President Jacob Zuma appointed a new SABC board of directors two weeks ago. Veteran SABC reporter Ed Herbst, in the second part of his essay, looks at on the history of board interference and political control of the SABC.
I have a very high regard for former SABC board member, Suzanne Vos with whom I worked some 40 years ago on the Natal Mercury prior to her going into politics.
She has written several times about the ANC’s interference in the day-to-day administration of the SABC and, in particular, to its iron-fisted control of the SABC news department through people like Snuki Zikala and his current clone
Non-interference in operational matters
I was intrigued by her reference in a recent Politicsweb article to the fact that “…the SABC board is a non-executive board and that it cannot interfere in any way whatsoever in operational matters however much this is necessary.”
As the recently-appointed ANC board indicates, it should represent all South Africans but does not. In the interests of media freedom it is also imperative that board members not only refrain from interfering in operational matters but that they remain politically neutral lest their publicly expressed views adversely influence newsroom personnel whose news coverage should be non-aligned and objective.
As I will indicate in the following analysis, after 2003 the ANC’s deployed cadres on the SABC board not only constantly interfered in operational matters but they also sent overt messages to SABC newsroom personnel as to how they expected the news to be covered.
I will draw from contemporary records, using Christine Qunta and Dr Ben Ngubane as case studies, to illustrate the point in the era stretching from 2003 until the resignation of Ngubane in March this year.
Prior to 1994, SABC board members like Professor Christo Viljoen (an acknowledged expert on broadcast technology) and internationally esteemed opera singer Mimi Coetzer, who had the arts and music portfolio on the board, were accepted as being National Party supporters or sympathisers but did not make public statements in support of the NP.
All this changed when President Thabo Mbeki appointed supporters to the board who mirrored and echoed his manifest aversion to the West in general and whites in particular and they did not hesitate to express similar views and to attack the Democratic Alliance as he did.
Here is how media and political analyst, Karima Brown, then political editor of Business Day, saw the way in which the board under the aegis of people like Eddie Funde, Christine Qunta and Thami Mazwai interfered in the SABC’s news operation and fully supported Snuki Zikalala’s news bias. In the newspaper on 13 December 2005 she wrote:
“When the current SABC board was appointed two years ago, its first order of business was to reinstate Zikalala as MD of news despite criticism inside and outside the broadcaster. This was a blatantly political move that had nothing to do with Zikalala’s abilities as a news manager. Zikalala returned to the SABC last year. He freely told staff that he was there to carry out the board’s mandate, and questioning him was tantamount to taking on the board.
“The board has no business interfering in the management of the news division and should have no say in the appointment of editorial management.
“Following his pronouncements about his special relationship with the board, Zikalala set off an exodus of news staff. True, some left for greener pastures, but many left because the space that still existed for critical journalism was fast closing.”
In an article by Brown (who previously worked for SABC radio news) in Business Day on 27 June 2006, she recalls a phone call that she received from the Thabo Mbeki-appointed board member Qunta. Brown said that Qunta expressed her ‘concern’ over the ‘tone’ of SAfm’s coverage of government as she felt it was pandering to the DA. Brown wrote: “The organisational culture and ethos at Auckland Park newsroom promote self-censorship. Under the guise of transformation, the SABC has been all but hijacked by a clique of self-serving government lackeys who believe they alone know what the public should see and hear. These individuals are not just in news management.
“They are on the SABC board, in the newsrooms and they even include senior journalists.”
The SABC’s news bias during the Qunta era has already been extensively analysed.
Prior to Polokwane, one of the objectives of Mbeki’s acolytes at the SABC was to deny his rival for the presidency, Jacob Zuma, any favourable coverage.
In the National Party era prior to FW de Klerk becoming leader, songs that were considered as not supportive of or opposed to NP ideology were regularly banned. Under Mbeki and with the full support of Zikalala and the SABC board, this odious practice was resumed in the campaign against Jacob Zuma.
‘Msholozi’, a song in praise of Zuma by Izingane Zoma, a traditional maskandi group, was removed from the playlist of its Zulu-language Ukhozi FM radio, the radio station with the largest audience in Africa. The song praised Zuma and called for him to be elected president in place of Mbeki.
Zuma, himself, made his concerns about this SABC-driven campaign against him a matter of record.
Two verdicts on Qunta
Qunta is a lawyer and the two most damning verdicts of her contentious appointment to the SABC board by then President Mbeki – and the turmoil that this political interference unleashed – came from within her own profession.
The first was from distinguished advocate Gilbert Marcus SC who, along with the late Zwelakhe Sisulu, was appointed by then CEO Dali Mpofu to investigate the nauseating ban by Snuki Zikalala of any interviews being aired with people he considered critical of Mbeki or not supportive of his policies – from Elinor Sisulu, Moeletsi Mbeki and Trevor Ncube to reporter Paula Slier whose reputation and career prospects, ironically, were hugely enhanced when Zikalala banned her from reporting on SABC TV News because she is Jewish.
Slier now distinguishes herself as a Middle East bureau chief for Russia Today, an international television news channel, while Zikalala’s international television news channel, which bankrupted the SABC and had an audience of only a few thousand, has followed him into well-deserved oblivion.
Sisulu and Marcus found that Zikalala had contravened the SABC’s code of ethical news reporting on no less than eight occasions.
Dali Mpofu and the board then tried and failed to suppress the damning Sisulu/Marcus Commission report and gave Zikalala their full support – something that led to the subsequent resignation of whistle blower John Perlman and others.
The second excoriating condemnation of Zikalala’s ‘blacklist’ and those who supported it came from a Judge Neels Claassen in the South Gauteng High Court on 24 January 2011. He found that that during the Mbeki era there had been widespread manipulation of the news and that the SABC had lied to cover up this manipulation.
Judge Claassen said: “Dr Zikalala’s blacklisting of commentators perceived to be critical of the government of the day was clearly designed to silence their voices by not allowing them on air.
“His purpose was obviously to manipulate SABC’s news and current affairs programmes by excluding these critical voices …. To suggest that his blacklisting might not have had an effect is quite incorrect … the truth could only have been established had both sides of the story been aired.”
The South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) said it was, “appalled at the extent of the deceit, malpractice and political manipulation of the South African Broadcasting Corporation news services in favour of the ruling African National Congress which has been revealed in a scathing judgment in the South Gauteng High Court.”
Tellingly, Qunta, Funde, Mpofu and Zikalala have never publicly denounced Judge Claassen, denied his findings, suggested that he was deluded or biased nor sued him for defamation. Another to refrain from comment on the Claassen judgement was former SABC board member (2003 – 2007) Thami Mazwai, who had said in a Business Day article on 17 October 2006: “The furore around Snuki Zikalala and the so-called blacklist is the continuation of a witch-hunt on the one hand and, on the other, a further manifestation of the resentment, or suspicion, in certain quarters when African National Congress (ANC) people are appointed to key positions.”
By then Qunta had resigned from the SABC board, jumping before the Zuma faction could dismiss her. Businessman Peter Vundla, who also resigned, allegedly accused Qunta of constantly interfering in the day to day running of the SABC.
Polokwane, as Jane Duncan so aptly put it, cracked an intransigent SABC open “…like a nut”.
“After Jacob Zuma came to power the tide turned against the likes of Zikalala and Qunta. It became inevitable that their days would be numbered because they had exploited SABC resources to run an election campaign for Mbeki. “There was no way they were going to be able to survive at the SABC in the Zuma era because of what they had done for Mbeki.”
Dr Ben Ngubane – an early warning
An early warning that the Ngubane era was going to be no different in terms of rampant corruption, savage internecine battles, almost incomprehensible incompetence, wasteful expenditure, sybaritic living at taxpayer’s expense and news manipulation to favour the ruling faction in the ruling party was sounded by Cape Town based human rights activist Rhoda Kadalie.
In a cogent and eloquently articulated essay, former journalist and now leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, sets out in damning detail how the ANC is waging what she calls the “air war” and how its deployed cadre, Dr Ben Ngubane, avidly worked as one of its proxies to achieve victory in that war.
For me, the end of the country’s hopes and dreams of a transformed, non-political public broadcaster that would serve the needs of all South Africans came with the resignation from the Zuma-appointed board of distinguished lawyer, author and human rights activist Peter Harris. When a person of the integrity and innate decency of Harris feels that his reputation will be tainted by continued membership of a board that is widely seen as lacking probity because it is politically controlled, then we all need to be worried. In his resignation letter, Harris mentioned the “intolerable interference” of the communications ministry in the board’s activities.
This was an era of shattered dreams and in a fitting analogy to the increasing service delivery protests that were spreading like a veld fire across the country – think Andries Tatane – there were protest marches on 4 June 2009 to the SABC offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The marchers were members of the country’s skilled, committed and hard-working freelance documentary and soapie producers who had been reduced to penury by the untrammelled looting of the Mpofu, Funde, Qunta and Zikalala era that had resulted in them not being paid for months, years and, in some cases, ever.
For them, the fact that Funde was subsequently implicated in an alleged scam shortly after being deployed to another ANC sinecure brought little schadenfreude.
A new dawn or more darkness?
The catastrophic consequences of the current Mokhobo/Motsoeneng era have yet to be felt in full.
Commenting on the contract that Motsoeneng (rather than Mokhobo – strange that) signed recently with MultiChoice, William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, said he believed it was bad for the SABC and the country. “This is a devastating development for a new democracy such as ours, because it all but gives a commercial broadcaster total control over a public broadcaster, which is unheard of.”
Bird said the contract, while great for MultiChoice, is potentially devastating for the SABC in financial terms. “MultiChoice will pay the SABC about R100m per year for their channels, but it will cost the SABC far more than that to run them. I predict that within a year’s time we will have another SABC governance and financial crisis, and everybody will be wondering why.”
Actually, nobody will need to wonder why. They need look no further than the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment to seize control of all the “levers of power” which was so candidly expressed and articulated by Joel Netshitenzhe writing in Umrabulo in 1997.
For now, all that matters to the ANC is that there is an election in the offing and that the SABC is under its total control during the hustings. If, as a consequence, another billion rand bailout is needed in due course, well, so be it. If they can repeatedly do it at SAA, then why not at the state broadcaster? It is, after all, only taxpayer’s money.