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The South African Broadcasting Corporation’s censorship is bordering on ludicrous. So much so it’s forced Solidarity’s hand – calling it a blatant violation of human rights. The Tshwane protests are instead replaced by pictures of the beautiful jacarandas of Pretoria, while radio shows with outside editors have been banned. They’ve gone as far as banning call-ins, fearful of what may be said on the phone lines. All in an attempt to protect the party that’s paying the bills. The man at the centre of the storm is Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a product of the ANC, so it shouldn’t really surprise anyone. But who is he and how did he get to the position of ruler in chief at the state broadcaster? Retired SABC journalist Ed Herbst winds back the clock to the days of Snuki Zikalala. It’s a bumpy ride and another fascinating contribution. – Stuart Lowman
By Ed Herbst*
“Motsoeneng is a product of the ANC. He‘s serving the party, delivering only good news to the public. All this is happening in defiance of Madonsela’s recommendations. This can only mean that the ANC does not respect the Office of the Public Protector. If they did, they would not only be embarrassed by Motsoeneng, but would have fired him long ago.” Mcebisi Ndletyana, Associate professor of political science at the University of Johannesburg 18/6/2016
“… under the heavy-handed and incompetent management of Hlaudi Motsoeneng we have seen worsening censorship. Motsoeneng has been given sweeping powers to make editorial decisions — powers that he should not have — and he is a danger to the public broadcaster’s integrity and independence …”
R2K announcing a picket outside SABC buildings in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban 20/6/2016. This was not reflected on the SABC’s TV news bulletins even though there were camera crews in each building. The SABC also did not cover the news conference of the Democratic Alliance in which the gross pre-election bias of the state broadcaster was exposed.
— Right2Know (@r2kcampaign) June 24, 2016
It was the morning of 16 April 2004. I and SABC employees throughout the country, had been told when we got to work that the CEO, Peter Matlare was to make an important announcement.
The announcement left us shell-shocked and fearful.
Two years after he had left the SABC with a multimillion rand severance package to become spokesman for Membathisi Mdladlana the Minister of Labour, Snuki Zikalala was back.
Fear and loneliness
No one was prepared, for fear of future repercussions, to express the profound sense of trepidation and loneliness we felt at that moment.
Then Matlare crossed to Bloemfontein.
There was a momentary pause which only heightened the tension – then a sepulchral voice boomed – “Welcome back Snuki!”
Matlare was as startled as the rest of us – “Who’s that?”
“Hlaudi”, came the reply.
Shortly thereafter the news of Motsoeneng’s defiance of Zikalala spread like wildfire among SABC staff.
Each morning a round robin news conference is held in which the regional news offices outline the stories they are covering for the day and they motivate to the heads of the Auckland Park news divisions why their stories should be included in the final running order.
At one such news meeting Zikalala told Motsoeneng – so the story went – that he did not want to speak to him as a reporter, he wanted to speak to the Regional Manager in Bloemfontein. Motsoeneng’s reported reply staggered us: “No, you will speak to me. You will respect me.”
I stress that this was simply what was relayed to me but it was a pervasive topic of discussion at the time.
Fear and discontent
To provide context: Just three months after Matlare’s announcment – on 25 July 2004 – Chris Barron wrote of Zikalala in the Sunday Times: “To say that the SABC is not a happy place is putting it mildly. Fear and discontent stalk the newsroom at Auckland Park as former ANC political commissar Snuki Zikalala forces his underlings to toe the government line.”
Five months thereafter, at the end of January 2005, Peter Matlare announced his resignation and said he wanted to leave immediately. He was just part of a general exodus.
Zikalala, in an interview (‘Snuki-sikelel-iafrika) with Angella Johnson carried in the Mail & Guardian on 17 October 1997, openly acknowledged his life-long hatred of whites and constantly walked around the SABC newsrooms saying that he saw “too many white faces”. In part the exodus can be ascribed to this. Pippa Green, Charles Leonard, John Perlman and Jacques Pauw, to cite a few, soon found the situation after his return unbearable and left in short order. Before them it was people like Max du Preez, Allister Sparks and Sarah Crowe.
Motsoeneng’s enthusiasm for Zikalala quickly cooled however. His complete indifference to Zikalala’s power and his influence within the ANC and the widespread fear he evoked, was buttressed when it became known in September 2008 that he was suing Zikalala for defamation.
Not for the first time Motsoeneng was to prove an immensely destabilising force within the SABC and you can find a useful timeline in an article I wrote for Media Online two years ago.
Baba loves him
Motsoeneng’s denial that he is an Auckland Park conduit to President Jacob Zuma was shot down in flames by Communications Minister Faith Muthambi who memorably said “But Baba loves him, he loves him so much. We must support him.”
But why was Motsoeneng so boldly unafraid of Zikalala whose nefarious news practices have been made a matter of judicial record and who was included in 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.”
To understand why we felt Motsoeneng’s attitude towards the man whose return he had initially welcomed constituted almost incomprehensible bravery you have to take cognisance of the role played in Zikalala’s life by Joe Modise.
When Modise died, his family called on Zikalala to be spokesman and the media liaison person and both he and Modise were mentioned in the unchallenged testimony of Olefile Samuel Mnqibisa before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
We finally understood Motsoeneng’s supreme self- assurance when noseweek issue number 179 was published in September 2014. The opening sentence read: South Africans are trying to ﬁgure out the secret hold Hlaudi Motsoeneng has on his position as Chief Operations Ofﬁcer of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
The answer came midway through the article which was headlined Daddy. The power that drives Motsoeneng’s rise: One SABC insider said the “key connection” was that Motsoeneng’s father was a “powerful spiritual leader”, with whom the president consulted in “spiritual and ancestral matters”.
The closing sentence read: If it is true that having a father who provides ancestral expertise to the President trumps all else, Motsoeneng has good reason — for now — to sleep easy.
“For now” depends on how long the ANC’s well-known taxpayer-funded Stalingrad strategy, which has worked so well to keep Number One from realising his dream of a day in court, works for Motsoeneng.
So I hear Hlaudi Motsoeneng suspended 3 senior SABC journalists after they objected to his ban on reflecting newspaper headlines on radio
— Max du Preez (@MaxduPreez) June 24, 2016
It did not last long in the case of another Jacob Zuma confidante, Ellen Tsabalala, who was eventually forced to resign and devote herself, so far without success, to the quixotic but so far unsuccessful quest of tracking down the villainous canine which so ungraciously ate her homework.
When that happens I must say I will miss Motsoeneng, the regular entertainment he provides and in particular, the startling images with which he became associated.
On 14 March 2014 I was watching the SABC channel 404 7pm TV news bulletin – the flagship news broadcast on the 24-hour news channel – when up popped the weirdest news story I have ever seen.
The opening shot reveals men dressed in brightly-coloured clerical raiment. They seem to be speaking in tongues and one of them looks like he is suffering from a virulent and possibly terminal combination of the ague and St Vitus dance.
All this was happening over the prone body of, I initially thought, Hlaudi Motsoeneng because he was the subject of this surreal performance – but the body, clad in a Hlaudi-type suit, was wearing modish, stiletto-heeled shoes!
The story was about what our media practitioners called “fringe church leaders” exorcising a host of devilish demons who had apparently taken up residence in the offices of the Public Protector. The “demonic forces” were allegedly galvanising her into unjust criticism of our hero.
It was only a few seconds later that I realised that what I had initially had assumed was Hlaudi was actually the strikingly beautiful woman wearing a clerical collar in an audience cutaway shot.
The men of the cloth were angry. Madonsela, they said, was possessed by “demonic forces which planned to derail the revolution and the freedom of our people”. Furthermore, she was “Poisoning the atmosphere”.
You could not make this stuff up if you were a Hollywood script writer of the Timothy Leary persuasion.
Not all the images evoke incredulous mirth.
On 13 April, the head of SABC news Jimi Matthews, bowing, scraping, fawning and tugging manically at his for forelock, waxed lyrical in parliament about Hlaudi’s sartorial splendour.
The way you dress
“It has to do with personality. It has to do with determination. Sometimes I think it has to do with the way you dress,” Matthews gushed.
I know that when you have to lave the nether end of your boss, subtle hyperbole does not go amiss, but, get real.
I can promise you that Hlaudi’s glow-in-the-dark purple suits have not been provided by Huntsman, Brioni or Cifonelli and his shiny ties with purple polka dots the size of industrial ball bearings were not provided by Charvet.
I can also assure you that he will not be appearing on the front cover of The Rake any time soon.
From blacklist to no list
Under the Mbeki administration there was outrage when, on 20 June 2006, the Sowetan broke the story about Snuki Zikalala blacklisting certain political commentators. Now Motsoeneng has effectively banned any discourse on politics from its airwaves. From black list to no list.
This is not only damaging to the esteem in which South Africa was once held, it also damages our own self esteem. One has to empathise with the view of Moshoeshoe Monare who said that Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s continued tenure as head of the SABC insults the Struggle.
Is it too much hope for – that Luthuli House will hear his poignant cri de cœur?
- Ed Herbst is a pensioner and former reporter who writes in his own capacity.