Why South African musicians won’t be better off under Motsoeneng’s SABC


Some things are more important than music. Our Constitution is one of them.

So it was distressing the other day to hear musicians praise-singing SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng and attacking journalists for putting their “narrow interests” (that is, Constitutional rights to freedom of expression and information) before musicians’ interests.

Let’s not talk, here, about those musicians affiliated to political party organisations such as the ANC Youth League. Their motivations and loyalties are rather more complex, and another Constitutional protection we all enjoy is the right to speak out in defence of party policies we support.

But other musicians have also joined the chorus of “Hlaudi must stay: he will ensure we are better off.”

The problem is, it is not necessarily true.

Enhanced local content has the potential to enrich musicians and other cultural creators. That is unarguable. Like those musicians, there’s nothing I’d like to see more than an intelligently implemented high local quota (I support ICASA’s 70%) on a well-managed national broadcaster that builds audiences and attracts new advertisers because of its strong reputation for ethics and quality. I’d like to see the immediate payment to musicians of all historically owed needletime payments, and the full, accurate, prompt payment of all future dues. I’d like to see smart, generous, unbiased local commissioning policies for musical content, documentaries and dramas.

But, as we’ve seen over the past 20-odd years, excellent policies, based on impeccably solid theoretical foundations, can often fall at the hurdle of  implementation. Here are half a dozen reasons why this policy is already stumbling.

ONE: Monitoring, record-keeping, reporting and the speed of needletime payouts has not been reformed. Without these basic, practical steps, musicians may be theoretically richer, but will not actually see any more cash.

TWO: There’s no business plan to keep listeners, viewers and advertisers loyal to dramatically changed formats. Force the Indian community to listen to Afrikans pop, and listeners will flee. Wrap advertisers’ paid slots in a different programme format and advertisers will flee. Use your ears and eyes, and note the increasing numbers of house ads on all SABC channels. That is ad space the broadcaster cannot sell. That’s disastrous for business, and in the long run threatens the survival of the broadcaster and its ability to pay anybody anything.

THREE: There’s no apparent concern for quality. We hear more South African music, but it’s from a very limited playlist, with a great deal of old music on it. And that’s not ‘old’ as ‘in great heritage music’ – when did we last hear a track by Basil Manenberg Coetzee or The Harlem Swingsters? – that’s ‘old’ as in ‘pop ephemera well past its sell-by date’. There’s no support for DJs trying to expand what they know, and no support (though lots of exhortations to ‘send us your music’) for innovative independent music-makers. It’s a scenario almost inviting  payola, a demon the SABC had earlier made good strides towards slaying. Yesterday’s debut of the unwatchable Divas of Jozi demonstrates how far commissioning editors’ heads are up their own studios. Newsflash: recreating a lowest-common-denominator American schlock-TV concept and placing it in primetime does not assert quality local values; it merely encourages even more audience and advertiser flight

FOUR: Nobody’s noticed we live in a global world. No state broadcaster can dictate everything people see and hear, because we can access multiple alternative sources. Even the poorest communities have members with feature phones who can reach the web. South Africans love and take pride in national culture, but have always had an intelligent interest in the rest of the world too. Genres like jazz, hip-hop, classical music and, yes, African music too, have global as well as local identities, and South African music fans know that, and want (and deserve) to be informed, whether they can afford DSTV or not. They already pay a license fee. Do we really want to return to the era of Radio Bantu, when certain local content was rejected by listeners because it was seen as symbolising the narrow world-view of the state? Not good for business – for either the broadcaster, or musicians…

FIVE: Bad management intensifies business decline, potentially robbing musicians of an important platform for their music. So far, we have seen rule by irrational fiat, complete absence of consultation, contradictory positions, broken promises, and appointment, promotion and bonus policies that have been slammed by the Public Protector and rejected by the law courts. We’ve also seen employees disciplined for asserting national Constitutional values, and a leader allegedly stalking the Auckland Park corridors muttering ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ (which comes pretty close to blasphemy too).

SIX: Censorship serves nobody, least of all creative people like musicians. Being ‘better-off’ is in the end about more than money – although it is not hard to see why some musicians, reflecting on their previous shameful mistreatment by the SABC (in different ways, both during and after apartheid) aren’t currently focused on that. Innovative creativity (read: good music) flourishes best in a free climate. What happens when a musician decides to craft lyrics critical of the powers that be, backed by a video of unhappy, violent demonstrators? However brilliant, under the current policies it won’t get aired. We have already seen the Emmy-winning South African Marikana documentary Miners Shot Down excluded from the SABC airwaves. Under a management regime characterised by gagging, “supporting local content” actually only goes so far…

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