Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA

With a number of pressing issues on her agenda, one would think communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams wouldn’t have time to try to censor the SABC, a key and strategic institution under her care.

Yet there she was this weekend, at an ANC manifesto launch in KwaBhaca, Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape, trying to block a SABC video journalist from filming footage of protesters at the event.

The demonstrators were reportedly frustrated at the lack of service delivery in the area. Her attempt at stifling media freedom was a stark reminder that the  governing party still sees the institution as a government mouthpiece, rather than a public broadcaster.

Her actions are arguably insignificant in comparison to what’s happened at other recent meetings in the Eastern Cape where protests broke out. The arrest of human rights lawyer Richard Spoor at a community meeting in Xolobeni that was hosted by mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe in September 2018 is one example; a subsequent consultation meeting in the same community saw police use stun grenades to disperse the crowd. The ANC is simply not a party that likes dissent, especially not in public.

That the SABC reported on the KwaBhaca incident, showing footage of the minister’s hand clearly blocking the camera, is a welcome indication that the dark days of Hlaudi Motsoeneng are over. Motsoeneng, the former SABC COO, notoriously clamped down on news reports that he deemed would put the government in a bad light, such as his ban on the reporting of violent protests.

Instead of intimidating a journalist and trying to make her party look good on prime time news, Ndabeni-Abrahams should have concerned herself with fixing the dire situation at the SABC. The reality is that, under her watch, the hopeful signs of a sustainable turnaround at the SABC, which followed Motsoeneng and the previous board’s departure, have dissipated.

The minister played a key role in this demise. Her interference at board level over planned retrenchments led to an exodus of directors, leaving the institution without a quorum at its highest level. Without a quorum, the board can’t make any decisions.

For someone who hasn’t even been in her job for four months, she has courted controversy not only for meddling in the SABC’s board affairs, but also for tweeting in support of Nkosana   Makate. Makate is embroiled in a years-long legal battle with Vodacom about getting fair compensation for inventing the please call me SMS service.

As communications minister,  she has oversight of Vodacom’s licences and makes decisions on issues such as spectrum allocations, making her public picking of sides completely unacceptable.

Following her interference at the SABC, the broadcaster’s planned retrenchments of about 1,000 staff and 1,200 freelancers, which were seen as crucial to ensure the broadcaster’s financial sustainability, have been halted for now. This while the SABC has warned that it will need a bailout of R3bn or it won’t be able to pay salaries in March. It is already unable to service creditors in full when payments are due.

Less than three months before the general elections, the broadcaster is effectively bankrupt, with no quorate board, and no plan.

Even if finance minister Tito Mboweni finds some cash in his budget next week for the struggling broadcaster, serious reform is needed to ensure that the institution will not just stumble from one bailout to the next.

As the public broadcaster is the main and often only source of news for millions of South Africans, allowing and enabling it to fulfil its democratic duty as a watchdog by reporting without fear or favour is absolutely crucial to ensure free and fair elections.

Ndabeni-Abrahams, a rising political star in the ANC, quickly apologised for the KwaBhaca incident. “I wish to assure the media and South Africans at large my unreserved commitment to media freedom,” she said.

However, her real commitment to media freedom will be demonstrated by ensuring the SABC gets a functioning board and the bailout it requires to get its house in order, and urgently — all the while butting out of operational and editorial matters.