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Herbst: Media capture rot runs deep. When SABC defied parliament.

Retired journalist Ed Herbst reminds me of an old production line. Despite being placed out of use, he just keeps producing line item after line item of world class reporting. His historical knowledge used in the current context is on point, and one wonders if the rest of government rolled back the clock, many of the current problems would most likely be avoided. But unfortunately, we aren’t so lucky with those in power. His latest contribution looks at the troubles at the SABC. Something which is not new and is how things happen when it comes to the ANC’s media capture. One can also look at what’s going on at the Independent News under Iqbal Surve ever since the PIC gifted a loan to gain control for a greater understanding. The media rot is truly deep and wide. – Stuart Lowman

By Ed Herbst*

Ed Herbst, former television journalist
Ed Herbst, former television journalist

To those of us who lived through the Jeffrey Twala era at the SABC’s Sea Point news office from around 1998 until recently, the current furore over Hlaudi Motsoeneng leaves us somewhat bemused. In comparison to Twala, Hlaudi Motsoeneng is a combination of Mother Theresa and Lady Di – at the very least he has not vengefully targeted white people in the way that Snuki Zikalala, Twala and currently the editor of the Cape Times, Aneez Salie have done.

I first got to know Suzanne Vos in the early 1970s when we were both reporters on the Natal Mercury.

She later joined the Inkatha Freedom Party and was a Member of Parliament from 1994 until 2009 and was also a member of the Pan African Parliament from 2005 and 2009.

For much of her time at parliament she was also a member of parliament’s Communications Portfolio Committee.

I asked for early retirement from the SABC’s Cape Town news office in 2005 even though that left me unemployed because of the appallingly abusive way in which staff in that news office were being treated.

Two major reports about this abuse were submitted to the SABC, the first in 2002 and the second in 2006 by Bemawu, the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers Union, the biggest specialised union in this field. At the time that I left the SABC, I was newsroom shop steward for the union in the Cape Town newsroom when the first report was submitted.

It was submitted to the then COO, Peter Matlare, after a cameraman had come close to suicide on Chapman’s Peak. Twala, a confidante of ANC politicians like Mcebisi Skwatsha and Ngconde Balfour, was sending them into the townships at night for what they perceived to be his political gain. They would be told to cover a murder and when they got there they would find an ANC politician claiming to have calmed the people and to having urged them not to take the law into their own hands. One cameraman was shot at another robbed and the realisation that Twala was willing to have their wives widowed and their children orphaned – just to please his political masters – took an enormous psychic toll. I have the medical reports of those camera operators on file and several – long-service and talented – resigned in short order.

Once again, Zapiro's pics tell the story better than 1000 words. More of his magic on Zapiro.com
Once again, Zapiro’s pics tell the story better than 1000 words. More of his magic on Zapiro.com

The 2002 report brought no relief to staff, in fact the abuses escalated leading to a substantial exodus some of our most talented newsroom personnel. It was handed to Matlare by Bemawu on the understanding that it was for his eyes only and that it was submitted under the aegis of the Protected Disclosure Act. Within minutes it was in the hands of Snuki Zikalala who flew to Cape Town, and threatened us. Staff were then called into meetings with Twala and his deputy, Kenneth Makatees, verbally abused and threatened in contravention of the Protected Disclosure ACT. They were utterly traumatised and many resigned shortly thereafter. I have, on file, numerous statements made by them in this regard.

The second Bemawu report was submitted to the late Zwelakhe Sisulu and advocate Gilbert Marcus who had accepted the brief to set up a commission of inquiry into what became known as the Snuki Zikalala blacklisting scandal.

Read also: Zuma’s wrecking ball Motsoeneng: SABC is fine; private media is the problem

In response to this submission, one of the former staff members, a woman who chooses to remain anonymous, received a letter dated 14 September, 2006 from Eric Mabuza the attorney collating input for the commission.

  • I have been asked by Mr Sisulu and Mr Marcus (“the Commissioners”) to respond to your confidential submission.
  • The Commissioners have noted the circumstances under which you departed from the SABC and the allegations particularly directed against Mr Twala and others. The Commission notes with concern the serious matters raised by you but draws attention to their terms of reference which, in essence, requires an investigation into the alleged existence of a system or practice of excluding certain analysts or commentators for unjustifiable reasons. Although the terms of reference cover other related issues, this is the core concern of the Commission. The matters raised by you are essentially issues of employment law for which there are remedies under the Labour Relations Act and related legislation.
  • Although the Commission’s terms of reference do not cover the matters raised by you, the Commissioners are of the view that your submission should be placed before the new CEO of the SABC, Advocate Mpofu. This will, of course, only be permissible with your consent and I await your response in this regard.

Yours faithfully

Eric Mabuza

Like Matlare, Mpofu did not respond.

In 2008 I was informed by former colleagues working in the parliamentary office of the SABC, that Suzanne Vos had made a speech in parliament on 30/4/2008 about the staff situation in the Sea Point news office.

I phoned parliament and asked for the Hansard of this speech. I was told that it no longer worked like that but I was sent an audio clip of the speech which I transcribed.

I submitted this article to Ms Vos who has confirmed the transcript to be accurate and it now follows, verbatim:

“What I wish to ask the new Board and obviously members who were re-appointed who had served on the old Board, whether to date, having raised this issue several times with the previous Board and now the new Board, whether to date, Board members have visited the Sea Point office – have they spoken to staff, including contract workers – given the very serious nature of the complaints and the allegations made to the Sisulu commission under oath. And also as members of this committee did point out, that we are also in receipt of other information, which is why we are consistently raising these issues.

“Now it’s clear that this committee is taking the allegations of mismanagement, corruption, racism and the abuse of human rights of staff members in the Sea Point office extremely seriously. And it is clear that we expected a thorough investigation. And it is clear that we are wanting to hear it today.

“And so that is why – just a few crisp questions I am going to ask now – is, has the Board initiated an investigation and an analysis into the political coverage emanating from the Sea Point office in relation to numerous allegations that the head of the Sea Point office, Mr Jeffrey Twala, personally orders coverage of ANC leader Mr Mcebisi Skwatsha and is supportive of an internal Western Cape ANC power struggle to oust premier Ebrahim Rasool. I have, in my possession, an analysis, done by others, of various reportage coming from the Sea Point office which does appear to identify very, very serious problems.

“Now does the Board and management not find it unacceptable that there is a constant flight of staff from the Sea Point office and news staff have left the office at the rate of one in every four and five months for the last six years. Has it come to the attention of management and the Board that Mr Jeffrey Twala openly tells white staff members that they are standing in the way of transformation and openly tells contract workers who apply for work: “Why should I re-employ you – you’re white.”

“Now has nothing been done for years – and why has nothing been done for years, about what appears to be a prima facie case perpetrated by Mr Twala? In a submission to the trade union, Bemawu, which was subsequently forwarded to the Sisulu Commission, an SABC staff member stated under oath that Mr Twala coerced her and a fellow employee, also a woman, into overriding the computer system for two years. This related to overtime payments. Now is the Board aware that as a consequence of this, news staff were not paid overtime for working on public holidays and Mr Twala allegedly received a performance bonus for keeping his budget down. Now BEMAWU raised this issue with management and nothing was done. After a formal grievance procedure, Mr Twala was finally forced to re-implement the overtime, the time management system, correctly, but then told staff they were not allowed to see their own time sheets.

“So it would appear clear when you talk, if you have, to the Sea Point office staff and contract workers that things have been bad for a very, very long time. And when the SABC implemented its whistle blower programme, evidence was presented to the Deloitte & Touche investigative (team) and a forensic audit, as you know, was undertaken. Now staff were subsequently told that the Deloitte & Touche report recommended to the SABC that Mr Twala be dismissed – and nothing happened and we need to know why. Because, obviously any person who holds a position of authority is obliged by law to act and a manager who fails to act on the report of a whistle blower could be exposed to prosecution if the evidence placed before them was such that they could reasonably have been aware that corrupt practices were undertaken.

“So, just finally, will the Board provide the committee with the Deloitte & Touche report which was funded by public money and which details the way in which staff members were deprived of their overtime earnings for working on public holidays – why nothing was done about it.

“And can the Board give us an explanation as to what they have done regarding Mr Twala’s actions and why he shouldn’t be dismissed.”

The 12-member board in question was appointed by President Thabo Mbeki on 22/12/2007.

The chairperson of the new board was Khanyisile Mkhonza and her deputy was the controversial lawyer Christine Qunta, a fierce supporter of Mbeki and his AIDS policies. She had been widely tipped for the top job.

Also appointed to the new Board were Independent Electoral Commission chief executive Pansy Tlakula, businesswoman Gloria Serobe, former presidential spokesman Bheki Khumalo and businessman Peter Vundla. Other members were Ashwin Trikamjee, Alison Gillwald, Andile Mbeki, Fadila Lagadien, Nadia Bulbulia and Desmond Golding.

Read also: Herbst: The Rise and Rise of Hlaudi Motsoeneng – “Insulting the struggle”

At a subsequent meeting between the board and the Communications Portfolio Committee, the Committee was told by these people that an investigation had revealed absolutely nothing amiss in the SABC’s regional news office in the Western Cape and that they had found, as was the finding of the Seriti Commission, that nothing untoward had happened.

There was no investigation. I was told that at no stage did the board ever request a meeting with news office staff, either as a group or individually.

The Deloitte & Touche report which Ms Vos referred to was commissioned by the SABC’s forensic audit department and it recommended the dismissal of the ANC-aligned Regional Editor, Jeffrey Mzukisi Twala.

It was never acted upon and the then Board simply ignored the request from parliament.

Lied to and defied

Ms Vos feels that the Committee was both lied to and defied.

The travails being experienced currently by SABC staff in Johannesburg and previously in Cape Town are nothing new – this is how it works in terms of media capture by the ANC and what has been experienced at Independent News Pty Ltd – ever since Dr Iqbal Survé was gifted what seems to be a non-repayable “loan” by the PIC of more than a billion rand – adds weight and context to that suggestion.

First there is the purge and both Allister Sparks and Max du Preez can testify to that because both were driven out of the SABC and Independent (sic) newspapers under the same circumstances and for the same reasons – they were white journalists of integrity. In the process employee rights are treated with contempt.

Here is an alphabetical list, by Christian name, of some of the former staff members or columnists whose work was once appreciated by readers of the Independent News Media newspapers – this defenestration taking little more than two years:

A’eysha Kassiem; Alide Dasnois; Allister Sparks; Ann Crotty; Babalo Ndenze; Chris Whitfield; Cobus Coetzee; Dan Simon; Dave Chambers; Donwald Pressly; Ethne Zinn; Glenn Bownes; Graham Shaw; Henri du Plessis; Janet Heard; Jillian Green; John Scott; Jonathan Ancer; Judith February; Lizeka Mda; Makhudu Sefara; Marianne Merten; Martine Barker; Max du Preez; Melanie Gosling; Michelle Jones; Moshoeshoe Monare; Peter de Ionno; Philani Mgwaba; Philip Weideman; Pierre Joubert; Piet Rampedi; Shaun Smilie; Sybrand Mostert; Tanya Farber; Terry Bell; Tony Weaver; Wendy Knowler; Zara Nicholson.

The court papers of Alide Dasnois give some indication of how staff have been treated in this “transformed” media institution.

Then the content suffers and censorship by omission, forbidden by the codes of conduct for both newspapers and broadcast stations, becomes both de facto and de rigueur.

Don’t be surprised – this is how the ANC rolls.

  • Ed Herbst is a pensioner and former reporter who writes in his own capacity.
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