Ed Herbst: The genesis of ANC censorship – the Death of a Dream

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

JOHANNESBURG — The institutional memory of veteran journalist Ed Herbst should be retained in some form or other. In this piece, he casts his mind back to what were probably the very first moments in the ANC’s aim to turn the SABC into a full-blown state broadcaster. It’s a piece of history that should be remembered and hopefully used one day to achieve the dream of a truly free and independent SABC. – Gareth van Zyl

By Ed Herbst*

Trevor Tutu, son of Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was on Friday afternoon released from the Goodwood prison in Cape Town, prison officials confirmed.

Trevor Tutu was earlier on Friday granted amnesty for causing a bomb scare at East London Airport in 1989.

The amnesty announcement came only two months after Trevor Tutu began serving a three-and-a-half year jail sentence after an East London court refused to grant him bail. 

SAPA – 28/21/1997

It was Survé’s Sunday newspaper (edited by a somewhat compromised journalist) that published that “scoop” about Ramaphosa, seemingly chiefly based on shoddily doctored e-mails, but largely unchecked: a very debased form of journalism. But when criticised, Survé lashes out — his newspapers once even ran a full-page “exposé” of his many critics, devoid of truth or fact; the shabbiest page of journalism I’ve seen in a long career. 

Brian Rostron Business Day 15/9/2017

The massive door of the Goodwood Prison in Cape Town closed with a soft thud behind him and he stood, blinking in the sun, with two cardboard boxes filled with his meagre possessions. One, I noticed, was filled with books on chess.

It was Friday, 28 November 1997 and Trevor Tutu, the son of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, had just been summarily released after serving only two months of a three and a half-year sentence. This had been imposed after he had made a threat about bombing a plane at the East London airport eight years earlier.

He was due to start serving his sentence in 1993 but failed to hand himself over to the prison authorities and was arrested and incarcerated four years later.

I, and my cameraman Brian Uranovsky were the only media people in the country present and I knew I had a significant news story. There was nothing to indicate why he had been pardoned. His crime was not political yet he had been granted amnesty along with 42 other people by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of which his father, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was chairman.

Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I stepped forward and introduced myself, mentioning that we had sat at the same table at the local launch of Cosmopolitan magazine some time previously.

It was clear that nobody had been notified of his release and he had no means of rectifying that. I offered him a lift to wherever he wished to go. He asked that I take him to his father’s home in Milnerton and I asked, in return, if he would consider giving me an interview about his early and unexpected release from prison for that evening’s main SABC television news bulletin.

What was later to transpire was that this early release from prison was to become a defining tactic of the African National Congress as the subsequent examples of Schabir Shaik and Tony Yengeni were to reveal.

Trevor Tutu was happy to accede and, in the interview, I stressed the fact that there would be a furore about his early release, that it would be attributed by critics to his father being chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had granted him amnesty. He responded well and, as we left he said: “Ed, you’ve got a scoop. I’m disappearing for a few weeks.”

Trying to restrain my excitement I phoned the main SABC TV news desk in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. The tip-off had come from our office in Port Elizabeth and it was clear that we had an exclusive story. It was three in the afternoon, ample time to edit the story for that evening’s bulletin and I duly fed to Johannesburg two edited packages in English and Afrikaans and the raw footage for all the other bulletins. The sound recording could be used for radio bulletins.

I settled down that night in front of the television anticipating that it would be the lead story.

It wasn’t.

Nor the second, nor the third.


I was stupefied when I realised that the story had been dropped. I anxiously scanned the front pages of the Saturday Argus and Die Burger the next morning and was very relieved that, while they were aware of Trevor Tutu’s release because the South African Press Association (SAPA) had confirmed this with the prison authorities and Tutu’s lawyer, the newspapers had not obtained an interview with him.

That night the interview was also not broadcast.

On Sunday I again anxiously read the newspapers but my scoop remained that – if I could get the interview with Trevor Tutu broadcast. I again phoned and said there was a danger of the newspapers breaking the story before us. I was told that a senior news executive Themba Mthembu and close friend of the head of news, Snuki Zikalala, had said that “We don’t follow the newspapers.”

On Monday, the Cape Times front page lead was an “exclusive” interview with Trevor Tutu.

To this day that interview has never been broadcast and I realised then that the SABC’s “Camelot” period – what Allister Sparks was later to call a ‘Prague Spring – was over. It was clear that Luthuli House, the headquarters of the ANC, had decreed the censorship and the SABC was happy to comply.

Five months later Mthembu was to strike again with another act of censorship that led to the dismissal of Max du Preez, head of the award winning Special Assignment team and an honourable news man who was infinitely more talented than himself.

This time Mthembu censored a story on witchcraft which Special Assignment had been scheduled to broadcast.

Here is what du Preez says about Mthembu in his book, ‘Pale Native – Memories of a Renegade Reporter’ (Zebra Press, 2003).

In 1999, an old and loyal servant of the apartheid SABC, Themba Mthembu, was appointed Phil Molefe’s deputy of television news and current affairs. (Molefe, too, had worked at the SABC during the apartheid years.) Mthembu saw it as a challenge to undermine the independence of executive producers and journalists, and started to insist on control over budgets and editorial content. He wanted to be present at our weekly ‘post-mortem’ and planning sessions, but never pitched up for one. He insisted on giving final approval before a programme went out, but most of the time they were completed an hour or two before broadcast, long after he had gone home.

Zikalala, Molefe and Mthembu then started a purge of white staff in the SABC newsroom with Mthembu, according to Du Preez’s book, playing a leading role. (That process is now being replicated at the Independent Newspaper group which is now owned by Iqbal Survé who also has close ties with the Zuma faction of the ANC, a faction which equates white South Africans with snakes and is strongly promoting the racially-divisive Bell Pottinger message of White Monopoly Capital)

It later turned out that Zikalala himself had pushed for my dismissal. He explained to senior black colleagues, who in turn told me, that it was ‘symbolically important’ for the ‘Africanisation of the SABC’ to ‘crush’ the most senior white journalist at the corporation ‘as an example’ to other whites. (In October 1997, he told an interviewer from the Mail & Guardian that he ‘used to hate everything to do with white people’ and that ‘it’s not easy to shake that passion.’)

According to Du Preez, Mthembu not only ordered that lies be broadcast about him but went further.

Mthembu, egged on by Zikalala, ordered the staff at television news’ finance department to look through my five-year employment record at the SABC to find ‘any sort of financial irregularity’ that they could use against me. Of course they found nothing, but the head of finance at TV news fully informed me of these efforts to discredit me.

Second unpleasant experience

I was to have a second, unpleasant experience with Mthembu. At the beginning of 1999, the trial of Alan Boesak for peculating R400 000 from singer Paul Simon, the Coca Cola Foundation and Danchurch Aid was drawing to a close. I had covered the saga from the outset and it became obvious to me that Boesak would be found guilty.

SABC’s decision to censor the broadcast of violent images. More magic available at www.jerm.co.za.

When the Attorney General of the Western Cape, Frank Kahn, correctly decided that there was enough evidence to prosecute Boesak, the ANC moved into top gear. In quick succession Nelson Mandela, Justice Minister Dullah Omar and Thabo Mbeki’s legal adviser, Mojanku Gumbi all confidently stated that the state had no case and effectively exonerated him before the trial started. I accordingly had copies of all the relevant news clips couriered to me from the SABC archives in advance of the judgment. I included these up-sounds in my edited package for the evening bulletin on the day that he was found guilty. They were removed at the behest of Mthembu who told the bulletin producer that they were “irrelevant.”

Mthembu, who has now retired, went on subsequently to play a senior and singular role in the SABC’s routine and de facto policy of censorship of omission. That policy reached its nadir on 11 December 2013 when the SABC censored the booing of President Jacob Zuma at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. The state broadcaster also deliberately declined to interview the ANC’s deployed cadre, Thamsanqa Jantjie, who with a history of mental illness and without security clearance did a spot of angel spotting from a position a few metres behind Barack Obama when he addressed the country and the world. When City Press broke the news of this censorship it was picked up by the reporters of the world’s leading news agencies and an estimated two billion people received information on how the ANC, through its proxies in Auckland Park like Hlaudi Motsoeneng, negates the people’s right to know in contravention of our Constitution which guarantees media freedom and the access to information.

Ceding political power

On 17 March 1992 I queued with other white South Africans to start a process which I believe was unique in world history, ceding political power while still retaining military power.

FW de Klerk

White South Africans had been asked by President FW de Klerk to vote on whether we supported the negotiated reforms that he had initiated two years earlier to end a system of racial division and oppression which had endured for 44 years and made us a pariah state.

The yes vote was supported by 68% of those who participated in the whites-only referendum and part of my dream, although I had at that time experienced minimal censorship of my work as a television news reporter, was a new dawn at the SABC. I dreamed of a time when the SABC would cast off the shackles of an ignoble past and record our day to day history without fear or favour.

I was encouraged when the current presidential contender, Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking of the state broadcaster’s past said in the same year:

The ANC believes that unquestioning loyalty by a public broadcaster to a ruling party is incompatible with democracy – whether or not the ruling party enjoys the support of the majority of the population.

When the ANC wins the electoral support of the majority of South Africans, it will not seek to replace the National Party as the subject of the SABC’s slavish loyalty. And we want to establish both the principle and practice of that independence now.

The ANC is committed to public broadcasting which is independent of the government of the day, and which owes its loyalty not to any party, but to the population as a whole. In other words, we propose a broadcast service committed to providing full and accurate information to all South Africans, and one which is protected from interference by any special interests – be they political, economic or cultural.

We are not asking for equal time. However, we do insist that the public be informed of all views fully and fairly through a public broadcaster’s loyalty to serving a total audience with integrity.

Today we face an immediate and urgent problem. We cannot afford to wait for the achievement of democracy to change the SABC. As the major information source, the SABC in its current form misuses its position to skew public perceptions. The result is that during this crucial transition period we have a public subjected to misinformation and disinformation because of narrow party political manipulation.

If the SABC is to play a constructive role ahead of our country’s first experience with democracy, informing the electorate rather than attempting to persuade them to vote for a particular political party, it is necessary to replace those who currently control the SABC with others who are committed to democracy and to an electorate empowered by accurate and impartial information.

The first inkling I had that my dream of an unfettered SABC was just that – a dream – and that Ramaphosa’s statement was cynically meaningless, occurred on 28 November 1997 outside the Goodwood Prison. I had no idea then of just how nightmarishly corrupt the authoritarian control of the SABC by the ANC would become.  Or that the SABC would duly become the country in microcosm and a pariah state in its own right because of the ANC’s enthusiastic support of and endorsement of the most despotic regimes in the world.

Censorship at the SABC. More magic available at www.zapiro.com.

I had a similar dream when Dr Iqbal Survé took control of Independent Newspapers with a substantial PIC loan. I dreamed that the company would become a safe haven for its outstanding journalists – some of whom were my friends –  a bastion for journalism of integrity, that it would enhance the standing of the Fourth Estate and promote Nelson Mandela’s dream of nation building through reconciliation.

That dream has also turned into a nightmare.

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