Zero-sum Zikalala: ANC’s SABC proposal signals moral delinquency – Herbst

JOHANNESBURG — Former Mbeki information securocrat Snuki Zikalala was among the first officials to start turning the SABC into a pro-ANC mouthpiece. Zikalala departed the SABC when the pro-Zuma faction came in, but in a surprise twist, the ANC this week nominated him to become a board member of the broadcaster. Zikalala, ultimately, failed to make the final shortlist, potentially drawing sighs of relief from some quarters. But the fact that Zikalala thought that he was in the running in the first place may become concerning as the SABC tries to move on from its Hlaudi Motsoeneng era. – Gareth van Zyl

By Ed Herbst*

The horror! The horror!

It was a moment so macabre that it could only have been conjured up by Hannibal Lecter.

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

It was a moment so macabre that it could only have been appreciated by Stephen King.

For a moment a terrified nation trembled on the brink of national psychosis as we stared into the Heart of Darkness.

Then we were saved.

Phumzile van Damme, DA shadow minister of communication, started laughing.

It was the only suitable response.

Even the MK Veteran’s Association – which boasts snouters like Kebby Maphatsoe and Carl Niehaus in its ranks – vetoed the appointment in 2015 of Snuki Zikalala to the advisory council on military veterans.

Despite this, he was initially put on the ANC slate this week when it came to selecting members for the new SABC board.

This bizarre decision could well have had the grubby fingerprints of the notorious Luthuli House interns all over it but it was, nevertheless, yet another moment which reaffirmed the moral delinquency of the African National Congress.

There were a number of stellar achievements on Zikalala’s CV which ANC parliamentarians felt qualified him for this nomination:

‘African Al Jazeera

Equally significant, given the SABC’s impending multi-billion rand bailout, was the impact of his ‘African Al Jazeera’ wet dream on the finances of the SABC. This 24-hour international TV news service  imploded two years and eight months after it was launched by President Thabo Mbeki in July 2007 as ‘SABC International’ and as a milestone event in his African Renaissance ambition because it was going to tell the African story in African voices and from an African perspective.

SABC headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa

This was ironic because, in a brilliant piece of strategic thinking, the necessary modems could not be bought in South Africa so you couldn’t access it even if you wanted to and there is no evidence that anybody was so inclined. This was yet another example of the ineluctable truth of Mulholland’s Law.

Four months before the ‘African Al Jazeera’ closed its doors, the government announced a R1.4bn bailout  for the state broadcaster which had been bankrupted in substantial measure by Zikalala’s grandiose folly.

Snuki Zikalala started his career at the SABC as a reporter on labour matters and later, after leaving the SABC for the first time with the traditional ANC multi-million rand golden handshake, he worked as spokesman for the Department of Labour. In his early days, his ‘us and them’ reporting constantly portrayed the country’s white managers as oppressive abusers of their employees.

There’s an old British music hall song which contains the ironic line ‘The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last’ and nothing illustrated the theme better than another of his multi-million rand follies – his introduction of ‘bi-media’. This involved, as a cost-saving measure, forcing radio and television journalists to report in the other completely different discipline without any training and without any compensation. It was an appalling abrogation of both the letter and the spirit of our labour legislation and when the SABC reneged on the promised financial compensation for Zikalala’s diktat which doubled our work load and quadrupled our tension levels, he was dubbed ‘Zero-sum Zikalala’.

Withering scorn

Few books more incisively chronicle our journey from the dawn of democracy to where we find ourselves now than After Mandela – The Struggle for Freedom in Post-apartheid South Africa by Douglas Foster.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki. Photographer: Rodger Bosch/Bloomberg News.

Foster, a journalist himself, work-shadowed Jimi Matthews, Moegsien Williams and Snuki Zikalala when researching this book and he is not complimentary about any of them. His scorn for the latter’s pro-Mbeki bias is withering as the following extract illustrates:

Zikalala told me that his proudest accomplishment so far was the establishment of a proper presidential press corps. He had recently hired a second correspondent to expand the SABC’s coverage of President Mbeki. His selections for the team demonstrated how little concern he had for “critical distance,” which Matthews advocated.  The news chief’s first hire had been Miranda Strydom, a former government spokesman known for her avid affection toward Mbeki. “I’m not the president’s lapdog”, Zikalala told me, unprompted, in explaining his choice. “But the president is the president of this country, and I believe he should be given the respect he deserves.” In his view, other editors purposely undermined the president. Mbeki, he pointed out, recently had brokered a peace agreement in Cote d’Ivoire. “No one cared!” he said, turning his palms to the ceiling. “They criticize him. But what has he done? He’s succeeding.”

When we got back in Zikalala’s office, his newest hire was waiting for instructions about how to cover the president’s upcoming trip to Europe. The new correspondent smiled at me. For a moment I had trouble placing him. Then it struck me: Dumisani Nkwamba was a young man I had met the year before in Oudtshoorn when he was doing advance work for President Mbeki. Now he had been selected by Zikalala to cover the president for SABC television.

Nkwamba was a smart, energetic lawyer who had gotten into journalism originally as a translator for Venda-speaking audiences. But I also remembered the conversation we had had in Oudtshoorn while we waited for the president to arrive. The SABC’s newest correspondent had advised me not to rely on the South African media accounts in coming to a judgment about Mbeki; he had criticized reporters for their habit, at press briefings, of asking tough questions. He had told me he thought the leader “too brilliant”’ to be exposed to such questions. Whenever the president was finished talking, Nkwamba had assured me, he “felt more than satisfied”.  He was an acolyte, not a chronicler, and he was the news chief’s latest hire.

African National Congress flag

Zikalala worked tirelessly to fulfil his Mbeki-faction, deployed cadre brief – to deny Jacob Zuma airtime. That nefarious endeavour, however, came to a halt after the ANC’s December 2007 Polokwane conference which saw Mbeki ousted.

In December 2010 Andrew Parker included Zikalala in his book 50 People Who Stuffed Up South Africa saying: ‘But for the colour of his skin, he would have done well under Vorster or Botha.’

Moral compass

There was countrywide jubilation when Zikalala left the SABC for the last time at the end of April 2009 blaming, inevitably, his white compatriots for his demise. Despite the above, the African National Congress, in all its factional evil, saw fit to nominate him as a potential member of the new SABC board this week before reluctantly thinking better of it. Once again it has given us an indication of how it lacks a moral compass, of how it sees the concept of ethical probity as a ‘Western paradigm’.

In closing:  It is troubling that not a single Afrikaans speaking person is on the final list for the new SABC board – this despite Afrikaans being the third most spoken language in the country, the lingua franca of the most language groups, that the majority of Afrikaners are not white and that Afrikaans business is a major advertiser with the SABC.

In a June 2009 editorial, former Financial Mail editor, Barney Mthombothi compared the SABC to George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

Shame or embarrassment does not even begin to capture the amalgam of utter madness, incompetence, greed, and vanity that has reduced a once proud institution into the butt of jokes and ridicule. George Orwell must have had the SABC in mind when he penned Animal Farm, his classic novel on how greed and wickedness can betray a revolution. The pigs have taken control at the SABC, and they’re merrily trashing the place.

Déjà vu? More magic available at jerm.co.za.

It has got much worse since that editorial was written eight years ago – ask the grieving kith, kin and colleagues of Suna Venter – they’ll tell you.

Could it be, then, that no self-respecting Afrikaans person wants to be associated with the ANC-controlled state broadcaster which has proved itself to be a cesspit of note and the antithesis of what we were promised in 1994?

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