Herbst: Déjà vu at state broadcaster – fear and loathing in SABC

By Ed Herbst*

Fear and loathing are stalking the corridors of the SABC as staff tell of editorial interference, threats, intimidation and surveillance at the broadcaster’s Auckland Park headquarters. – Stephan Hofstatter Times Live 15/9/2016

Cosatu has named the Gupta-owned broadcaster ANN7 as the worst employer in the country. – Genevieve Quintal, News24 25/11/2015

The abuse of staff is systemic in media institutions captured by the African National Congress.

Ed Herbst, former television journalist
Ed Herbst, former television journalist

The article by Stephan Hofstatter on 15 December referring to Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s reign of terror and bias in favour of the Zuma faction, virtually replicates verbatim an article by Chris Barron in the Sunday Times of July 2004 about a similar reign of terror and bias in favour of the Mbeki faction on the watch of Snuki Zikalala.

25 July 2004 – Chris Barron writes of Zikalala in the Sunday Times: “To say that the SABC is not a happy place is putting it mildly. Fear and discontent stalk the newsroom at Auckland Park as former ANC political commissar Snuki Zikalala forces his underlings to toe the government line.”

Zikalala’s appalling abuse of an honest and honourable broadcast reporter, Mandla Zembe, is a matter of judicial record and I detailed similar abuses of the staff in the Sea Point news office of the SABC in a previous article on this website.

I have very vivid memories of a meeting in the SABC’s Sea Point news office when Zikalala addressed staff on 19 March 2001.

Abuse of staff

His visit was in response to a confidential report handed by the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media & Allied Workers Union (BEMAWU) to SABC Chief Executive, Peter Matlare. The report was submitted in terms of the Protected Disclosure Act and it concerned the abuse of staff by the ANC-aligned regional editor Jeffrey Twala.

As BEMAWU shop steward in that news department I had been asked by the trade union to compile a report in this regard. It was submitted under the Protected Disclosure Act which was drafted to protect whistle blowers and in the name of a freelance producer. She had been appalled by the constant coercion of staff to promote the interests of the ANC and undermine the Democratic Alliance and the pervasive contempt and disrespect with which they were treated in the Sea Point regional office of the SABC. She helped in the compilation of the report, having no intention of ever working for the state broadcaster again.

The report was given to Matlare on the strict understanding that it was for his eyes only. We had naively assumed that he would assess this confidential report and, on the basis of its content, ask Zikalala to take action.

What next from Hlaudi? More cartoon magic at www.zapiro.com.
What next from Hlaudi? More cartoon magic at www.zapiro.com.

In what we perceived to be an extraordinary act of betrayal, the report was immediately given to Zikalala who, in turn, immediately gave it to Twala. The document included reports from doctors and psychologists who attested to unprecedented levels of stress among staff, largely as a result of Twala deliberately exposing them to life-threatening situations at the request of his ANC politician friends. They included a case of a cameraman who came close to suicide on Chapman’s Peak.

“Business as usual”

Standing next to Twala on 19 March 2001, Zikalala declared all of the abuses outlined in the BEMAWU report to be “Normal, acceptable and not a crisis” and he encouraged Twala with the words “It’s business as usual in the Cape Town news office.”

Then, looking straight at me, he said: “I just want to make it quite clear that anyone who goes to the media about this will be instantly dismissed!”

I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise, firstly because nobody had gone to the media about our office problems, despite the fact that we all had a professional relationship with other reporters in the city.

The second reason was that Zikalala had already been cited before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for human rights abuses and was justifiably feared by his SABC subordinates.

On 25 July 1996, Olefile Samuel Mnqibisa, a former MK combatant, testified before the TRC about the human rights abuses he alleged that he and others suffered at the hand of Zikalala. As a result of a promise by Zikalala that he would testify before the TRC to rebut these allegations, Max du Preez did not broadcast Mnqibisa’s testimony. This was a lie and Zikalala never testified.

What happened next needs to be put into context.

When I started compiling the BEMAWU report in early 2001 I was told to expect threatening phone calls and they duly came. I accordingly changed my unlisted landline number and my cellphone number shortly before Zikalala’s meeting with us.

Unlisted numbers

sabc_logoOnly the SABC and a few close friends were given these new numbers.

A few days after our meeting with Zikalala, I was being driven back to Sea Point by the camera operator who had accompanied me to cover a story when my cellphone rang. It was a reporter from Die Burger newspaper. The caller said they had received information that Jeffrey Twala had made a “racist generalisation” at a staff meeting and that I could confirm this.

I replied that only a handful of friends and the SABC knew my new cellphone number and I asked the reporter who had given this number to Die Burger.

“Someone very high up in the SABC whose name we can’t disclose”, was the reply.

I drafted a letter to Zikalala asking him if he could explain the extraordinary coincidence between his threat in the meeting of 19 March 2001 and the subsequent telephone call from Die Burger just a few days later. I also asked if he could identify the person “very high up in the SABC” who had given my new cellphone number to the newspaper and had suggested that I be phoned in the obvious hope that I would be quoted in the newspaper and thus expose myself to dismissal.

Accompanied by the colleague who had been in the car with me when I received the phone call from Die Burger and the most senior BEMAWU staff member in the building, I asked for an appointment with the then SABC Regional Manager, Laurence Mitchell, explained what had happened and gave him my letter to Zikalala to read. He remarked, stating the obvious, that I was clearly the “victim of office politics”.

I then telephoned Zikalala’s secretary, advised her that I would be faxing an urgent letter to him and asked for a prompt response. I never got one, despite repeated phone calls to her over several days thereafter.

No persecution

Ronny Myataza, former HR manager for the SABC, accompanied Zikalala to the 19 March 2001 meeting. At the end of the meeting, Myataza stated unequivocally that the letter given to Peter Matlare by BEMAWU had been submitted under the aegis of the Protected Disclosure Act and he made it emphatically clear that there was to be no persecution of staff as a result because this would be illegal.

This was ignored. Staff were summoned, verbally abused and threatened and the resignations immediately followed – in unprecedented numbers. What was once the happiest, most productive and most efficient SABC regional news office in the country was eviscerated – much as the Cape Times is suffering now and much as the Auckland Park news office of the SABC lost some its finest talents on the watch of Zikalala. The consequences of the Zikalala purge are now being replicated under his successor at the SABC, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, with one of the SABC 8, Jacques Steenkamp, leaving the SABC just as John Perlman and Jacques Pauw did more than a decade ago.

That’s how the ANC rolls and that is the practical consequence of ANC media capture.

Let me give you another example of unnecessarily abusive treatment of staff in ANC-linked media organisations.

On 30 June 2014 Business Day published the following report:

Last Thursday the editor of Durban-based newspaper The Mercury, Philani Mgwaba, tendered his resignation to take up a position with Independent’s main rival Times Media Group, which is also the owner of Business Day.

Mr Mgwaba’s departure saw him being escorted out of the building by security guards — an unusual occurrence in the local newspaper industry where resignations are generally handled amicably.

Publicly humiliate

My question is simple. Why was it necessary to publicly humiliate an editor in that way – to parade him in front of his colleagues as though he was a criminal -and I ask the question because when Mqwaba was appointed editor of The Mercury, specific mention was made of his huge contribution as founding editor of Independent’s biggest newspaper‚ Isolezwe‚ and the singular role he played in the launch of its Sunday edition‚ Isolezwe ngeSonto.

As a follow-up question you might then ask why was it necessary for the CEO of INMSA, Dr Iqbal Survé, to verbally abuse and threaten the former editor of the Cape Times, Alide Dasnois who, like Mqwaba, had an unblemished career record and had admirably fulfilled the role of editor of the Cape Times – so much so that her Nelson Mandela obituary edition was rated by Time as one of the best in the world and her bravery as an editor was recognised by her peers.

This persecution of news staff by ANC acolytes comes at enormous psychic cost to those who are the victims of it.

After the visit by Zikalala and the subsequent abuse of staff, those who could not find other employment started going down like ninepins with one after another being granted stress leave by doctors and psychologists – I have their medical certificates.

Thinking that I could also do with a bit of down time, I booked an appointment with a psychologist.

I explained to her that while my relative seniority had protected me, I was traumatised by what was happening to my colleagues – so much so that my behaviour had become aberrational. I told her that again and again I was waking up in the middle of the night with my temples being compressed between the thumb and middle finger of my left hand.

Within a few minutes Big, Brave Ed Herbst was slumped in the chair, his body wracked by sobs.

Post-traumatic stress

She quietly observed that I was a broken person and booked me off for two months for what she called post-traumatic stress syndrome – what people of my age call a nervous breakdown.

I left the SABC at the end of 2005 even though I had not be able to find another job because I was able to – I have no dependents. What triggered this was the treatment of a bulletin editor colleague. We all knew that she was nursing her partner of several years through what had been diagnosed as terminal cancer. An hour or so after the start of her 6 am shift she was notified that he had died. She was told that she could only leave the office that afternoon after her shift was finished, even though other colleagues had offered to stand in for her. When I later asked her whether she had instituted a grievance procedure she said that would have been pointless. This was confirmed by the Sea Point HR manager at the time who told me that many of those who had resigned because of such abuse had done exit interviews and had written letters in this regard. All were forwarded to the HR department in Auckland Park – which ignored them.

Nothing happened

In 2006, after I had left the SABC, BEMAWU submitted a second report on the abuse of staff at the Sea Point office to the Sisulu/Marcus Commission of Inquiry into Snuki Zikalala’s blacklisting scandal. So disturbed were Zwelakhe Sisulu and Gilbert Marcus that they wrote to the author of one of the Sea Point submissions asking for permission to forward it the then CEO of the SABC, Dali Mpofu. Permission was granted but, predictably, nothing happened.

SABC_Sea_Point (1)
SABC Sea Point

The ANC’s media capture, but not the concomitant abuse of staff, is already generating adverse coverage in some of the world’s most influential news outlets such as The Economist and Al Jazeera.

Another example. Former staffers at Newspaper House, the home of the Cape Times and the Cape Argus in Cape Town’s CBD have told me that the persecution of Melanie Gosling, an outstanding environmental reporter who loyally served the Cape Times for two decades, started when Iqbal Survé’s lawyers wrote a threatening letter in December 2013 – something without precedent in this country’s media history – and only ended when she asked for early retirement two years later. Along with her colleague on the Cape Argus, John Yeld, she formed the most formidable newspaper environmental reporting team in the country.

Read Natasha Joseph’s tribute to Yeld and compare it with the treatment that Melanie Gosling experienced and you realise how much things changed with the Sekunjalo takeover:

They took in the slouch and the ridiculous out-of-control hair and probably the naked terror in my eyes and they said, “What can we do to make you happy here?” No defiance, no defence. Old fashioned journalists who knew what it meant to be loyal to a title and to respect the chain of command even if it was a 27-year-old with occasionally poor social skills hanging out near the top of that chain. John has just left the Argus after 30 years.

Other objectives

With Yeld’s retirement in 2014 and the subsequent departure under duress of Melanie Gosling, such environmental reporting disappeared from Newspaper House and my subjective perception is that the chances of a snowball retaining its shape and consistency in hell are significantly greater than a return to such excellence on the watch of Iqbal Survé. In part this is because the Cape Times under the editorship of Aneez Salie has other objectives now – such as propagating falsehoods about Dr Max Price “acting in bad faith”, about a white UCT student battering a coloured woman so badly in a racially-motivated attack that she was “covered in blood and could not move”, about a radical increase in foetal alcohol syndrome on the province’s wine farms because these farmers have reverted to the illegal tot system, striving to increase the racial divide and about Western Cape premier Helen Zille working hand in glove with a “spook”. In recognition of his role in some of these nefarious articles and for the part he has played in supporting and encouraging RMF arsonist, Chumani Maxele, reporter Carlo Petersen has just been promoted by Dr Survé to the post of senior editor at the Cape Times.

Expect more of the same.

We thus need to support the SABC 8 and Vuyo Mvoko in their court applications – not only in the context of media freedom but also to halt the abuse of staff which has become synonymous with media outlets run by ANC acolytes.

Demonstrators protest against the decision by public broadcaster the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) that it would not broadcast scenes of violent protest, in Cape Town, South Africa, July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Demonstrators protest against the decision by public broadcaster the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) that it would not broadcast scenes of violent protest, in Cape Town, South Africa, July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

In closing: In yet another imbongi article carried in his own newspapers and accompanied by the inevitable photograph, Dr Iqbal Survé lashes out at Naspers:

“Naspers is the greatest danger to democracy, and our government will regret the day it did not unbundle this monopoly. They remain below the radar, by using their resources to influence key decision-makers of government. Naspers is ruthless in their pursuit (sic) to destroy competition and the transformation agenda.

“If we allow them to destroy our democracy project, there will be no hope.”

How strange, then, that the head of the PIC, Dr Daniel Matjila, thinks so highly of an “anti-transformation” company which, all on its own, is going to “destroy” South Africa’s democracy, that he invested more than half a billion rand of civil servant pension money with zero return for five years in the hopes, as he told parliament, of creating a “Black Naspers”.

Furthermore, in the context of this article about how news staff are treated, I have personal friends and acquaintances who have worked as reporters and news editors on Naspers newspapers for three decades and not one of them has ever been treated in the way in which Alide Dasnois, Philani Mgwaba and Melanie Gosling have been treated.

Should he ever carry out his threat to sue Rhoda Kadalie for defamation and then testify under oath in that hearing, I promise Iqbal Survé this: I will donate R10 000 rand to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital Trust – even though, as an SABC pensioner, I can ill afford such an amount.

Iqbal Survé is a self-proclaimed billionaire and world-renowned philanthropist whose Ubuntu ethos – we are told – has benefited no less than 30 million people in the last decade alone.

We are told of his profound daily meditation in which he asks himself whether, that day, he has achieved his lofty ideals of making – and leaving – the world a better place:

Every day he affords himself a few minutes of meditation in the mornings and in the evenings, then asks himself the following questions: “What good will I do today?” and then in the evening: “What could I have done differently?” At the end of his life, he wants to be proud of his answers to these two questions, and feel “that there is no deficit with respect to having made a difference in this country, the continent and the world,” he says.

As someone who, we are told, breakfasts with the Clintons and lunches with Prince Charles in between restructuring the world economy at Davos and negotiating with the Guptas, I am hopeful he will accept my challenge. He just needs to give us an idea of when this court case will be scheduled – it can’t be long now given that his court papers were served on Kadalie more than a year ago.

  • Ed Herbst is a pensioner and former reporter who writes in his own capacity.