From devil’s box to diversity: 30 years of SABC television

Before its introduction into this country, television was regarded as the devil’s own box, for disseminating communism and immorality — even if, their treasonable hormones running riot , dominees of the Dutch Reformed Church (known in my time as the National Party at prayer) broke the Immorality Act with gleeful impunity and without assistance from television.

We have traversed some distance since those dark days when we experienced sunset at midday, and we have forded many streams on the road to democracy. I want to invite you to come with me down memory lane to look at some milestones on our long walk to freedom of expression, lest in our euphoria we forget and become struck by some collective amnesia .

The SABC became the ideological repository of and chief apologist for apartheid, offering a broadcasting policy characterised by an unabashedly pro-government stance, and programming for the white minority. It was dominated by its controller for 20 years and chief imbongi, or cheerleader, Piet Meyer, who remained a full-blown Nazi until his death.

During the 1930s, many bright young Afrikaners went to Europe to study. There, they were inspired by fascism, which was gaining popularity in Spain, Italy, Portugal and, notably, Germany. Afrikaner intellectuals began to use the word apartheid during this period.

Television was introduced to the country on January 5 1976, after a protracted, sometimes painful, and often comic debate. Television had long been opposed by the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, Dr Albert Hertzog, on the grounds that, among other things, it showed blacks and whites living together. Plans for television went through only when John Vorster, prime minister from 1966 to 1978, dropped Hertzog from the Cabinet in 1968.

But if television was late in coming to South Africa, there was nothing tardy about the way the state set about securing control of the new medium. Meyer, who was to remain head of the broadcaster until 1980, became chairman of the Broederbond, set up to advance the interests of Afrikanerdom, in 1960.

Meyer had firm ideas about the role the SABC should play in the life of the nation, as he was to explain to the general council of the Broederbond in 1977: “We must harness all our communication media in a positive way in order to gather up Afrikaner national political energy in the struggle for survival in the future .. .”

The first casualty under Meyer’s reign was SABC Director-General Gideon Roos. Despite being a pioneer of Afrikaans broadcasting and a fervent supporter of the NP, Roos was an obstacle to Meyer’s designs because he saw the broadcaster’s role as a reporter, not as a propagandist. Roos’s powers were whittled away and he finally resigned in 1961 when Meyer, who had stacked the board with Broeders, announced the SABC would have its own editorial policy.

In 1978, PW Botha was elected prime minister after ousting his rivals in the wake of the Info Scandal. This was a scandal which turned on the state’s manipulation of the media — or, more precisely, the state’s extra-parliamentary use of public money to acquire its own voice in the English language press. The Citizen newspaper is a legacy of those troubled times. But for all that, the Botha regime, like its successor under FW de Klerk, had no qualms about continuing the state’s manipulation of the SABC.

British broadcaster and author David Harrison, reflecting on the period, points out that under the broadcasting Broeders: “No minister can officiate at the opening of a dam or power station without the attentive presence of an SABC camera.”

TV images of the prime minister and Cabinet ministers visiting homeland states and being received by “grinning acolytes and singing children” predominated. Safe foreign guests were interviewed at length on TV while even the mildest critics of the regime, such as Helen Suzman, could expect only tightly edited snippets — allowing the SABC to maintain a facade of objectivity.

Take note that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. And South Africans are most adept at that.

I have had the good fortune to be associated with the national broadcaster in its transformative years. During my tenure at the SABC as a board member , the corporation, under Zwelakhe Sisulu, embarked on several policy options — notably to right-size the corporation but in reality to rid it of deadwood and to align personnel with the country’s demographic features in gender, race and (dis)ability terms.

Neither process ever satisfies everyone. The policy to bring in under-represented groups was decried as racism in reverse. I was privileged to sit on a commission that investigated complaints of heavy handedness and incompetence levelled against the new black political “commissars”.

Three significant factors, which no one dared comment upon openly, emerged from the commission and gave me considerable insights into the workings of the corporation . First, there was fierce contestation and reluctance from previously privileged groupings to relinquish control of the newsroom (where real power resides), and these groupings were wont to use freedoms guaranteed all South Africans by the Constitution cynically to undermine the aspirations of the under-represented majority.

Second, there was contempt in some white quarters inside and outside the corporation for black leadership, contempt masquerading outrageously as “concern over falling standards” — without anyone explaining whose standards were being compromised.

Third, as the SABC emerged as the voice of the voiceless (and sometimes and inevitably of the government that speaks for the voiceless) the commercial press (largely white) became quite naturally the last bastion and defender of white hegemony.

The public broadcaster has, indeed, come a long way since the days of Piet Meyer .

The major achievements have been in terms of reversing the legacy of apartheid — that is the only “reverse” I see — and implanting the new ethos that promotes democracy, non-racism, non-sexism, and non-discrimination.

One of the most important challenges that confronts the national broadcaster is professional development — and I do not mean week-long courses that only serve to entrench half-literacy and incompetence.

I have been at pains to engage SABC CEO Dali Mpofu and his predecessors, Zwelakhe Sisulu and Peter Matlare, to release staff for post-graduate programmes in broadcast journalism, information technology etc. We cannot be content to replace illiteracy with half-literacy. I have still to read a single honours, masters or doctoral thesis written by an SABC employee on staff development.

The SABC is the supreme educator and informer . But you cannot inform if you are yourself ill-informed, in the same way that you can’t educate if you are yourself scared of being educated.

Having successfully dislodged apartheid apparatchiks from the SABC, the new democratic order wants to be careful not to replace them with its own apparatchiks. I need say no more on the matter that is the principal responsibility of the SABC board as representatives of the entire rainbow spectrum of the new South Africa.

I have few illusions about this: the battle for the heart and soul and mind of South Africa continues, and it will be lost or won in the newsrooms and studios of the SABC.

If there are contradictions in some of my formulations, it is the duty of the SABC board and management to reconcile them so that 30 years from now we can celebrate our win-win situation in our living rooms, pubs and shebeens. In the final analysis, as Aimé Césaire points out, “There is no monopoly to truth and beauty; and there is room for us all at the rendezvous of victory.”

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From devil’s box to diversity: 30 years of SABC television