TK's Sledgehammer With Themba Khumalo

By Themba Khumalo

In the heydays of apartheid, the SABC was correctly considered to be the propaganda branch of the bigoted Nationalist Party (NP). Under the NP’s guidance and management, the SABC, blatant as it may sound, should have been called the ABS (Apartheid Broadcasting Service).

The place was so overloaded with flunkeys who were in the service of the NP that it was misleading to call it the SABC. The upper strata, most of whom came from the Broederbond, occupied corner offices and barked despotic orders to lowly persons who grovelingly carried them out.

The guiding principles and strategy focus were the domain of elitebroers who clandestinely met at neutral places, not at Dithering Towers.

The late Professor Sampie Terreblanche, who was described as a man who always swam against the tide, a board member of the SABC Board between1972 and 1987, told a media hearing in 1997: “The SABC not only acted as the propaganda arm of the NP, but of consecutive NP administrations. Every new prime minister had a new approach and a need to legitimise himself, to justify his position of power.”

The broadcaster was a compliant and dangerous employee of the government of the day.

Legend has it that the finger-wagging PW Botha once phoned, in the course of a news broadcast, the Head of News at the SABC and dictated what a revised bulletin should read like.

The dawn of democracy ignited constructive debates on how to locate the public broadcaster in a space where it could become one of the critical players in promoting egalitarianism and not betaken over by the state as a governing party’s megaphone.

For a brief and pleasing period, the public broadcaster was properly managed and staffed by consummate professionals.
We were delighted that the SABC, which was the mouthpiece of the apartheid regime, was becoming a real public broadcaster. Why not, when Nelson Mandela’s administration embarked on a rigorous process to ensure the SABC was of service to the public instead of the governing party.

With time, we watched with horror as the SABC reached its nadir. It became something of a sub-committee of the ANC.

It became an unhappy place for many dedicated journalists as dread and gloom haunted the newsroom. This dread and gloomcame about as the ANC’s former political commissar, Snuki Zikalala, pressed his subordinates to conform to government ideologies.

The fires of loathing in the newsroom were continuously stoked by a special type of ANC disciples who dictated that news be crafted such that they were in line with the government’s agenda.

In 2002, the late Dr Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri who was the SABC Chairperson and later the Minister of Communications, went as a far as submitting a draft amendment to the Broadcasting Act in Parliament which required, among various other matters, that the editorial policy of the public broadcaster be approved by the minister.

This blitzkrieg on the editorial independence of the SABC was outrightly rebuffed by a wide-ranging collective of civil society groups and opposition political parties, including the print media. Even the ANC’s own media committee, under the leadership of Pallo Jordan, voiced its unease. The obnoxious proposal had to be abandoned.

The SABC is not the governing party’s loud hailer
The governing party has failed to grasp the simple concept that there is a difference between a public broadcaster and a governing party lapdog. It could be the party is blinded by its destructive factionalism which continues to play itself out in each and every state entity, among them, the SABC.

Each faction will do all it can to lay its filthy hands on the SABC and take control of the editorial direction. The Zuma faction brought us that rudderless Hlaudi Motsoeneng, whose arrogance and stupidity nearly collapsed the SABC.

Hlaudi made a mess of the place and kept telling us he was doing a sterling job. Damn, it was as if some mischievous and mad ghost was egging him on to do untold damage to the SABC.
When he left Dithering Towers, some glimmer of hope peered through the window. A couple of changes were made and the SABC, especially the news division which dusted itself off the Hlaudi curse.

In 2018, the SABC appointed Phathiswa Magopeni as Group Executive for News and Current Affairs. Phathiswa, a resilient and excellent news management professional, joined the SABC frome.TV, where she was a senior news executive. An attentive executive who is said to keep a beady eye on systems and rules, she and her team restored trust and credibility in SABC News within three years, after Hlaudi’s disastrous tenure.

In 2020, the Broadcast Research Council said SABC TV had a viewership of 30 million, far and away the highest in the country. The SABC’s free to air news service is watched by 40% of the total available audience, while the SABC’s 24-hour news channel on DStv has 40% of total news viewers, up from 14,7% four years ago. In fact, SABC Newson channel 404 has become the 24-hour news market leader, trouncing eNCA which has always led this sector.

Last September, the SABC launched a show called Service Delivery Gauge. The show’s premise was to investigate whether local government was meeting its service delivery undertakings.

Journalists criss-crossed the country to ascertain whether or not municipalities had kept their promises.  This was a public broadcaster at its finest. This was broadcasting deeply rooted in society’s experiences. Service Delivery Gauge became the perfect weatherglass for assessing government service delivery undertakings. Journalists interviewed politicians and municipal bureaucrats, taking us beyond the usual exaggerated and false self-praise.  

The programme peeved Fikile Mbalula, the ANC’s blabbermouth Head of Elections. On November 25, he went stark raving mad, pointing an accusing finger at the SABC for the ANC’s shab by performance in the local government elections. The ANC’s voter support took a dive to below 50%.This is the first time since the dawn of democracy that the party has performed so miserably in elections.

“The SABC was a big problem… let me tell you openly today, we were just decent not to attack you in public,” Fikile told a media briefing.
“You guys during the local government elections, you run a programme called Service Delivery Gauge. That programme meant you’re putting the ANC on the backfoot. You were in all these majority municipalities showing our weakness. I did my job to the best of my ability against a ruthless SABC that was attacking the ANC left and right.

“No doubt, you have added to the negative mood and have aided the campaign of people not coming out in their numbers to vote,” Fikile complained.
He went on to say he called Phathiswa to confront her about the SABC’s ‘negative’ election coverage;“but she threatened to expose me in public because she was just doing her job.”

This, to our ears sounded like Mbalula expected Phathiswa and her disciplined team to gloss over the poor performance of ANC-run councils. He appeared to nurse a desire for the SABC to function as an extended public relations machine of his party.

As we all raised our voices in protest against Mbalula’s madcap utterances, little did we know the ANC and Mr Blabbermouth had secured themselves eager ears in the cushy offices of the SABC.

In October, SABC top dogs, the CEO, Madoda Mxakwe, and chairman of the board, Bongumusa Makhathini, tried to help the ANC by pressurising Phathiswa to agree to a request from Pule Mabe to interview President Ramaphosa, according to a letter of grievance she penned to the board: “On Sunday 24 October 2021, Mr Mxakwe called me about the ANC’s Mr Pule Mabe who wanted to set up a radio interview for the ANC President who was campaigning in Limpopo that day.

“The idea initially seemed to be about the SABC going to a private radio station to cover an interview that was set up there for the ANC President. I objected to this because SABC Newsis a public news service with a national footprint servicing 18 radio stations, and allowing this would have made a mockery of the SABC’s own radio stations and undermining the capacity of its journalist to do the same.

“Also, editors were aware of a pending interview with the ANC President that SABC News had asked for like we did with other political parties.”
She stood her ground and refused to give in to corporate and political pressure. Sheasserted that the interview with President Ramaphosa be on SABC’s terms: “As a result, the interview did not happen. I have every reason to believe that the strange charges against me are the repercussions of my refusal to consent to the interview. As the editor-in-chief, it is my obligation to protect and maintain the editorial independence of the SABC’s public news service, to safeguard its integrity, and to ensure that its controls are not breached,” wrote Phathiswa.

Phathiswa Magopeni

Now, Phathiswa has paid a heavy price for her principled stance…refusing to be a boot licker. Her bosses ganged up on her not long after her stance. They used a court interdicted episode of Special Assignmentthat had been aired by mistake due to a technical glitch to push her out of the SABC. No investigation was conducted to shed light on what really happened. They wanted to ingratiate themselves to their political masters.

What a low and dirty shame…punishing such a dedicated and skilled person to keep those in power happy…sies maan!
Keep your head high Phathiswa…never give in to numbskulls whose desire is to keep political thugs happy.

Let me reword what Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to say…playing chess with the ANC is like playing against a pigeon, it struts around the board, knocks over the pieces, shits everywhere and then declares a victory. On the other hand, playing chess with bootlickers is like playing against a spoilt brat that doesn’t know the rules, it invents its own, and then throws a tantrum when you refuse to cooperate.

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