South Africa's politics of cowardice and cunning

Under Jacob Zuma's rule, mediocrity reigns and a failure to account is the new normal.

Increasingly, journalists within the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) are finding their voice and speaking out against what can only be described as managerial authoritarianism. It’s thus time for South Africans to see the back of the two Ms: Minister of Communications, Faith Muthambi, and SABC Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

After agreeing to participate in Al Jazeera’s The Stream on the issue of media freedom last week, Muthambi withdrew an hour before. South Africans are used to ministers doing just that, or keeping journalists waiting for hours. Internationally, though, it doesn’t play so well.

It’s hard to tell with ministers in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet these days. After the Al Jazeera ‘hole in the head’ interview by 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.

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.

The SABC has become a closed space where fear stalks the corridors

But it was the image of former Congress of South African Trade Unions secretary-general, Zwelinzima Vavi, trying to enter the SABC building last week that 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 building's entrance.

Running an organisation by diktat takes a certain degree of cunning, but also cowardice. Motsoeneng has both. And so the public broadcaster has become a place not of openness, as the Constitution demands, but rather a closed space where fear stalks the corridors.

This fear of speaking out is entrenched in 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 unwilling or unable to resign generally outnumber those who speak out. And so the cycle perpetuates itself.

The SABC has been an unhappy place for those wanting to practice their craft for a very long time. Now the censorship is simply at its brazen best. Motsoeneng has 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.

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

This fear of speaking out is entrenched in many of South Africa's parastatals

In November last year, Judge Davis – ruling on an application by the Democratic Alliance – held that Motsoeneng’s permanent appointment by Muthambi was irrational given the negative findings against him by the Public Protector – and that it 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 Supreme Court of Appeal. And so more public money is wasted on someone whom the Public Protector has 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.

Last week Tuesday, the African National Congress (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 the lack of leadership at the SABC, and 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? 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 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.

The toxicity of the Zuma presidency seeps into every public institution

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 had complained that the minister had been misquoted and subsequently released a verbatim transcript of her comments at a press conference.

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.’

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 the 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, Consultant, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

This article was first published by EyeWitnessNews.

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