Flooding viewers with ANC propaganda: SABC then and now – Ed Herbst

CAPE TOWN — Having worked briefly with Ed Herbst at the Sea Point SABC TV studios after taking a retrenchment package from the Cape Times in 2000, I can independently attest to the arrogant and politically-motivated behaviour of his former bosses there. The climate of fear among journalists and camera folk was palpable. In my newbie naivete, I suggested to one jovial cameraman that he film the rotund Regional Editor Jeffrey Twala snoring at his desk at prime editing time one afternoon. I thought it would be collegial fun to play it at the impending office Christmas party. The cameraman reacted in horror. “Do you want to cost me my job!?” he asked. It slowly dawned on me this wasn’t the Cape Times where that kind of prank would be dismissed in good humour. (I wouldn’t try it today though). In his inimitable fashion, Ed takes the reader on a privileged journey into the workings of the SABC TV newsroom and how it covered (or more importantly didn’t cover) major news events of the day. Race trumped experience and skill every time and ANC-favouring coverage beat hard news into a crock. It’s a microcosm of the mismanagement, control and financial ineptitude with which the ANC daily abuses its viewers. – Chris Bateman

By Ed Herbst*

Just when you cite the SABC hearings in parliament as an optimistic counter to Makhosi Khoza’s suggestion that the ANC is beyond redemption, Loot-freely House trashes your hopes. You then remind yourself that the overwhelming majority of its MPs voted for and not against the party’s Super Snouter on 8 August.

The rot at the SABC started when then President Thabo Mbeki appointed his praise singers to the board – people like Eddie Funde, Christine Qunta and Thami Mazwai on 9 September 2003. Inevitably and ineluctably the state broadcaster was chaotically bankrupt less than six years later and requiring a R1.4 billion bailout.

SABC headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa

Now with the ANC-controlled SABC once again chaotically bankrupt and requiring a R3 billion bailout, Loot-fully House is at it again. The new Communications Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi is appealing a high court ruling which limits the ANC’s corrupt control over the SABC board.

Furthermore, I am sure I was not alone in being troubled by the way in which JZ783 delayed announcing the appointment of the new SABC board until the way was cleared for the appointment as board chair of Bongumusa Makhathini. He was at the time, by cosmic coincidence, chair of first lady Bongi Ngema-Zuma’s foundation.

Oh, and then there was the little contretemps about the suggested GCEO of the SABC, Alan Mukoki, about whom opinions differ.

This article uses the Cape Town news office of the SABC – where I worked from 1978 until I asked for early retirement in 2005 because of pervasive ANC-driven news and general corruption and the concomitant abusive treatment of staff – as a case study.

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It contrasts the pre-and post-apartheid coverage by that news office of three major floods which occurred in the Western Cape between 1981 and 2005. It illustrates how the news coverage by this office regressed to an extraordinary extent once the ANC gained control in 1998 through two of its acolytes, Regional Editor Jeffrey Twala and his deputy Kenneth Makatees.

The Laingsburg floods

The weekend of 24/25 January, 1981 saw a massive cloudburst in the catchment area above Laingsburg and by noon on Sunday much of the central area of town had water at roof height of the houses. In the ensuing maelstrom, 140 people lost their lives. It was the worst natural disaster in South Africa’s history.

Reporters from the SABC and Die Burger reached Laingsburg by road on 24 January just before dark.

The SABC television news team was reporter Charl Pauw and camera operator Robbie Klarenbeek.

At first light the next morning I, as the second SABC camera operator, was in a light aircraft, jointly hired by the SABC and Die Burger. We flew over the area and captured an aerial overview which, combined with the video footage and photographs taken on the ground, provided the world with graphic evidence of the worst natural disaster ever in South African history. The ‘apartheid-era’ SABC TV and radio news teams did not wait for the politicians of the day to start arriving before they started covering the story, but they provided outstanding footage that was seen all over the world. They sent their video footage back to the Sea Point main control room either by giving it to military helicopter crews flying back to Cape Town’s Ysterplaat air force base or by feeding their video footage directly to Auckland Park from the microwave tower at Dwyk, a few kilometres from the town.

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Using the heavy and bulky video camera of that era with its separate recorder, Pauw and Klarenbeek covered the floods, working for days on end with little or no sleep, in tremendously trying conditions of intense heat, mud and debris and, sometimes, the stench of decaying bodies. They stayed on to cover the aftermath of the flood and the economic and social implications it had for the town. By any standards, it was exemplary reporting which earned universal acclaim.

All that was to change with the political appointment of Jeffrey Twala – who had no previous television news experience – as head of the Sea Point news office in 1998. Two subsequent floods, Calitzdorp 2000 and in the Overberg in 2005, were either not covered at all – Calitzdorp – or only covered three days after the flood struck – the Overberg. No action was taken against Twala for this grave dereliction of duty and almost incomprehensible negligence and incompetence because he was not appointed as head of news in the region at the behest of the ANC to do conventional news gathering. His brief, which he prosecuted ferociously, was firstly to promote the ruling party through constant positive and biased coverage, by refusing his reporters permission to cover any story that reflected badly on the ANC or on black people and to constantly give saturation coverage to any news that reflected badly on opposition parties – the Desai Commission being an example.

The town that ‘could not be found’ – Calitzdorp 2000

On 2 March 2000, senior reporters who had joined the SABC in the apartheid era and who were constantly denigrated by Jeffrey Twala as “leelywhites standing in the way of transformation”, drawing on the benefit of the contacts that they had made in more than two decades of reporting in the region, received news that there had been cloud bursts in the catchment area of Calitzdorp and that the Gamka river was in flood and threatening the town.

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It was estimated that the flood would hit the town by noon the next day. With the memory of Laingsburg barely ten years old, Charl Pauw suggested to Jeffrey Twala that a helicopter be hired and that he and the camera operator most experienced in operating from helicopters, Brian Uranovsky, leave the next day at first light.

Twala brusquely decided to send his own favourites, none of whom were ‘leely white’. They left at 5 am by road and returned sixteen hours later – without having been able to find the town!!!!!!!!!! REPEAT…. WITHOUT HAVING BEEN ABLE TO FIND THE TOWN!!!!!!

The floods did hit the town during that day, washing away the bridge linking Calitzdorp with Ladismith and doing massive infrastructural and soil erosion damage to irrigation-based agriculture for many kilometres above and below the town. Calitzdorp suffered significant financial losses from which the local economy took years to recover. Thanks to Twala there was no video footage of this or reporters on the scene who could, for radio and TV, bring the news to the SABC’s millions of radio listeners and TV viewers or interview those affected by the drama.

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The afore-mentioned senior reporters – the “leelywhites standing in the way of transformation” according to Twala – nevertheless managed , through their own initiative, to track down some amateur footage of the floods taken  by Calitzdorp residents and get it delivered to Sea Point. It was then converted to the SABC’s video format. Twala had no hand in this and showed no interest – indeed, when he was told of this, he flew into a rage, demanding to know who had authorised the payment for this footage. When he was told that the footage had been donated at no cost by Calitzdorp residents, he turned and walked away with no apology.

This amateur footage was eventually screened on March 5, three days later and the SABC lost the opportunity the secure dramatic and exclusive visuals of an event that caused damage in the millions of rands.

What comes as no surprise is that no action was ever taken by the SABC as a result of this grave dereliction of duty because that is how the ANC operates in a political system which it dominates and which holds the concepts of merit and accountability in contempt.

The Overberg floods of 2005

At midday on Sunday, 10 April 2005, the Overberg area about two hours’ drive from Cape Town was hit by a one in 60-year storm. This caused multi-million rand infrastructure damage with roads and bridges being washed away and dozens of people marooned by the floods having to be rescued – some from the roofs of their houses – by helicopters from the nearby Overberg air force base. The N2 was closed to traffic for six weeks.

Jeffrey Twala, in strong contrast to the instant response of his apartheid-era predecessors in covering the Laingsburg floods, refused his news teams permission to leave on the Sunday when the floods occurred even though they could have arrived there by road within three hours and immediately started working in order to get footage onto that evening’s and the next morning’s TV news bulletins from 6 am.   The next morning, Monday, with precious hours already having been lost, he informed dumbfounded news reporters that they would not be leaving for Bredasdorp, the epicentre of the storm, but would instead be going to Gugulethu, Nyanga and Khayelitsha – which, at most,  had experienced heavy downpours lasting a few hours. He said that the SABC must cover “black suffering” – which made it clear that he did not consider the majority of the people most affected by the Bredasdorp storm, the coloureds, to be black. While rival news organisations were getting riveting visuals of flood damage and dramatic interviews with survivors, the SABC’s TV news bulletins showed gently overflowing drains and the odd puddle in Cape Town’s townships. Twala only allowed his Sea Point news teams to travel to Bredasdorp three days after the storm struck. This was allowed because, on Wednesday, April 13, an ANC delegation made a brief visit to the flood area by helicopter. By that time, the floods had subsided and there was no drama left to cover, but it did give the SABC the opportunity to give local ANC politicians publicity and that, clearly, was all that Twala was interested in. The fact that millions of people dependent on the SABC for their news coverage and who are constitutionally entitled to freedom of access to information, were denied that access in terms of the Bredasdorp floods, was clearly of no interest to the ANC.

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Once again no action was taken because of this grave dereliction of duty by the Luthuli House-controlled SABC.

Two voluminous reports on news corruption, the abusive behaviour experienced by newsroom staff and the almost incomprehensible incompetence which prevailed during this period in the Sea Point news office were formally submitted by the trade union BEMAWU. One was submitted during the Peter Matlare era and one during the Dali Mpofu era. Both were ignored and parliament was lied to about this by an SABC board dominated by ANC apparatchiks.

South Africans were subsequently able to observe this ANC modus operandi in action when the SABC deliberately did not screen visuals on its evening news bulletins of the booing of President Jacob Zuma during the Nelson Mandela memorial service in Soweto and when the maniacal Hlaudi Motsoeneng, assisted by Jimi (The door or the window) Matthews decreed that the country-wide service delivery protests would not be covered by SABC television news teams.

Brian Uranovsky, like so many other talented people, fled the SABC once the ANC corruptly took the control. Today, he uses his state of the art image stabilisers for clients like the producers of James Bond movies and National Geographic and, for international news agencies, he helped cover Queen Elizabeth’s 1,000-boat Diamond Jubilee pageant on the Thames in June 2012.

I have always averred that the SABC is the country in microcosm and the insistence of the ANC on retaining its chokehold on the throat of the state broadcaster comes as no surprise as Africa’s newest kleptocracy continues to unravel in terms of Mulholland’s Law.

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