SABC retrenchments a telling redemptive opportunity – Herbst

CAPE TOWN — You could say the impending retrenchment of 981 permanent employees is a potentially game-changing opportunity for the SABC to shed its long-sullied reputation as serving the ruling party. While the SABC executives accurately cite avoiding bankruptcy as the reason, the test of whether the corporation can reclaim the title of Public broadcaster instead of State broadcaster lies in exactly who gets retrenched. Veteran SABC TV and radio reporter Ed Herbst reminds us of how the “enforcers” of that arrogant, abusive party apparatchik and former SABC COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, still enjoy their powerful, key positions. They surely contributed to the stress-induced death of courageous Radio Sonder Grense, (RSG), journalist, Suna Venter, one of the SABC 8 fired for protesting against political interference in their work. Not easily intimidated, Venter was shot in the face, had the brake cables and tyres of her car slashed, had her flat broken into several times, was abducted and generally terrorised. She died of stress-cardiomyopathy. If ever there was an icon of ethical, courageous journalism, it’s her. There can be no better way to claim victory for impartiality than by retrenching these remaining corporate thugs. A real test of the new SABC board’s credibility. – Chris Bateman

By Ed Herbst*

“When I got back into the car, I put my handbag and the food in, and as I was getting into the car I just felt something slamming me from the back across the face. “I slammed my door shut and drove off and stopped a while later to stop the blood flow and patch it up.” Subsequently, she saw a doctor and was sent for CT scan which revealed foreign objects in her cheek. They found the remnants to be air-gun bullets. “The doctor said you were not hit, you were shot.” – The late SABC8 reporter, Suna Venter, in a Radio 702 interview

The fact that the board is pushing ahead with the retrenchments, despite opposition from political parties, unions and the minister of communications, is a positive sign that we may finally have a strong, independent board that will stand up to political pressure. – EDITORIAL: We need a thriving SABC Business Day 1/11/2018

Without retrenchments the SABC will simply slip further into debt.

Ed Herbst with his new book, 'South African Fishing flies – an anthology of milestone patterns'.
Ed Herbst with his new book, ‘South African Fishing flies – an
anthology of milestone patterns’.

On October 29 an SABC media release indicated that 981 permanent employees could be retrenched as part of a restructuring exercise which will save the public broadcaster – bankrupted by the ANC’s illegal deployed cadre policy – an estimated R440 million per annum.

In an interview with fin24, SABC CEO Madoda Mxakwe said:

‘The (payments) committee now has to decide who will be paid and who will not be paid. We are living from hand to mouth and battling to fulfil our financial obligations. The situation is very dire.’

This is the ideal opportunity to retrench those who the late Suna Venter, in a submission to parliament, called ‘the enforcers’.

Politically-biased reporting

These were the people who ensured that the politically-biased reporting demanded by Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Jimi Matthews and, before them, Snuki Zikalala was implemented.

Venter wrote: These are the people who form part of the network Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng created around him to execute his decisions and agenda – specifically as it pertains to the newsroom.  

Mr Anton Heunis – ‘Commercial Adviser’

Mr Simon Tebele – GCEO: News and Current Affairs

Ms Sebulelo Dithlakanyane (Head of Radio News and Current Affairs)

Ms Sophie Mokoena (acting political and foreign editor)

Mr Nyana Molete (Line Manager: TV News)

Ms Nothando Maseko (Head of TV News

“These are the main enforcers of Mr Motsoeneng’s wishes in news management. They continue with their ways even in his absence and although I personally have no supporting evidence, Mr Motsoeneng is believed broadly to still be calling the shots on many levels at the SABC despite his removal.”

Molete, it will be recalled, played a major role in the state broadcaster unconstitutionally denying millions of South Africans the news that President Jacob Zuma had been booed in front of a phalanx of world political leaders during the Nelson Mandela memorial service in December 2013. As an encore, he dismissed the SABC 8.

SABC journalists

He was also cited in court papers filed in July 2016 by Vuyo Mvoko as being one of the leading enforcers.

The two SABC unions, BEMAWU and the CWU, have demanded that the enforcers be dismissed. There is no reason not to do so because the state broadcaster needs to atone for Suna Venter’s death. The retrenchment of the enforcers will enhance SABC credibility and add credence to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s claim that he intends to root out corruption in all spheres of society.

Abusive treatment of staff

Included in their list are Kenneth Makatees, acting head of news at the time and Themba Mathonsi (Manager News Video Editing) who is notorious for his abusive treatment of staff.

Added to that list, in my subjective opinion must be Vuyani Green. He has enormous influence because he heads the parliamentary office of the SABC – and malevolently so.  One of the SABC8, Lukhanyo Calata, mentioned him both in his testimony in parliament during the SABC board inquiry in 2016 and in his book, My Father Died for This.

The fact that these people are still employed despite the harrowing evidence against them in the SABC parliamentary hearing is evidence of the profound contempt that the ANC has for public opinion. It has also surely not escaped notice that Vincent Smith, the ANC MP who dramatically called for the many SABC liars under oath at that inquiry to be jailed, seems to have been on the take for years. But wait – there’s more! As Andrew Feinstein points out in his book, After the Party, Smith worked together with Tony Yengeni and Essop Pahad to stymie an investigation into Arms Deal Corruption which, Feinstein was told, helped the ANC to fund subsequent election campaigns – pages 190 and 198. That’s how the ANC rolls.

The hope that under Cyril Ramaphosa the SABC would become a public broadcaster – rather than the state broadcaster that it has been for the past two decades of iron-fisted ANC control – was stillborn when the announcement came at the end of August that Dumisani Hlophe, an anti-DA troll from KZN with no previous experience in news gathering and dissemination, had been appointed as Political Editor: News and Current Affairs.

It was, as Phumzile van Damme, DA Shadow Minister of Communications, pointed out, an astonishing cynical appointment.

To me, it indicated that the Ramaphosa-era administration has every intention of retaining its chokehold on the neck of the SABC and proof of that came in September when City Press revealed that staff at the SABC’s Polokwane radio station, Phalaphala FM, were instructed that no on-air discussion of the VBS bank scandal – in which the ANC is implicated – would be allowed.

Snuki (Blacklist) Zikalala must have chortled when he heard that and the schadenfreude experienced by Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Jimi (the door or the window) Matthews must have been as immense as it was satisfying.

The SABC has shown in the past that, under the intense scrutiny of political parties and organisations like Media Monitoring Africa, it will grit its teeth and, under that duress and very much against its will, deliver reasonably equitable pre-election coverage.

It’s what happens after the 2019 election that we need to worry about.

Pro-ANC bias

It is then that Dumisani Hlophe will link up with the enforcers to ensure that its business as usual and the pro-ANC bias and censorship by omission of opposition parties will once again become routine.

In March 2014, the then DA Shadow Minister of Communication, Marian Shinn, revealed that the SABC’s commissioned market research – Project Kindle – which it kept under wraps, showed pervasive public belief that the SABC’s news broadcasts were biased towards the ANC and were therefore not credible. There is already evidence of that bias. Nothing new there, move along please – the state broadcaster, controlled by Luthuli House, did exactly the same thing in 2016 and in 2014.

The Business Day editorial on 1 November provided a succinct summary of what is needed to restore public faith in what should be a credible public broadcaster:

We need an SABC that is a well-run, profitable, growing, efficient organisation offering credible, comprehensive news and current affairs coverage, and entertainment. The job cuts, painful as they will be, are unavoidable, and arguably years overdue.

That we’ve allowed political meddling, mismanagement and corruption to destroy this pillar of our democracy is a real shame. But it would be absolutely unforgivable if we destroyed 2,200 people’s livelihoods without finally getting the SABC to a position where it can truly fulfil its role as a public broadcaster.

The SABC needs to atone for Suna Venter’s death and it can only do that if it seizes the retrenchment moment to rid the SABC of the vile propagandists who played such an appalling contributory role in her untimely death.

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