Cape Town — In the early hours of the morning of June, 27, 1986, four armed, hooded men burst into the home of South African journalist Zwelakhe Sisulu in the black township of Soweto. Ignoring the pleas of his wife Zodwa and the cries of two terrified young children, the men strong-armed him out of the house and into the darkness.
Although Zwelakhe – who died in his sleep yesterday at age 61 – had been jailed and tortured in the past, the abduction was the most frightening incident so far. His seizure matched the pattern of "death squad" raids on government critics that had been occurring with increasing frequency as popular resistance to apartheid continued to spread. Many of those taken were never seen again; sometimes their bound and mutilated bodies were found.
In the years before Nelson Mandela's 1991 release from prison and the negotiations leading to majority rule, Zwelakhe was among the country's most prominent journalists: the widely respected editor of an independent newspaper; founder of the Media Workers Association of South Africa – a trade union of reporters and news workers; a contributing editor of Africa News Service – the predecessor of AllAfrica; and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. He was also the third son of Albertina and Walter Sisulu, whose life-long struggles against South Africa's white regime had made them anti-apartheid icons.
In the days after his arrest, other journalists staged a sit-in on the steps of police headquarters in Johannesburg's John Vorster Square, and representatives of the Black Sash, an organization of liberal, white women, delivered a daily vase of flowers to the police, asking that it be delivered to Zwelakhe. Each day it was rejected.
Following a week of silence, the government admitted that Zwelakhe was in detention. Two months later he was released, only to be picked up again in December – this time imprisoned under harsh conditions for two years before being released under severe restrictions.
In September 1994, at the age of 45 – four months after the country's historic election – Zwelakhe Sisulu was tapped to head the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), overseeing the operations of three multi-lingual national television services, 23 radio stations broadcasting in 11 languages, a signal distribution company, a private subscription service and some 5000 people in the 36-storey headquarters, and several regional and international bureaus – broadcasting to an audience of about 23 million people.
Despite the euphoria of the post-election period, the clarity of purpose of the anti-apartheid struggle began to erode in the challenges of governing a mineral-rich nation with a yawning gap between rich and poor, defined along rigid racial lines. Zwelakhe's task of shepherding the SABC from state propaganda organ to public broadcaster was both complex and controversial, and his accomplishments there were less appreciated than they will be when the full history of that period is written.
The Group Chief Executive and his colleagues had the task of re-shaping an organization whose former director-general was also head of the Broederbond (the "Brotherhood"), the secret neo-Fascist society to which most top officials of the white government belonged. As late as March 1993, senior management positions were 100 percent white and male and almost all were native speakers of Afrikaans, the language of the country's ruling party. Pay rates for black staff who operated the language services were 15 times less than for whites doing similar jobs.
Changing the culture was a formidable task, but it began to happen. Local programming – drama, comedy, arts and culture – reflecting the country's diversity attracted large audiences. For the first time, the SABC developed a news operation devoted to independent, professional reporting.
When I spent several months observing the transition process up close – with the newly diverse board of directors' approval to attend all meetings and speak to anyone – Zwelakhe made it clear that he did not offer his help in exchange for positive press. "We are not asking you to make us look good," he said, when he introduced me to the board. "What we expect is that you tell the truth about us."
As the first major South African organization to undertake a top-to-bottom transformation, the inevitable stumbles were the stuff of headlines, while considerable achievements were often overlooked. A press unleashed from apartheid controls delighted in criticizing almost everything – often harshly and sometimes without adequate evidence. Fears that white government management had been replaced by black government pressures were widespread, and the Sisulu family's prominence in the African National Congress – it was Zwelakhe's father who had recruited the younger Nelson Mandela to the organization – made Zwelakhe's declarations of independence suspect.
Zwelakhe understood that, and he also recognized that as a former editor of a small, crusading newspaper, he did not have the experience he needed to run a large corporation like the SABC. But neither did anyone else who could have represented the new South Africa.
At times, he told me, the relentless attacks were wearing. "We came in and said, 'We are going to celebrate our journalists. No longer are you going to have management interfering in news. We will not allow a situation where government puts pressure on management or calls the newsroom directly.' This is a major thing in the experience of South African journalism – a major thing! But nobody is acknowledging it."
At that point, he caught himself and laughed. "I sound like a politician. I moan, like they moan, that the good things nobody notices, the bad things get all the attention."
And he was proud that the SABC went through the worst of times – including large-scale budget and staff cuts – without experiencing dead air. An institution in turmoil in a country going through a fragile political transition is vulnerable to both missteps and sabotage. If the SABC had faltered, Sisulu said, there would have been not just institutional but national repercussions. There were times when the nation seemed poised for catastrophe and rumours threatened to incite mass violence, but South Africans could always tune into the SABC and get solid information.
Today's SABC is by most accounts less independent, less vibrant and less respected than the broadcaster of those early years after apartheid. The country's intransigent problems vie with its accomplishments and its powerful potential.
But the role of Zwelakhe Sisulu in demonstrating the promise of an independent media organization – and its crucial role in supporting and sustaining democracy – should not be underestimated. From the beginning, he said, his goal was an SABC that reflected the nation to itself – a canvas upon which the people's fears and hopes could be drawn.
In a profound way, that happened. The broadcaster has mirrored the problems as well as the possibilities of transformation. The distance still to cover before the possibilities outpace the problems is the distance all South Africans must travel.