MPHO A NDABA: What does it mean to celebrate the SABC’s 85-year anniversary?

OPINION

On 2 August 2021, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) celebrated eighty-five-years in existence. This moment, in contemporary South Africa, requires some sort of reflection. And of course, the act of taking time off to reflect on the journey walked signals that there is an ideal destination, that there are dreams and aspirations aimed for. In this regard, therefore, as civil society, we too would like to take this moment to congratulate this organisation for its strides since the advent of democracy.

However, the challenge with institutions in South Africa, particularly when it comes to celebrating them, is their genealogy and origin. Hence, questions arise: what does it mean to celebrate the SABC’s 85-year anniversary when the organisation’s origin was predicated on black suffering? Where do we begin and what do we celebrate exactly? This can be deemed hard. However, it is this very hard truth that enables us to reflect in the first place.

In post-apartheid South Africa, apartheid violence is antithetic to what we must aspire to, meaning we are operating against anything aimed at undoing the little strives we have made. Therefore, the celebration then becomes centered on ensuring that the SABC does not become complicit in any act that is anti-democratic, anti-black, and anti-working class. Instead, this organisation must go on to serve the interests and needs of everyone who forms part of this society.

The Hlaudi Motsoeneng era was the pinnacle of the SABC crisis in the post-1994 period. It is true because the events of the time, which many of us know about, largely contributed to an eroded public trust in the SABC. In recent times, there have been indications that the tides are changing. In 2019, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) reported that the institution had fared well: “Our findings show that the SABC managed not only to report elections from across the length and breadth of the country, but they also largely succeeded in covering provinces broadly corresponding to population densities.”

The SABC has also gone on to become a credible site of health messaging, contributing towards the quest to curb the further spread of the novel coronavirus. It is these kinds of instances that signal just how much this organisation matters. Above all, however, is the political economy of the media within which the SABC exists, largely dominated by private corporate interests. For it is this that elucidates the value of the SABC, more so when we consider the fact that this organisation is positioned to advance public interest, ensure robust debates, and contribute towards nation building.

Therefore, we call on the civil society, the regulator, Parliament and everyone who forms part of South African society to take a moment and reflect on the importance of this organisation. It is ours, and as such, we might continue to fight for its survival.

In general, a number of state-owned entities have suffered long periods of maladministration, cronyism and lack of adherence to corporate governance principles. In the past number of years, what has been in the public discourse has been, among others, is how people entrusted with taking these organisations to greater heights have instead used their position to benefit themselves and those close to them. The SABC too has suffered from this.

We reiterate that as civil society, the simplest act of care, which we also must read as patriotism, is to commit ourselves to use available means - litigation, advocacy, policy work and dialogue - to push the public broadcaster to become what the country’s Constitution envisages.

We are proud of the work we have done, culminating in the ad hoc parliamentary inquiry into the SABC’s board’s capacity to discharge its duties. We are also proud of the turning tides. More so because we are fully aware and appreciative of the fact that if and when the SABC fails, it is poor, unemployed and working-class people, the majority of whom rely on this organisation to access news, entertainment, and educational content who will be most affected. We understand the importance the SABC plays in servicing the language needs of members of South African society, complex and rich as they are.

We also take note of the strides the current board is making following on the recommendations set out in the final report by the ad hoc committee, published in 2017. Hence, as the SABC takes this moment to account for how far it has come, it is also our belief that part of reflecting must involve asking this question: “how can we be better?” One of the ways in which we believe this question can be answered is by ensuring that the editorial policies are changed in such a way that the organisation has in place a public editor.

The sense and moment of reflection does not only apply to the SABC, nor does it only apply to us as civil society.

Parliament has an oversight body and the notion of fighting for the SABC can find expression in a number of ways: from a legislative point of view, considering that the SABC Bill is out for public comments, it is important that the funding model-related question be resolved once and for all.

Here we need the ANC-led government to ensure that its commitment to historical resolutions around the funding of the SABC are passed.

From the regulator point of view, it is sad that, for example, that there have not been consistent efforts to ensure that something as mundane as the publishing of compliance reports is done. These small acts, which are part of the mandate of the regulator, also contribute to helping everyone have a sense of what needs to be improved.

From the side of the SABC, the instituting of a public editor, for example, ensures that the organisation is not reactionary – meaning that it does not wait for civil society to institute advocacy and related legal proceedings. In addition, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released yet another report on the state of the global climate. We believe the SABC, from the Africa point of view and advancing information dissemination, should take the lead in this regard.

The celebration of the SABC would be incomplete without accounting for the most important stakeholder: members of the public.

In all this, there is an important question worth asking too: “what does our SABC look like?” From there, the efforts of civil society, driven by the country’s rich history of resistance, must be supported. And a central question remains: “what kinds of efforts are we willing to put in in order to ensure that this precious organisation begins to mirror or get closer to this ideal?”

Therefore, when all is said and done, it is important to understand that the 85th anniversary celebration is not a once-off event, nor a single moment of reflection, because ultimately, reflecting means doing work aimed at protecting the SABC on daily basis. Happy anniversary, the SABC.

Mpho A Ndaba is project coordinator at the SOS Coalition, a member-based public broadcasting network that campaigns for democratic media and broadcasting. Follow him on Twitter: @Manofcolor_

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