PREMIUM FREE TRIAL

Herbst: A long history of persecuting SABC journalists – a case study

By Ed Herbst*

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

Workers cannot live in fear in the workplace. We can’t support this mass dismissal of journalists.” ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe The Times 20/7/2016

“The firing of journalists has raised alarm bells, with Amnesty International describing this as a ‘cynical and sinister ploy to entrench fear’ ”. Ranjeni Munusamy, Daily Maverick 20/7/2016

In June 2014 the South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef) made the first woman editor of the Cape Times, Alide Dasnois, a recipient of its Nat Nakasa award for courageous journalism.

Two years later the award was won by eight principled journalists who questioned the ethics of the censorship espoused by those who now control the SABC. All eight, like Alide Dasnois, paid a price for their integrity when they were dismissed, Dasnois by Dr Iqbal Survé and the SABC journalists at the behest of Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

This article, the first of two, looks at how employees are treated in news organisations whose senior executives are strongly aligned to the ANC.

Twenty five years ago during the Codesa negotiations trade unionists like Cyril Ramaphosa, Johnny Copelyn and Marcel Golding helped craft a body of labour law which is considered to be world class and is exceptionally employee-friendly.

One wonders what they made of the announcement by Hlaudi Motsoeneng of “Operation Cleanup” and the way in which he has subsequently dismissed the journalists who dared to question his censorship edicts which have been decried by the ANC and a host of NGOs both local and international, church groups and former SABC executives.

But Motsoeneng is not only loved by Baba and supported by Communications Minister Faith Muthambi who believes he brings stability to the state broadcaster and is willing to spend inordinate amounts of your money – yours and mine – to prove her contention through lawfare. He also has as role models in two of his predecessors, Snuki “Zero Sum” Zikalala and Jeffrey Twala. The latter, for more than a decade in the Sea Point news office of the SABC, drove out talented staff and imposed a rigid blackout on broadcasting news which did not promote the interests of the African National Congress.

But, in traumatising staff you need a likeminded deputy and Jimi “The door or the window” Matthews ably fulfilled this role for Hlaudi Motsoeneng as Vuyo Mvoko has testified.

More magic available at www.jerm.co.za.
More magic available at www.jerm.co.za.

Mandla Zembe – a case study

This article is about how the ANC’s acolytes in news organisations treat their staff and for my first case study I select Mandla Zembe a hard-working and talented young broadcasting reporter who was driven out of the Durban office of the SABC for trying to tell the truth – a prelude to what is happening at the state broadcaster today.

On 16 June 2005, two days after Jacob Zuma had been dismissed as Deputy President by Thabo Mbeki, the ANC’s KZN Premier, S’bu Ndebele, addressed a rally in Kwa Mashu.

(Just as an aside, Ndebele was recently arrested for corruption.)

Zembe was there to cover the rally for the SABC

Ndebele, a fervent Mbeki supporter, had to be given the protection of security staff and escorted out of the stadium under cover of a metal table as he was pelted with rocks and plastic bags filled with urine by a crowd of loyal Zuma supporters.

In an attempt to prevent Zembe from filing his story for radio and TV, Ndebele stormed into the SABC building accompanied by armed guards and sought to intimidate him into dropping the story. Zembe stayed on the phone to the Auckland Park input editor on duty that day – the late Veronica van der Westhuizen. She told me that she followed the proceedings over the phone, heard Ndebele’s threats and encouraged Zembe to file his stories and not to succumb to the intimidation of the ANC politician and his thuggish goons.

Zikalala immediately sided with Ndebele and tried to get his senior radio news editor, Pippa Green, to punish Zembe for not having obeyed Ndebele’s orders.

In the Mail & Guardian of 4 July 2006, Green made this a matter of public record in an article, “Political grazing ground for the ruling-party faithful”. In her article Green wrote that a “senior SABC manager in Johannesburg” phoned her and demanded that she “discipline” Zembe.

That manager, (as was subsequently revealed in the judgement by Judge Neels Claassen in the South Gauteng High Court on 24/1/2011) was Snuki Zikalala and neither he nor the SABC, nor the SABC board denied this allegation when the above-mentioned article was printed.

Further confirmation of Zikalala’s reprehensible attack on an already beleaguered, young and promising reporter who should have had his unwavering support and protection, came a year later from Jimi Matthews. He was head of SABC TV news at the time of the incident but was subsequently driven out of the SABC by Zikalala in 2007. (Matthews was to return to the SABC on 1 March 2011 after Zikalala’s contract was not renewed and, thereafter, did his best to emulate Zikalala’s intimidation of staff while earning, like Zikalala, an annual salary of R2 million.)

Threatening bodyguards

In his letter, published in the Sunday Times on 4 November 2007 under the ironic headline, “Like Nats, ANC and State seek to control our media,” Matthews confirmed Ndebele’s storming into the SABC building in Durban and, with the support of his armed and threatening bodyguards, attempting to intimidate Zembe into dropping the story.

Thereafter, Zembe was subjected to verbally abusive tirades and threats whenever he attended a political function or press conference where Ndebele was present. This harassment was repeatedly brought to the attention of Zikalala who did nothing to discourage Ndebele or protect Zembe.

In despair, this bright and promising reporter resigned as Matthews confirmed in his Sunday Times letter. He wrote that, in Kwa Zulu Natal, “… the abuses of power were legion. SABC reporters were afraid to cover politics. These conditions are hardly conducive to free or fair reporting and it’s not surprising that several of the most talented and conscientious journalists have left the SABC’s Kwa Zulu Natal newsroom in the past two years. They have been driven out by the authoritarian actions of a provincial government interfering in their editorial duties.” I

Once again, this allegation was never denied by Zikalala, the SABC board, or by the SABC itself but does it not resonate even more strongly now?

Judge Neels Claassen on Mandla Zembe

Here is what Judge Neels Claassen said of this incident in his judgment delivered in the South Gauteng High Court on 24 January 2011 a judgement in which he said that both Zikalala and the current spokesman for the SABC, Kaizer Kganyago had deliberately sought to mislead the country. They have not sued him for defamation.

Mr Mandla Zembe was a young and highly talented SABC reporter who covered an ANC rally at a stadium in KwaMashu on the outskirts of Durban on 16 June 2005. Drama was expected because it was two days after President Mbeki had dismissed Deputy President Zuma from his cabinet. The KwaZulu-Natal Premier Mr S’bu Ndebele addressed the rally but was booed and pelted with plastic bottles and other objects. He found it hard to complete his speech. At the end he had to be escorted from the podium by his bodyguards who held a metal table over him to protect him against the missiles pelted at him. Mr Zembe filed stories on this incident throughout the day.

Just after the 6 p.m. news bulletin, Dr Zikalala called Ms Green and instructed her to institute disciplinary proceedings against Mr Zembe the following day. When she asked why, he replied that he was in the TV “visuals room” and there was no evidence that the Premier had been booed or pelted. Ms Green called Mr Zembe to check the story and he confirmed that it was accurate.

Only a few seconds of the mayhem was shown on the 7 p.m. English television news bulletin.

The Premier arrived at the SABC and demanded to be given airtime to deny that he had been pelted. He was allowed to do so on a current affairs show and was again given “considerable airtime” on the I0 p.m. television news bulletin despite the fact that his denials were manifestly false.

           When Mr Zembe returned to his newsroom, he found the Premier’s armed bodyguards walking around the newsroom in intimidating fashion.

Ms Green says that this incident violated the SABC’s Editorial Code in that its reporter Mr Zembe was intimidated not only by the Premier’s bodyguards but by the MD of news himself who threatened him with a disciplinary hearing for reporting the truth. The substantial airtime given to the Premier “also served to distort the truth of what happened”.

In my view this uncontroverted evidence establishes that Dr Zikalala also interfered with the news coverage of this incident.

Cruel and abusive

Pippa Green cited a further example of Zikalala’s cruel and abusive attitude to his staff in an article “Little nobility in SABC soapie,” carried in The Star on 10/5/2008.

“….personal, loyalty rather than professional integrity became the criterion for senior appointments. It is also why the battles in the SABC are now so desperate.

“It is why Zikalala could blithely ignore not only the editorial code but could happily appoint, promote and demote people at will. I listened, dismayed, at one editorial meeting in a provincial SABC office, when he berated a hard-working young news editor who had just come out of hospital after a serious operation. ‘You’re never here,’ he said, and added: ‘I am MD of News. I can hire and fire who I want to. I can fire you over the phone if I want to’.”

In his judgement on the failure of ICASA to hold the SABC accountable for the abuses revealed in the report by the Sisulu/Marcus commission of inquiry into the blacklisting scandal, Judge Neels Claassen referred at length to this incident (pages 13-15 of his judgment) concluding that: “Ms Green says that this incident violated the SABC’s Editorial Code in that its reporter, Zembe, ‘was intimidated not only by the Premier’s bodyguards but by the MD of news himself who threatened him with disciplinary action for reporting the truth’. The substantial airtime given to the Premier ‘also served to distort the truth of what happened.’

“In my view this uncontroverted evidence establishes that Dr Zikala also interfered with the news coverage of the incident”, the Judge said.

Two months later, SABC censorship history repeated itself and the catalyst, once again, was the dismissal by Mbeki of Jacob Zuma and, once again, it was on the watch of Snuki Zikalala.

On 9 August 2005 members of the ANC Youth League, who were aggrieved because Jacob Zuma had been axed by President Thabo Mbeki, booed Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka off the stage at a Women’s Day rally in Utrecht, KZN. Although the SABC had video footage of this incident it deliberately withheld it saying that the cameraman, Sanjay Singh, had not filmed the booing. This was later proved to be a typical state broadcaster lie by eNCA. Zikalala took no responsibility.

There is nothing surprising in the way that Zikalala treated Zembe given that he was cited for human rights abuses in the unchallenged evidence of Olefile Samuel Mnqibisa before the TRC on 25 July 1996 in Soweto.

Ramping up persecution

Nothing changes at the state broadcaster, first Zikalala persecuting the principled Mandla Zembe and now Hlaudi Motsoeneng ramping up that persecution against even more journalists.

NB: There is no evidence that any National Party politician ever invaded any SABC newsroom accompanied by armed bodyguards to threaten reporters. And, if the sort of intimidation now happening at the SABC occurred during the apartheid area, I am not aware of it. I started working for the SABC in 1977 and, to my financial detriment, asked for early retirement in 2005 without another job to go to. I could no longer, in good conscience, as the newsroom shop steward for trade union Bemawu, continue to work for a taxpayer-funded broadcaster which, despite repeated notifications and warnings, happily allowed employees to be abused in the most appalling way. It allowed these abuses because the Regional Editor was doing an outstanding job of promoting the ANC in the province, covering up its constant scandals and using his subordinates to undermine the Democratic Alliance.

These abuses included deliberate sleep deprivation, internationally regarded as a human rights abuse and a camera operator coming close to suicide on Chapmans’ Peak.

In this regard it is important to note that a Regional Editor in Bloemfontein chose to leave the SABC after having had his life threatened by Hlaudi Motsoeneng and, unable to find other employment, subsequently took his own life.

Zikalala justifiably earned a chapter in Alexander Parker’s book, “50 People who stuffed up South Africa”, a chapter which closed with this sentence: “But for the colour of his skin, he would have done well under Vorster or Botha.” But Zikalala never inflicted the reputational damage on our country that Motsoeneng is now increasingly guilty of.

Is it an ineluctable fact of South African life that those who claim to have been oppressed, inevitably become oppressors?

In a follow-up article I will detail how principled employees in other media organisations whose owners have close links to the ANC are abused intimidated and driven out of these organisations.

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