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OPINION: The toxicity of the Zuma presidency

Increasingly, journalists within the SABC are finding their voice and speaking out against what can only be described as managerial authoritarianism.

It's thus time for us to rid ourselves of the two Ms - Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi and SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

After agreeing to participate in Al Jazeera's The Stream on the issue of media freedom this week, Muthambi withdrew an hour before. In these parts we are used to ministers doing just that, or keeping journalists waiting for hours. Internationally, though, it doesn't play so well. Her spokesperson said something vague about being 'in the cinema'. Was Muthambi herself watching a movie and thus unavailable?

It's hard to tell with ministers in President Zuma's Cabinet these days. After the Al Jazeera 'hole in the head' interview by our International Relations minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, anything is possible. Like their boss, their levels of accountability are at best perfunctory, and at worst entirely absent.

In the manner of her boss, Muthambi has also found herself embroiled in a lengthy battle regarding the production of digital set-top boxes. She has brought an application for leave to appeal the recent Supreme Court of Appeal judgment in the matter. Yet another waste of public money.

But it was the image of former Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi trying to enter the SABC building this week which will most likely be fixed in time. Vavi, together with media activists, civil society groups and others, was due to meet Motsoeneng after the suspension of several SABC journalists and possibly unconstitutional decisions regarding editorial policy. The meeting was cancelled and the door of the SABC locked, with 'protection services' staff hovering at the entrance. Running an organisation by diktat takes a certain degree of cunning, but also cowardice. Motsoeneng has both. And so our public broadcaster has become a place not of openness as the Constitution demands, but rather a closed space where fear stalks the corridors.

This culture of fear of speaking out is part of many of South Africa's parastatals, public institutions and research organisations. It is not the sole preserve of the SABC. It starts with staff who are afraid to question why decisions are made, usually also when there are all-powerful CEOs who brook no criticism and micro-manage employees and outputs. It arises when research findings are massaged and the truth besmirched. Those who are either unwilling or unable to resign for whatever reason generally outnumber those who speak out. And so the cycle perpetuates itself.

The SABC post-1994 has for a very long time been an unhappy place for those wanting to practice their craft. Ask anyone who has been there long enough, or those who have left. Now the censorship is simply at its brazen best. Motsoeneng has the political cover from the president himself and so, for now, has nothing to fear. No wonder then he was able to deliver an incoherent rant claiming not to know what 'censorship' is. Speaking with what can only be described as a mad glint in his eye, Motsoeneng seemed quite proud of his ignorance, or perhaps feigned ignorance.

But then many public figures wear ignorance or a lack of education as a badge nowadays. President Zuma himself mocked 'clever blacks' and is a key part of the anti-intellectualism and culture of mediocrity that permeates national life. Zuma has also used every legal means possible to avoid facing fraud and corruption charges. Motsoeneng is using the same playbook.

In November last year, Judge Davis, ruling on an application by the Democratic Alliance, held that Motsoeneng's permanent appointment to the position of COO by Muthambi in defiance of negative findings against him by the Public Protector was irrational and should be set aside. In May, Davis rejected an application by the SABC and Muthambi for leave to appeal that ruling. That did not stop Motsoeneng from lodging an appeal with the SCA. And so more public money is wasted on someone whom the Public Protector has already deemed unfit for the position.

Thus the rule of law is consistently undermined. That is the milieu we are in. It is one in which the toxicity of the Zuma presidency seeps into every public institution and also a world where mediocrity reigns and a failure to account is the new normal. But every compromised individual has the praise singers. Motsoeneng's unilateral announcement of 80% local content has, of course, struck a chord with some who will benefit from such a policy. Many are also speculating that this deal saves the SABC from paying for content in foreign currency. This week some of those sycophants gathered too to sing praises to Motsoeneng and shout abuse at Jimmi Matthews. We have come to this.

Late Tuesday the ANC awoke and Jackson Mthembu called a press conference making a few rather pointed statements against Motsoeneng. He questioned the change in SABC editorial policy and also how it was that there was this lack of leadership at the SABC. He asked what the minister and the SABC board were going to do about it. It felt as if Mthembu had woken from a slumber. After all, the report of the Public Protector into Motsoeneng's qualifications is by now 'old hat'. One also wonders what Mthembu was doing to raise the matter in Parliament itself? But our Parliament has long since ceased to be proactive.

Will Muthambi and Motsoeneng heed Mthembu's call about editorial policy and appointments within the SABC, or will they simply continue stubbornly on their path, knowing that they are protected by one part of the ANC with Zuma at its helm? In this environment it is unsurprising that the SABC responded with characteristic recalcitrance.

Frankly, much of this government has become an embarrassing mess. Anything goes and there seems to be little thought at all among some ministers (there are still those bravely trying to hold the line by not insulting our intelligence, it must be said).

Take the recent comments by Nkoana-Mashabane on Brexit. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) had complained that the minister had been misquoted and subsequently released a verbatim transcript of her comments at a press conference. It can only be described as an incoherent and amateurish rambling.

So this is the reply that the minister and Dirco thought was good enough for us to engage with? Here it is (partly) in response to a question on her upcoming state visit to France in the context of Brexit: "We are members of the African Union so this can't be true. So Brexit, we don't know about it. We saw it on television. We hear that it would impact, when it started, negatively on our trade and investment relations with countries from that part but we haven't seen real evidence. Maybe it is still coming but one thing first we are not members there and we can only say viva democracy."

The ramble goes on when Nkoana-Mashabane addresses African Union issues. Again, it is a simplistic stream of consciousness. Predictably, the journalist in question has been pilloried. In fact, reading the entire Q&A, one cannot help but think the minister came off pretty lightly in the news reports.

One wonders about the thrust of this government and whether some of its ministers understand that when they speak, they do so on behalf of all of us? It's a pretty worrying thought that Zuma and Nkoana-Mashabane have spaces at the global top table.

In these dispiriting times we have to remind ourselves that South Africa is far more than embarrassing ministers and a failed matriculant heading up a powerful institution. We are also far more than a president facing fraud and corruption charges. But how do we stop the rot within the ANC, which mostly keeps the sycophants in, and the capable out?

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judithfebruary_

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