Author: Gavin Davis

Member of Parliament in South Africa. Previously Communications Director at the Democratic Alliance.

Matric 2016: Numbers can be deceiving

By Gavin Davis

Now that the dust is settling on the 2016 matric results, it is worth reflecting on the numbers to see what they tell us about the state of basic education in our country.

Our national obsession with the pass rate – fuelled by the national Department of Basic Education (DBE) – tells us that, nationally, we have improved from a national pass rate of 70,7% in 2015 to a pass rate of 72,5%.

It is unfortunate that this nominal improvement is taken as a sign that the “system is on the rise” – to use the somewhat clumsy parlance of the DBE.

For one thing, the pass rate is but one indicator of whether the system is moving in the right direction or not. How are we doing in maths and science, the two subjects critical for our country’s development? How many learners attained access to tertiary education? What was the gap between the best performing schools and the worst? Is it closing or widening? And so on.

The pass rate can also mask what is really happening behind the numbers. This is because the pass rate is expressed as a percentage of the learners who wrote, and doesn’t take into consideration the learners who dropped out of the system. But we need to remember that it is possible for a school, district or province to attain a higher pass rate simply by ensuring that fewer weaker learners write the exam.

Take the Free State, for example. The Grade 12 (matric) class of 2016 was the Grade 10 class of 2014. In 2014, there were 55 293 learners enrolled in Grade 10 in the Free State. But, in 2016, only 26 786 of those learners actually wrote matric. If we look at the number of learners in the Free State who obtained a matric pass (23 629) and divide them by the number of learners who enrolled in Grade 10 in 2014, we can calculate a ‘real pass rate’ of 43%.

Now let us compare this with the Western Cape. In 2014, there were 75 791 learners enrolled in Grade 10. In 2016, 50 869 of those learners wrote matric and 43 716 passed. Using the same method as for the Free State above, we can calculate a ‘real pass rate’ for the Western Cape of 58%.

In other words, the Free State’s claim to be the best performing province (with a pass rate of 88,2% compared with the Western Cape’s 86.0%) is misleading. Any assessment of performance must take into account the number of learners retained in the system. It is clear that, in the Free State, relatively fewer learners make it to matric, which is why the pass rate is high.

The national picture is illuminating in this regard. In 2014, 1 100 877 learners enrolled for Grade 10, but only 442 672 went on to pass matric in 2016. This gives us a national ‘real pass rate’ of 40%. We need to start asking questions about what happened to these learners. Did they exit the system? If so, why? Or are they stuck in Grade 10 or 11, unable to progress?

Another aspect of the system that we need to question is the manner in which the matric papers are standardised by Umalusi, the quality council for education.

We know that 32 of the 58 matric subjects had their marks adjusted this year during the standardisation process. Of the 32 adjusted subjects, 28 had their marks adjusted upwards and four downwards.

Some of the subjects saw a dramatic upwards adjustment. Mathematical Literacy, for example, was adjusted from a mean raw score of 30,06% to 37,22% — an upwards adjustment in the mark of 7,16%. According to Umalusi, it was justified in raising the raw marks to bring them in line with the historical mean (from 2011 to 2016) which, in the case of Mathematical Literacy, was 37,20%.

Now, it is true that an upward (or downward) adjustment may be warranted if it can be shown that the examinations were demonstrably harder (or easier) than previous years. I have asked for evidence that the papers were more cognitively demanding, but Umalusi has been strangely reluctant to provide it. This is despite Umalusi’s stated commitment to “making its processes transparent to all who have an interest in the examinations”.

Umalusi’s reluctance to provide evidence fuels the suspicion that the upward adjustments in many subjects was not due to the papers being more difficult, but for other reasons. And to understand this, we need to look to the impact of including ‘progressed’ learners in the standardisation process.

A progressed learner is a learner who was pushed through to matric despite not meeting the pass requirement for Grade 11, in line with the Department’s progression policy. This is the second year that the progression policy has been in force.  According to Umalusi, 109 400 progressed learners (13,4% of the total enrolment) wrote the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination in 2016, up from 66 088 in 2015.

In other words, there was a significant increase in the number of weaker students (i.e. progressed learners) who wrote the NSC this year compared to previous years. This raises the question of whether the inclusion of progressed learners in the standardisation process leads to certain anomalies.

Let us go back to the example of Mathematical Literacy to illustrate. This year, according to Umalusi, 389 015 learners wrote Maths Literacy. We do not know precisely how many of these were progressed learners, but it is likely that most progressed learners would have opted for Maths Literacy instead of the more cognitively demanding Mathematics (it is compulsory to do one or the other). This means that as many as one in four learners who wrote Maths Literacy could have been progressed learners.

Given this injection of weaker learners into the cohort who wrote Maths Literacy, it follows that the drop in the subject’s raw mark (30,06%) from the historical mean (37,20%) may not have been to the increased cognitive demand of the examinations, but because of the increased number of weaker, progressed learners who wrote the examinations.

Under these circumstances, adjusting the mean raw score up by 7,16% to 37,22% would not be justified. This is because it would mean artificially inflating the marks of progressed learners simply because they were weaker and not because the papers were more difficult. And, like a rising tide that lifts all boats, the marks of non-progressed learners would be adjusted upwards as well.

Could it be that the inclusion of progressed learners in the standardisation process creates additional impetus to adjust the marks upwards, for reasons not related to the cognitive demand of the papers? And, if so, would this not mean that the marks will end up higher than previous years when there were no progressed learners?

Like with any statistical analysis, the numbers can be deceiving – especially if they are massaged in a certain direction or reported on selectively. Our job – as parliamentarians, journalists members of civil society and citizens – is to dig behind the numbers to get a clearer picture of reality.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Basic Education. This article appeared in Rapport (‘Slaagsyfer vertel nie ware storie nie’) on 8 January 2017 and in The Daily Maverick on 9 January 2017.

The Return of Bantu Education?

By Gavin Davis

All of us have been shaken by the 24 schools that were burned to the ground in Vuwani, Limpopo, in the last week.

Whichever way you look at it, these acts of vandalism have set us back in our task of redressing the legacy of unequal education in our country.

In 1953, Hendrik Verwoerd introduced the reprehensible policy of Bantu Education. This policy limited the educational opportunities of black South Africans to ensure a steady supply of unskilled and semi-skilled labour.

Thirteen years later, in the Chamber of the National Assembly, Verwoerd was stabbed to death by one of the parliamentary service officers. The only thing tragic about that day was that Verwoerd’s policies didn’t die with him.

Indeed, Verwoerd’s ghost continues to haunt us.

Because, if you are a poor, black child, your chances of getting a decent education in a democratic South Africa are still very remote. And the uncomfortable truth, is that the gap in our education system is getting wider.

Just look at the facts.

In schools in the most affluent areas (‘quintile 5’ schools), the matric pass rate has remained steady at above 90% over the past three years.

But in schools in the poorest areas, (‘quintile one’ schools), the matric pass rate has dropped from 70.3% to 61.6% in the last three years.

In these schools, the physical science pass rate has dropped from 60.5% to 49.9%. The mathematics pass rate has dropped from 48.6% to 36.9%.

What is going wrong?

It is not a question of funding. The Basic Education Budget stands at R219 billion – almost one-fifth of the total national budget.

And, quite correctly, the state spends six times more on learners in poor areas than learners in more affluent areas.

So how is that, two decades into our democracy, poor black children are falling behind?

The answer lies in the quantity and quality of teaching.

The truth is that, for every excellent and dedicated teacher in a disadvantaged school, there are many more who can’t teach and many more who won’t teach.

And this problem will not go away until we break the SADTU protection racket that shields under-performing teachers from accountability.

In this regard, Minister Motshekga’s plan to licence and professionalise teaching is a step in the right direction.

SADTU will no doubt try and block this proposal. We hope that Minister Motshekga finds the courage that has so far eluded her when it comes to releasing the ‘Jobs for Cash’ report.

If it ever sees the light of day, the ‘Jobs for Cash’ report will show that SADTU has captured six out of nine provincial education departments. We trust that Minister Motshekga’s failure to release the report does not mean that she has been captured by SADTU as well.

Minister Motshekga has made much of her Department’s proposal for a ‘three-tier’ system made up of an academic stream, a technical stream and an occupational stream.

In principle, the introduction of technical and occupational streams for learners who do not have the aptitude for the traditional academic stream is to be welcomed.

We must be wary, however, of the target to offer 60% of all learners occupational subjects like hairdressing, beauty care, nail technology, upholstery and bricklaying by 2030.

We must be cautious because weak schools will be under pressure to push failing learners into the occupational stream – even if these learners could have coped in an academic stream had they received better schooling.

Take Kwabhamu Junior Secondary in Zululand, for example, one of the twenty-two schools that obtained a zero percent pass rate in the matric exams last year. The thirty-seven matric learners at this school didn’t fail because they were in the wrong stream. They failed because the school system failed them.

The policy of Bantu Education was reprehensible because it limited the educational opportunities of poor, black learners. We must make sure that the ‘three-stream’ approach does not do the same.

On that note, there is another potentially retrograde step in the offing. And that is the dilution of School Governing Body powers as contemplated in the Draft Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill.

School Governing Bodies give communities a voice in how schools are run. They are the difference between a public school system in a democracy, and a state school system in an authoritarian regime such as Apartheid.

We cannot redress the legacy of the past by mimicking the past. We must guard against the return of Bantu Education. And we must never go back to the state school system of the Apartheid era.

The only way to exorcise Verwoerd’s ghost is by improving the quality and quantity of teaching in disadvantaged schools. This means breaking SADTU’s stranglehold on our public education system, so that every child is given a chance to succeed.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Basic Education. This is an edited version of a speech delivered in the debate on the budget of the Basic Education Department. It appeared in the Daily Maverick on 10 May 2016.

Silent majority: A crisis is brewing in basic education

By Gavin Davis

In the background of the student protests stand the silent majority – young, mainly black, South Africans deprived of a decent basic education in a democratic South Africa. Many don’t finish school, let alone university. If the student movement is a fuse, this silent majority may well be the powder keg.

Many people warned the government about an impending student fees crisis, including a ministerial committee chaired by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Yet the government was caught flatfooted by the conflagration that engulfed universities, Parliament and the very seat of its power at the Union Buildings over the last fortnight.

The government’s knowledge of the coming crisis, and lack of will to do anything about it, tells us a great deal about the state of our democracy. It shows what happens when a governing party is unresponsive to the needs of its citizens, secure in the belief that it will be returned to power no matter how badly it governs.

It is utterly confounding to see leaders of the student protest movement draped in African National Congress colours as they march on the party’s headquarters at Luthuli House. They seem oblivious to the idea that blind electoral loyalty to the governing party, regardless of its performance in government, is the very reason it has failed them.

If people want a responsive government, they need to use the power of their vote to put it under pressure. Otherwise, the only way to get the government to act will be through riots, shutdowns and protest. This is not what the struggle for democracy was about.

In a functioning democracy, it is incumbent on the government to gauge and process all pressing societal demands, not just the demands of those who shout loudest. Few interest groups are as organised and as vocal as the students have been. As a result, it can take years for some crises to manifest themselves as conspicuously as the university-funding crisis has in the last few weeks. By then, it is often too late.

Indeed, as unfashionable as it may sound, there is a crisis brewing that is far graver than affordable university fees. And that is the failure of our school system to give every child access to a quality basic education.

Far from engaging in mass protest, South Africa has been lulled into a sense of complacency when it comes to the quality of schooling. Every year, the Matric pass rate is celebrated and easy victories are claimed. Statistics indicating near-universal access to basic education are held up as proof of a good story to tell. The comparatively well-run Department of Basic Education and level-headedness of Minister Angie Motshekga go some way towards reassuring the nation that everything is on track.

But we know, deep down, that something is very, very wrong with our school system.

Those who finish school with marks good enough to get into university can count themselves among the fortunate few. Of the total number of pupils who entered Grade 1 in 2003, only 36% passed the National Senior Certificate in 2014, and just 14% qualified for admission to a university degree.

Meanwhile, the 86% who didn’t make it to university are struggling to find work. According to the latest South Africa Survey, the unemployment rate among those whose highest level of education is Matric stands at 33.2%. By contrast, the unemployment rate for those with a degree is much less at 7.6%.

On top of this, despite a steady increase of black students into universities over the last two decades, deep racial inequalities persist. Only 12% of black South Africans and 14.3% of coloureds enter higher education, compared to 58.5% of whites and 51% of Indians. Education analyst Nic Spaull notes that less than 1 in 200 black children who enter Grade 1 go on to pass Matric with marks high enough to study mathematics or science at university.

The uncomfortable reality is that, if you are a black child born into a poor household, the odds of getting into university and building a rewarding career are stacked very firmly against you. The Statistics South Africa report on youth unemployment released last year found that, in comparison to other races, the proportion of black youth in skilled employment actually regressed between 1994 and 2014. Launching the report, the statistician-general said black youths between the ages of 25 and 34 “lost out in acquiring skills through the 20-year period and that is the crux of the issue of youth unemployment”.

If the student movement is a fuse, the powder keg may well be the silent majority of young, black South Africans who leave school with little prospects of finding a decent job. The question is how long it will take for the simmering discontent to explode and, when it does, whether it will lead to a peaceful, democratic alternation of power or not.

A responsive government in a functioning democracy would act to defuse the crisis in basic education, before it is too late. Nobody should tolerate an education system that hands down the inequities of apartheid from one generation to the next. Our government does so at its peril.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Basic Education. This article was first published in The Daily Maverick on 27 October 2015.

Propaganda ‘machine’ should be quietly scrapped

By Gavin Davis

Last year, during the Ellen Tshabalala scandal, the Communications Portfolio Committee showed that this Parliament could hold people to account despite their links to powerful politicians. We can all be proud of this achievement.

Our task now, is to hold the Minister to account for her performance over the last year. And, if we are honest, we will all agree that her performance has been a massive disappointment.

I am sure that nobody is more disappointed in the Minister’s performance than the President. He wanted a new propaganda ministry to clean up his government’s image, but all he got was more controversy.

Just look at what’s happened in the year since this ministry was created:

We’ve had an SABC Board Chairperson resign because she was caught lying about her qualifications. But this was only after 6 damaging months of postponed hearings, court cases and other delaying tactics.

We’ve had an SABC Chief Operations Officer who has been shielded and promoted when the Public Protector said he should have been fired.

We have a Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) that is abused to promote the majority party, including the channeling of public money into the coffers of a government-friendly newspaper owned by the President’s friends.

And then, in a few weeks on 17 June, we face humiliation on a global scale. Because, on that day, we will miss the International Telecommunications Union deadline to switch over from analogue to digital television. If Minister Muthambi had not spent the last year meddling with the Digital Migration Policy, and waging an obsessive turf war to control the process, it is unlikely that we would be in the embarrassing position we now find ourselves in.

Most serious of all, is that the Minister willfully misunderstands her role in relation to the SABC. She believes that the SABC is a state-owned company instead of an independent public broadcaster. She wants to take us back to the apartheid era when the SABC was a tool in the hands of politicians, instead of a resource belonging to the people of this country.

This is why the Minister thinks there is nothing wrong with unilaterally seizing the powers of the SABC Board, even though this is in clear contravention of the Broadcasting Act.

And it is why the Minister thinks it is okay to send independent SABC Board Members threatening letters, even when she has no power in law to appoint or remove them.

In her Budget Speech last year, Minister Muthambi said that stabilising the SABC was at the very top of her agenda.

However, since then, no less than three SABC Board Members have resigned, while three others have been forcibly and illegally removed. As a result, the SABC Board does not have a Chairperson, or a quorum to legally constitute meetings.

Last year, the Minister also promised that a new Chief Executive Officer would be in place by the end of September. Nine months have passed and the post is still vacant.

No wonder the SABC is in crisis, the scale of which is only starting to become clear.

Financial documents recently brought to light by the Sunday Times newspaper show that the SABC faces a projected loss of R501-million for the financial year just ended on March 31. This loss is projected to double to R1 billion in the next financial year.

So the SABC is not on “a sound financial footing”, as Minister Muthambi said in Parliament a few weeks ago. On the contrary, the SABC is facing financial ruin.

We need to fix our public broadcaster as a matter of priority. But the only way to do that is to ensure that there is less political interference in the SABC, not more.

This is why it is crucial that the Speaker’s Office releases the legal opinion on the removal of Board Members Hope Zinde, Rachel Kalidass and Ronnie Lubisi. Once we have this legal opinion, the Portfolio Committee can deal with this matter as we are mandated to do in terms of the Broadcasting Act.

It is imperative that the Portfolio Committee works together to find the most qualified and independently minded candidates to take up positions on the Board. And then they need to be left alone to do their jobs in the interests of the public we serve.

These steps will go some way to get the SABC back on track, but they won’t fix all that is wrong in the Communications Department. Because, the truth is, this Department should never have been created in the first place.

We live in the age of convergence – where traditional broadcasting is rapidly merging with new digital telecommunication technology. This is why it never made sense to create separate Communications and Telecommunications Departments.

As a result of the split, we have unnecessary duplication, inherent contradictions and overall lack of policy coherence. Let me give one important example of this.

On the 14 November 2014, the Telecommunications Minister gazetted the National Integrated ICT Policy Discussion Paper for public comment. An entire chapter of it is devoted to broadcasting, including regulation, language diversity, the funding and mandate of the SABC, and media diversity and development.

Yet two days before, no doubt in anticipation of the release of the ICT Discussion Paper, Minister Muthambi announced that she would be doing her own Broadcasting Policy Review — on precisely the same topics covered in the ICT Discussion Paper. What a waste of time, energy and resources.

In his drive to create a propaganda machine, the President has created a mess. And the great irony is that he never got the propaganda machine he wanted. Because no ministry this dysfunctional could ever be referred to as a ‘machine’.

So I would like to offer the President a reprieve. If he quietly scraps the new Communications ministry and goes back to the old converged Department, we will never mention this failed experiment again.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications. This is an edited version of a speech delivered in the Communications Budget Vote Debate.

‘Family Values’: Anatomy of a Straw Man

By Gavin Davis

What sets the Democratic Alliance apart from other parties is the culture of open debate that characterises its internal elections. Rigorous debate is important because it gives Congress delegates an opportunity to get to know the candidates better, increasing the likelihood of the best candidate getting elected.

However, such robust internal campaigning only works if all candidates play by the rules of the game. Candidates cannot, for example, campaign negatively or bring the party into disrepute. And, when the elections are over, all candidates agree to accept the outcome and work with the newly elected leadership team in pursuance of the party’s objectives.

It was therefore strange to read Wilmot James’ critique of the DA’s Values Charter in the Sunday Times, precisely one week after it was adopted at Federal Congress.[i] James repeated this criticism in Business Day yesterday, saying that he intends to “continue the fight he started at the Congress, which is to ensure that the rights of individuals be placed at the centre of the DA’s Values Charter.”[ii]

That fact of the matter is that James had ample opportunity to make this case in the run-up to Congress. As the DA’s former Federal Chairperson, James was involved in the formulation of the Values Charter from its inception, which involved months of consultation across the party. James also made his views known the day before the Charter was to be adopted, at a meeting of the DA’s Federal Council. After finding little support for his position there, he tried again from the Congress floor the following day. Again, he was unable to bring party members around to his point of view.

Having failed to convince the party that the Values Charter is a shift towards social conservatism, it appears that James is now on a mission to persuade the public. To what end, only James will know. But, whatever his intentions, the argument he puts forward cannot go unchallenged.

The public deserves to know that, by willfully misrepresenting the Values Charter, James is building a straw man for his knockdown arguments. Straw men appear convincing on the surface but, when you dig a little deeper, it doesn’t take long to expose them for what they are.

The DA’s Values Charter unambiguously states that the South African people must have “the maximum amount of individual freedom consistent with law and order.”[iii] Where family is mentioned in the document, it is only within the context of promoting individualism – the fundamental tenet of liberal thought. As the Charter states: “Families, however uniquely structured, help build successful individuals and provide them a foundation with which to make sense of the world and to realise their full potential as individuals.”[iv]

The suggestion that stable families are more likely to yield strong individuals is hardly a controversial idea or, for that matter, an illiberal one. Perhaps that is why one of South Africa’s most respected liberal think tanks, the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), has produced a considerable body of research on the topic.

In a 2011 report entitled ‘First Steps to Healing the South African Family’, SAIRR researchers Gail Eddy and Lucy Holborn show the extent to which family breakdown has occurred as a result of poverty, the HIV/Aids pandemic and the legacy of the apartheid migrant labour system.[v] Eddy and Holborn show how family breakdown is an impediment to young people’s prospects of scholastic success and securing employment, and how children from unstable family units are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour and perpetrate violent crime. Their conclusion is as follows: “Both local and international research provides evidence that growing up in stable families with both parents present can make a significant difference to the future outcomes of young people.”[vi]

In the United States, it has long been recognised that a focus on family should not be the sole preserve of politicians, policy-makers and academics from a particular side of the ideological spectrum. As an article in the progressive Boston Globe pointed out last month: “A wave of research from think tanks on the right and left, as well as scholars in social sciences like economics and sociology, has made a forceful new defense of the venerable institution.”[vii]

One example is the ‘Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study’ initiated by Princeton Sociologist Sara McLanahan that has produced a wealth of data on the impact of family breakdown on children.[viii] This emerging literature on the family shouldn’t be a no-go area for liberals. On the contrary, we should acknowledge the role that a stable family can play in producing strong individuals capable of thinking for themselves and seizing the opportunities that come their way.

The great liberal thinker John Rawls recognised this in his essay Justice as Fairness. He wrote: “The family is part of the basic structure, the reason being that one of its essential roles is to establish the orderly production and reproduction of society and of its culture from one generation to the next.”[ix] Like all liberals, Rawls was not prescriptive about the form that a family must take: “No particular form of the family (monogamous, heterosexual, or otherwise) is so far required by a political conception of justice so long as it is arranged to fulfill these tasks effectively and does not run afoul of other political values.”[x]

In keeping with Rawls’ liberal conception of the family, the DA’s Values Charter specifically refers to families “however uniquely structured” and “in all their different manifestations.” Nowhere in the Charter does it say that strong individuals cannot emerge from broken families, or that the family should replace the primacy of the individual in our party’s political philosophy. To claim otherwise is a deliberate distortion of both the Values Charter and contemporary literature on the subject.

It is important for the DA to engage in robust internal debate on contentious matters. But we must do so in a way that strengthens the party, not weakens it. So when we debate issues, let’s do so honestly and with the best intentions. And when we lose debates – or internal elections for that matter – let us accept the outcome with good grace.

Davis is a DA Member of Parliament. This article was first published on Politicsweb on 19 May 2015.

[i] ‘Family values often antithesis of liberalism’, Sunday Times, 17 May 2015. http://www.timeslive.co.za/sundaytimes/opinion/2015/05/17/family-values-often-antithesis-of-liberalism

[ii] Natasha Marrian, ‘Maimane launches new take on DA weekly newsletter’, BD Live, 18 May 2015. http://www.bdlive.co.za/national/politics/2015/05/18/maimane-launches-new-take-on-da-weekly-newsletter

[iii] Democratic Alliance Values Charter. http://www.da.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/DA-Value-Charter.pdf

[iv] Democratic Alliance Values Charter. http://www.da.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/DA-Value-Charter.pdf

[v] Gail Eddy and Lucy Holborn, ‘First Steps to Healing the South African Family’, SAIRR Research Paper, March 2011 p.6. http://irr.org.za/reports-and-publications/occasional-reports/files/first-steps-to-healing-the-south-african-family-final-report-mar-2011.pdf

[vi] Gail Eddy and Lucy Holborn, ‘First Steps to Healing the South African Family’, SAIRR Research Paper, March 2011 p.15. http://irr.org.za/reports-and-publications/occasional-reports/files/first-steps-to-healing-the-south-african-family-final-report-mar-2011.pdf

[vii] Ruth Graham, ‘They do: The scholarly about-face on marriage’, The Boston Globe, 26 April 2015. http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/04/25/scholarly-kiss-for-wedded-bliss/INyenlyr0FIuWzaJDuFWGK/story.html

[viii] See ‘Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study’ website: http://www.fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/research_associates.asp

[ix] John Rawls, ‘Justice as Fairness: A Restatement’, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001 p.162

[x] John Rawls, ‘Justice as Fairness: A Restatement’, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001 p.163

The op-ed the New Age refused to publish

Note: The New Age last week refused to publish this opinion piece, despite originally offering to publish an 800-word rebuttal of an article the DA complained to the Ombudsman about in February. This is the second time that The New Age reneged on a commitment to deal with the complaint

By Gavin Davis

If you are reading this in a copy of The New Age, you are probably an official in a government department. Because we all know that government subscriptions make up the bulk of copies of The New Age distributed. Few people actually buy The New Age.

This is why The New Age refuses to become a member of the Audit Bureau of Circulations of South Africa (ABC), an independent organisation established to provide accurate and comparable circulation figures. The owners of The New Age don’t want people to know just how dismally it performs in the marketplace.

On 2 March, The New Age opted out of another body that mainstream newspapers subscribe to – the Press Ombudsman system. The Office of the Press Ombudsman is an independent entity mandated by The Press Council to ensure fair and accurate reporting in accordance with The Press Code.

The New Age’s withdrawal from the Press Ombudsman followed a DA complaint to the Ombudsman regarding a front-page article published on 2 February. The article, entitled ‘DA sees conspiracies where there are none’, was designed to discredit the DA’s claims that government advertising expenditure is skewed in favour of The New Age.

The article breached at least four sections of The Press Code because it:

  • Failed to reflect a multiplicity of voices;
  • The reporter did not attempt to solicit the views of the subject of critical reportage;
  • The headline presented the opinion of Minister Faith Muthambi as fact; and
  • The reporting was slanted as a result of political and commercial considerations.

There is no doubt that the timing of The New Age’s withdrawal from the Ombudsman system was related to the DA’s complaint. As the Press Ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, said: “Now, when we got the complaint about The New Age from the DA, The New Age was quite reluctant to respond to the complaint and when we contacted them, they sent a note stating they are pulling out of the system.”

In other words, rather than face the prospect of publishing a retraction and an apology, The New Age opted to pull out of the Press Ombudsman system altogether. In a statement on the matter, the CEO of The New Age, Mr Nazeem Howa promised to deal with the DA’s complaint “through an independent third party.”

When I forwarded the complaint to The New Age, the newspaper offered me an 800-word opinion piece to respond to the article in question. This is hardly a satisfactory resolution because it means that The New Age can avoid the embarrassment of apologising and retracting the story.

The alternative, however, was to wait three or four months for The New Age to appoint its own ombudsman to deal with the complaint. Even then, there is no way that an ombudsman appointed by The New Age, and on the payroll of the New Age, can be either independent or a third party. Under these conditions, the chances of a fair adjudication are nil.

So, let me take this opportunity to set the record straight.

The New Age is owned by a family with close links to President Zuma, and its editorial policy is to publish stories that present the Zuma administration in a positive light. SABC Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng described The New Age’s editorial policy at a New Age Breakfast Briefing on 13 February:

“We as the public broadcaster, we are different to New Age but, at least, while we have this relationship with New Age, they share the same views with us: 70% good story to tell. And we must do that.”

Motsoeneng went on to berate Cabinet Ministers who still advertise in independent media outlets: “I don’t understand why you are spending money on people who are not even appreciating what government is doing,” he said.

These sentiments are not new. It was back in 2011 when then government spokesperson, Jimmy Manyi, declared that government-friendly media outlets would be rewarded with a greater share of government advertising expenditure.

This explains why the Department of Communications spent R 10.2 million or 11.2% of its advertising budget in The New Age in the last financial year, despite its small readership of 153,000 people. By comparison, significantly less (R 7.8 million) was spent on the Daily Sun, for example, which has a readership of 5.3 million people.

The New Age supports the government, so the government supports The New Age. But this is not government’s money to do what it likes with. Your hard-earned tax money – money that should be spent on healthcare, housing and schools – is being used to keep this propaganda pamphlet afloat. In the end, the only consolation is that relatively few people read it.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications

 

Muthambi’s hostile takeover of the SABC

By Gavin Davis

In recent months we have seen an intensification of the Zuma faction’s campaign to capture key state institutions to protect the President from prosecution. The attempted purge of the Head of the Hawks, the National Director of Public Prosecutions and senior South African Revenue Service officials have sent a chill through our body politic.

While these stories were dominating the headlines, another attempt at state capture was insidiously underway. On 26 September last year, Zuma-loyalist and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi quietly signed a document giving her overarching control of the SABC. This Memorandum of Incorporation turns the SABC from a public broadcaster into a state broadcaster, completing the Zumafication of the SABC.

The Memorandum allows Muthambi to usurp the Board’s power in numerous ways, including giving her the right to veto any rule change proposed by the Board relating to the governance of the SABC. This is in clear contravention of the Broadcasting Act, which states that the Board “controls the affairs of the Corporation.”

The Memorandum also gives the Minister new powers to recommend the removal of Board Members. Again, this is in breach of the Broadcasting Act, which empowers only Parliament or the Board itself to recommend the removal of SABC Board Members.

Perhaps even more alarming is how the SABC Board’s authority over its Executive Directors (Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operations Officer and Chief Financial Officer) has been curtailed. The upshot is that Zuma’s henchman, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, is now untouchable at the SABC despite the numerous scandals that should have ended his career some time ago.

In terms of the Memorandum, Muthambi now has the power to make Motsoeneng the Acting CEO and keep him there for as long as she wishes. If Muthambi wants Motsoeneng to be appointed as the permanent CEO, she can waive the requirement that the position needs to be advertised and other candidates shortlisted. Then, if Muthambi wants to re-appoint Motsoeneng when his contract comes to an end, she can do so unilaterally.

If the Board decides it wants to discipline and/or suspend Motsoeneng, as the Public Protector directed it to do last year, Muthambi can now block the Board from doing so. And, to give Motsoeneng the best chance of surviving the DA’s court case challenging the legality of his appointment, the Memorandum makes the SABC liable to pay his legal fees.

All these amendments to the SABC’s Memorandum of Incorporation were made without discussion with the Board, and against the wishes of many Board Members. Meanwhile, Minister Muthambi has already begun using her newfound powers to bully Board Members who do not toe the line. In December last year she wrote to certain Board Members asking them to give her reasons not to have them removed from office. Board Members perceived as too independent are reportedly being targeted and victimised.

This Memorandum of Incorporation is only the first part of Muthambi’s plan to neuter the SABC Board. Shortly after assuming office last year, Muthambi raised eyebrows when she announced that she wishes to reduce the number of SABC Board Members and to change the way the Board is appointed. This year she will table legislation that will “clarify” her powers as Communications Minister, reduce the size of the board from 15 to 7 and revise what she calls the “current cumbersome process” of appointing the Board. Ominous indeed.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this ‘hostile takeover’ poses the gravest threat to SABC independence since 1994. But it must not be viewed in isolation. Make no mistake; the attempted seizure of independent state institutions is a concerted effort to protect one man. Our constitutional democracy has never looked so fragile.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications. A version of this article was first published in the Daily Maverick on 11 February 2015.