SATURDAY PROFILE | Sanef chair Sbu Ngalwa: ‘Not all Independent Media staff agree with owner’

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Newzroom Afrika's politics editor Sbu Ngalwa.
Newzroom Afrika's politics editor Sbu Ngalwa.
Screengrab, YouTube

The man who was born in the rural Eastern Cape - who became the political editor of one South Africa’s largest news channels, and now the new Sanef chairperson - Sbu Ngalwa, says a solution has to be found for the bleeding of journalism jobs in the country, and that Independent Media's stance is hurting the self-regulation of the industry. 

Sibusiso 'Sbu' Ngalwa, the new chairperson of the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) and Newzroom Afrika’s political editor, is a good guy. And he says his desire is to include everyone in Sanef - even those who criticise it. 

Ngalwa, who seems like the popular guy wherever he goes, says the door is wide open for the Independent Media group to rejoin Sanef, as well as the South African Press Council.

Sanef, a non-profit association of senior South African journalists and editors dedicated to press freedom, and the Press Council and Press Ombud, which regulate and issue corrections to South African media, operate independently from one another. 

Independent Media, which owns a number of prominent news titles - including the Cape Times, the Star, the Mercury and IOL - left the official self-regulatory system of South African media, the Press Council and Press Ombud, in 2016.

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At the time, the company heavily criticised the council for refusing to reintroduce a waiver clause to the Press Code which forced complainants to the ombud to relinquish their right to institute civil proceedings against media houses. 

The council maintained the waiver could be successfully challenged in court. 

Ngalwa says the company operating outside of the Press Council - to which membership is voluntary - and establishing its own ombud process has dealt a blow to the self-regulation of news media in South Africa. 

He says: 

The danger in having a stance like Independent’s is that what it does is that it makes it easy for politicians to want to raise that very question, and it's a valid question, to say: 'Who holds you accountable, if not all of you and a part of this regulatory regime of the press ombudsman and the press council and not subscribing to that.'

Ngalwa, who hails from the Eastern Cape, started his journalism career at Independent Media’s Sunday Tribune newspaper in Durban in 2003. 

"So, I think that that's why we constantly try to engage with colleagues, and relationships are dynamic. And I do not actually believe that that door is closed; that that door is closed forever. 

"And I think that, perhaps, Covid-19 may prove to all and sundry that we actually need each other more than we realise."

Sbu Ngalwa (Twitter)
Sbu Ngalwa (Twitter)

Shaking his head, Ngalwa says he believes there is still a lot of support within Independent to rejoin the Press Council. 

He says: 

The owner might have felt a particular way. But I do not believe, actually, that the staff and the reporters, even the editors of independent are... one block that actually believe that they should not be part of the Press Council.

"You know, these are colleagues. I mean, these are people who we work with... They're our friends. They just happen to work for Independent. But in terms of the ideals that we all hold, they share the same ideals."

Ngalwa, dressed in a crisp blue shirt, was speaking to News24 in a wide-ranging virtual interview from his home in Olivedale, Johannesburg, before his commute to the Newzroom Afrika’s offices. 

Seated on a dining room chair, covered in a bright red, green and white print of leaves and parrots, Ngalwa says he was accepting the role of Sanef chairperson "at a very difficult time". 

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It was during the past few months, during the Covid-19 pandemic, that a number of legendary magazines such as the Drum, ceased their print operations, while media companies announced large scale retrenchments.   

Ngalwa, who was the editor of The Daily Dispatch newspaper in the Eastern Cape before he joined news broadcaster Newzroom Afrika, says he has first-hand experience of the print industry’s decline and the financial challenges facing journalism. 

He says: 

As a former newspaper editor, I know that every manco (management committee) meeting on a Wednesday is actually a stressful one, because you compare year-on-year. And you always know that your figures for the current year will always be less than the previous year.

"It's just a matter of arresting that decline. You know that you might get a spike, depending on what the story is. But the reality is, that's where it's going. It's just like what Covid-19 has done. It's just, kind of, exacerbated that decline."

Sbu Ngalwa (Screenshot)
Sbu Ngalwa (Screenshot)

'Every model has its risks' 

Research has shown, Ngalwa says, that even before Covid-19, the number of journalists in South Africa had halved in 10 years to only 5 000 countrywide in 2019. And more than 700 journalists have lost their jobs this year already. 

Shrugging his shoulders, he says:

I don't think that there's anyone who has a magic wand who can tell us what we should be doing [to address the decline].

"I think we are in that trance where we're trying to make sense of what model would work. I mean that different models... that those who believe that donor funding is the way to go, but not for big companies. 

"You know, it works for some, but not for everyone, but the reality of donor funds is that you'll depend on the benevolence of your funder. If they don't like what you're saying or doing, they may withhold those funds. So, I think every model has its risks."

He says he has always argued that "journalism costs money". 

Ngalwa says: 

It costs money to get those stories. So, for companies to survive, they have to make money. So, the idea of a paywall actually makes perfect sense, in that it's no different from when someone was paying for a newspaper.

Ngalwa, however, admits that the role of journalism has changed in the age of social media, where consumers frequently access their news through Twitter, Facebook or WhatsApp. 

He says: 

Everyone on Twitter is a journalist. I mean, no longer now do you get stories breaking on a news platform, it breaks on Twitter, and then we take it from there. I think, for me, that underlines actually [journalism’s] importance. It doesn't threaten us.

"Twitter is not a threat. You know, but what Twitter [highlights] is the tool that we have, which is verification, you know, giving a context and giving all sides to the story. 

"Especially at the time when you see fake news sites and disinformation, people must be able to distinguish, they must be able to see something on Twitter or Facebook or wherever and say: 'Okay, if it's not on this platform, it is not on this website, which is a credible website, that it must not be true'." 

"So I think, for us, the ground is shifting. But I think, more than anything, it actually is pushing us in a particular direction where we must be able to remain... the credible source of news and to tell the different narratives to connect communities and actually be factual, and you know, be fair and prepare the balance." 

'The example of free-range chicken'

Overall, journalism in South Africa had seen an improvement since the early 2000s when editors would simply ignore sanctions by the Press Ombud, Ngalwa says. 

This despite prominent news titles such as the Sunday Times having to apologise for false reporting which aided the state capture project at state entities such as the South African Revenue Service.  

He says:

You'll recall that, when the ANC emerged from its 2007 conference agitating for the formation of a media tribunal, we stood up and we had to introspect as the media.

"Faced with the threat of the media appeals tribunal, we had to look back and kind of go back to the drawing board in terms of the makeup of the press council having... an appeals panel having retired judges, members of the public, bringing in different sectors to kind of open up this process to make sure that it is as credible as possible and it is as fair as possible." 

He says: 

[We did this] for the politicians to see that there's no need to want to regulate the media.

Sbu Ngalwa (Twitter)
Sbu Ngalwa (Twitter)

The 36-year-old Ngalwa was born in the Eastern Cape close to Butterworth where his father did odd jobs such as driving taxis. He describes his mother as an eternal hustler.

As the second-last born of six children, Ngalwa says his mother tried a "different" approach in raising him, which played a key role in shaping who he is today. 

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"I think she took a conscious decision from the time I was born, where she actually decided that she's going to focus all her energies and raise me. I always like to make the example of free-range chicken: you know, you're free to roam, but there are parameters," Ngalwa, today a father of three himself, says. 

He says:

I think that's very important in my upbringing, because it actually helped me develop my personality, to find my personality and not be confined to the expectations of the parents.

He says, even though he grew up poor, his mother made a point to teach him that no one is ever better than him. 

"But I think the most important thing for me, in how I'm raising my children, is that they must never believe that anyone is better than them. And nothing to do with material possessions." 

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He says he wanted to be a journalist after he heard about a family friend’s son who was paid R1 a word when freelancing for the Daily Dispatch. 

Ngalwa says with a laugh: 

I couldn't believe that you can just write 400 words and get paid R400. I didn’t even get that as pocket money. I thought it sounded like a bargain.

"Initially, I thought I was going to go pursue law. But I think that piqued my interest in journalism." 

He went on to study journalism at the Durban University of Technology, before joining the Sunday Tribune. 

Culture shock

It was there here Ngalwa - who was a teetotaller at the time - says he experienced a culture shock and succumbed to the pressure from a "white" newsroom to start drinking and smoking. 

He has been two years sober this year. 

"I mean, I still walked into a newsroom, which was a largely white newsroom in terms of the narrative... and you know, the kind of stories if you are on the front page… if [the story] was someone in some rural area elsewhere, then you know, where it will end up. It might actually get rejected," he says. 

He says that, if a news room is mostly black or mostly white, "the perspectives that are going to come from there, the lack of diversity shows in the product that you make". 

Sbu Ngalwa (supplied)
Sbu Ngalwa (Supplied)

Aside from his work at Sanef and Newzroom Afrika, Ngalwa is also an avid farmer on a farm he bought in the Eastern Cape in 2017. 

"I was looking for a house, but I ended up buying a farm. And with that, actually, I think it has helped calm me down... You know, it's taught me patience, and work. It's a lot of hard work, but I’m happy to say that I took an abandoned farm and put it back into production." 

At the end of the hour-long interview, Ngalwa says, when he dies one day, he wants to be remembered for making a difference - however small. 

He says smiling: 

I just want to be part of the collective efforts to improve our industry, but also to improve our democracy and make sure that we continue to be a strong pillar.

And, Ngalwa adds, he also wants to be remembered for doing "something good" - as a good guy. 

Because perhaps it takes a collective of good guys, ordinary people doing their part, to improve this world.  

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