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Monday, January 11, 2016

If only the ANC would heed its own call on SABC?

Wouldn’t it be nice if politicians made laws that they would like to have in place even when they are not in power?
Former SABC board member and head of radio news Pippa Green advised the ANC to do just that in her reaction to Communications Minister Faith Muthambi’s proposed amendments to the Broadcasting Act.
The most troubling amendment is that nonexecutive members of the SABC board will no longer be appointed on the advice of Parliament, but by the minister of communications. In one fell swoop, the vital role that Parliament has played to at least try to ensure that the broadcaster is accountable to the public will be extinguished.
Not yet in power during the dying days of apartheid, the ANC was at the forefront of efforts to transform the all-mighty SABC from being a state propaganda tool. The need for an independent SABC was so pressing that the current Broadcasting Amendment Act was enacted in 1993 to enable free and credible elections to take place in April 1994.
Describing the uphill battle at the time, then ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa said in a 1992 speech that the National Party had been trying to convince negotiators that its SABC appointees, “many of them with links to the Broederbond and to the SA Defence Force’s Directorate of Military Intelligence”, had somehow transformed and were no longer propagandists.
Now, after more than 21 years in power, similar ruling-party arrogance has been displayed, this time by an ANC president who believes that the former liberation party will rule until Jesus comes back.
Although Cabinet – in its jittery and divided state – approved Muthambi’s Broadcasting Amendment Bill last month, tensions are evident, with alliance partner the SA Communist Party openly trashing it.
But if ANC MPs continue the pattern of closing ranks when the bill comes before Parliament next year, they will abandon yet another pledge from their glory years.
“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,” Ramaphosa said in 1992.
The current ANC leadership does not care to take advice from others, but you would think they would heed their own advice. Or perhaps Muthambi and her cohorts are too drunk with power to notice that in the party discussion documents for the National General Council 2015, there are repeated recommendations for the SABC to have “strengthened accountability to Parliament”.
But after this week, we can’t expect any common sense or for-the-greater-good advice to be taken into consideration.
So, after the foolhardy decision to axe Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, I won’t be holding my breath.
* This article first appeared in various Media 24 titles on 14 and 15 December 2015. 

Parliament gets a seismic wake-up call

The snotklap that Parliament received from its support staff this week should be a wake-up call for the institution’s bosses.
Although the unprotected strike was about performance bonuses, hundreds of protesting staff members who disrupted Parliament throughout the week were also attempting to reclaim their space.
Although they took their protest too far by overpowering committees, it was a defiant act against a new culture that has been sweeping through the precinct. This new order has been characterised by creeping paranoia and a chipping away of the multiparty democratic space that has been celebrated since 1994.
Spurred on by the #FeesMustFall protests, the unprecedented standoff by staff has been building up for some time.
Staff members have been mumbling about the consequences of a regime change in the fifth democratic Parliament.
The arrival of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which have punched above their 6% weight, changed everything. This coincided with the death of Parliament secretary Michael Coetzee – a democrat who had earned the respect of all parties – and the arrival of Gengezi Mgidlana.
Granted, the troubled institution has been in an invidious position. It has battled to maintain order, is forced to constantly put out fires and fight many battles as its policies have been rudely rubbished.
Unable to manage the disruptive newcomer party and under increasing pressure from the ANC majority, Parliament’s leaders have been on the defensive, administering the institution with a firmer hand and a different intent.
The securitisation at Parliament has caused deep rifts. Staff members are increasingly reluctant to interact with journalists for fear of reprisals, and amid warnings that their social media and chat lines were being monitored.
But Moira Levy, a content manager in the communications service who was once an active member of the ANC, spoke out against the new security vetting procedure imposed on staff by the State Security Agency in an article in the Mail & Guardian. “I was employed to serve Parliament, not the ruling party … My job is to inform citizens about what their Parliament is doing, not keep information from them,” she wrote, prompting a warning from Parliament – via the media – that she could face disciplinary consequences for speaking out.
This week there was a seismic shift in the atmosphere as staff broke ranks and rebelled en masse. For once, it was not the whining DA or the unruly EFF that were the opstokers. The agitation was from Nehawu members in the ANC’s ranks.
As staff occupied Parliament and interacted precariously with riot police through the week, the message was plain and simple: watch out.
* This article first appeared in various Media 24 titles on 24 and 25 October 2015

Out of step parliament bumbles on regardless

Parliament’s esteem has taken a few knocks over the past 18 months. Last week, its reputation sank further, owing to its somnolent response to the #FeesMustFall crisis.
How can it be that this pillar of political relevance, accountability and democracy has only scheduled an “urgent debate” on Tuesday on a crisis that has gripped the nation for two weeks?
The debate will be a farce. Not only will its relevance have been overtaken, but it will take place without Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs, who were ejected from the National Assembly and suspended for five days after agitating for Parliament to deal with the matter immediately.
Parliament’s stubborn determination to put procedure first matches the slow-footedness of an otherwise competent finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene. Timing is everything in politics. To earn public respect, ministers need to be intuitive and adaptable.
They should at least acknowledge the burning issues and recognise the discontent, even if it falls on an auspicious day in their calendar – set aside for the medium-term budget policy statement – and amid the glare of ruthless international credit ratings agencies.
Yet in spite of the outpouring of anger and frustration on the streets by the youth of this country, it was business as usual at Parliament on Wednesday. Journalists covering Nene’s speech dutifully arrived after sunrise for the “lock-up” to get access to the documents before Nene’s 2pm address. Phones were locked away and all copy was embargoed until the address in the National Assembly began.
In the hefty finance documents, the omission of any solution to the tertiary funding problem was glaring. When hard copies of Nene’s 15-page speech were distributed, just one lame paragraph was devoted to the #FeesMustFall matter. The formalities of the budget lock-up proceeded like clockwork. Street protesters, who are regulars at these occasions, arrived at lunchtime, this year with #FeesMustFall paraphernalia.
Presiding officer Thoko Didiza opened the 2pm sitting of the House. She was rudely interrupted by the EFF’s appeal to postpone Nene’s speech so the House could respond to the crisis outside. Other opposition parties joined the ANC in voting against the EFF, which, although opportunistic, was in tune with the mood on the ground.
In what has become routine in the fifth Parliament, journalists anticipated covering the ejection of EFF members by the enthusiastic “white shirts”, the term used to describe parliamentary security. But the real drama erupted outside the House in the parliamentary precinct. Incredibly, Nene rattled through his speech, oblivious to the chaos outside. Not even the thunderous boom of stun grenades, which were flung around the Madiba statue, interrupted him.
It didn’t disturb President Jacob Zuma, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande or ANC and opposition MPs who remained cocooned in the House.
A missed opportunity, it will be hard to push aside these contrasting images of a parallel universe when MPs take to the podium on Tuesday to tackle the hashtag on everyone’s lips.
* This article was first published in various Media 24 titles on 25 and 26 October 2015

Political parties must break silence on funding

Transparency is important, until it comes to us.
This was the apt observation by the spokesperson of the Right2Know Campaign, Murray Hunter, about the hypocrisy of political parties in the wake of this week’s Constitutional Court dismissal of an application seeking to enforce the disclosure of private political funding.
The DA preaches transparency and accountability in almost all its public discourses.
Yet it would have quietly joined the ANC in welcoming the ruling that served a body blow to the campaign to get political parties to reveal who their funders are via Parliament.
The DA has been putting out many fires this week – from Dianne Kohler Barnard’s shared Facebook post praising PW Botha to the axing of convicted abaThembu King Dalindyebo.
But this distraction would not have been the reason for its masters of spin neglecting to issue a statement after the ruling on Wednesday – a day in which the party churned out at least six media statements.
The uncharacteristic coyness on the My Vote Counts ruling might have had more to do with the fact that the DA is reluctant to voluntarily advertise the awkward reality that when it comes to its coffers, the party is not brave enough to support transparency.
Much like the ANC, which has dithered for more than eight years on taking the promised action on this vexed issue.
When pushed to comment on the ruling, which ironically fell on the day of anti-corruption marches on Parliament and the Union Buildings, the DA’s James Selfe told Media24 that “in a perfect world”, there should be rules enforcing the disclosure for donations over a certain amount. But he said the ANC was intent on remaining in power at all costs.
“Therefore, there is a real or perceived belief by donors who give money to opposition parties that if their identities were disclosed, they would suffer real personal or financial danger.”
It would be naive to dismiss this, but the negative consequences of secrecy for voters are more severe.
Political donations are the common dirty thread that run through too many of the corruption scandals that have dented South Africa’s moral standing. This week’s revelations about murky multimillion-rand exchanges between Hitachi and the ANC’s Chancellor House are a case in point.
The DA is not a virgin to scandal either.
In 2002, a team of journalists led by the Cape Times’ Tony Weaver lifted the lid on shady financial exchanges between senior Western Cape DA leaders, and German fugitive and con man Jurgen Harksen.
A commission set up afterwards failed to uncover if Harksen’s generosity had extended to the party’s coffers.
The campaigners behind this week’s failed court bid are on the money on this principled issue. If politicians are serious about stopping the rot, they must stop waiting for a perfect world.
They needed to have acted already to unmask the sources of their privately generated incomes.
* This article was first published in various Media 24 titles on on 3 and 4 October