“The defence force is investigating allegations that a drunken general ordered two busloads of armed soldiers in Oudtshoorn to besiege a police station and demand the release of their colleagues who had been arrested in an illegal shebeen.” Caryn Dolley, Inquiry launched into SANDF ‘jailbreak’ The Times 23/5/2012
“Defence force union, Sandu, has strongly condemned the alleged actions of a general at the SANDF base in Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo over the weekend.”
‘Sandu slams SANDF general over use of force’ – SABC News website.
There was a time – in the apartheid era – when the South African Defence Force was admired all over the world for its commitment, its discipline and its achievements despite the arms embargo.
To cite a single instance just Google ‘Vlamgat’ or follow the link.
Since 1994 we have, however, had to wearily accept decreasing defence force budgets and increasing mediocrity.
Our Gripens are grounded; our officers regard pink pantoffels as an integral part of the uniforms which they wear with undisguised patriotism and pride; our military bases are looted at will; soldiers are ‘losing’ their firearms with alarming alacrity; defence force personnel have to be locked in to prevent them from going AWOL; admirals steal laptops and the flying time of the few helicopters still operational seem to be increasingly devoted to satisfying the considerable and considerably complex conjugal needs of President Jacob Zuma which, needs must, take justifiable precedence over rescue operations.
Sober as a judge
Despite our now very low expectations, a few eyebrows seem to have been raised at the recent shenanigans in Outdshoorn when a general, sober as a judge but along with some of his men bearing arms, besieged the local police station to free 32 of their compatriots who were, from all accounts, pissed out of their skulls after carousing along with him, in an unlicensed shebeen. Military decorum does not get much better than that.
The best report came from Caryn Dolley, a recent refugee from the Cape Times and now working for the Times Media Group, but it was the SABC’s coverage –of the event – or rather the lack of it, which motivates this article.
Keep in mind that in Britain, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Holland et al such an event would have aroused national shock and outrage and, if not toppling the government, at least resulted in the minister of defence instantly resigning.
The reaction locally was pretty low key but I saw nothing on SABC TV news and heard nothing on radio which is interesting because no news agency in the country is better equipped to cover news events in Oudtshoorn than the state broadcaster. Since 2006 it has had, in George, and an hour’s drive from Oudtshoorn, an office with radio and television news crews. What is more it has been equipped with the facilities needed to satellite-feed video material to Auckland Park for instant broadcast if need be and it has probably cost a total of more than a million rand to run in the past eight years.
So why no coverage? The only story that the SABC has carried on this incident is a statement by a military trade union reflected on its website. Could it be that this incident falls outside Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s 60% good news formula and that the state broadcaster’s routine censorship by omission has once again manifested itself?
The history of how this news office came to be established is interesting.
PW Botha was elected to parliament in 1948 representing the George constituency and he did what he could thereafter to promote the interests of what he saw as his constituents. The George airport, for example, was named after him when it was opened in 1977.
In the early eighties and now the political leader of the country he decided that he needed a full time SABC office in his constituency so that he had the SABC on call if and whenever he was in town and felt the need to lay the good word upon the multitude. The then SABC management was opposed to this because we had always covered major stories in the area from Cape Town with no problems – Charl Pauw was legendary for his ability to conjure up charter flights no matter what the hour if the story was big enough to warrant it – and for radio we simply had a local correspondent that we paid by story. To hire office space and get accommodation for three people, radio reporter, TV news reporter and camera operator was accordingly considered an unnecessary expense – but Botha’s will prevailed. The moment he resigned in August 1989, the SABC took the decision the close the George office – those were the days when the SABC was run frugally – before the ANC took over and deployed cadres looted the place into a dysfunctional shell, wasting hundreds of millions of rands on grandiose vanity projects like SABC International.
Within months of being appointed regional editor in 1998 at the behest of the ANC and with Mcebisi Skwatsha as his handler, Jeffrey Mzukisi Twala took two devastating steps which nullified decades of hard work by his predecessors in building links with the communities we served.
The first was to stop paying our country correspondents and to tell them their services were no longer required. Most often they were town clerks, keen to promote their municipality. What we paid for their stories was paltry, a few rand at most. However they gave us a sense of security because we knew that when a major story broke, however rarely, they would let us know. Twala took away that inexpensive security.
Why did he do this? For the most part they were white and Afrikaans and he hated both with equal intensity. The second reason was, as he told staff, that he got an incentive bonus for keeping costs down. Doing away with our system of country correspondents was thus, for him , not only logical but a profoundly satisfying double whammy.
The second devastating blow we suffered as a local news gathering organisation occurred in November 2000 and the drama was well captured in a story by Henri Geyser in the Cape Argus of 24 November. It was headlined ‘Marooned in the loneliest place on earth.’ The South African navy has launched a huge rescue operation to save the lives of three Cape Town fishermen marooned in a bleak bay on Gough Island, in the middle of the freezing Atlantic Ocean.
Two of their shipmates drowned in a drama earlier this week that left the three men stranded in one of the most isolated places on earth.
I received a call on 23 November from an officer contact at Silvermine, the navy’s radar tracking station at Simonstown. He was terse because he was in a hurry. I was aware, was I not, that the SAS Protea was on its way back to Simon’s Town after taking part in manoeuvres in Durban? “The Protea is now close to Port Elizabeth. We will be changing course for Gough to rescue the marooned fishermen. There is only one press berth available and I want a cameraman at 22 Squadron, Ysterplaat within two hours.”
I knew who that should be. Johann Abrahams is an outstanding cameraman and reporter and producer. I explained to Twala, who happened to be standing next to me, that the helicopter was leaving shortly which could fly Johann to the Protea and was horrified when, with a smirk, he informed me that we would not be accepting the invitation because there were “important political stories” that he wanted covered.
With a heavy heart, I explained the situation. There was silence for a few seconds and the call was terminated. Two hours later an e.tv cameraman was on board a 22 Squadron helicopter en route to the Protea.
Here, courtesy of the Cape Times is a chronology of how Twala handed a scoop to our only television news rivals, e.tv, on a story that gripped the world.
17 November: Patrick Watson and Derek Ngala capsize in a dinghy while lifting fishing lines off Gough Island from their mother ship, the Edinburgh. Ngala drowns and Watson swims to shore.
19 November: Frank Wagenstroom, Deon Davids and Quinton Appollis launch a boat from the Edinburgh to get closer to the shore to shoot provisions by rocket line to the stranded Watson. The boat capsizes. Appollis drowns and Davids and Wagenstroom swim ashore to join Watson.
22 November: Owners of the Edinburgh contact SA authorities to ask for a rescue by helicopter.
23 November: The SA Navy’s SAS Protea, with an SAAF helicopter on board, leaves South Africa and steams to the island, 1 500 nautical miles south west of Cape Town.
28 November: The Protea reaches Gough and the three fishermen are airlifted to safety.
3 December: The Protea returns to Simonstown
On 3 December 2000 I presented myself at the dockyard gates to watch the SAS Protea berth and to record the new conference. The e.tv cameraman did not bother to attend it. We had talking heads and he had dramatic footage of the helicopter lifting off the deck and returning with the famished, hypothermic but ecstatically relieved fishermen.
Why is this relevant to the SABC’s censorship by omission of a story, despite having a news office only an hour’s drive from the town, of the drunken troops besieging the Oudtshoorn police station?
Fast forward to Saturday, 1 June 2002.
We no longer have a correspondent in George but Pauw, arguably the most famous reporter of that era, has an unrivalled list of contacts. He is off duty and working on the roof of his house when he receives a phone call from an SAA pilot who has just landed at George airport. He climbs off the roof and phones through to the office a short radio story of a few sentences about what he had been told. A light cargo plane had crashed in the mountains near George killing the three people on board. One of them was former SA cricket captain, Hansie Cronje.
This is Jimi Matthews’ first day on duty as the SABC’s newly appointed head of television news. George falls within the jurisdiction and news coverage area of Twala. Twala, in the absence of those who he continuously and contemptuously refers to as “leelywhites standing the way of transformation” is utterly unable to organise a team to cover the event. Finally, with time running out, Matthews orders the SABC’s Port Elizabeth news office to spare no expense and to hire a helicopter and fly to the scene which is duly done. By noon with international news organisations running reports and obituaries at length with visual material, the only report that has been filed by Twala’s Sea Point news office is a three sentence radio report telephonically dictated by Pauw.
This is how it was given to the bulletin reader: 13:30 “A medium size airplane (sic) has crashed near George in the Southern Cape. A spokesperson for the Airport Company, Charles Norvel, says the wreckage of the plane has been found on (sic) the mountains north of the town. Norvel says the plane was from (sic) Bloemfontein to George.”
In Port Elizabeth the news editor on duty, Patricia Ashington, delegates reporter Janine Lee to cover the story and shortly afterwards a chartered helicopter piloted by John Huddlestone is winging its way to successfully cover the story and get the all-important visuals – thus saving the SABC from immense embarrassment.
That night Twala finally managed to dispatch a news crew by road. The next morning a 22 Squadron helicopter landed next to the wreckage of the plane. It had one newsman on board: Andrew Ingram chief photographer for the Cape Times. He, like Pauw and I, had worked assiduously in a reciprocal and symbiotic quid pro quo with 22 Squadron, giving as much publicity to their rescues as possible and reflecting every single ceremony when the unit won the prestigious Sword of Peace, the Air Force’s highest operational award. It honours one unit or squadron each year for outstanding humanitarian service. We were not invited to accompany Ingram on the flight from Ysterplaat air base to George and I don’t think the Air Force ever forgave us for Twala’s snub. This crippled us thereafter on major stories where 22 Squadron was involved.
No disciplinary action was ever taken by Matthews as a result of this gross ineptitude because he was aware that Twala was appointed not to cover news but a) to promote the ANC; b) to cover up its scandals and c) to undermine the Democratic Alliance and he is happy with that. He was however aware from then on that if a major story broke in George the chances were good that a once-outstanding news office would very probably not be able to cover it.
In 2006 Snuki Zikalala was on a roll spending millions setting up SABC International. Aware of Twala’s incompetence he decides to re-open the George office which has another attraction for him as an enthusiastic golfer – it is the home of Fancourt which is regarded as one of the country’s best, most exclusive and most expensive golf estates.
He duly flies in with a coterie of cronies to ‘celebrate’ – at taxpayers’ expense –the opening of a news office manned by three people that the apartheid-era SABC had reluctantly and without fanfare opened with embarrassment under political pressure and closed with relief once that pressure no longer existed. Staff at the George office told me that at no time during a lavish banquet did Zikalala refer to them or call on them to speak. It was purely and simply a party for his fellow deployed cadres at taxpayers’ expense. The rest of the weekend was spent playing golf. You have to give it to the Caviar Comrades – they know how to milk the system – as the subsequent necessity for a R1.4 billion bailout testifies.
So there you have it – the history of a news office which apparently was nowhere to be found when a major story broke recently which testifies to the complete collapse of discipline in a once disciplined, once proud defence force. There was of course nothing preventing Matthews from phoning and instructing the George team to do a television news insert for the SABC’s flagship Prime Time 7pm 24 hour television news channel. That, however, would be completely at odds with its pervasive, unconstitutional and illegal policy of censorship by omission and so the plus minus 27 million people who rely on the SABC for their news are unaware of the Oudtshoorn police station being besieged by drunken SANDF troops.
Media manipulation for the millions.
In closing: I have always said that the SABC is South Africa in microcosm and I have already written about the beneficial effect that the ANC’s fanatical commitment to preventative maintenance has had on Rockland Villas, a row of Victorian- era, double story, semi-detached flats which the state broadcaster owns in Sea Point.
As a further example of this preventative maintenance and with reference to our new coterie of ANC parliamentarians, I would like to bring to your attention the following SABC interview in October 2008 with Nhlanhla Nene who, from all accounts, is a thoroughly decent an extremely accomplished man. He is now our Finance Minister, replacing Pravin Gordhan.
If I was a religious man I would invoke the words of Henry Francis Lyte – perhaps the most evocative hymn in all of Christendom.
Change and decay in all around I see…
IMAGE: Rocklands Villas / Andrew Ingram
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