The SABC 8 were a group of journalists who were fired after publicly protesting against changes to the public broadcaster’s editorial policy that amounted to censorship. In this extract from a new book by Foeta Krige, he describes the threats and violent intimidation the group received, ultimately resulting in the death of Suna Venter.
Having decided that Suna would not be safe on her own, Madelaine and I were on our way to pick her up from her flat when I received a WhatsApp from Aslam Moosajee.
He had copied and pasted a message he had just received to our group chat:
22:03 we will double what sbc8 backers are paying advice them to drop the case friday or the girl dies call this nr to stop it.
“This is an SMS that I just got,” Aslam wrote, “083 366 8389 is the number from which the SMS was sent to me. Suna and Foeta, is this the same number from which you received messages. Please also bring this to the Investigating officer’s attention.”
We were all shocked, worried and obviously upset. Aslam tried to rationalise that the message was “a clear attempt at trying to intimidate us”.
Krivani wanted to know why Suna was being targeted. Everyone agreed that Suna shouldn’t be alone that night. Krivani offered to go and fetch her.
“We have armed response and can get someone to be stationed outside the house,” she wrote. Suna thanked Krivani, but said that she was in a safe place.
Aslam, she said, would phone Krivani, but she suggested that we all speak the next day, when everyone was less emotional. Thandeka also offered her a haven.
The SABC 8 by Foeta Krige
Penguin Random House
R199 at takealot.com
“Hi Suna, we too have a guest area that you are welcome to. I am so sorry that you are being treated like this. I am scared and sad,” she wrote.
In the meantime, Aslam drafted a letter to the SABC’s attorneys, which he sent with our permission.
In it, he mentioned the content of the SMS he had received: “This is particularly concerning as Foeta Krige and Suna Venter have for some time been receiving threatening messages. Suna has also had her flat broken into a few weeks ago and also recently had her car shot at. Foeta and Suna have reported the threats to the police, but the person responsible for the threats has still not been identified and arrested.
“I urge you to request your client to provide bodyguards for Suna.”
We discussed informing the media about the latest development. We decided that the time had come and that publicity would not be a bad idea.
Ending the discussion, Suna thanked “the awesome eightsome” and Aslam, asking, like always at the end of a day, #wereyoubrave?
The days that followed were busy and emotional. As Aslam had no intention of dropping our case, Suna had no option but to spend the rest of the week at my house.
We forwarded the new messages to the police.
After receiving his, Aslam had tried to communicate with the sender, but the phone was switched off.
The police used a specialist company to monitor the number and handset in the hope that the owner would switch it back on. It was a costly operation, paid for from a special fund.
Gerrie updated me twice a day. The phone remained inactive. It was clear that the sender was toying with us.
First, he (or she) asked our lawyer to contact him, but then he disconnected his phone. Gerrie’s messages to the number had also gone unanswered.
After three days, the trace was halted. Two days later, on Tuesday November 8, Aslam received another message from the same number:
12:01 It is not fr u to ask questions, the girl looks nice in black today.you think you can hide her but you cant.drop the case inform the court and the press by noon tomorrow.
It was the most concrete evidence to date that someone from inside the SABC was involved in the threats, as Suna was indeed wearing a black dress that day.
Her work routine took her from her car in the parking lot straight to the second floor of the TV building. Most of her time was spent in an open-plan office or in the studio.
The only real contact with people other than her own team or our neighbouring SAfm colleagues was during the line talk, where we shared the conference room with line managers and specialist desk editors.
It was highly likely that an enforcer or informant in the newsroom was sharing information with the intimidator.
By then we were accustomed to our toxic working environment, where people were too scared to talk openly, especially about editorial decisions.
This, however, was beyond toxic.
That one of our colleagues was not only spying on us, but also aiding and abetting our violent intimidation, was sickening.
The day after Aslam’s noon deadline, I received a call from Suna: “I don’t know whether I should be worried or not, but my car’s brake lights just came on.” She had been driving down Beyers Naudé to her flat to pick up clean clothes and had decided to pull over.
I thought for a moment before replying: “Are your brakes working?”
“Yes, maybe it’s just an electrical fault.”
I was not convinced or about to take chances.
“Or maybe not,” I said. “Is there a garage or tyre place close by? I want you to drive there, slowly.
Don’t get too close to other cars. Let them check your brakes and let me know.”
Ten minutes later, I received a WhatsApp from Suna with a photo of her car, its wheel removed and the brake discs exposed.
The thin pipe that connected the brakes to the control panel was cut. I was not wrong.
I realised that it could become part of the ongoing police investigation. “Get a report,” I instructed her. “Keep the parts. Is it possible that a rock could’ve damaged the pipe or is it a clean cut?”
Her reply left no room for speculation, as not one, but three wheels’ brake sensors had been cut.
Minutes later, I was in my car on my way to pick her up when Suna sent me more photographs, showing the three wheels with their brake sensors severed.
She tried to underplay it by pretending that what had happened was not really serious, and that it should be seen as just another warning.
This was something the police frequently told us: Don’t worry. It’s highly unlikely that those who intimidate you will actually do something.
I believed they were wrong. Breaking into people’s homes and cutting brake sensors constituted actually doing something.
The threats were becoming more tangible, closer, the emotional effects on Suna and my family more severe.
Every ping of my phone elicited a startled response. I constantly checked for new messages.
Even worse, an empty screen evoked a reaction akin to Stockholm syndrome, the victim fearing abandonment by his captor.
Something had to give.