu members at Unisa, are going to make that campus ungovernable ahead of his arrival.

Not that the ANC is the only organisation doing it. The real heartland of intolerance in this country is probably still rural KwaZulu-Natal, and there it's really the IFP, rather than the ANC, that is responsible. Instead of arguing over T-shirts and berets, there is real violence, people get hurt, and sometimes die.

It is to be expected that during an election, people get less tolerant of those with other views. There is plenty at stake, and in a country as poor as ours, that can lead to real conflict. What we need is for our institutions to lead by example, to show the rest of us how it should be done, how we should show tolerance. The SABC and Unisa look like they're about to fail us, again.

Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on twitter: @StephenGrootes

This column appeared on Daily Maverick.