A vision for public broadcasting


The story entitled Fighting for an independent PSB published in the Screen Africa newsletter of 11 September incorrectly quoted producer Harriet Gavshon as referring to her programme, Ordinary People, as the first and last truly independently produced programme for the SABC. Here is the full text of Gavshon’s speech given at the recent People to People International Documentary Conferenceg in Johannesburg:

When I got this invitation to talk today, my heart sank. I thought “oh no – soon I am going to get into that category of people who are eligible for a life-time achievement award’ . I have crossed over officially into that category of senior citizen – an industry elder. It feels like a milestone,  not dissimilar to the milestone of when car guards stopped calling me Sisi and started calling me Mama.

I asked Rehad [Desai] what qualified me to make this address today.  Rehad told me that firstly I was qualified as a person who makes public broadcast television programmes and that secondly I should get over my self- esteem issues.

So that is where I am going to start. As a producer of public broadcast programmes. I am going to talk quite personally – and leave the theory for the academics among us.  I am also going to try and put my issues of self esteem aside for the next half hour.

Thinking about it more sanely, I decided that if anything else – I am qualified to talk about public broadcasting because my career and involvement in television has mirrored the rise and fall of public broadcasting in South Africa – from the first tentative steps – through its halcyon days – to the sorry state we find ourselves in today.

Last month, I spoke at a National Film and Video Federation open day for people looking to start businesses in broadcasting. It was the week in which the SABC formally declared its financial deficit. It was really a terrible time to be advising anyone to have anything to do with broadcasting – let alone start a business.  What I really wanted to say was “don’t’.  Instead I said, I sincerely hope you are able to experience the opportunities that I have been given through having a public broadcaster. And that I hope the public broadcaster will recover one day so that you too can enjoy its enormous power and privilege.

Because there have been enormous benefits and enormous gains. It has created and sustained an industry; it has spawned a multitude of stories – and it has begun to allow us to deal with our history and our past.

It has been an imperfect beast – but somehow within it – at times, and certainly not consistently – we independent film makers have managed to squeeze into the lacunae between the contracts and the bureaucracy, the terrible budgets, the difficult terms of trade, the dissapointing appropriation of our intellectual property – and more recently through the financial and management chaos – to produce transcendent work; work that speaks and moves us as a society; work that has reached deep down into ourselves and reinterpreted it back.

 I have had the opportunity to do extraordinary things and go to extraordinary places and to tell extraordinary stories, and in the process to work with some wonderful and dedicated professionals – and that indeed is an enormously privileged place to have spent ones working life – and for that, I am extremely grateful.

And now I am going to go back through the mists of time, to the beginning of this journey.

My first taste of the power of broadcasting was this.

In 1993 – before the general election of 1994 – and whilst the political future of the SABC was still being negotiated, we started making a series called Ordinary People. It was the first independently produced current affairs documentary series broadcast by the SABC and I would hazard to say – the last independently produced current affairs documentary series broadcast by the SABC.

We had achieved this honour by whining, cajoling, bullying, nagging and threatening the incumbent management at the time.  (This era preceded any organized commissioning procedures in the organization which were introduced, for the record by the Education department of the SABC some years later)

In Ordinary People, which was a really wonderful news documentary format, we took an event, found three people who would intersect with the event from different perspectives or sides; an anc marcher, an ifp marcher and a peace monitor on the day of a big march, for example,  and put a crew and camera on each person. We would then get three different narratives and points of view intersecting with the same event. Then we cut them together very quickly and had a film ready within two days.

It was a great format for the times. South Africans didn’t know each other at all and were extremely suspicious of each other But here we were –  negotiating a new society – in which we were supposed to live together as equals.

Ordinary People – besides  covering the very exciting and dramatic events of the time  (we were the only crew to get the AWB driving their armoured truck into the world trade centre for example) was designed to introduce people to each other as human beings. People spoke in their mother tongue with subtitles – which I know  is of course common place now, but it was the first time that this was done. And we played with shifting emotional perspectives and shifting points of view. People – no matter who they were or how heinous their politics were – were treated with dignity and respect, and we really tried to get under the surface and  understand the people we filmed. My husband used to role his eyes and say – “thank god Hitler isn’t alive. You would come home from a shoot with him and say – “shame he has unresolved issues with his mother.’

But the actual moment I realized the enormous power of broadcasting was this. It was one of the small stories we did amongst the big set pieces – the big marches, the day with President Mandela, the AWB getting the freedom of Shweizer Reineke ….

It was an episode which we called The Tooth of the Times. South Africa in 1993 was in the midst of a terrible recession and we told the story of a farm auction. The farm had been in the family of an old white Afrikaans farmer for three generations. He basically had come to the end of the road, and on the day we were filming,  the farm and all its contents was being auctioned off by a bank.

We followed the farmer, his childhood friend – a farmworker (who’s future was very insecure) and the auctioneer –  all through this harrowing day as the farm, the tractors, the animals and the furniture all got auctioned off and driven away.

And at the end of the day, as the sun was going down, and the last of the cattle were herded to neighbouring farms over the hills, the white farmer looked at us through his tears and said – and this is where the title of the piece The Tooth of the Times comes from:

“Dit is hoe die tyd is
Die tand van die tyd, hy byt hard, hy byt seer, hy byt kwaai’

(this is how the times are, the tooth of the times – it bites hard, it bites sore, it bites fierce.)

It was a small personal tragedy couched in the language of Shakespeare. His story was particularly powerful because this was a man who through his whole life and through the privilege his skin colour had given him,  had enormous power, but was now losing everything. It was gutting and of course, as a result, fantastic television.

The day after it was broadcast (we shot and edited and broadcast in the same week) I was in Sebokeng in the Vaal planning the next weeks story.  Sebokeng – at the time, was experiencing terrible drive-by shootings which we knew were being executed by a third force. On a fairly regular basis, but without warning, mysterious people would come in cars in the dead of the night and shoot up houses, church halls or political meetings. Our plan was to spend a night in Sebokeng with a self defence unit, the police, and a scared woman and her children in a house in an area which was particularly vulnerable.

We were driving through Sebokeng with the head of one of the SDU’s – a returned MK soldier who has spent many years in combat – and had just come home.

On the journey he said –’ I saw last nights programme. Poor farmer man.’

My heart swelled. It can work I thought. Television can be this thing; this unifying and humanizing force which allows one person into another’s world and allows them to share a common humanity. It doesn’t matter that this “farmer’ was probably the kind of chap who sent this man into exile in the first place, or that they would have absolutely divergent views. But somewhere somehow, television can and does make a true and deep connection between people from different worlds.

I don’t think since those early days of Ordinary People that I have ever had the same sense of privilege or purpose or, might I say – power.

This programme was made in 1993; before public broadcasting as we know it.

The SABC was a central and crucial site of struggle in the early nineties because everyone was concerned that there should be water tight charters and protocols in place before the first general election , so that the coverage would be free and fair.

It left a small gap for people like ourselves who had cut our teeth in foreign broadcasting to squeeze in and have a weekly current affairs show. By 1996 it was all over. News and current affairs had been centralized and between the bureaucrats, the technocrats, the ideologues and the politicians, political comment was firmly in its place and its place was certainly not in the hands of independent film makers. And that has pretty much been where it has stayed ever since.

The battle for the soul of the SABC begun in 1990. And I think it is important for you not so senior citizens to know that the struggle for public broadcasting  was spearheaded by an organization of independent film producers called FAWO – (the Film and Allied Workers Organization) which went on to become the IPO – and then split into TPA and the IPO.

I read back over the history of public broadcasting last week in preparation for this address, and I had to shake myself because I had forgotten so much. Although there were organizations like the Campaign for Open Media and later the Campaign for Independent Broadcasting together with political parties which got involved in the early nineties to force the transformation of the then state broadcaster to a public broadcaster,  film makers – some of whom sit in this room today – were absolutely at the centre of this struggle. It was FAWO who  organised a march of thousands of people onto the SABC in August 1990 under the banner of the Campaign for Open Media; It was FAWO who held a picket outside the CODESA talks the next year to try and speed up the process of appointing an independent broadcasting authority;   FAWO established a broadcasting commission which was central in charting both strategic policy and legislation for a future public broadcaster and an independent regulator ; and FAWO advised the ANC on many matters of broadcasting policy.

And you know – we won enormous victories. We won the fight for an independent regulator who would regulate broadcasting in the public interest. With that came local content quotas – for both the music industry and the television industry  – which our industries depend on. We won the battle which changed the state broadcaster to a public broadcaster with a board with a mandate to demonstrate its ability to act independently of the government of the day and of party political interests. The SABC  therefore, as a result of our (and other organisation’s passionate efforts) was the first state institution to undergo transformation through the negotiations at CODESA.

In other words, we, as film makers were there in the barricades at the beginning of it all, and it is fitting that we as film makers should be fighting now for a new beginning.

But sadly, this is not a feature film. The story didn’t end there, or else we wouldn’t be here today. Its more like a long running soap opera with complex story arcs, reversals and an ever changing cast of protagonists and antagonists, prima donnas, diva’s and extras.

As I was reading about all the changes in legislation, the amendments to the Broadcasting Act, the changes to the IBA act – which brought ICASA – a much less independent body into being and all the pretty continuous attempts to increase control of the public broadcaster, and to remove its independence,  I became dismayed. I kept on thinking “where was I then?’  When I read about  the changes in the wording from “broadcasting in the public interest to broadcasting in the national and public interest’  I thought -‘gosh– but where was I then? ” When I read about the corporatisation of the SABC and the changes to its funding model, I wondered why I hadn’t said anything.

And I came to this conclusion; Between 1994 and today, we film makers have done almost nothing to protect the privileged and precious space we fought for and won in the beginning of our democracy.

We just dropped the ball. There were many people who didn’t; this battle for an independent broadcaster has been fought by many organisations – FXI, SANEF, Opposition parties – even the SABC itself – but not by the film makers. Yes, of course, our organizations have done sterling work in responding to position papers, in trying to engage the SABC, in meeting with Parliament or ICASA. But actually – it is only once the SABC finally collapsed that somehow we were galvanized enough with enough urgency and focus to climb in and to force ourselves to be heard.

And although there are all sorts of reasons for our quiet diplomacy, or very muted murmerings , such as the collapse of civil society first out of a sense of joy during Mandela’s presidency and then out of a sense of fear and marginalization during Mbeki’s presidency  –  the fact of it – is that we were so wrapped up in our work, our films, our companies,  our need to get ahead, in our fear of rocking the boat or biting the hand that feeds us , or being felt to be ungrateful….and we were so divided by race and class and treating each other as competitors, that we allowed this to happen.

And I say this more to myself than to anyone else here – because there are people here who have worked extremely hard these last ten years to keep organizations alive. But hey were a small minority of people and not the entire industry. And to fight such a big battle – a battle to make sure our state institutions don’t fail us as they have – takes an industry – and not a group of individuals.

It takes an industry to say – “this is the public broadcaster’ and that means it belongs to the people of South Africa – it belongs to us – and we will have a say in how it is constituted or run. We cannot stand by and watch this dream being eroded like it has. And more than that – we cannot allow anyone to make us feel that we have no right to determine the policy and practices of our public broadcaster.

Because – if this current crisis has taught us anything, it should teach us – that our craft as film makers – our ability to make strange and beautiful and wonderful work – is inextricably tied to the political and policy outcomes which govern the public broadcaster –

1.    the fact that we cannot produce a weekly current affairs programme – like Ordinary People as an independent producer – is part of a political and social shift in government – and governments relationship with the public broadcaster
2.    the fact that the budgets we have to work with are less than the budget we had when I made Ordinary People 16 years ago – is because of policy shifts which meant that the SABC would not receive government funding but would run as a self-sustaining corporation which was laid out in the 1999 Broadcasting Act
3.    the fact that we have less rights to the work we produce than we did in 1993 – has its root in the same corporatisation of 1999
4.    or the fact that in 1993 we could talk to one audience – which consisted of both the white farmer and the MK cadre – whereas now – we have a situation where the channels are so atomized and divided into language, age groups and class that our children if they are black or white, english or Afrikaans – cannot consume the same media – which means they might as well be living in different countries – is a result of political and policy  decisions taken over the last ten years.

There is a total convergence of policy and polity and practice – and whilst we have grumbled and moaned about the SABC for the last 15 years – and not fought it at the site where policy was determined – and not forced our voices to be heard leaves us having to start the battle anew.

History was written for us these last ten years – and if we don’t speak out now – in a clear and organized and assertive way – with the confidence that we have every right to determine the direction of our public broadcaster – because it is our broadcaster –  it will be written for us again.

And as we begin our deliberations at this very important People to People conference – remember that documentary films are the biggest casualty not only in this present crisis – but in the gradual erosion of the dream of public broadcasting – And as we focus on issues of funding and budgets and challenges and fears– let us remember that it was film makers like ourselves who set the public broadcaster on its course – and it can be film makers like ourselves who can set it on a new course once again. It is an enormous opportunity.

And lastly – I need to finally address the quite lofty topic I was given to talk about today – A Vision for Public Broadcasting.

What is my vision? Well the best definition I know of public broadcasting is also the shortest.

 Public Broadcasting is making programmes for citizens – and not consumers.

It is a vision, I think, we should fight for, once again.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here