Ed Herbst: Suna Venter and the ANC’s pattern of aggressive media abuse

JOHANNESBURG — The death of one of the SABC 8, Suna Venter, is one of the biggest blows to South Africa’s journalism world since the dark days of Apartheid. Venter died from broken heart syndrome, a condition that her family says was brought about by immense stress and amid recent incidents of shocking intimidation. Veteran journalist Ed Herbst, in this piece, outlines how Venter’s death has come to symbolise the ANC’s aggressive and increasingly dismissive attitude towards a free media. Herbst weaves together a number of worrying incidents over the years that have illustrated how ANC backers treat media workers – in broadcasters such as the SABC and even ANN7 – with absolute disdain. It’s an untenable situation and media freedom in South Africa is increasingly at huge risk. – Gareth van Zyl

By Ed Herbst*

Over the course of the past year she received various threatening SMS messages. Her flat was broken into on numerous occasions. The brake cables on her car were cut and her car’s tyres were slashed. She was shot at and abducted – tied to a tree at Melville Koppies while the grass around her was set alight. On a separate occasion earlier this year she was shot in the face with an unknown weapon and received surgery to remove the metal pellets from her face. During the past year she was assaulted on three various occasions. Those closest to her believe that her condition was exacerbated if not caused by the events of the past year – Media release issued on behalf of the Venter family on 29/6/2017

Rest in peace Suna, you have fought the good fight. – Phumzile Van Damme Democratic Alliance MP 29/6/2017

It is thanks to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross that we now understand grief and its various stages but it is only recently that we have heard of the debilitating effect of takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or ‘broken heart syndrome’ and its effect on people like the late Suna Venter.

Read more: Broken heart syndrome kills journo Suna Venter amid threats, intimidation

The truly horrifying harassment that she experienced under an ANC government was without precedent in the apartheid era of the SABC and to fully understand this you have to go back to the early 1990s.

Suna Venter.

It then quickly became clear that the ANC’s intention was to suborn the SABC by making it not the public broadcaster of integrity that we were promised in 1994 but a Stalinist instrument of control, a means of covering up party corruption through a policy of censorship by omission, a means of undermining opposition parties, silencing dissenting voices and a means of fighting internecine battles.

The basis of this approach was openly articulated in the ANC’s stated objective of gaining control of all “levers of power” in South African society and the means of achieving this was through cadre deployment – as the  SABC boards in the Mbeki and subsequent Zuma eras  illustrate.

His Master’s Voice

Here is how Gareth van Onselen, then Director of Communications with the Democratic Alliance but now a columnist for Business Day, described these origins in a paper, “His Master’s Voice – The SABC as Propaganda Arm of the ANC” published in June 2006

ANC spokesperson Joel Netshitenzhe, writing in the ANC publication Umrabulo in 1997, defined transformation as ‘extending the power of the ‘National Liberation Movement’ over all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatal, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on.

The ANC offered a progress report on its goal of controlling the SABC in its 1999 document ‘Accelerating Change: Assessing the Balance of Forces in 1999’ It states: ‘The transformation of the SABC did take much longer than we thought and more needs to be done at middle management level. With regards to the print media, the ownership structures remain a problem.

As regards the last sentence, that problem has been solved with the majority of English newspapers, specifically Dr Iqbal Survé’s Independent News Media newspapers – purchased with the assistance of a R1.4 billion PIC loan –  and the Gupta-financed the New Age, openly supporting the African National Congress.

The antipathy of the African National Congress towards newspapers that practise ethical journalism has already been a matter of academic record by Dr Glenda Daniels in her book Fight for Democracy. The African National Congress and the Media in South Africa.

The ANC supports newspapers like the New Age that condone and support its pervasive corruption with millions of rands, an example being the R43 million donated with full ANC support to the newspaper by the utterly corrupt and ANC-controlled Eskom.

One of the striking characteristics of newsrooms controlled by ANC acolytes is that abusive treatment of staff begins immediately and is systemic.

Worst employer

In this regard we are indebted to News 24 journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh because, in his recently-published book, The Republic of Gupta – A Story of State Capture, he sets out in chapter 11, Gupta TV, how abusively staff in their newsrooms are treated – something which had already raised the ire of Cosatu which pronounced the company, ‘the worst employer in South Africa’.

We experienced exactly the same thing when, at the behest of President Thabo Mbeki, ANC acolytes like Snuki Zikalala, Christine Qunta, Thami Mazwai and Dali Mpofu were given control of the SABC, rendered it bankrupt, destroyed its news credibility and drove out its finest news staff.

The way reporters were treated by Zikalala – cited before the TRC for human rights abuses which he chose not to contest – has already been made a matter of record by Max du Preez in his book Pale Native. Memoirs of Renegade Reporter. We also have an article, Commander Zikalala and the SABC’s corridors of fear by a former senior SABC news executive, Charles Leonard, who described the fear evoked by Zikalala.

We experienced similar behaviour from Zikalala in the Sea Point news office of the SABC in March 2001.

On 16 December 2005, an ANC politician, S’bu Ndebele, accompanied by armed and threatening bodyguards invaded the SABC building in Durban and threatened a reporter Mandla Zembe. He had covered an incident earlier in the day when Ndebele had to flee an ANC rally. Judge Neels Claassen, handing down judgment in the North Gauteng High Court was severely critical of Zikalala’s role in victimising Zembe and what needs to be pointed out is that there was never an equivalent incident of a National Party politician acting in a similar way.

Assault

Fast forward to June 2017 and, under an ANC government, we learn of the attempted intimidation of Peter Bruce, the vandalising of his property and the assault on Tim Cohen.

This had no parallels during the apartheid era when the worst that editors like Allister Sparks, Rex Gibson and Tony Heard could fear was being bawled out by PW Botha for their ‘unpatriotic’ reporting.

Let me share with you a letter written by a member of the SABC’s Sea Point news office shortly after the ANC gained control of that office through the appointment as Regional Editor of Jeffrey Twala, a close friend of ANC politicians like Ngconde Balfour and Mcebisi Skwatsha. It was written to BEMAWU, the trade union to which most members of that office were affiliated. It gives some idea of the extent to which we became pawns in the ANC’s abuse of what it quickly turned into a state broadcaster. Because the complaining SABC staff members still fear victimisation almost two decades later, I have called the author of the letter ‘A’ and the two colleagues involved, ‘B’ and ‘C’.

To: BEMAWU

From: ‘A’

Date: 15-10-01

Re: Abuse of power and SABC equipment

On Friday 12 October 2001, 1 was called to the office of the Western Cape Regional Editor Jeffrey Twala and told that the crew for Newsmaker must report an hour earlier on Sunday 14 October because the Land Minister was coming to the studio.

I asked if we were going to do a pre-recording and he replied no. I then asked for which programme was the Land Minister coming in for and he replied that she was unable to attend a conference and we would record her speech so that it could be played in on a big screen TV at this conference. I immediately asked whether she would be paying (as we do accept outside bookings like M-Net or foreign TV stations) and Mr Twala replied no. I said that this was wrong, to which he replied that it was our mandate as a PBS. I said that our mandate was broadcasting and not assisting ministers who could not or did not want to attend conferences to record their speeches to be played in at such conferences.

I also said that nothing like this had ever been done in the past and he responded that there was always a first time. I also told him that every minister could expect the same favour. He said that in that case we would “do them all”. I again said it was wrong and that he was putting himself in a position where he could be accused of bias. He responded that it was his decision to make and that I must do it.

I again told him it was wrong whereupon he said that that was my opinion, and that he was telling me that I was to do it. He also said that in addition to the crew already coming in (an hour earlier), ‘B’ must come in to operate the auto-cue. I told him that this had financial implications in that the cameraman already had 137 hours of overtime due to him and that ‘B’ was not meant to work that day. He said that I should not concern myself about overtime.

He later called me (about 17:00) to assist him to copy and paste the draft of the speech sent to him via e-mail into the Newstar system in order for it to be on the auto-cue. (speech attached)

The crew ‘B’ and ‘C’ and I arrived with the freelance sound person at shortly before 10:00 to prepare the studio. At about 10:10, Mr Twala came to the studio to inform me that the Land Minister was not coming in anymore because she had been called to another meeting.

Such abuses were reported by BEMAWU to Peter Matlare and, through the Sisulu/Marcus commission of inquiry into the Zikalala blacklisting scandal to Dali Mpofu. Neither of them took any action. It was also raised with the SABC board in parliament by the IFP member of the portfolio committee on communication, Suzanne Vos. This was, as usual, an SABC board packed with ANC acolytes and, as was to be expected, parliament was lied to and defied. This is how the ANC rolls.

Verbally abused

When the ANC gained control of the Sea Point news office in the late 1990s one of the things which changed and which I had never previously experienced in a career spanning almost four  decades was the way in which colleagues were verbally abused in the newsroom and in front of their colleagues.

I have been talking to former members of the Cape Times who describe similar treatment of staff after the Sekunjalo takeover.

Iqbal Survé, head of Independent Media Group.

On one occasion, I was told, Gasant Abarder, the man who absconded from his previous employer after being told that that he would be replacing Alide Dasnois as editor of the Cape Times, screamed at Tony Weaver at a morning news conference, “Get Out! Get Out!”  Dasnois, herself, made her verbal abuse at a disciplinary hearing by her employer, Iqbal Survé, a matter of court record and Survé, given the opportunity to dispute that in court, declined.

(A complaint about the Sunday Times for its coverage of how staff are treated in this company has just been dismissed by the SA Press Council.)

Although the Democratic Alliance issued a media statement as soon as Venter’s death was announced the ANC, by the following morning, and at the time of writing had not responded:

  • There was no response from the bibulous Jackson Mthembu who, like a cat on a hot tin roof hopped from one foot to another, manically screeching “Don’t buy City Press, don’t buy!” in May 2015. This was an attempt to intimidate the newspaper after its report on a matter of significant public interest at the time, the Brett Murray painting of Jacob Zuma , then on display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.
  • There was no response from Faith Muthambi who did everything in her power to support and encourage the man at whose behest the SABC 8 were dismissed.
  • There was no response from Hlaudi Motsoeneng who, at his bizarre press conference on 19 April, said the SABC8 ‘had not won the battle’.

This should come as no surprise because the ANC has always revered and supported despots in whose countries press freedom is either non-existent or under constant threat:

  • Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe
  • Fidel Castro’s Cuba
  • Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya
  • Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan

When asked why she continued to work at the SABC in the face of such relentless persecution and threats to her life, Venter replied that her goal was to establish an independent newsroom, free from editorial interference.

She did not live to see that goal realised but one can but hope that some permanent memorial, a trust perhaps or an award, will be established in her memory.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.