SABC situation evokes parallels with Zimbabwe

By: 
William Saunderson-Meyer
Source: 
IOL

Bizarre as it may seem, Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF and President Robert Mugabe remain objects of veneration for South Africa’s black nationalists.

The ANC regularly exchanges fraternal salutations with its counterpart “vanguard liberation movement” across the Limpopo. The EFF, that neo-fascist offshoot of the ANC, much admires the dispossession of white farmers and is keen to apply the same formula here.

Neither seems particularly concerned about the fact that Zanu-PF’s disastrous policies have laid waste to what was once a diversified, vibrant economy.

Zimbabwean GDP is now considerably less than half of what it was at independence in 1980, while in neighbouring Zambia - itself hardly a poster child of sound economic management and good governance - GDP trebled over the same period.

In reaction to curbs on imports from SA through Beitbridge - the food and consumer goods pipeline that keeps the Zim consumer’s nose just a whisker above oblivion - angry small traders torched a government warehouse on the border, the unrest spreading elsewhere in that country.

Then, in reaction to the Zimbabwean treasury yet again delaying salaries for public servants, who account for 83 percent of government expenditure, there was a national stayaway announced for Wednesday. The stayaway, says the Zimbabwe broadcaster, has been a complete failure, although pictures of shuttered shops tell a different story.

But in an economy in such dire straits, it doesn’t really matter, says Zimbabwean economist John Robertson: “There isn’t much work being done in the factories anyway, so this will not make much of a difference.”

SA is a long way from transmogrifying into the Zim zombie. But the response of SA state and ANC structures to deteriorating circumstances and increasing unrest is not dissimilar, especially when it comes to trying to exercise social control. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation epitomises the type of state entity that SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng has wet dreams about. Its public charter has been ruthlessly debased, so that it operates unashamedly as the propaganda arm of Zanu-PF.

Like their Zimbabwean counterparts, SABC TV journalists are no longer allowed to show footage of public violence. Like his Zimbabwean counterpart, Motsoeneng is committed to the SABC having “positive stories”, which chimes perfectly with the ANC s electoral motto of having “a good story to tell”.

The problem for both broadcasters is the truth is essential to a thriving democracy over the long run. Reality is not changed by propaganda, it is merely camouflaged. Without facing sometimes unpleasant truths, nations cannot adjust and adapt.

So the more a broadcaster distorts reality, the more parlous the situation becomes. Which, in turn, accelerates political demands for more “good” and fewer “negative” stories.

That is why Zimbabwe has reached the point that mere negativity is apparently a crime that can land you in jail. This week its Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said on national television that anyone in possession of social media or SMS messages that incite violence or “that may be deemed to cause despondency will be arrested”.

The authority also said social media and cellphones were being used to distribute “abusive and subversive materials” and warned that those responsible would be prosecuted, after using their SIM card registrations to track them down.

These are sinister shades of George Orwell’s dystopian 1984. However, they are moves suggesting desperation and in a modern, electronically seamless world, are more to be scorned than feared.

Even in Zimbabwe, which has spent almost many decades perfecting the mechanics of despotism, starting with the Ian Smith years pre-independence, the state propaganda broadcaster has diminishing influence. It is not believed and many people find the truth elsewhere.

Motsoeneng’s SABC will meet the same fate, but it’s happening faster, partly because there are other credible free-to-air broadcasters. And while there is little cost to the internet being switched off in a Stone Age economy like Zimbabwe, as has happened intermittently this week, in a highly- sophisticated economy like SA it would cause substantial economic and reputational damage.

Most importantly, SA also differs from Zimbabwe in that there is still a healthy tradition of resistance. The populace here remains uncowed.

SABC journalists have protested and resigned. Some ANC leaders and the SACP have broken ranks with the President Jacob Zuma-Motsoeneng axis to lambaste Motsoeneng’s leadership.

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