30 April 2014

South Africa: S'bu and Fikile - Déjà Vu in Freedom Park


'Mbalula denied reports he fled Freedom Park in a bulletproof (vehicle) as stones were thrown at him. On Twitter he called the media reports 'gutter journalism' and claimed his door-to-door campaign was a success.' - Greg Nicolson, "Platinum Belt strike-hit communities turn on the ANC" Daily Maverick 28/4/2014

"Police have had to whisk Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula away in bullet-proof vehicles after an election rally at Freedom Park in North West turned violent." "Mbalula evacuated as N West rally turns violent" - SABC news website 28/4/2014

On Sunday 27 April I watched the SABC's main 7pm TV news bulletin and was encouraged by its report that the Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula had been chased out of Freedom Park, retreating in a hail of stones within the reinforced confines of a police armoured vehicle - encouraged because it normally censors such stories. The visuals started off with Mbalula on a meet-and-greet (handshakes all round!) with a group of mineworkers (it being a key platinum mining town). The report mentioned the miners being disgruntled and the resulting service delivery protests. It then mentioned the stoning of his convoy while showing visuals of the damage, a smashed windscreen or two. Then followed an upsound of Mbalula saying defiantly that no area would be a "no-go" area, indicating that the ANC's election campaign trail would include places where they are not popular.

All of this is also reflected on the SABC news website.

Mbalula's subsequent denial that any of this happened - as reflected on the Daily Maverick website - brought back sad and unpleasant memories of the appalling Snuki Zikalala era and before I elaborate it would be apposite to reflect on Zikalala the man.

He was mentioned in evidence before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a human rights abuser in the notoriously vicious era of camps like Quatro when human rights abuses were common. The evidence of Olefile Samuel Mnqibisa before the TRC on July 25, 1996 in Soweto has never been challenged - still less refuted - and Zikalala's silence condemns him. What is startling but not surprising is that the SABC did not dismiss him after the Mnqibisa evidence became public knowledge through the TRC process. This would not have happened at CNN, the BBC or any other news organisation that requires and expects its reporters to be people of unquestioned integrity and, thus, credibility.

When Max du Preez raised with Zikalala the TRC evidence of Mnqibisa, as Du Preez points out in his book, "Pale Native -Memories of a Renegade Reporter", (Zebra Press, 2008), Zikalala begged him not to mention this in his TV programme on the TRC saying that the testimony of Mnqibisa was untrue and he would give evidence before the TRC to rebut it. The fact that his word is hardly his bond and that he duly reneged on this promise tells you everything you need to know about the man.

Blatantly racist

As Du Preez also pointed out in his book, Zikalala told his black colleagues that it was "symbolically important" to drive whites like himself out of the SABC which he duly did. This is hardly surprising. In an interview, "Snuki-sikelel-iafrika" with Angella Johnson carried in the Mail & Guardian on 17 October 1997, Zikalala made no attempt to hide his hatred of whites. Zikalala also constantly made remarks about seeing, "too many white faces" in the newsroom - a fact which the producer of 50/50, Danie van der Walt, made a matter of record in issue number 143 of the SABC's house magazine, Interkom in September 2000: "Is this the same Zikalala who in the name of transformation walked into a Morning Live studio saying that he is still seeing too many white faces?"

Given the fact that this assertion of naked racism by Zikalala was made by a high-profile producer of a programme that was one of the SABC's most enduring success stories - in the SABC's own internal house magazine - Zikalala would have been entirely at liberty to seek redress through the courts if Van der Walt had been lying or if Zikalala could prove that there was no substance in the claim. There was no reaction from Zikalala, the board or the SABC as a whole because all the whites in the news department knew about and could bear witness to this routine race-based intimidation - which never happened in the apartheid era when people like Kobus Hamman and Johan Pretorius ran the SABC newsroom. Van der Walt paid the price for blowing the whistle when 50/50 was subsequently taken off the air.

• When Joe Modise, one of the most notoriously corrupt criminals in South Africa's history - read Mnqibisa's TRC evidence or pages 17 - 51 in R W Johnson's "South Africa's Brave New World - The beloved country since the end of apartheid" (Allen Lane 2009) - died, Zikalala was the man chosen by the Modise family to be spokesman because they were confidantes. (Incidentally, so loathed was Modise, that Winnie Madikezela-Mandela refused to attend his funeral and opted to attend the funeral of Marike de Klerk, murdered wife of F W de Klerk that was held on the same day.)

Why is this relevant to Mbalula scuttling away from Freedom Park, bleating all the while about 'gutter journalism.'?

Ignominious retreat

It is entirely relevant because, during the Mbeki era when Zikalala held vicious and hubristic sway at the state broadcaster, exactly the same scenario unfolded on 16 June 2005 when KZN Premier S'bu Ndebele fled a rally in KwaMashu and, just as Mbalula denies his undignified exit from Freedom Park now, so did Ndebele then. The only difference is that this time the SABC reported the Freedom Park attack on Mbalula by aggrieved voters openly and honestly both on its TV news bulletin and on its website and that needs to be both emphasised and commended.

Here is what Judge Neels Claassen said of Ndebele's ignominious retreat and of Zikalala's shameful role in this incident on pages 13 and 14 of his judgment delivered in the South Gauteng High Court on 24 January 2011

Mr Mandla Zembe was a young and highly talented SABC reporter who covered an ANC rally at a stadium in KwaMashu on the outskirts of Durban on 16 June 2005. Drama was expected because it was two days after President Mbeki had dismissed Deputy President Zuma from his cabinet. The KwaZulu-Natal Premier Mr S'bu Ndebele addressed the rally but was booed and pelted with plastic bottles and other objects. He found it hard to complete his speech. At the end he had to be escorted from the podium by his bodyguards who held a metal table over him to protect him against the missiles pelted at him. Mr Zembe filed stories on this incident throughout the day.

Just after the 6pm news bulletin, Dr Zikalala called (radio news editor) Ms (Pippa) Green and instructed her to institute disciplinary proceedings against Mr Zembe the following day. When she asked why, he replied that he was in the TV "visuals room" and there was no evidence that the Premier had been booed or pelted. Mr Green called Mr Zembe to check the story and he confirmed that it was accurate.

Only a few seconds of the mayhem was shown on the 7pm English television news bulletin.

The Premier arrived at the SABC and demanded to be given airtime to deny that he had been pelted. He was allowed to do so on a current affairs show and was again given "considerable airtime" on the I0pm television news bulletin despite the fact that his denials were manifestly false.

When Mr Zembe returned to his newsroom, he found the Premier's armed bodyguards walking around the newsroom in intimidating fashion.

Ms Green says that this incident violated the SABC's Editorial Code in that its reporter Mr Zembe was intimidated not only by the Premier's bodyguards but by the MD of news himself who threatened him with a disciplinary hearing for reporting the truth.

The substantial airtime given to the Premier "also served to distort the truth of what happened".

In my view this uncontroverted evidence establishes that Dr Zikalala also interfered with the news coverage of this incident.

A young talent, driven out

It is common cause that Ndebele, thereafter, humiliated Zembe at news conferences resulting in yet another promising young journalist leaving the state broadcaster in despair because there was no place for honest journalism in the SABC at that time and because the ANC lackey, Zikalala, never made the slightest effort to protect him.

(NB: There is no evidence that, during the apartheid era any National Party politician ever invaded any SABC newsroom accompanied by armed bodyguards to threaten reporters - perhaps SABC spin doctor Kaizer Kganyago would care to comment.)

Earlier in this article I mentioned that Mbalula's denial brought back sad memories and this relates to the person who was on duty that night in Auckland Park as news editor in the SABC's TV news department.

The late Veronica van der Westhuizen told me of how the frightened Zembe phoned her about the threatening and thuggish attitude of Ndebele and his goons. She told him to stay on the line so that she could bear audio testimony to this shameful but typical ANC act of intimidation.

She was also the Sunday night TV news editor on another story relating to President Thabo Mbeki's embedded mole at the state broadcaster, Snuki Zikalala.

In late January 2005 an extensive preview was broadcast in the evening TV news bulletin about a leprosy conference taking place in Johannesburg. Because of this, Van der Westhuizen told me at the time, she did not diarise the fact that the then health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, was delivering a speech at the conference the next morning.

Big mistake

The Minister phoned Zikalala and demanded coverage, a demand that the craven Zikalala hastened to obey. Van der Westhuizen's testimony directly contradicts what the Corporation's spokesman, Paul Setsetse said at the time about the story being diarised.

She left the SABC, despite the financial loss this meant to her because, as a person of integrity she could not reconcile what was happening on the watch of people like Zikalala and board member Christine Qunta with her perception of what ethical news gathering and dissemination meant and required.

In particular this related to the fact that the SABC was not using its incomparable influence and reach to ameliorate the HIV/Aids pandemic and because it was not questioning the policy of President Thabo Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang to deny people who had contracted the disease access to anti-retroviral medication. Her concerns were vindicated by a Harvard University study which attributed the death of a third of a million people to this policy.

She joined the SABC's Sea Point news office as a graduate of the Pentech journalism department in 1988 and immediately showed promise. She then moved to Auckland Park and showed not just talent but great bravery in her coverage of political violence on the East Rand before the 1994 election.

I think she regarded me as both mentor and friend because when she applied to become a Nieman fellow in 2009 she asked me to give her a reference and this is what I wrote: It was while covering the violence that characterised the dying days of white political rule in the late eighties that she made a name for herself in what became a low-key civil war as two contending parties, the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party, sought to dominate the political landscape. This period was summed up in the book, "The Bang-bang Club: The Making of the New South Africa" by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva (Arrow Books, 2001) and she distinguished herself with her bravery and willingness to continue reporting under fire and in a situation where dozens of people, including news photographer, Ken Oosterbroek, lost their lives.

I was in daily contact with her from Cape Town when she headed the input desk in Johannesburg and I came to appreciate her acumen and ability to quickly assess situations and take decisions. She is personable and a team player and has the rare ability to maintain discipline among subordinates while retaining their respect.

I have no doubt that she is a worthy contender for the singular honour of studying at Harvard, that she will, while there, be an ambassador for her country and, thereafter, that she will be an alumnus who reflects and promotes the values and norms of the institution.

It was not a 'golden age'

She did not, unfortunately, make the cut and I was devastated when she phoned in late 2011 to say that she had terminal cancer. Her voice broke as she said she was worried about how her two sons would cope. At the time she was the Regional Editor of Die Son newspaper and based in Port Elizabeth.

She was buried in the town where she was born and grew up, Oudtshoorn, and her journalism colleagues were among the pall bearers.

The Mbeki propagandists at the SABC failed to read the mood of the people and paid the price after the Polokwane Putsch.

Hopefully the way in which the SABC has exposed Mbalula's Freedom Park lies indicates that the news staff are fighting back against the Motsoeneng cabal.

I miss Veronica van der Westhuizen but I do not miss the architects of the SABC's demise during that terrible Mbeki era that the Democratic Alliance now tries to rose-tint.

They left, reviled by the nation with Zikalala, typically, blaming the whites.

Will Freedom Park come to symbolise a new freedom at the state broadcaster?

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