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The case of the SABC

The democratization process in transitional societies globally - including in Africa - has been ‘far from uniform’, and one needs to question the extent to which changes in these countries constituted thoroughgoing transformation of society or rather resulted in the repositioning of, or partnerships between, elites, as mentioned above (Sparks, 2009). In South Africa for example, the democratization of the political sphere, ushered in an ostensibly transformed broadcasting mediascape with the SABC leading the changes in its move to transform itself from a state to a public broadcaster (Duncan, 2000). The SABC developed and implemented transformation strategies in key areas such as programming and news and current affairs.These changes supposedly marked a radical break with the ethos of the old apartheid-era state broadcaster.

Duncan, however, is sceptical about the extent to which these changes have been effective. She notes that it is less acknowledged that there are many continuities between the old and the new order that involve ‘... an eerie convergence of interests ... [that] severely curtails the Corporation’s ability to become a bona fide public broadcaster’ (Duncan, 2000: 53). Added to this, the commercialization of the public broadcasting space means a continuation of audience segmentation, possibly reflecting a reconstitution of old apartheid identities, which goes against the stated post-apartheid commitment to non-racialism (Jacobs, 2004). In fact, the numerous problems facing PSB as an institution in post-apartheid South Africa are well documented.

Recent years have for example seen a downward spiral of financial woes for the public broadcaster, coupled with increasing concerns about political interference

(milton, 2018; Khosa and Khosa, 2019). Its editorial code emphasizes the SABC’s autonomy, including journalistic, creative and programming independence of its staff. It gives special importance to protecting the freedom of expression of the SABC’s audiences. However, faith in the SABC’s autonomy is dwindling, with scholars suggesting that ‘[ajlthough care should be taken not to overstate the case of government interference in broadcasting in South Africa, it would appear that a number of high-profile incidents between 2002 and 2008, are suggesting a shift for the SABC from public broadcaster into his master’s voice’ (Louw and milton, 2012: 267).

In the face of threats to media freedom and freedom of expression in the past two decades, South African civil society has organized and picketed the SABC. They also instituted court cases to challenge the broadcaster’s approach to censorship and journalistic freedom. A case in point is when, in 2016, civil society joined journalists in approaching authorities to rule on the lawfulness of a decree by the then Chief Operating Officer of the SABC to ban political and service delivery protests. The fall-out of this de-facto censorship resulted, perhaps for the first time in 30 years, in public interest from the broader community of viewers in the role and function of the SABC. Media workers joined with viewers and civil society to protest by picketing and disregarding decrees that interfered with journalistic freedom and professionalism. When the latter resulted in the SABC firing the journalists involved in the protest, there was a defiant show of solidarity when their colleagues wore black on the very same broadcasts.

The pressure resulted in a temporary cease-fire. The former COO was forced to reverse his belligerent position and had to agree to stop censorship of images related to protest action and to reinstate the fired journalists. These responses and their resultant impact on the threats to media freedom and freedom of expression, demonstrate that South Africa’s democracy is very much alive and kicking. As such, the SABC can be seen as a metaphor for South African society: it is unsettled, it is in transition and is, in many ways, not unlike the society it represents and reflects. Take, for example, the policy contradictions inherent in the SABC’s editorial policies, which mirror the shifts and changes in the fledgling post-colonial democratic context.

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