Hlaudi’s reign of terror – Jimi Matthews speaks

Jimi Matthews as a young field reporter.  Picture: SA History online
Jimi Matthews as a young field reporter. Picture: SA History online

The SABC’s chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng is conducting a reign of terror at the public broadcaster, where people are “being bludgeoned to toe the line”, according to his former right-hand man Jimi Matthews.

Speaking exclusively to City Press this week, the former acting CEO spoke of Motsoeneng’s power grab and described the climate of fear at the SABC.

Matthews, who had been acting in the position since incumbent Frans Matlala was suspended in November, resigned on Monday. In his frank resignation letter, which he posted on Twitter, he apologised for his complicity in decisions made under the Motsoeneng regime.

His stepping down, along with the crackdown on dissenting voices within the SABC, dominated headlines this week. Eight journalists have been suspended for speaking out against growing censorship of news at the corporation.

Matthews told City Press that he had realised about six weeks ago the futility of staying on in his role – because “all the real decisions were being made by Motsoeneng”.

“We were just rubber-stamping. Newsroom unhappiness was growing. Instructions were delivered by diktat. He was exercising unbridled power,” said Matthews.

“There is a narrowing of space, and people are being bludgeoned to toe the line under threat of dismissal.

“It defeats everything we have worked for ... He controls everything. It became impossible to breathe.”

Matthews revealed that, with the pressure of multiple court cases challenging his role – along with a complaint about a ban on protests to the Independent Communications Authority of SA – Motsoeneng took refuge in a personality cult.

“He would say: ‘I am the SABC and the SABC is me’,” said Matthews.

Other senior staff at the SABC corroborate this story about Motsoeneng’s behaviour. One spoke of how Motsoeneng would say, “I am the alpha and the omega” in the corridors.

A news manager told City Press that on one occasion, when staff threatened to go to the board, he replied: “I am the board.”

Motsoeneng’s power grab saw him make decisions unilaterally to raise local content to levels the broadcaster could not cope with.

When questioned, said Matthews, the chief operating officer would offer these replies: “We know what the people want” and “We are unapologetic”.

In meetings and internal broadcasts, Motsoeneng would say things like: “I have got my informers among you. I know exactly what is going on.”

And he would declare in newsroom meetings that “the minister is furious [referring to Communications Minister Faith Muthambi]”, or “the presidency is furious”, in reference to their reporting.

Matthews – whose 30-year career has seen him work as a photographer, cameraperson, producer and news manager for local and international networks – grew increasingly dismayed at his colleague’s menacing tone.

The irony of his role as acting CEO when the SABC was being increasingly censorious – culminating in the banning of visuals showing violent protests – is not lost on Matthews.

His archive of three decades of work includes images of the struggle for liberation and social justice that are just like the ones the broadcaster does not want the public to see.

Matthews decided to resign after taking a long walk in a park near his Johannesburg home last Sunday afternoon.

“It struck me that there was no way I can go back into that building. I went home that night and wrote my resignation. I would not work a notice [period] or negotiate a separation agreement.”

He submitted his resignation on Sunday night and posted it on his Twitter account early on Monday morning.

The letter, which went viral, read: “For many months I have compromised the values that I hold dear under the mistaken belief that I could be more effective inside the SABC … In the process, the prevailing corrosive atmosphere has impacted negatively on my moral judgment and has made me complicit in many decisions which I am not proud of.”

He told City Press that the other thing bearing down on him was the predicament of young journalists.

“The SABC is the only media house hiring, recruiting and growing young journalists. They are starry-eyed and bushy-tailed. There is a disservice being done to them.

“And I was stuck on the 28th floor when my oxygen comes from the newsroom, the floor. I like creating spaces for people to work and think; for young people to stretch themselves.

“And I was sitting up there with all that s**t around me when I could have been down there,” Matthews said in a regretful tone .

Some SABC insiders were highly critical of Matthews’ complicity with Motsoeneng’s actions.

One told City Press of how he would cut voices (what is called “upsounds”) out of scripts to reduce the visibility of certain politicians.

Another told our sister newspaper Rapport: “It is Jimi who tampered with stories and refused to broadcast.”

They said he had also weakened national news by suspending four good editors in Crosby Amos, Ronel van Zyl, Faith Daniels and Clive Govender. The four had a labour dispute with the broadcaster.

While he acted as chief executive, the board altered editorial guidelines to make the chief operating officer the editor in chief, giving untrammelled power over content to Motsoeneng.

It is perhaps for incidents like these that Matthews wrote the final sentence in his bombshell letter: “I wish also to apologise to the many people whom I’ve let down by remaining silent when my voice needed to be heard.”

He said: “The SABC is a public institution and there were public expectations of me. The apology is because I failed to deliver on that mandate.”

While staff are still smarting, Matthews’ phone rang off the hook this week and his inbox was full.

A famous priest, political stalwarts, staff, many politicians within the governing tripartite alliance and others all called to congratulate him on speaking out and getting out of an institution now in Motsoeneng’s iron grip.

“Freedom of speech, association and movement in South Africa are all being narrowed. Senior people in the alliance said they understood and expressed disappointment,” he said.

The ANC and Muthambi did not call to commiserate with Matthews, but instead laid into him. ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa said he had turned the SABC into a laughing stock.

“I think clearly the intention is to add to the narrative that SABC is in disarray. He has allowed himself to be a tool to be used to attack the entire integrity of the SABC.”

Muthambi said the timing of his resignation was suspicious – commentators averred this was because 61-year-old Matthews may have had an eye on a higher package of retirement benefits.

He laughs. “I am walking away from a R2 million-a-year job with no payout, no golden handshake and no new job at hand. My medical aid ended yesterday [June 30]. If I were concerned about the financial reward, I did it very badly.

“The reason I resigned publicly is eloquently answered by Kodwa. What do internal issues of the SABC have to do with the ANC?”

How does he feel after a tumultuous week? “Relieved,” said Matthews.

What’s next?

“‘What’s next’ is the wrong question. It paralyses one. I have tasted the backlash, but I am hugely comforted by the support I have received.”

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