Politics & Media

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.

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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

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.

The Zumafication of the SABC

By Gavin Davis

Hlaudi Motsoeneng is the ‘big man’ of the SABC – protected and promoted for protecting and promoting an even bigger man, President Jacob Zuma. But Hlaudi Motsoeneng is just the most visible manifestation of the ongoing ‘Zumafication’ of the public broadcaster. Behind the scenes, Zuma’s allies are attempting to construct a powerful propaganda machine that places the SABC at the centre of its plans to manipulate public opinion.

To be sure, the politicisation of the SABC started some time before the ascendance of Zuma. In the latter years of the Mbeki Presidency, the SABC increasingly took sides in the fierce factional battle between Mbeki and Zuma. Political commentators critical of Mbeki were blacklisted and candid documentaries on the President ended up on the cutting room floor. The SABC’s Head of News Snuki Zikalala made sure that footage of Zuma’s supporters booing the new Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, never made it on to the prime time news.

After Zuma’s election as State President in 2009, the ANC in Parliament rushed through the Broadcasting Amendment Bill. This enabled it to replace the SABC Board with an interim Board that would make executive appointments sympathetic to the Zuma faction. The interim Board’s first order of business was to appoint Solly Mokoetle as SABC group Chief Executive Officer.

In 2010, the Chairperson of the new SABC Board, Dr. Ben Ngubane (a Zuma appointee) connived with Mokoetle to appoint Phil Molefe as Head of News, without consulting the rest of the Board. Molefe did the job he was appointed for, telling senior executives at the SABC – allegedly at the instruction of Luthuli House – to stop giving favourable coverage to Mbeki.

In 2011, the Ngubane Board appointed Hlaudi Motsoeneng Acting COO of the SABC. Motsoeneng’s first brush with controversy had been back in 2007 when, as an Executive Producer at Lesedi FM, he was dismissed following charges of racism, dishonesty, and promoting staffers without following due process. Motsoeneng was re-appointed a year later by SABC Chief Executive Dali Mpofu in what was perceived as caving into pressure from the ascendant Zuma faction. This was not the last time that higher powers would come to Motsoeneng’s rescue.

In early 2013, the SABC Board resolved to dismiss Motsoeneng as Acting COO after he allegedly tried to interfere with the handling of an SIU investigation into SABC corruption dating back to 2008. Shortly after, SABC Board Chairperson Ben Ngubane unilaterally reversed the Board’s decision to dismiss Motsoeneng. In retaliation, the rest of the Board publicly reaffirmed its decision to dismiss Motsoeneng. The fall-out from this disagreement would lead to the resignation of Ngubane, along with most of the Board – allegedly at the behest of Luthuli House. The new interim Board immediately voted to reverse the decision to remove Motsoeneng as Acting COO. This was the second time that Motsoeneng was to miraculously survive at the SABC but not the last.

In November 2011 two senior SABC employees had requested a Public Protector investigation into various fraudulent activities involving Hlaudi Motsoeneng. The Public Protector’s report issued on 17 February 2014 made several damning findings, including that Motsoeneng:

  • Lied about having obtained a matric certificate in the application process;
  • Abused his power by having his salary increased three times in the space of one year, from R1.5 million to R2.4 million;
  • Was responsible for the unlawful appointment of Ms Sully Motsweni to various positions and for her subsequent unlawful salary increases;
  • “Purged” senior staff leading to “the avoidable loss of millions of Rand towards salaries…and settlements for irregular terminations of contracts”; and
  • Unilaterally increased some staff members’ salaries without following the SABC Personnel Regulations, leading to the SABC’s “unprecedented salary bill escalation by R29 million.”

The Public Protector directed the Board to take disciplinary action against Motsoeneng, to recover all wasteful expenditure incurred as a result of irregular salary increments and for the Minister to take urgent steps to find a new permanent COO.

None of this happened. Instead, at a SABC Board Meeting on 7 July the Board inexplicably recommended the appointment of Motsoeneng as COO in a permanent capacity. It was reported that prior to the meeting, Minister Faith Muthambi had arrived at the SABC and entered into a private conference with the SABC Chairperson, Ellen Tshabalala, who conveyed the Minister’s wishes to the Board. Minister Muthambi duly announced Motsoeneng’s appointment the next morning.

Motsoeneng had again survived at the SABC against all odds. For the third time, instead of being fired, he was protected and promoted by high-ranking ANC politicians. It is not hard to figure out why.

President Zuma has never been so embattled. Guptagate, Nkandlagate, Marikana, the arms deal and the spy tapes saga have cast a dark shadow over his presidency. Many in his own party hold him responsible for heavy electoral losses in the 2014 election.

This is why Zuma needs a loyalist at the heart of the SABC to help him survive the inevitable internal backlash.

Motsoeneng is often referred to as Zuma’s “conduit” by SABC staff. Indeed, he has been known to boast about his strong ties to President Zuma and it has been suggested that he ensured favourable SABC coverage for Zuma to head off Kgalema Motlanthe’s challenge for the ANC presidency at Mangaung. When Zuma was booed at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Motsoeneng saw to it that the spectacle – widely reported on at home and abroad – never made it on to prime time SABC news bulletins. The parallels with the SABC’s non-coverage of the Mlambo-Ngcuka booing incident some ten years earlier are striking.

Motsoeneng is the perfect lieutenant to ensure positive reportage of the President – ruthless, calculating and willing to abuse power to achieve his ends. But it would be a mistake to think that President Zuma’s plan to control the airwaves ends with Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

Government sources suggested in May this year that President Zuma was waiting until after the election to establish an Orwellian-sounding ‘Information Ministry’. On 16 July, the President proclaimed that the old Department of Communications would become the new Department of Telecommunications and Post. The SABC would move to a newly constituted Department of Communications that would include the Government and Communication Information System (GCIS) previously housed in the Presidency. Ominously, ICASA – the regulator of the SABC – is also under the aegis of the new Department, along with the Film & Publications Board with its far-reaching powers to proscribe the publication and distribution of sensitive material.

This proclamation gives the new Minister of Communications – Zuma loyalist Faith Muthambi – unprecedented influence over crafting and disseminating the government’s message. Shortly after assuming office, Muthambi announced that she would be reducing the number of SABC Board Members from 12 to 5, and transferring Parliament’s powers to hire and fire the Board to herself. Her role in the appointment of Motsoeneng confirmed her complicity in the ongoing politicisation of the SABC.

Hlaudi Motsoeneng is the personification of a renewed and far-reaching assault on the SABC’s independence. But his protection and promotion is just one component of a plan to ensure that the entire state communication apparatus sends out a positive message about Zuma’s track record – a “good story to tell” in ANC parlance. The Zumafication of the SABC should be of concern to every South African with an interest in protecting our constitutional democracy. Indeed, it is going to take the collective effort of the media, civil society and political parties to stop it.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications. This is an edited version of a forthcoming article in Focus, the journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation.

No wonder viewers are switching off

By Gavin Davis

The splitting up of the former Department of Communications has raised many questions. But the most important question is “why”? And more specifically, “why now”?

The answer is purely political.

The fact is that the ANC is losing its grip on power. It recorded its worst-ever election result this year. The party dropped in Gauteng by 10 percentage points; and at the next local election, the ANC is in danger of losing three cities.

To survive the next five years, President Jacob Zuma needs a good story to tell. And he needs all the help he can get to tell it.

So when the president appointed the cabinet in May, he really put his Faith in communications. And, make no mistake, Minister Muthambi is a very strategic deployment.

In her first few weeks in office, we have learned that the minister wants to create what she calls a “professional army of communicators” to bring about an “information revolution”.

The minister has been at pains to deny that this is a propaganda ministry. But her constant criticism of the media suggests otherwise. Last year, she castigated the media because it dared “to publish negative news on government, disregarding the good service delivery record of government”.

The minister rehashed this line a few weeks after assuming her cabinet post: “I will be the happiest person if we can have a situation where every South African is informed about what government is doing. There are people out there doing good, but the story is not being told.”

Clearly, the minister thinks it is her job to tell this good story, with public money.

The Government Communications Information System (GCIS) will now be working much more closely with the SABC, under the aegis of one minister. It is this arrangement, more than anything else, which signals the SABC’s shift from public to state broadcaster.

It must be of some concern to the minister that fewer people are watching and listening to the SABC than ever before.

Internal research commissioned by the SABC (which was quickly buried) has shown that the key reason for declining audiences is the perception that the public broadcaster is partisan.

It is not hard to see why. Over the last few years we have seen the appointment of SABC boards stacked with ANC deployees. We have witnessed opposition party adverts being banned from SABC TV at election time. We have heard that SABC journalists are under surveillance and their phones are being monitored.

Last but not least, we have seen the rise and rise of Hlaudi Motsoeneng. This is a man who interferes in editorial decisions, who says that 70 percent of the news must be “happy news”, and who says journalists should be licensed. It is an indictment of the SABC that his rise through the ranks has gone unchecked.

If the minister wants to regain lost viewers and listeners, she needs to show in word – and deed – that she is committed to protecting the SABC’s independence. But, instead, she has already done the precise opposite. Since assuming office, the minister has given the impression that the SABC must compensate for negative stories in the press. She has said that she wants to give herself absolute power to hire and fire the SABC board. And, inexplicably, she has protected and promoted Motsoeneng when he should have been fired.

No wonder people are switching channels.

But where do they go? Most people cannot afford satellite television. The big commercial radio stations don’t have the reach of the SABC radio stations.

This is where the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) can play an important role. This year, the MDDA will transfer R34.4 million in state funds to community and small commercial media. And, in collaboration with the GCIS, will ensure that R30m, or 12 percent of all government adspend, goes to supporting community media.

On the face of it, this appears to be a noble objective.

But the question is: can community media be truly independent if most of its funding – through advertising and grants – comes from the government?

When former GCIS chief executive Jimmy Manyi centralised all government adspend in the GCIS, he threatened newspapers that he would pull government advertising if they did not toe the government line. His recent appointment to the MDDA board is therefore an ominous development of concern to everybody who cares about the independence and sustainability of community media.

Each entity in this new department is a cog in a powerful propaganda machine. Taken together, they give the minister enormous influence over national television, radio and community media – either through direct control or dependency on state funding and government adspend.

There is nothing wrong with a government communication system that informs people of their rights, and the services they are entitled to. What must be rejected is the creation of a propaganda machine obsessed with telling people “good stories” about government.

The jobless and the poverty-stricken are not interested in the government’s “good stories”. They want good governance, good service delivery and good jobs.

And they want a government that spends its budget on fixing problems, not on trying to spin its way out of them.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications. This is an edited version of a speech delivered in the Department of Communications Budget Vote Debate. It was published in The Star on 17 July 2014.