I love South Africans. They look at a situation squarely and without hesitation call it as they see it. Their comments are not hasty, ill-informed or ill-considered. They are drawn from a life of experience and skeptical observation. Few things surprise them. Appall them, perhaps. But rarely does it surprise them.
So consider this. INPUT 2008’s partner and main financial supporter in what should otherwise be a fantastic coup this year is the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corp, or SABC. The reasons for this partnership were obvious from the beginning. Until today, that is.
For months, there have been back alley fights going on within the SABC that reflect the divisions within the ANC; between those supporting out-going President, Thabo Mbeki, against the new head of the ANC and SA president-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma. Mbeki is considered a technocrat and failure who never quite understood the people, while Zuma beat a sexual assault rap last year and is now awaiting trial in a corruption and bribery scandal.
The ANC’s division’s seem mirrored at the SABC. These have become a major concern of the largest labour organization in SA, the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), and have sparked an open letter from the SA Communist Party. They are worried that the primary source of news and information for most of the population has been corrupted by party politics and ANC interference. The worry is that the SABC is reverting to its ugly past as a state-controlled broadcaster after nearly 15 years of efforts to turn it into a non-partisan, public service broadcaster.
This worry provoked a Parliamentary committee to get involved. Last week, it summoned both the SABC board of directors and it’s senior executive, including the SABC’s Group CEO, Dali Mpofu. At its hearings, the committee gave both the Board and Mpofu what they call a “dressing down.” Get your act together, the committee said, you’re embarrasing us all.
The internal bickering continued however. The committee has once more “requested” that Dali Mpofu fly down to Parliament in Cape Town to discuss the matter. Mpofu is said to have insisted that the entire board accompany him; he feels the board has been trying to fire him for trying to clean house.
Now this is where the story really takes off, so buckle in folks. This is going to be a bumpy ride.
Yesterday, the situation descended into either tragicomedy or farce with Mpofu suspending (with pay) his head of News and Current Affairs, Snuki Zikilala. Zikilala has been accused of toadying to the the ANC leadership and driving out independent-thinking journalists such as John Perlman, who contradicted Snuki on-air about the existence of a blacklist of critics of ANC policies. But his immediate crime, according to Mpofu, was leaking a confidential document to the harm of the SABC.
This morning, SABC Radio ran its live morning show from INPUT at the Sandton Convention Centre. In attendance are a bevy of executives, senior producers and independent producers from all over Africa and the world. The show’s hosts then report that the SABC board has suspended its CEO, Dali Mpofu, for misconduct. It decided Mpofu’s suspension of Snuki yesterday afternoon was invalid. The board has re-instated Snuki.
It isn’t the first time Snuki has been here. He’s been fired before, accused of being too cozy with the powers that be and certain factions within the majority ruling party, the ANC. Rumours back then had someone within the offices of President Mbeki applying pressure to get Snuki’s job back.
Which, of course, has some people wondering why the various camps in this sordid struggle for power at the SABC decided to bring their battles out into the open at this particular time, while the whole world is here, waiting and watching for the next episode in this rather sorry display to burst out into the open. It is beginning to compete for the attention of conference goers, who must choose between some great documentaries and dicussions, or follow the live contest going on outside.
The bets, from at least some South Africans, are on Snuki to win. The graduate of a Bulgarian journalism school seems to have a knack for survival, not to mention some IOUs for past services rendered.
Ach, shame, as they say hereabouts which may mean anything from “gotcha” to “oy vey.”