The Way We Were: The Unknown SABC Story

Exploring our Journalism Heritage

It’s early 1994. Twenty years ago.
South Africa’s first-ever democratic election is only four months away. And the SABC finally admits it has a serious problem.
There’s no way it can cover the 1994 election and be believed.
That’s because most South Africans, along with the entire democratic world, despise the SABC as mouthpiece of the apartheid government — which is both organising the voting and itself running for re-election.
How, then, as the state broadcaster, can it provide believable news coverage?
Very reluctantly, the Corporation invites in foreign experts to train its journalists in the ways of democratic journalism.
Tim Knight, head of TV journalism training for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), led the first team of outside trainers.
This — the first of three parts — is how he saw the start of the project. Understanding the History of our Craft, how we got here, is essential for effective storytelling.

SABC

The Way We Were …

Johannesburg, South Africa, 1994: Buildings reflect the ideas and values of the people and organisations that erect them.

This building is clearly designed to keep ideas and values out. Dangerous, alien ideas and values. Like truth and democracy and integrity and common decency.

Massive pillars built to stop invaders — even tanks – guard the entrance.

A sign orders us to leave firearms and explosives at the reception desk. We carry no firearms or explosives. Only ideas and values.

Should we declare ideas and values?

Bags, wallets, keys pass through a metal detector. Guards armed with automatic rifles watch us like jackals watch rabbits.

More guards, through a turnstile, and we’re inside.

Welcome to the Johannesburg headquarters of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

Welcome to the voice of apartheid.

It’s four months before South Africa’s first-ever democratic election.

__________

I’m taken to meet the senior SABC-TV News managers. They sit around a long, polished, teak table. All of them men. All of them middle-aged to elderly. All but one of them very white.

The one who isn’t white is so close to white he might as well be white.

Boss of it all is SABC-TV journalism’s Editor-in-Chief, Johan Pretorius. All pink and smooth and unctuous. He got the job as the SABC’s chief journalist as a reward for being spokesman, flack, and apologist for the apartheid regime of former President P.W. Botha (known without affection, as The Big Crocodile.)

Pretorius introduces me around.

I study the faces at the table as he describes their jobs, flatters the trainer from Canada, and lies about the SABC’s newfound devotion to honest journalism.

These are hard men. Masked, cold Afrikaner men. These are the men who feed the great lie of apartheid. These are the men who believe the Afrikaner has a covenant with God; that God gave the Afrikaner this land and decreed that black people would be their servants — hewers of wood and drawers of water — until the end of time.

Pretorius admits the SABC has problems. He makes it sound as if they’re someone else’s problems. He talks of the need to “regain” believability. Nobody smiles.

His voice is soft, worried, distant. The Corporation needs help, he says vaguely. The introductions end. There’s a long pause.

I ask politely “thank you for inviting us, gentlemen. How can we help?”

They’re confused. Where are the lectures on the blatant evils of apartheid? Where are the obligatory, righteous, holier-than-thou attacks on SABC’s propaganda? Even though they’re top managers, these people aren’t used to being consulted.

They just do what they’re told.

They like just doing what they’re told.

I start at the end of the table and ask the same question of each manager. How can we help? Reluctantly each answers, admits change is necessary now the elections are near, and puts himself on record in front of his colleagues.

For the next few hours I walk the managers through our training plan. The Canadians will teach storytelling — story structure, story focus, writing, interviewing and on-camera performance.

But underlying everything will be a strong and constant focus on telling the truth. On journalism as public service. On journalism serving the people, not the powerful. I take less than an hour to describe the plan for each of the craft skills. Democratic journalism takes two hours.

At the end of the meeting, I go around the table again.

“Any problems?” I ask each of them. “Any problems?”

Nobody has a problem he wants to talk about. At least, not in this room. Not in front of the boss. Not in front of his peers. So none of them question the virtues, the righteousness, the inevitability of the revolutionary, democratic change coming to South African journalism.
Now all we Canadian trainers have to do is persuade the journalists that they’re servants of the people, not the powerful.

sabc-test-patten

Old friend and training colleague, Dan David, joins me from Canada.

Dan is Mohawk from Kanehsatake, Québec. I’m South African-Canadian, born in England. We’re the colonised and the coloniser. Already, South Africans find us a very odd couple.

We argue. What if we train the SABC journalists to write better and perform better and interview better and tell news stories better? And what if they turn around and use the training to push better apartheid propaganda?

What if we’re collaborators in the evil apartheid system?

Neither of us knows the answer so we go downstairs to the bar and drink excellent South African beer for the rest of the evening.

__________

 
Desks and chairs in the training room are arranged in respectful rows, like a classroom, facing the main table. Dan David looks at it all, says the Mohawk way — a circle, with everyone equal — is better. The trainees look puzzled but politely push the desks around until we have a circle.

Three quarters of these journalists are white. In this country, at this time, whites still talk the talk and walk the walk of unquestioned God-given superiority and authority.

I ask them what hours they want to work. Nobody answers. They look at each other, confused.
A white reporter who lives in nearby white Rosebank finally says “no problem.” He can work whatever hours we want.

A black reporter from Soweto says shyly “it is good to get this sort of respect.” Then she explains the problem of getting her children to and from school and catching a bus or sharing a taxi to get from her township to the SABC and back. All without getting caught up in township or police violence.

We agree on hours to suit the people from Soweto.

Dan David asks the group “what do you want out of these training workshops?”

The quiet lasts forever.

Nobody has ever asked them questions like these before. Whatever your rank at the SABC, you don’t make decisions for yourself. You do what you’re told.

We wait. And slowly, slowly the closed, guarded faces change and people start to talk. First the whites. Then the blacks. Mostly, they have questions.

Who decides what the story’s about? Reporter or desk editor?

What happens if the bosses don’t agree with a journalist’s story?

What’s the role of the journalist in a democracy?

Can foreign journalists report what they actually see and hear? Or must they report what they’re told to report?

They complain about foreign journalists who despise SABC reporters as government whores and won’t talk to them — won’t even share lights on location shoots. They say they want to be respected as real journalists.

By afternoon we’re starting at the beginning.

Discussing democracy.

__________

 

In the next chapter of this three-part series, The Way We Were … SABC journalists shop for bullet-proof jackets and Nelson Mandela campaigns for votes at the SABC.
The Way We Were … is adapted from a chapter in Tim Knight’s excellent book on broadcast journalism, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition.

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