The SABC8 may have been vindicated, but the battle continues

Review: Vivien Horler

The SABC8, by Foeta Krige (Penguin Books)

sabc8I’ve never met Foeta Krige, but I’ve worked with people like him, and I have an idea about the way he operated.

He was an old-school reporter and editor. You covered the news without fear or favour, assembled the facts, spoke to analysts and gave your subject the right of reply.

I cannot imagine what it’s like to be called to a meeting – as Krige was in 2014 – and told it had been decided the SABC would give no further coverage to the EFF. When Krige protested to Jimi Matthews, head of TV news, that this sort of order was reminiscent of the years of apartheid censorship, Matthews exploded: “Don’t you talk to me about apartheid. You people, what did you do to change things?”

In May 2016 the COO of the SABC, the infamous Hlaudi Motsoeneng, announced that 90% of the music played on the corporation’s 18 radio stations would be local. Greeted at first with derision, this order is believed to have lost the corporation around R200 million in advertising, as listeners tuned in to other radio stations.

In the same month, not long before the local government elections of that year, the news teams were told they could no longer report on any violent protests. This posed an immediate dilemma for reporters and their editors: “How do you know when to send out a news team if you receive reports of unrest? Do you go and observe, and then only report when there is no violence or destruction? … Should we still send out reporters and cameras to scenes of violence, but just leave out the footage when compiling the news bulletins? If you are covering a peaceful protest that turns violent, should you pack up and leave?”

Krige responded to the ban by inviting Franz Kruger, the head of Wits University’s journalism department, and Tim du Plessis, a former editor at Media24, to take part in a news discussion programme on the subject. Afterwards Motsoeneng read Krige the riot act, accusing him of giving publicity to people from rival news organisations.

When Krige inquired as to what research had prompted his decision, Motsoening responded: “I do not believe in research. You must defend the organisation. No journalist is independent. The COO has the final responsibility for news.”

Matthews, who was present, told Krige that if he didn’t like the situation, he could leave, adding: “You’ve got two choices: the door or the window.” Krige writes: “The fact that we were on the 27th floor did not escape me.”

Back at his desk Krige decided Matthews was wrong. “There were not only two options. There was a third: to fight back.”

The story of the fight-back is the substance of this sobering and often frightening book. The fight took its toll on the group who came to be known as the SABC8: Krige, Thandeka Gqubule, Lukhanyo Calata, Krivani Pillay, Busisiwe Ntuli, Jacques Steenkamp, Vuyo Mvoko and Suna Venter.

Some were suspended, some were fired, and life for all became extremely difficult. Venter, in particular, was targeted by shadowy figures, having her tyres slashed, her brakes interfered with, being shot at, and having her home broken into on several occasions. Never physically robust, she died of stress-related heart problems in June 2017, aged just 32. On her arm she had a tattoo reading: “Were you brave?”

Eventually, although too late for Venter (and for Steenkamp who is now working in New Zealand), the SABC8 were vindicated and following a parliamentary inquiry Motsoeneng’s policy was reversed and he lost his job. But to this day the news about the SABC is not good.

On Friday August 23 William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, noted for the Daily Maverick that the broadcaster was important “because it is still the dominant source of news and information for the majority of South Africans. It is one of few media that speaks to the majority of people in their own language, reflects them and their identities and stories across the greatest regional diversity”.

He said there were signs the SABC was rebuilding itself, and the changes could be seen in the quality of news. “In our last elections analysis, five of the top 10 media performers in the election period were SABC services. An astonishing achievement given the hole they were in under previous fascist management – just three short years ago.”

But the government was not coming to the party. On July 10 minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said the government would provide a portion of the interim relief needed by the SABC within 10 days, “and the remaining balance within the next 45 days”.

But by August 23, a total of 30 days had passed without any sign of any portion of the bail-out.

Bird wrote: “We had hoped that when the fascists and liars who were running the show left, and with a new minister and president who had watched the SABC being hollowed, abused and corrupted, that they would be first in line to support any move being made to rebuild. Perhaps they are and we just don’t hear about it, but, from where we sit outside, it looks as though every positive effort is met by indifference or resistance.”

The battle, it would seem, is by no means over.

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