“The media as one of the most important social instruments is expected to play a critical role in informing and educating the public in a manner that is neutral, balanced and non-partisan. This neutrality can only be protected if those in the newsroom do not harbour any political agenda in conducting their work. This ethical requirement and expectation is a key pillar in promoting the integrity of journalism.” – Siswe Nyenyiso – The DA’s agents in the media’, Politicsweb, 28 January 2014
“Shame or embarrassment does not even begin to capture the amalgam of utter madness, incompetence, greed, and vanity that has reduced a once proud institution into the butt of jokes and ridicule. George Orwell must have had the SABC in mind when he penned Animal Farm, his classic novel on how greed and wickedness can betray a revolution. The pigs have taken control at the SABC, and they’re merrily trashing the place.” – Barney Mthombothi – Financial Mail editorial, 12 June 2009
I have written at some length of how the SABC’s Hlaudi Motsoeneng, Jimi Matthews and Nyana Molete, with a home ground advantage, allowed every major news agency in the world to scoop them on their own turf by censoring the booing of Jacob Zuma on SABC bulletins and by deliberately not – to this day – interviewing Thamsanqa Jantjie. Jantjie is the confirmed schizophrenic who, proudly brought to you by the ANC, was, without security clearance, able to view angels from a vantage point just aft of US President Barack Obama’s left shoulder.
To committed news reporters and news organisations this would be an unconscionable and incomprehensible dereliction of duty but, as SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago eruditely explained, the Corporation was right not to emulate the BBC, CNN, Sky News, Channel 4, Al Jazeera and eNCA interest in this because Jantjie was just a “side story”.
The real reason, however, was revealed when Hlaudi Motsoeneng (who had banned all broadcast discussion on the ANC on the SABC airwaves unless a Luthuli House appointee was present, who had canned the Big Debate series and who was happy to go to court to prevent Sylvia Vollenhoven’s The Spear from being broadcast) informed newsroom staff -– according to BEMAWU -– that any story which put Jacob Zuma in a bad light would not be tolerated.
This article recounts how, for more than decade, the SABC has allowed itself to be scooped in the Western Cape in a manner similar to the Zuma booing/Thamsanqa Jantie examples – through censorship by omission.
As background, in 1998 Snuki Zikalala decided to merge the radio and TV news offices and we expected and hoped that the then head of radio news in the Cape Town news office of the SABC, Willie Linström, who was competent, well qualified, respected and had more than 30 years’ experience in news gathering, would get the job. When he was informed by a colleague in HR in Auckland Park that a white man would never be considered for the post, he left. At the behest of Zikalala, the job was given to Jeffrey Twala, previously a sports commentator in the Eastern Cape with the radio station Umhlobo Wenene. He had no news experience to speak of but had, in Zikalala’s view, the right political connections, in particular, with influential Eastern Cape ANC politicians such Ngconde Balfour, Makhenkesi Stofile and in Cape Town, then-ANC leader, Mcebisi Skwatsha.
Twala reported daily to Skwatsha, something without precedent in the Sea Point news office.
We, as reporters in that office, then found that our role had fundamentally changed from being news gatherers to captive political pawns. Our goal, as dictated by Twala and his then deputy, Kenneth Makatees, was to undermine opposition parties, to promote the ANC and to cover up its corruption. (When I realised what was happening I started to collect documentary evidence in the form of bulletins, daily diary entries, BEMAWU grievance procedures, medical reports and correspondence about corruption and the abuses suffered by staff (I was the BEMAWU shop steward for the Sea Point news office) and newspaper cuttings of the stories we were not allowed to cover because they reflected badly on the ANC.)
For us reporters work became absolutely surreal from 2001 when, with the help of Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the ANC gained control of the Cape Town municipality. Open tender meetings were suddenly closed to the public and the looting of the Cape Town municipality started in earnest (more than a billion rand was siphoned out of civic coffers in that era), but we were not allowed to report on this corruption and were thus scooped on an hourly basis by rival radio, TV and print news organisations. All these corruption stories became, in the words of Kganyago, “side stories”.
Each morning at the 9am news diary meeting the front pages of the Cape Times and Die Burger would reflect this tender and other forms of corruption, Big Bay 1&2, Jewellery City, the N2 Gateway, the Blackman Ngoro scandal and many more and, in the afternoon, there would be follow up stores in the Cape Argus. These stories were never diarised and never formed the subject of any discussion at these meetings – the staff was so intimidated, so fearful, that the status quo was simply accepted because we knew we had no support from Auckland Park. We would, instead, be told, for example, to cover Cape Town mayor, Nomindia Mfeketo opening a new housing development for the poor. When we pointed that the development in question had, in fact, officially been opened a year before, we would be told to cover it anyhow.
Zikalala was fully aware of this news bias because in 1991, a confidential report about abuses in the Sea Point office was given by BEMAWU to Peter Matlare on the accepted understanding that it was background information and for his eyes only. Shortly afterwards the report was given to Zikalala in what the victims regarded as an act of unspeakable treachery. Jimi Matthews and Pippa Green could also not have been unaware of this news bias and 24/7 censorship by omission because an ace Sapa team led by the gentlemanly and eloquent Ben McLennan was doing an outstanding job of covering these Cape Town scandals and, because the SABC was a client of Sapa, the reports were being fed into the SABC news computer system as they were filed.
Initially, ANC premier Ebrahim Rasool was delighted to co-operate with the new, ‘transformed’ SABC newsroom in Sea Point but then the split occurred between him and his ally Marius Fransman on the one side and the faction led by Mcebisi Skwatsha on the other. \]’
This wrangle over political patronage had a cascading effect because we were then forced to attack Rasool on behalf of the Skwatsha faction (I left the SABC in 2005 when we were instructed to broadcast blatant lies about Rasool – I have the bulletins) and Rasool and Fransman counter-attacked by bribing journalists Ashley Smith and Joseph Aranes to promote them and undermine Skwatsha – the so-called “brown envelope scandal” which still reverberates today.
Throughout this time, which saw a flood of resignations from what was once the happiest and strongest of the Corporation’s regional news offices, the SABC was kept fully aware of what was happening – but did nothing because the Cape Town news office was effectively being controlled by the ANC. BEMAWU filed a further voluminous report in 2006 to the Sisulu/Marcus commission of inquiry into the blacklisting scandal. This report contained such shocking details of the abuses which had and were still occurring in the Sea Point news office that the Commission, through its lawyer Eric Mabuza, asked the permission of one of the victims to forward the submission to the Corporation. That permission was granted and I have a copy of the letter. Nothing was done and the SABC and its board sought to suppress the findings of the Commission.
It was also made a matter of further record by Helen Zille at the Cape Town Press Club on 25 April 2008, by Suzanne Vos (IFP) to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communication that met the full board of the SABC five days later (I have a transcript of her speech) and in several newspaper articles.
The once proud, once esteemed African National Congress has a term for this news gathering and disseminating circus which, at last, it largely controls through its several ringmasters – it calls it ‘media transformation’. It is an integral part of the glorious National Democratic Revolution and involves seizing control of all the strategic ‘levers of power’ so that they can become useful instruments of political control and the concomitant political patronage. In the end, however, all it evokes is the world of Lewis Carroll and the lyrics of Don McLean.
Jacob Zuma now occupies the chair once occupied by Nelson Mandela.
At the SABC the position once held by Zwelakhe Sisulu is now held by Hlaudi Motsoeneng…
… and the position once held by Barney Mthombothi is now held by Jimi Matthews.
Outside Newspaper House in Cape Town a media Mata Hari totters around on “10 inch red stilettos” decrying “white racist reporters” as the self-effacing Iqbal Survé, manically waving Sekunjalo writs, twirls pirouettes and prances through the ghostly, the ever more echoing newsrooms, touting his extraordinary bravery and close links with Madiba. And, as he triumphantly savours his pyrrhic victory and his extraordinary innovation – threatening to sue his own reporters – the Eyewitness News fugitive, Gasant Abader, takes up the chair once occupied by Tony Heard and Alide Dasnois, the Cape Times descends into a bitter, internecine, racial abyss and the voices of dissenting columnists are silenced.
Overlooking the ‘new age’ media chaos, the Guptas and Thamsanqa Jantjie beam as the court jester, Kaizer Kganyago, cartwheels crazily around the periphery of the Rainboo Nation’s Auckland Park insanity, eerily chanting “Side story! Side story! Side story!, – and the musical theme is appropriate …
Oh, and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
And while Lennon read a book on Marx
A quartet practised in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died …
In our ANC- created land of unrealised aspirations and shattered dreams, the SABC seeks to silence the voices of the people who booed Jacob Zuma; Thamsanqa Jantjie becomes a “side story”; the ANC’s ‘broad church’ morphs into a Whited Sepulchre; the moneylenders are now called tenderpreneurs and are welcome in the temple; the Nkandla Fire Pool has become our Holy Grail and over it all hangs the threatening, the brooding malevolence of the Protection of State Information Bill.
IMAGE: SABC Sea Point studios / Wikimedia Creative Comments