South Africa’s public broadcaster is going through yet another crisis as the government gears up for elections. The scandal may cost the broadcaster hefty audiences.

The resignation last June of Jimi Matthews, the head of South Africa’s public broadcaster SABC, didn’t shock many in the country. The public broadcaster has been ravaged by such crises for decades now.

But the crisis that Mr Matthews’ departure has triggered is now expected to deliver a much bigger blow to SABC than the government, which has much to do with this resignation, expects.

According to several journalists and media experts in the country, SABC, which still enjoys a massive audience in South Africa (in spite of a fall in its ratings during the past three decades) is likely to now face a further decline in popularity as the number of disgruntled viewers, fed up with the station’s politicization, is growing rapidly.

A group of concerned civil society groups and research organizations began earlier this month an anti-censorship picket outside the SABC’s offices in Johannesburg. Their demands, aimed at ensuring the editorial independence of the station, include the sacking of the Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a top SABC director who seems to be the influencer of all the decisions at the station.

A (Still) Powerful Weapon

SABC was slammed earlier this year for a number of policy changes that were seen by local observers as part of a censorship campaign led by the governing African National Congress (ANC) party. At least six journalists were suspended for disobeying orders.

The crisis erupted shortly before local elections scheduled to take place next August. For the ANC, which was the dominant force in the South African political life since the collapse of apartheid back in 1994, these elections could be a crunch time as the party is splintered into clashing camps. The party’s image has also been badly tarnished by the accusations of corruption against its leader Jacob Zuma.

For the ANC, the public broadcaster is a key medium to use in the coming electoral campaign.

SABC has three TV channels and 18 radio stations. Its radio programs are listened to by an estimated mind-boggling 24 million people a day. That is half the South African population.

A Political Club

Mr Matthews said when he resigned that something was wrong at the SABC and he didn’t want to be part of that. His seat was occupied by Uganda-born James Aguma, who was appointed the CFO of SABC in March 2014.

The real power broker in SABC and the most fervent support of the ANC is said to be the corporation’s COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. He has been in that position since 2011.

Since then, he has been behind many controversial decisions related to the SABC’s editorial coverage, including the suspension of a radio show critical of the ANC, a request for all SABC TV channels to air “good news” on at last 70% of their news programs, and a ban on airing feeds from violent protests. An independent investigation by the country’s public protector found that Mr Motsoeneng had lied about his high-school education.

However, nothing seems to touch him, allegedly because of his close relations with government officials. One of those is the communications minister Faith Muthambi who, from that position, has a major say in the regulation of SABC. Ms Muthambi is a loyal supporter of President Zuma.
Crystal Orderson, a former senior political correspondent for SABC, wrote that in the late 1990s Mr Motsoeneng had “bragged often of his closeness to politicians,” something that fellow journalists dismissed as “fantasy.” But later on, in the early 2000s, many colleagues at the SABC were aware of how powerful Mr Motsoeneng was. He was already making the real decisions, something that has continued to this day.

Ms Orderson said that there are still many good journalists at SABC, but their work is unfortunately “destroyed” by Mr Motsoeneng and his loyal followers.

This is not the first time that SABC has been the target for accusations of political bias. Mr Matthews revealed earlier this month that during his tenure SABC decided to give only marginal coverage to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party before the 2014 national and provincial elections. Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), which monitored the SABC programs before those elections, found that SABC24 all-news channel gave the EFF only 5% coverage, which was only a fraction of the 54% of the coverage that the ANC enjoyed at the time.

Local journalists and media experts interviewed for this report expect the ongoing crisis to further dent the SABC’s ratings. The broadcaster’s audience share dropped from 100% back in 1976 when it was the sole broadcast station in the country to under 50% by 2013 as several private stations including M-Net, DStv and have started their own operations since 1986. The current 53% share of SABC has been flat for years now, which is worrying for a station with such a large penetration.

However, for many in South Africa, SABC’s radio and TV channels are the only sources of information. There are independent newspapers such as the Mail & Guardian and the Sunday Times, and South Africa’s online media critical of the government is growing at a brisk pace – but for millions of South Africans, buying a newspaper or an internet subscription is still prohibitive.

The government relies on this situation continuing, and doesn’t seem to remove any of the most controversial people there before elections. That might help them win votes, but hit SABC’s following harder than expected.

Photo: Government of South Africa