The Way We Were: The Unknown SABC Story Part II

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 second 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.

The Way We Were …

Fellow Canadian trainer Dan David and I have been warned that some of the journalists in our workshops are spies for Military Intelligence. We know that all of them, black and white, to some degree have been collaborators in — and apologists for — the apartheid state.

Our job, as we see it, is to help turn these SABC journalists from state broadcasters serving the government to public broadcasters serving the people.

One of them tells us wryly “… all you have to do is change us from fascists to democrats in a few short weeks.” She laughs.

Nobody else laughs.


Dan David and I sit in an auditorium crowded with SABC journalists, black and white. They’re preparing to cover the election.

It will be South Africa’s first democratic election after three hundred and forty two years of white fascism and abuse. These journalists have never covered a democratic election. Few seem to know what democracy is.

Two smooth-talking white men in cheap suits try to sell the group bulletproof jackets. It’s like an obscene Tupperware party. Except that every journalist in the room knows three colleagues have already been killed covering the run-up to the election.

And the odds are that over the next couple of months before election day, some of the journalists sitting here this evening will also die on a story.

The salesmen proudly show off a selection of jackets.

They claim the cheapest (21 layers of Kevlar) will protect against bullets from most handguns. The next will handle 9-mm ammunition. The most expensive jacket has a ceramic insert and, they boast, will likely stop an AK-47. From rioters or what is known here ironically as “security forces.”

It depends, apparently, on how many times you’re shot.

And how close you are to the gun.

A reporter worries if she wears one of the jackets in the townships she’ll be mistaken for a cop or a soldier — which is not a good idea in the townships. No problem, says the salesmen, you can get the jackets in white or pastel if you like. Maybe pink. With tear-off Velcro MEDIA patches.

A few people laugh.

The questions are practical. How much do the jackets weigh? How hot are they? What makes them better than the old flak jackets? Somebody asks, not too seriously, how they’ll protect his head?

They won’t, says the salesman. You have to learn to duck. Fast.

Nobody laughs.

They know.

And it isn’t funny.

This is basic Election Coverage preparation for SABC journalists.


There is an old African saying: if you take something important away from a people you must replace it with something of value.

To these SABC journalists, job security has always been most important. As long as they do what they’re told, their jobs are safe and they don’t have to think.

It works this way — South African politicians tell SABC managers who tell SABC producers who tell SABC editors who tell SABC reporters what to cover and how to cover it.

The journalists don’t have to see and speak for themselves. They’re not responsible for their stories. They do what they’re told.

By now, however, all of them know the apartheid regime is dying. The ANC will take power within months. The ANC thinks differently from their present masters.

So they have a choice. They can stay secure. They can try to keep their jobs by doing what they think the new ANC government will want. That way they’ll remain servants of the state. Just serve different masters.

Or they can risk their jobs by behaving like real journalists, honestly reporting what they see, hear and believe to be the truth. That way, they’ll be servants of the people.

We tell them you either guard the free marketplace of ideas or you poison it. We tell them free and honest journalism is the shining jewel of democracy. Without it, there can be no democracy.

Dan David puts it simply. They’re either whores for the state or servants of the people. There’s no middle ground. They have to make a choice.

We tell them the reward for making the honourable choice — giving up job security to serve the people — is something of great value. We tell them it’s the only way they’ll be able to respect themselves as journalists. And it’s the only way foreign journalists will respect them.

We tell them the price is worth paying.

It’s easy for Canadians to say.


Nelson Mandela comes to the SABC building for an election rally. It’s 32 long years since he was thrown into prison for treason. It is just five years since he walked out of Victor Verster Prison, clenched fist raised in victory, basking in the warm sun of freedom.

Everywhere, journalists and technicians and drivers and cleaners and cooks and even a few managers leave their jobs, abandon desks and machines, stream towards the meeting. For the first time since we get here, the face of the SABC is mostly black and joyous.

Mandela gets up on the platform in front of the crowd and looks out at the faces trusting him, needing him, and great waves of hope and love and respect flow between the old man and his people.

He stands on the platform in front of all the people who’ve served apartheid so faithfully for so long, who now want so very much from him, and tells them apartheid is dead.

And suddenly there’s a new light and a new truth in the faces of the people working in this place of lies. They chant “viva” and “viva … Mandela … viva” and “amandla (power)”.

And fists come up in salute because now they know the new light and the new truth are theirs for certain.

Mandela speaks slowly, deliberately, carefully, like a headmaster rallying the school at assembly. When he’s president, he promises, no more censorship, no more government rule. The SABC’s time as an arm of government propaganda is over.

He says the words everyone wants to hear. Words about hope and change and freedom and a new South Africa. But as he must, he warns against expecting too much too soon.

And there’s a threat, a hint of steel, when he warns the white men who run the SABC that their time as servants of apartheid is over, that the SABC must become part of the new, democratic, non-racial South Africa.

In the future the public broadcaster must serve the people. All the people.

The journalists around Dan David and me in this mass of people listen carefully, sensitive for codes and ambiguities. They may not be real journalists, but they certainly know the language of politicians.

Back in the circle of the workshop everyone, black and white, agrees that Mandela means what he says. But almost everyone is sceptical that he can deliver.

Just like the last government, they predict, the next government will want to control the SABC’s journalism.

Whether Mandela wants it or not.

After a while, it will likely be just like before.


In the next and last chapter of this three-part series, The Way We Were … toyi toyi down Rockey Street with an SABC Director and “The Truth Shall Make You Free.”

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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