EVENTS at the SABC have long ago surpassed outrageous — they are now positively absurd.
The resignation of Jimi Matthews as acting CEO and a public revolt by journalists and producers is yet another episode in a long-running drama.
The trigger this time was edicts by Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the all-powerful chief operating officer and self-appointed editor-in-chief.
He has ruled that all news should be 70% positive, that no negative coverage of the president is allowed; and that no violent demonstrations against the government be televised.
Despite all of this and with the public protector (backed by a court) having determined his appointment to be irrational, Motsoeneng reigns supreme at Auckland Park.
But the drama is nothing to laugh at.
Rather, it offers a stark reminder of how an individual can run amok when those who should hold him in check fail to do so.
The SABC is a public broadcaster — so says the Constitution and the Broadcasting Act.
Its role is to contribute to democracy and development, to enrich and safeguard the cultural, political, and social fabric of SA and to ensure a plurality of news, views and entertainment. Instead, what we now have is a state broadcaster, which operates in direct contradiction of these values and goals.
It is scarcely believable that the broadcaster is now controlled by Motsoeneng through a manipulation by the minister of communications that is very likely to be found illegal.
The institution is straining under his weight. The resignation of the acting CEO, the public fight-back by journalists, and complaints mounting against him from opposition parties and civil society organisations, are signs that challenges are mounting.Demo
But what will get rid of Motsoeneng?
Both the broadcaster and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi are impervious to public pressure, so the courts are probably the best bet, if not for stopping Motsoeneng, at least to rein him in.
Two court applications by the SOS Coalition, a group of civil society organisations, including unions, aim to reassert the true role of the public broadcaster.
Key to the integrity of a public broadcaster is independence from the executive. Muthambi has not just blurred that line, but has ruled out the existence of the principle entirely: in a sleight of hand, she changed the SABC memorandum of incorporation, and made herself responsible for the appointment of the top three executives, as well as the removal of board members. The coalition is taking these matters to court, as contraventions of the Broadcasting Act and the Constitution.
Should the coalition succeed then there’ll hopefully be some respite from what is now known as Hlaudism.
But Motsoeneng is not likely to be shown the door.
The DA has gone to great lengths to get him removed. But neither a finding by the public protector that his appointment was irrational, nor the reinforcement of that finding by a court has been enough to unseat him. Muthambi and the SABC are appealing that judgment, and have made clear he’s going nowhere.
While the SABC looks a basket case, its troubles are not that different from other state-owned companies and institutions, also in the grip of politically appointed, compromised, and power-hungry people. Motsoeneng’s antics are just easier to see.
Like their political protectors in the government and ANC, these people believe they are unstoppable and untouchable. But nothing lasts forever — the question is just how much damage will they wreak before they are eventually removed?