THE flip-flopping by the ANC that went from defending SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng last week, to giving him a tongue lashing on Tuesday, forms part of a simmering war between the party and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, who — like Motsoeneng — enjoys President Jacob Zuma’s protection.
This battle, which has been going on for more than a year, is further evidence that the ANC is no longer the political driving force behind the government. Power is firmly vested in the president and his acolytes, who are in strategic positions in government and state institutions.
Muthambi’s defiance of ANC policy on the set-top box issue, as well as ignoring instructions to get the SABC’s house in order, is an indication of this. The party also wrangled with the minister over her illegal suspension of an SABC board member last year, and governance issues at the broadcaster. And it went head-to-head with Muthambi at the national general council in October last year, when she was reprimanded for defying party policy on digital migration and broadcasting, and for presiding over the instability at the SABC.
ANC communications subcommittee head Jackson Mthembu took issue with Muthambi’s defiance at the time after she failed to consult the party on policy matters.
She was also blamed for the governance crisis at the SABC that was already raging back then. She responded by calling Mthembu a “liar”, for which she was again chastised. Meetings were subsequently held with Muthambi at Luthuli House. They came to nought as she continued to defy the party.
She even once failed to pitch after being summoned by the party.
The battle has left many a victim in its wake including the former chairwoman of Parliament’s portfolio committee on communication, Joyce Moloi-Moropa, who is also the treasurer of the SACP. The Communist Party has been vocal in its opposition to Muthambi’s defiance of party policy over set-top boxes, a deal with MultiChoice for DStv to house the SABC’s 24-hour news channel in return for sole rights to its archives and her failure to rein in Motsoeneng.
Cosatu was initially in agreement with the SACP on these issues, but its president, Sdumo Dlamini, reportedly distanced the federation from the crisis at the broadcaster at the weekend, saying it would not “swim in muddy waters”.
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In fact, the Cosatu-aligned Communication Workers Union mirrored comments by SABC board chairman Prof Mbulaheni Maguvhe in an interview with Radio 702 this week, when he claimed big business was seeking to destabilise the SABC so that it could lay its hands on the public broadcaster’s radio and television stations.
To confuse matters further, the ANC Youth League and ANC Women’s League have appointed themselves mouthpieces for the dominant faction in the governing party. So, the official ANC position announced by Mthembu this week may not hold sway, as it is clear that the party is divided over the SABC issue, and that Muthambi continues to enjoy political protection from the top. While Mthembu stuck to the ANC policy script on Tuesday, leaving little room for his detractors in the party to criticise the position, Muthambi has defied policy in the past and got away with it.
This would explain the SABC’s strongly worded statement in response to Mthembu late on Tuesday night, describing his comments as “misleading”. In the 702 interview, Maguvhe also said the ANC “attack” sought to distract the broadcaster from its mandate. The battle is taking on a new dimension linked to the broader political battle at play for control of the ANC when Zuma steps down at the end of next year — I won’t open the can of worms that contains the question “if” he will step down as party president just yet.
The battle between Mthembu, who enjoys the support of ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, and Zuma’s ally Muthambi, is set to continue as the ancillary factional fight for control of the SABC ahead of the ANC’s 2017 conference intensifies. The SACP is increasingly anti-Zuma, while Dlamini is entrenched in the Zuma faction.
Once again, the SABC as a public broadcaster has become a victim of political, and factional capture, leaving the South African media all the poorer for it.
• Marrian is political editor