No journalist should have to endure the humiliations and political manipulations meted out in the SABC newsroom when the public broadcaster was captured by Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his so-called enforcers between 2012 and 2017.
This is according to the report of the Commission of Inquiry into Interference in the Decision-Making in the Newsroom of the South African Broadcasting Corporation by Joe Thloloe and Stephen Tawana, which was released last week.
Although contested for not being sufficiently forensic when it comes to investigating the allegations put before the commission, the report does paint a terrifying picture of what it was like to work in the SABC newsroom in a time of “capricious use of authority and power to terrorise staff and to deflect the corporation from its mandate and its editorial policies”.
Here are some of the stories gathered in the report:
Door or window?
News staff woke one day to see it reported that “the SABC would no longer be showing visuals of the destruction of public property during service delivery protests”.
One radio editor received a call from Motsoeneng “asking why I hadn’t run the story”.
She said that she never received the press release about the policy change, but Motsoeneng “refused to accept her version and he shouted at her over the phone”.
A meeting was called where Motsoeneng allegedly threatened staff.
“You must adapt or find a job somewhere else,” he is reported to have said, before banning radio guests from rival news organisations.
Notes from the meeting record Motsoeneng saying: “I do not believe in research,” and “No journalist is independent,” and news boss Jimi Matthews saying: “It is cold outside. If you don’t like it you can go. You’ve got two choices – the door or the window.”
A meeting from hell
The SABC’s national radio news editor is holding a national teleconference with staff and they discuss a series of marches on SABC offices in protest of Motsoeneng’s banning of the use of protest images that depict the destruction of property.
Suddenly Simon Tebele, then head of news, declares: “We are not covering that story.”
Journalists, who will become known as the SABC 8, object and say they don’t want their names associated with the decision.
A series of hasty meetings follows and the journalists are dismissed even after a variety of managers refuse to axe them, and they are called in one by one by HR to be given letters of suspension.
The journalists will go on to receive awards for bravery after allegedly being followed, fired at, bullied and repeatedly threatened. One, Suna Venter, will die from the stress.
A national TV news editor told of an editorial workshop to prepare for the 2014 national elections, when the SABC’s independent editorial policies were emphasised.
Matthews was present. A few days later the staff invited Motsoeneng to a meeting to get him on board. It didn’t end well.
“After the meeting he called us one by one into Jimi’s office and accused us of trying to destabilise the SABC.”
The staff appointed two senior journalists, Mahlatse Gallens (now Mahlase) and Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki, to record minutes.
Managers describe how HR then sent instruction that Mahlase and Gqubule-Mbeki be suspended.
Disrespecting an ailing star
The news editor of SABC’s KwaZulu-Natal operation told of a very ill Joseph Shabalala of the famed music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
At one stage the Shabalala family asked to be left in peace and for the media to back off; they didn’t want the world to see him frail and in a wheelchair. But one rainy evening the editor received a call to send a crew to Shabalala’s house in Ladysmith because Motsoeneng was going to visit and so would former president Jacob Zuma.
When the crew arrived at about 10pm in the rain and fog the family refused to talk with them until, it seems, Motsoeneng persuaded them otherwise.
Don’t upset the parastatals
A former boss of a state-owned enterprise was angry after being questioned on air one night about dodgy procurements.
Gqubule-Mbeki was called back to the office to meet with him and she was asked to apologise.
When she refused the former boss insisted that the meeting be moved to the office of the chair of the SABC board, Ellen Tshabalala, who was also on the board of the state-owned entity.
Matthews is reported to have joined them and the parastatal boss was apparently “aggressive, belligerent and physically threatening”, accusing the white SABC host of racism.
Eventually Matthews dictated an apology to a typist, saying the SABC didn’t mean to offend the parastatal boss.
My own personal TV crew
Stories of politicians abusing SABC crews abound in the report.
One day, seven houses were being handed over to a community by a friend of the SABC board chair, who was invited to the event, and SABC journos were instructed to cover the event.
But they didn’t have capacity and declined. That wasn’t good enough. The chair called him on the morning of the event to say: “We are waiting and I am giving you 20 minutes to do this.”
The crew had to drop the stories on their diary and head to the event in KwaMashu.
Similar stories are recorded about the ANC’s youth and women’s leagues, as well as traditional leaders close to Motsoeneng.
“At some point the Women’s League demanded that an SABC crew go to Nkandla to cover them protecting Zuma’s home. And throughout their four-hour drive the journalists were shouted at and harassed by women who were calling them throughout their drive, ordering them to hurry,” reads the report.
In covering the Venda royal leadership dispute between King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana and Princess Masindi, SABC staff was barred from interviewing certain people and “at least one journalist received death threats”.
Gotta have Faith
But the board chair had nothing on former communications minister Faith Muthambi, who apparently insisted that her constituency visits be covered by the SABC.
One day she was handing over a house and the SABC was delayed by 20 minutes.
By this time Muthambi was helping clear litter at a river. When the crew found her, she is alleged to have screamed that she would fire them, that they essentially worked for her, and that the female news presenter was fat and not properly dressed.
Another journalist told the commission how he was dismissed at Muthambi’s instigation because he asked her in an interview to explain digital terrestrial television in layman’s terms and she was furious when asked to repeat her answer in her mother tongue, standard practice for the multilingual broadcaster.
“She took her things and said: ‘I’m not even going to do this interview. I can’t believe you drove all the way from Polokwane to ask such a boring question.’ That’s how she abandoned the story,” he told the commission.
He was then accused of insulting the minister and was fired for allegedly leaking news of his case to a newspaper.
Editor in chief Hlaudi
Aside from allegedly visiting Cape Town and telling the SABC’s parliamentary team that they now report to him, Motsoeneng allegedly did the same in Johannesburg, in between hauling presenters into his office to demand they stop the interviews they were busy with because they upset him for various reasons and promoting unqualified news bosses in the provinces.
He also astonished staff when he announced, while introducing a new chief executive, that the chief executive was no longer SABC editor in chief and the role of overseeing the news now fell on him.
Those accused of abusing their power, including Motsoeneng, Matthews and Tebele, declined to talk to the commission, but have previously denied all allegations of wrongdoing against them.
A furious Muthambi said she was never afforded the opportunity to reply and denied the allegations.
TALK TO US
Can the SABC recover from the shadow cast by former bosses over its credibility?
SMS us on 35697 using the keyword SABC and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50. By participating, you agree to receive occasional marketing material