Cyril Ramaphosa on the need for an independent SABC, in 1992

by The Editor

SERIES: From the Archives aims to put forward the odd reminder that, more often than not, history is merely repeating itself. In all likelihood, somewhere, someone has already experienced and commented on those all-consuming issues that appear to have materialised only yesterday. Here follows a 1992 speech by Cyril Ramaphosa, about how important an independent SABC was and how the National Party had abused the public broadcaster to serve its own political ends. 20 years later and there is a case to be made South Africa has yet to actually experience an independent SABC.

Cyril Ramaphosa on the need for an independent SABC, in 1992

By: Gareth van Onselen

18 June 2012

It is telling that, amidst all its unhappiness about the media and its so-called ‘liberal agenda’, the ANC has yet to raise the SABC as a point of concern. That’s because, well, it’s not a point of concern. Over the last decade the ANC has successfully managed, through the deployment of people loyal to the ANC to key positions at the public broadcaster, to denude the institution of its independence. Indeed, so successful has the ANC been, it seems to have engendered a culture of deference at the SABC; one so well established that it is now common cause rather than the consequence of some direct instruction that it panders to the president, the government and the ANC.

And so it is worth taking a trip back in time, to see if this was always the ANC’s intent. Did it ever actually want anything otherwise? The early 90s were a period defined by a great many virtuous promises made by the ANC, the vast majority of which it has since reneged upon. Was the relationship between the state and the SABC any different?

Sure enough, look far enough back and there exist several examples of some quite detailed undertakings made by prominent ANC officials about the public broadcaster and the need for it to be independent and free from government interference. Perhaps the best of the lot – a 1992 speech by then-ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa – follows below.

In it, Ramaphosa sets out how important an independent public broadcaster is (I have indented the key sections) and, in the other direction, how the SABC was misused and abused by the National Party to serve its own ends. Something he says the NP achieved by having “appointees on the board and in the upper echelons of the SABC.. with links to the Broederbond and to the SADF’s Directorate of Military Intelligence”. This, he argued was a bad thing, because the SABC therefore served the NP’s interests and its decisions were taken with them in mind, as opposed to the public.

How things have changed. You can take a nationalist of out power, but you can’t take the thirst for power out of a nationalist. And, sure enough, some 20 years later, the ANC – another nationalist organisation with a thirst for control and power – has managed to have the exact same effect on the SABC.

The double standards are quite something. NP appointees bad, ANC appointees good.

The key change in attitude came with Thabo Mbeki and the policy of cadre deployment, which he brought with him in 1997. Once adopted and though it took some time the SABC was explicitly targeted as a “key lever of power”, to be brought under the ANC’s control. Since then, it hasn’t looked back and today we are faced with an empty shell of a news organisation, no longer able even properly to discern what independence actually is.

I wonder what Cyril Ramaphosa makes of it all. Someone should give him a call and find out.

Here, then, follows Ramaphosa’s 1992 ideal.

Campaign for an Independent SABC

Text of Speech by Cyril Ramaphosa Secretary-General of the African National Congress
SAPA PR wire service dispatch issued by the ANC
All subheadings inserted editorially
14 November 1992

Campaign for Open Media Workshop

In addressing the question of broadcasting we need to recognise that public service broadcasters – the SABC [South African Broadcasting Corporation] and its TBVC [Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda, Ciskei] counterparts – function in every sense as ‘their masters’ voice’. And we need to recognise that our aim is not only, through the democratic process, to change the master, but also the voice.

We also need to know the political context within which we are addressing these problems. The process of change has various phases, each with its own subjective and objective demands.

Phases of Change

The ANC regards the present phase as one prior to the establishment of a transitional executive authority, but already well within the transition process. Therefore, addressing the urgent need for a free and fair media is not only because it is ANC policy, but also because it is an imperative if we want to move the process forward. It might be useful to you if we briefly set out the phases of transition as we see it, for in each phase the role and importance of an independent and fair media will be critical.

We see the next phase being the period from the establishment of the transitional executive council leading up to the election of the constituent assembly and the establishment of an elected interim government of national unity.

Phase three would be the period of drafting and adopting the new constitution by the constituent assembly.

Phase four the period of bringing in the new constitution, during which restructuring of the existing state machinery and the general dismantling of the apartheid system will take place.

Flowing from this would be phase five, a period during which this process of democratic transformation and reconstruction should be consolidated.

Through all this an independent, fair and open media has a vital role to play to ensure an informed public.

Proposals for Independent Broadcasting Authority

The ANC believes that unquestioning loyalty by a public broadcaster to a ruling party is incompatible with democracy – whether or not the ruling party enjoys the support of the majority of the population.

When the ANC wins the electoral support of the majority of South Africans, it will not seek to replace the National Party as the subject of the SABC’s slavish loyalty. And we want to establish both the principle and practice of that independence now.

The ANC is committed to public broadcasting which is independent of the government of the day, and which owes its loyalty not to any party, but to the population as a whole. In other words, we propose a broadcast service committed to providing full and accurate information to all South Africans, and one which is protected from interference by any special interests – be they political, economic or cultural.

We are not asking for equal time. However, we do insist that the public be informed of all views fully and fairly through a public broadcaster’s loyalty to serving a total audience with integrity.

Today we face an immediate and urgent problem. We cannot afford to wait for the achievement of democracy to change the SABC. As the major information source, the SABC in its current form misuses its position to skew public perceptions. The result is that during this crucial transition period we have a public subjected to misinformation and disinformation because of narrow party political manipulation.

If there were ever any doubts that those who control the SABC would use their position of influence, we can thank Cliff Saunders for removing them this week. As was demonstrated in SADF [South African Defence Force] documents handed in to court this week, Saunders was a willing party to a covert attempt by the SADF’s George Meiring to smear the ANC by linking it to the IRA and the PLO.

There was no reason for supposing this was an isolated incident. Indeed, everything suggests the opposite, including General Meiring’s repeated unfounded allegations against the ANC over the past weeks and months, all of which have served to fuel the volatile situation in Natal.

If the SABC is to play a constructive role ahead of our country’s first experience with democracy, informing the electorate rather than attempting to persuade them to vote for a particular political party, it is necessary to replace those who currently control the SABC with others who are committed to democracy and to an electorate empowered by accurate and impartial information.

This was the objective of the ANC and other participants in the Codesa [Convention for a Democratic South Africa] process when we proposed the replacement of the mechanisms of direct government control over SABC with structures to guarantee the independence of the SABC from any party political influence.

To ensure the right to accurate impartial information was enjoyed throughout our country, we also proposed the integration of the TBVC broadcast services into a single national public broadcasting service under a new, independent SABC board.

Both at Codesa and elsewhere, these proposals have won widespread popular support. Even the major newspapers, not normally our most enthusiastic backers, supported our proposals. The government, predictably, did not.

National Party negotiators agreed to the principle of independent state-owned media, and to our proposals for the removal from the hands of state departments and cabinet ministers of the responsibility for regulating broadcasting. But it wants to see these changes introduced only once it is too late for them to meaningfully impact on the electoral process, and once the SABC has been dismembered through unilateral restructuring.

And on SABC, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it insists that its appointees on the board and in the upper echelons of the SABC, many of them with links to the Broederbond and to the SADF’s Directorate of Military Intelligence, have somehow transformed themselves from propagandists to impartial and fair broadcasters.

What it offered us at Codesa was the appointment of five nominees of other parties to add to the 15-member board appointed in 1988 by P.W. Botha. Today, it still seeks cooption onto the board as its solution. Even if the offer amounted to more than mere tokenism, which would not meaningfully change SABC bias, this amounted to more political interference, not less, and was simply not acceptable.

What we want is an independent SABC board and an independent regulatory authority to oversee all broadcasting. And because the process towards democracy is moving forward, despite attempts by the National Party to place obstacles in its path, we cannot afford to wait any longer.

We in the ANC, in the tripartite alliance, in the patriotic front and in the democratic movement as a whole, need to force the National Party and its propagandists in the executive of the SABC to grant the people of South Africa the kind of public broadcast service they demand and deserve – one that is free, fair and open. We do not do this in our own, narrow party political interests, but in the interests of all South Africans and of democracy.

With a new SABC board due for appointment in less than five months, we cannot afford to wait. We must embark on a campaign immediately, putting pressure on the De Klerk government (which ultimately controls the SABC and is increasingly prone to direct intervention), on the executives of the SABC itself, and on the TBVC bantustan authorities who operate broadcast services as their own, private political propaganda machines.

In doing this we must recognise that our demands enjoy massive popular support, both in the ranks of our own organisations and among all sectors of the South African people. We must draw all of these people into an active campaign on the SABC and on broadcasting in general.

We must recognise that among the 5,500 people working in the SABC, many – probably the majority – do not like what is happening in the SABC and wish to see it changed. The black media workers remain subjected to outrageous and humiliating racial attitudes, to the degree where virtually all decision-making and control, and I emphasise control, remains in white hands.

Conditions for Impartial Broadcasting

Our campaign must support and encourage the efforts of those within the broadcast services to challenge and contest bias and distortion. We must insist on affirmative action now, and that the appropriate training and upgrading is provided. We must identify and isolate those actually responsible for the bias and distortion.

Because we have little time and much to achieve, we in the ANC believe it is necessary to focus exclusively on those issues which are essential to ensure free and impartial broadcasting ahead of elections.

These, we believe, are:

• Ensuring that the next SABC board is an independent one.

To achieve this it must be appointed by a visibly independent process enjoying as much popular participation as possible. This is our immediate priority and must be the first focus of our campaign. We believe it is possible to achieve this immediately. It is not necessary that we go through a process involving extensive legislative changes, thereby making ourselves, and fair broadcasting, hostage to a parliamentary process beyond our control.

• Ensuring that the rapid and unilateral changes the government and the SABC are currently making are halted.

An independent board will help this process but, until that is appointed, we must apply sufficient pressure to halt the restructuring.

• Ensuring that the process of democratising broadcasting and making its regulatory mechanisms more publicly accountable continues beyond the achievement of an independent SABC – by applying pressure on the government to introduce a broadly accepted regulatory body over broadcasting as a whole, with powers to censure and sanction those broadcasters who defy internationally accepted norms of fairness and impartiality.

• Ensuring that the TBVC broadcasters are removed from the control of the bantustan administrations and placed under the control of a structure accountable to all South Africans, not to small cliques of apartheid puppets.

Targets of Campaign

In doing this we must direct our campaign around the government’s two most vulnerable points:

Politically, its refusal to agree to an internationally-accepted norm for public broadcasting.

This will require a continual, high-profile campaign. The ABC’s reliance on advertising and on licences for its survival as a National Party propaganda organ. There are many advertisers who are, and even more who will be, extremely sensitive to charges that they are buttressing the National Party’s attempts to distort the election results. Many of these, in turn, will be vulnerable to consumer pressure to withdraw their support.

With regard to licences, many people – as many as 75% of radio listeners and TV watchers – are already refusing to pay their licence fees.

Our campaign must identify the best way for marshalling and directing this resistance. And, as I have already suggested, we must support moves in the broadcast structures themselves to end party political control of what should be a public resource.

The ANC believes that media workers themselves should spearhead the campaign for a democratic media, so that they can do their job professionally and in service to democracy. This will require courage and support. The SABC is already threatening action against any media workers who engage in or support any campaign for a free and fair media, which follows reprisals against those white journalists who acted in support of the Mwasa strike.

All South Africans have the right to know. Media workers have the duty to inform. The ANC will do all in its power to obtain a free, independent and open media now, for the sake of peace and justice.

I wish your conference and campaign every success. You can count on our support.

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