William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

SA stumbles into the Middle Ages

South African politics unexpectedly finds itself in a time warp. In 1994 we set route to an imagined Utopia of socioeconomic transformation but somehow got lost and instead pierced the space-time continuum, plunging slap-bang into medieval times.

Democracy has frayed and lost ground to feudal instincts. A weak regent, Jacob Zuma, clings to power in a diminished kingdom, surviving precariously from day to day under the protection of a band of erratic nobles.

In exchange for rights to territorial exploitation this motley array of fierce and fractious lords have pledged fealty to his cause. For now.

Foremost among them is Lord Julius Malema, leader of a band of feral young fiefs who strike fear into the greybeards of the old order. At the command of their master they lay waste his enemies in exchange for first rights to the pillage.

It is a confusing landscape of clamour and flight, with shifting alliances based on the exigencies of the moment. There are a number of set-piece battlegrounds — for control of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and around mining nationalisation, for example — where this ebb and flow plays out before a bemused and fearful public.

This week Lord Malema’s vassals, who mobilise under the pennant of the African National Congress Youth League, unexpectedly targeted uMkhonto weSizwe, warning the military veterans wing of the ANC against supporting the suspended chief executive of the SABC. Normally the ANCYL and MK make common cause against their arch-enemies in the tripartite alliance, the trade unionists and the communists.

On this issue, however, the veterans found themselves on the side of the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions when they warned darkly that there were “counter-revolutionaries” on the SABC board who wanted to seize control in order to push their “political projects”. Cosatu, too, fears that the SABC will be used for “factional political purposes’.

The key word here is “factional’. No one in the alliance has any problem with the public broadcaster being used for political propaganda. They just don’t want the heavy artillery — more than 80% of South Africans rely on state radio and television as their primary information source — to fall into the hands of a rival faction.

This battle is pithily summed up in the Daily Maverick. Stephen Grootes writes, “The SABC has been turned into Afghanistan. It has vast resources, huge potential, is fought over by groups of people who know nothing about its internal geography, yet seems to be unconquerable by any one group.”

Grootes might well have added that the SABC board comprehends the concept of impartiality about as well as the Afghanistan government understands that of democracy. That is, not at all.

The SABC has not a clue of how it should approach its job. In return for just under a quarter of a million rand (including R3 000 for toilet hire) the SABC has offered to feature the achievements of the Western Cape government on its flagship current affairs television programme, Interface.

The SABC is clearly taken aback at the Democratic Alliance-controlled Western Cape getting on its high horse over this. After all, it reasons, newspapers publish “advertorial” sections all the time.

The difference, of course, is that newspapers are profit-making entities and such advertorial is clearly marked, identifying it as puffery and leaving it little credibility. Insulated as it is by taxpayer funding from commercial pressures, the SABC should be tackling topics without fear or favour, not trimming its jib to the highest bidder.

In history, the feudal epoch was followed by the renaissance. As is usual in SA, we are going about it arse about face.