The Zombie of Auckland Park

Andrew Donaldson on our not-living-but-not-dead public broadcaster, and other spooky topics


WITH Hallowe’en in the offing, I was expecting something macabre and other worldly but not quite as horrific as this. Like a scalded black cat, the headline leapt out at me from the news feed in the dark witching hours before dawn: “‘We cannot let the SABC die’ — exec speaks out on TV licences and saving the public broadcaster”.

I sat bolt upright in bed. The South African Broadcasting Corporation is still alive? How in the name of heck can this be? Was the plug not pulled on this necrotic zombie some years back before leaving it to rot on the hill in Auckland Park? 

It had indeed, and it’s now very much dead from the neck upwards. But here it is, all the same, lumbering about the place and crashing into the furniture like a punch-drunk ghoul. 

It wants money, apparently. Which is scary enough but hardly surprising. According to Sylvia Tladi, said “exec” and head of Dithering Heights’ TV licences division, the corporation should be kept on life support at all costs and, in order for this to happen, it must leech on the vital sap of profitable subscription services and mobile phone companies. It is simply not able to suck enough tom from viewers and last year reported a net loss of almost R500 million.

“The furthest we have gone as the SABC,” Tladi told TimesLIVE earlier this week, “is to use debt collection [to recover licence fees], and that is not sufficient. It helps but is not enough for us to be able to collect the type of revenue that the SABC requires and that we are required to collect in terms of the Broadcasting Act.”

Tladi was echoing comments by communications deputy minister Pinky Kekana. She recently told a parliamentary portfolio committee that the legislation regarding TV licences was outmoded, and must be amended to include such devices as laptop computers, cellphones, tablets and other devices. 

“Regulation is needed on pay service providers like MultiChoice and subscription video on demand providers like Netflix to collect TV licences on behalf of the SABC, similar to municipalities collecting traffic fines and motor vehicle disc fines from motorists,” Kekana was quoted as saying. “The [definition of] TV licence is outdated and needs to be adjusted to current realities. We also have other platforms where people consume content and in all of those areas, that is where we should look at how we are able to get SABC licence fees from those gadgets.”

The key word here, of course, is “content”. Bluntly speaking, the SABC has very little to show for itself, and even less for viewers. I had a brief look over their schedules for Saturday. Dire, to say the least.

Entertainment-wise, SABC3’s big movie is the so-so 2003 legal thriller, Runaway Jury. For football fans, there’s hours of stuff from the Bundesliga, which is okay if you follow German football. There’s more sport on SABC1, but no indication of what exactly. It’s sandwiched between a Generations: The Legacy omnibus, packaged for those soapie fans who missed it during the week, and Big Momma’s House 2, an appalling comedy starring the decidedly unfunny Martin Lawrence. Over on SABC2, viewers into pop nostalgia could take in American Soul, a glossy drama series based on the legendary 1970s music show, Soul Train. “Not the hippest,” one critic noted, “but still a trip.” Those then are the highlights.

As for news and current affairs … well, let’s not even go there. All told, it is glaringly obvious why viewers aren’t paying their TV licences.

The SABC is not the only national broadcaster to have been caught napping by the streaming services and all they offer. But it is only Auckland Park who turned to a blithering idiot, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, to lead them against their digital competitors. While this delusional narcissist is not solely to blame for the parlous state of affairs at the corporation, he is symptomatic of the national broadcaster’s dizzying collapse into utter irrelevancy.

Motsoeneng began his career with the SABC in the Free State in 1996 as a junior reporter. Colleagues report that he walked in to the job without socks from dusty QwaQwa, but by 2003 he had advanced to become a current affairs executive producer for Lesedi FM. In 2006, he was suspended after facing internal charges of racism, dishonesty, disruption and SABC policy violations. The following year, he was fired for lying about his matric qualifications.

Amazingly, he was back at the SABC in 2009, and within nine months, acting COO. The rest we know: the wholesale abuse of power; the blocking of all critical reporting on Jacob Zuma; the bullying and intimidation of journalists — which culminated in the death of Suna Venter; the bizarre 90 per cent local content ruling; the monstrous salary increases he gave himself; the brainless press statements; the culture of impunity among his executive appointments. And this while the broadcaster was losing money hand over fist. He was fired in June 2017, after an internal disciplinary hearing found that he had lied about his qualifications, fired and retrenched staff at will and violated policy in regard to salary increases.

Eighteen months later, he launched his political party, the African Content Movement, with a 2019 election manifesto that demonstrated he was still peaking in the red on the deludo-meter. When he was elected president, and of that there was no doubt in his fevered imagination, the country would produce 90 per cent of all its requirements, its economy would be placed firmly in the hands of the people, foreign companies would be forced to leave the country for good and social grants would be reduced, oddly enough.

Amazingly, a staggering 4 481 people voted for Motsoeneng’s ACM. Granted, it was just 0.03 per cent of the total vote. But, still …  4 481 voters actually fell for his bilge? 

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) there is some concern that, should government force MultiChoice, the cellphone companies and the subscription services to bankroll the SABC, then Motsoeneng will probably be back for a third stint at Dithering Heights, throwing his weight around its dusty corridors looking for more reporters to bother. Could it be? It’s a scary thought, and not just because it’s Hallowe’en.

Things that go bump in the night 

That said, it’s safe to assume that Motsoeneng’s public life is otherwise finished. But the wonder-yokel’s indomitable spirit appears to endure in cultural affairs north of the Limpopo — if, that is, the alt.success of last Sunday’s star-studded Anti-Sanctions Drive virtual gala concert is any indication. 

According to reports, this all-night thrash, live-streamed from Bulawayo’s Rainbow Hotel, drew as many as 14 viewers to the ruling Zanu-PF’s Facebook page. This after earnest appeals from such happening acts as the Light Machine Gun Choir and gospel singer Mechanic Manyeruke that the nation “speak with one voice” against the Western sanctions crippling Zimbabwe. The nation, alas, spoke with another voice. Either that, or there were bandwidth issues.

The concert was the highpoint of events marking the first anniversary of the October 25 declaration at the 2019 South African Development Community summit committing member states to unite on this date each year and demand an end to the economic sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by the West. 

Because he’s one of those eager-to-please guys, Cyril Ramaphosa had rashly signed up for this nonsense. After all, the other SADC leaders were on board as well, weren’t they? But now the Buffalo’s honour-bound to be all big shirty with the very same people that he must convince that he is stably steering us all to a sounder economic future; to tick them off about sanctions and call for their immediate and unconditional lifting.

The thing, of course, is that there are no economic sanctions against Zimbabwe. There are however travel bans and asset freezes targeting President Emmerson Mnangangwa and individual members of his coterie of friends accused of gross rights abuses. As Melanie Robinson, Britiain’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, has tweeted: “What needs to be said: #itsnotsanctions, it’s #corruption that drives away investors & leaves teachers, doctors, nurses & services struggling. Sanctions don’t hurt ordinary citizens. Zimbabweans must be free to expose corruption, rights abuses & see perpetrators face justice.”

I wonder now about Cyril’s Hallowe’en costume. Will he traipse about the Trick or Treat trail dressed as Schizo-Squirrel, a superhero whose supine powers render all and sundry blind to appalling double standards? Perhaps Schizo-Squirrel as even blinded himself to reality, and simply cannot understand that Zimbabwe’s economic destitution will not improve so long as the Mnangangster  continues with his thuggish behaviour. 

This is weird, as Ramaphosa and his comrades seemed to know how sanctions worked back in the 1980s.

The great pumpkin

This time next week, it’ll probably be all over bar the shouting. And, trust me, the shouting is very much expected. There will be no such thing as going quietly. Ninety days must pass before Joe Biden is sworn in as US president and, as far as Donald Trump is concerned, this will not be a time of quiet contemplation and reflection on the last four years. Far from it.

Apart from the threat of public violence from far-right militia, a number of commentators suggest that it’s going to be a winter of raging lawyers engaged in lawsuits against individual states, claiming fraud at the polls. There are fears the US attorney general, Bill Barr, will even go so far as to attempt a coup by manipulating the Supreme Court. In addition, there is speculation that Trump may resign the presidency some weeks before Inauguration Day on January 20, and get Mike Pence to pardon him for a slew of offences, like bank fraud and tax evasion. 

As I write, The Economist’s interactive poll aggregator suggests Trump has a five per cent chance of winning. But his supporters dismiss such predictions as fake. They point to the fact that he was behind in 2016 and won nonetheless and shout down anyone who argues that he is losing the “heartlands” support that helped him beat Hillary Clinton. 

In its editorial on the election, The Spectator, hardly a left-wing publication, suggested that a Biden presidency may just be what the US needs. “For many,” the magazine said, “the four years of Trump have been a horror show which, angry tweet by angry tweet, has reduced America’s standing in the world. Trump never seemed to make the transition from an incumbent anti-establishment candidate to a president. To continue to behave as an insurgent when you are the most powerful man in the world is absurd.” That’s as fitting a post mortem as any.

Magic Grandpa’s Jewish problem

On this side of the pond, a bitter battle for the “far middle” of Britain’s Labour Party is looming following its “day of shame”. After reading the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s damning report on the party’s handling of anti-semitism within its ranks under predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, Sir Keir Starmer declared that “those who deny there is a problem are part of the problem. Those who pretend it is exaggerated or factional are part of the problem.”

What did Corbyn do? Immediately after those words were uttered, he declared that the “scale of the problem was dramatically overstated by our opponents inside and outside the party” and that it was “all factional”. Starmer suspended him immediately. Some would say Magic Grandpa made it easy for Starmer, who says he has no regrets about his decision — even though it is one that threatens to split Labour and has unleashed a torrent on Twitter about conspiracies to purge the party of its extreme left.

But, hey, that’s leadership. You do what you have to do. Starmer said he wasn’t going to tolerate anti-semitism in Labour’s ranks, and he meant it. Would that other party leaders elsewhere in the world were as brutally swift and uncompromising when it came to housecleaning.