Counting the cost of not supporting the SABC

The public broadcaster stands out for its robust election coverage, which gauges and reflects the issues that truly concern South Africa’s citizens. We can’t afford to lose it.

The SABC is in the news at the moment, once again for all the wrong reasons. The board’s attempts to push forward with retrenchments has met with massive resistance and divided both it and the ruling party. 

Most of the attention has focused on the SABC’s financial crisis and bloated salary bill. What is being lost in these controversies, though, is a clear sense of why public broadcasting even matters to South Africa’s media and democracy more generally. 

Not helping matters is the fact that the top political parties have been less and less vocal about the importance of public broadcasting as the years have gone by. The government and regulator have failed to provide clear direction.

Slowly but surely, the SABC has fallen off the public policy agenda. Without wanting to detract from the corporation’s culpability for its own woes, to blame it and it alone for them is tantamount to blaming the victim in the situation. 

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Now, there can be little doubt that some of the SABC’s output is weak, even cringeworthy. But it has areas of strength and even excellence that can and must be built on. Nowhere is this more evident than in its election coverage, which provides solid, practical evidence of what can be achieved if the SABC is given support. 

Reflecting on the findings of book chapters I have written on the media coverage of the 2009, 2014 and 2019 national elections, it is clear to me that, time and again, the SABC has turned out excellent reporting. Even under the hugely controversial management of Snuki Zikalala and the wreckage left behind by Hlaudi Motsoeneng, somehow the newsroom managed to rise above its problems at those times and focus on the task at hand.

Fair but flawed

Election reporting is an area of strength in the South African media because coverage is, largely, fair and impartial. However, it also suffers from systemic weaknesses because it lacks depth, with journalists covering events rather than issues. There is a mismatch between the issues that matter to the electorate and the issues that the media cover. 

According to an Afrobarometer survey conducted in 2018, unemployment topped the list of the most important issues the government should address by a huge margin (34% of respondents), followed by crime (10%) then housing and corruption (both 8%). 

In the first quarter of 2019, Citizen Surveys also found that unemployment came out as the most important issue by far for the country at 73%, followed by crime (34%), poverty (25%) and corruption (23%). Yet the media prioritised reporting on election campaign trails and the internal machinations of political parties, as the graph below shows. 

Main topics across elections coverage in April 2019
Source: Media Monitoring Africa, with the graph recreated by the author

Time and again, the SABC has bucked these worrying trends with its election coverage and turned out much more robust reporting than other media.

In the run-up to the 2019 election, the SABC was consumed by governance and financial crises, and the broadcaster even faced insolvency. The board was unstable. Yet these problems notwithstanding, the SABC election coverage was extensive. Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) found that the SABC’s performance excelled in providing platforms for citizen voices. 

The SABC also focused more on substantive policy issues than other media, especially those affecting the working class. It also provided much more coverage to smaller parties, but sadly the broadcaster marginalised women as much as other media. 

Krivani Pillay, then the SABC’s election editor, told me in an interview at the time that the main contributor to its success was planning, which had started a year before the elections. What also assisted was that the editorial interference of the Jacob Zuma years had been replaced by an enabling and supportive editorial environment.

Grassroots conversations 

One of the most fascinating innovations was a Democracy Gauge, an online oral storytelling project. SABC staff conceptualised the gauge as a contribution to South Africa’s 25 years of democracy. It allowed people to rate the state of democracy in their own words from red to yellow or green, with journalists’ voices removed from the process. Journalists travelled far and wide to conduct interviews, providing a reach of which only the SABC is capable. 

The gauge was highly critical of the country’s democracy, highlighting corruption, a lack of jobs, clean water and housing, and difficulty in putting food on the table as major problems. Many people also indicated their intention either not to vote or to spoil their vote, suggesting high levels of discontent with the major parties and the electoral system as a whole.

Down the years, SABC radio has used its extensive footprint to cover a broader range of issues than the mainstream media. It has also led the way in “town hall”-style election debates and debates on party manifestos. SABC radio also held current affairs roadshows on its stations in which politicians engaged with citizens on issues pertinent to the election.

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Yet despite the SABC’s largely impressive performance on election coverage and its huge reach, political parties are increasingly bypassing the media and communicating with voters directly. Social media have become more central to their communication strategies. 

The major parties have realised that they are in trouble with young people, who are disengaging from electoral politics. Social media provide more direct avenues for influence over this coveted voting group than the conventional media allow. 

As a result, in the 2019 election, parties used more youth-oriented and influencer-led campaigning, combined with targeted direct-marketing techniques. Failing to learn from past mistakes, though, the parties used social media as broadcast media, telling people what to think rather than interacting and engaging in persuasion. 

Political lies and interference

As has been seen elsewhere, the danger of this shift towards social media communication is that parties can manipulate the platforms to exaggerate public support, plant false information, derail public discourse and undermine an election’s integrity. This is not scaremongering: Twitter was manipulated to shore up Zuma’s dying presidency. 

A 2018 investigation by data scientist Kyle Findlay found evidence of political interference on South African Twitter, although not nearly on the same level experienced in other countries. Interference took the form of fake accounts seeding content, bots amplifying the content, and prominent personalities with a sizeable social media following retweeting the content, possibly for money.

Alert to these dangers and using the social media analytics tools Mecodify and SocioViz, I tracked usage trends of the major political parties and their supporters on Twitter. If each party’s following was anything to go by, the EFF was the most popular party on Twitter and it also did the most to grow its presence on the platform since the previous election. 

Party12 April 20142 May 2019% growth in new followers since 2014
ANC111 701650 000582
DA72 495551 000760
EFF40 668740 0001 820
Twitter followers by political party, 2014-2019. Source: Twitter and author

Overwhelmingly, the parties themselves were most active on the #VoteEFF, #VoteDA and #VoteANC hashtags, engaging in massive self-promotion. However, EFF and DA leaders were much more popular than their parties. 

Activity on the #VoteEFF hashtag revolved around the parties’ leaders, especially Julius Malema, Floyd Shivambu and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. Taking on a hub-and-spoke pattern, these interactions displayed graphically the party’s “big man” politics. 

Twitter network visualisation of responses to the #VoteEFF hashtag between 1 March and 14 May 2019. (Source: Twitter and author, using Mecodify)

The top 20 tweeters in terms of volume on the #VoteDA hashtag were long-standing members of Twitter. While most Twitter activity clustered around the DA’s official account and the party’s then leader, Mmusi Maimane, other less prominent networks formed outside of these clusters, suggesting less personalisation of its Twitter presence than that of the EFF.

Twitter network visualisation of responses to the #VoteDA hashtag between 1 March and 14 May 2019. (Source: Twitter and author, using Mecodify)

An analysis of the #VoteANC hashtag revealed a much denser network of tweeters. Six of the top 20 tweeters in terms of volume (including retweets by others) were individuals who joined Twitter either late in March or April and had between 50 and 300 followers, yet were achieving hundreds of retweets. Their Twitter activity dropped off significantly after the elections. 

The activity suggested that the ANC’s presence was manipulated to boost and exaggerate its support. It is unclear whether people were paid to do so.

Twitter network visualisation of responses to the #VoteANC hashtag between 1 March and 14 May 2019. (Source: Twitter and author, using Mecodify)

South Africa’s extremely high levels of unemployment and inequality continue only because the unemployed lack a significant voice in the country’s politics and public life. Particularly shocking is the systemic underrepresentation of women. The media and political parties have both contributed to this spiral of silence. 

Parties will be tempted to run down the most popular and accessible media, and especially the SABC, to make it easier to manipulate and control public opinion. While politicians may recognise its importance in theory, in practice they may feel threatened by a truly independent, on-the-ground, broadcaster. A “democracy gauge” is an embarrassment to them, as it speaks to their failings, and the failings of electoral democracy more generally. 

This is not an abstract, feel-good argument for public support for yet another ailing state-owned enterprise. As its election coverage shows, the SABC can and does deliver the goods, and if given the right support, it can do even more. 

Funding content

In this regard, it is entirely apposite for the Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, known as SOS, to argue for public funding to be ring-fenced for quality content that cannot be funded by other means. The SABC cannot be expected to continue with an unfunded programming mandate. At the same, there is little doubt that the SABC spends far too much on salaries relative to content, which is why ring-fencing makes so much sense. 

The global shift to the Right has damaged the cause of public broadcasting. South Africa is lucky in that it does not have a hard-right populist movement anywhere near the levers of political power. But that could change. 

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Elements of authoritarian populism are visible in the growing xenophobia on social media, in broader society and in the state. It would not take much for an opportunistic politician to galvanise these currents into a political movement, and if this happens, then we could be in trouble. 

There are the naysayers who argue that South Africa cannot afford to fund the SABC and that there are more pressing demands on the fiscus. Those naysayers should be asking themselves what the cost would be of a Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Narendra Modi running the country, especially when the next pandemic comes round. 

Jane Duncan is the head of the department of journalism, film and television at the University of Johannesburg. This article is based on a book chapter titled “Beyond the botnets: the media and the 2019 general election” in Election 2019: Change and Stability in South Africa’s Democracy, which is edited by Collette Schulz-Herzenberg and Roger Southall and published by Jacana Media.

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