“Of course, now that it’s been 25 years since the fall of apartheid, we are all puzzled by the fact that inequality is not only still very high in South Africa, but has been rising and, in some way, income inequality is even higher today than 20 years ago, which is extremely puzzling for all of us,” said renowned economist Thomas Piketty when he gave the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Soweto on 3 October.

“And we all have in mind the very violent episodes at Marikana three years ago, and we know from historical experience that if inequality is not addressed through peaceful means and peaceful democratic institutions, it’s always potentially a source of violence, and of course, this can happen again. More generally, I would argue that we now need to think harder about how to secure effective rights, including the right to work for a decent wage, the right to quality education, the right to have access to property, and finally, and maybe most importantly, the right to real economic and political democracy, including sharing of economic power in companies and participatory governance in the public and private sector.”

Piketty was talking about inequality, the subject of his landmark book, Capital in the 21st Century, as an SABC film crew filmed the address and broadcasted it live to its 24-hour news channel. But only South Africans who subscribe to the dsTV pay-TV bouquet could watch the broadcast. The 7.9 million television-owning households without dsTV were denied access.

 

Just two days before Piketty’s address, on 1 October, the R553-million contract that allows for the SABC 24-hour news channel to be currently broadcast on dsTV exclusively was being contested in front of the Competition Tribunal. In the contract, signed by MultiChoice and the SABC in July 2013, the SABC agreed to supply two new channels to MultiChoice – a 24-hour news channel and an entertainment channel, SABC Encore, which pulls popular shows from the SABC archive to create a nostalgic look back into South Africa’s broadcasting past.

The contract has been heavily criticised by industry stakeholders and civil society groups, who argue that deal is anticompetitive.

Before the tribunal, publisher Caxton and civil society members the Save Our SABC Coalition and Media Monitoring Africa contested that the contract was effectively a merger, with the SABC selling off the “crown jewels” to the pay-TV giant. In affidavits, Caxton chief executive Terry Moolman argues that, through the agreement, MultiChoice “acquired control” over the SABC’s TV broadcasting policy as well as its programme archives.

Moolman argues in his affidavits that the SABC supported encryption for the digital terrestrial television (DTT) set-top boxes before the deal was signed, and that this change of policy gave MultiChoice a “powerful tool to lobby government”. But the SABC and MultiChoice deny Moolman’s allegations.

The SABC and MultiChoice vehemently defended the contract as a “run-of-the-mill” channel-supply agreement. They argued that they are not buying the archive, and that SABC Encore was a “modest channel” in a “very small transaction”. Representing Caxton, the SOS Coalition and Media Monitoring Africa, advocate Steven Budlender said that this was not a “random moment in time”, but a “watershed moment” in the broadcasting landscape because of the soon-to-be-launched DTT platform. He described the contract as “deeply unusual”, and the archive material that made up the entertainment channel as having “considerable value”. Budlender argued that not only does the contract give MultiChoice access to the two channels, but it also gives it access to the SABC’s three existing channels and any future channels it launches on the DTT platform.

 

The backdrop to the contract between the SABC and MultiChoice is the DTT migration, and that set-top boxes will be required to receive digital television. Government plans to subsidise the distribution of millions of set-top boxes needed to convert the new digital signal into a form that can still be received by old-fashioned TV sets. Depending on whether government policy allows the signal to be encrypted so that set-top boxes act as decoders, with a technology known as “conditional access”, the proliferation of set-top boxes would allow new pay channels and services alongside the existing free channels on the SABC and e.tv. Without conditional access, new service providers would have no way of using the set-top boxes for paid-for services, and MultiChoice’s virtual monopoly would be secured.

When former communications minister Yunus Carrim tabled a final policy decision in Cabinet in December 2013 allowing conditional access, it represented a major threat to MultiChoice. But the pay-TV operator waged a campaign to overturn Carrim’s policy, with some critics claiming MultiChoice crossed the line between acceptable lobbying and dictating state policy.

The result was that Faith Muthambi, the new minister appointed by President Jacob Zuma after last year’s elections, dramatically reversed the policy in March this year. It is unclear what led Muthambi to do this, but her decision to remove conditional access from DTT migration flies in the face of ANC policy, which favours conditional access.

Both the South African Communist Party (SACP) and labour federation Cosatu have called for the implementation of the 2013 Cabinet decision.  The SACP says MultiChoice’s campaign was successful in “having the policy reversed”, and says the campaign was one of the crudest forms of “corporate capture”.

 

On 2 October, Blade Nzimande addressed a summit on media transformation hosted by the SACP in a non-descript convention hall in Kempton Park. The summit aimed to discuss the state of South African media, and hosted members of the SACP, civil society, the ANC, the private sector, the South African National Editors’ Forum, and members of the mainstream media.

“We are outraged as the SACP of this takeover of the SABC by MultiChoice,” said Nzimande. “We liberated the SABC from the National Party and the Broederbond only in 2014 to hand it back to the Broederbond, who own Naspers. We feel this arrangement has come very cheap for MultiChoice.”

A few months ago, an SACP insider told The Con that the SACP was prepared to fight Zuma over the DTT encryption decision and the contract between the SABC and MultiChoice. As it was described to The Con, the plan was not to challenge Zuma directly, but to take out the flanks, which are Muthambi and SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng. And it appears the gloves are off. This fight is probably going to spill over into other areas of South African politics.

The SACP called for a focus on Naspers, a super monopoly in South Africa’s media sector with its roots reaching back more than a century, into the heart of the Broederbond, the organisation that conceived apartheid. “Breaking up the Naspers monopoly is vital – and may require drastic solutions,” reads the declaration. “The deal between MultiChoice and the SABC in respect of archived content also stands to disadvantage the country in respect of revenue generation. The deal must be reversed.”

The SABC also came in for a grilling. The SACP referred to “forces” who have “gained hold” of the SABC for their own narrow interests. “Stern action must be taken to root out corruption, abuse of office, and corporate capture at the SABC.” The department of communications also received criticism for its role in reversing Cabinet’s decision on set-top box encryption.

On 12 October, the news broke that the ANC had requested an urgent meeting with Muthambi to discuss the reversal of the government policy on encryption. “The meeting is urgent,” the ANC’s Jackson Mthembu told Business Day. “Yes, we are going to meet with her so that we get exactly what the intentions are and whether we’ll be able to achieve what we wanted to achieve as the ANC and for the people of South Africa.”

Perhaps pre-empting that Naspers was likely to be in the firing line, Media24’s chief executive, Esmaré Weideman, penned an article published on the Daily Maverick on 1 October, titled, ‘Media24: We’re not as “white male” as you think’.

“One of the difficulties with being the country’s biggest publisher is that you’re generally the first in the firing line,” writes Weideman. “At Media24, we accept that this goes with the territory. We also acknowledge that the industry still has a long way to go before it can claim to be truly representative of South African society, and that it is correct to focus on the need for transformation. But we believe it would be wrong to ignore the tremendous progress that has already been made.” Weideman continued to rattle off a whole host of statistics to show the company has met its employment equity goals at every level.

 

On 8 October, the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed Motsoeneng’s appeal against a Western Cape High Court ruling. In October 2014, the court ruled Motsoeneng be suspended until a disciplinary hearing against him had been finalised. Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report, released in February 2014 found, “pathological corporate governance deficiencies at the SABC”, including Motsoeneng’s appointment as acting chief operating officer and his salary hike – from R1.5 million to R2.4 million in one fiscal year. Madonsela also found that Motsoeneng had fraudulently misrepresented to the SABC that he had a matric qualification, which contributed to the Supreme Court of Appeal ruling that Motsoeneng be suspended. Former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has celebrated the judgement publicly.

In the position paper the SACP released for its media summit, the party states that the SABC “increasingly operates as an independent fiefdom, accountable only to itself”, and admits that fixing the SABC is possible only if Motsoeneng is removed.

It’s clear that Motsoeneng’s back is against the wall, with ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe publicly questioning his appointment. But Muthambi, who reports directly to Zuma, backs Motsoeneng.

There’s apparently some conflict brewing between the government under Zuma and the tripartite alliance. How this conflict is resolved, politically or via the courts, is going to be interesting to watch. And its outcome will be vital for the future of our media sector, particularly television.

 

 

Photo Credit: Oupa Nkosi


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