Were the rapidly crumbling national broadcaster a city, it would be forced to follow the bankrupt Rio de Janeiro in declaring a “state of public calamity”. This week, SABC acting CEO Jimi Matthews belatedly said he was quitting because recent decisions taken at the broadcaster were “wrong”.
Matthews said he had “compromised the values I hold dear” thanks to a “corrosive atmosphere” at the SABC, which had impaired his moral judgment.
This corrosive atmosphere has a name: Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
Motsoeneng was first hired in 1995 as a news reporter. His path to the top has been pock-marked by tales of intimidation and harassment, so much so that he was axed from Lesedi FM in 2007 before being rehired, despite concerns from peers about his “reign of terror”.
Everyone knew it. A few years back, one former SABC executive spoke approvingly of Motsoeneng’s thug-like manner: “He’s a fixer. He beats people up in the dark for a living, but he gets things done.”
Only, what he has done is almost single-handedly dismantle an institution — while government and the SABC board blind themselves to this reality.
Motsoeneng, who has boasted of his relationship with President Jacob Zuma, has, of his own making, become a much-lampooned figure. “I have turned the SABC around myself,” he said in 2011 — even as its bank accounts emptied and its credibility plummeted.
And last year, when asked whether governments ever lie — a critical point, since he has lobbied for government to “license journalists” — he answered: “Lie? I don’t have evidence [to say that], I don’t know. I have never [heard] anything about government lying”.
If ever there was a flashing red signal that this was not the man to ensure the SABC spoke truth to power, this was it.
So whose job is it to ensure this exact scenario doesn’t happen? Communications minister Faith Muthambi — a woman who infamously said of Zuma’s feelings for Motsoeneng: “Baba loves Hlaudi, he loves him so much, we must support him.”
The thing is, Motsoeneng is scuppering a ship that still contains some fine people, suffering under Muthambi’s delinquency. But because the media industry is in such an awful space, they are trapped in his sinking vessel.
Globally, media jobs are vanishing — 40% of journalism jobs have been shed in two decades in the US as advertising revenue shrinks. While news has gone largely online, these advertising dollars are being hoovered up by Facebook and Google, which aren’t putting any money into producing news. Last year, for example, Facebook gobbled 30% of the US$59.6bn in digital advertising money available and Google sucked up another 16%.
Unfortunately, it’s the same trajectory in SA. So the bottom line is that while Matthews might be able to draw a line in the sand, few others can afford the luxury of walking out on a point of principle.
Still, some believe it is worth it. Take the moving statement of Lukhanyo Calata, a veteran SABC journalist and the son of Fort Calata, one of the Cradock Four assassinated by the apartheid police in 1985.
Calata said the SABC’s recent path “cannot be described in any other way but being a curbing of media freedom. A freedom to report ethically, truthfully and without bias.”
It was a brave decision, given what happened to others who dared question Motsoeneng.
In an absurd situation pregnant with irony, SABC economics editor Thandeka Gqubule (a former writer at the this magazine) and two colleagues, Suna Venter and Foeta Krige, were suspended last week after they questioned Motsoeneng’s diktat not to report on the Right2Know campaign’s protest against the broadcaster.
Amid the industry’s holocaust of job cuts, it’s an especially valiant step. Sure, Matthews should have done this ages ago, but this shouldn’t diminish the bravery of his decision.