The Way We Were: The Unknown SABC Story Part III

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 organizing 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 last of three parts — is how he saw the start of the project.

The Way We Were …

Things change fast in South Africa.

By the end of the first three weeks of democratic journalism workshops you can tell the difference. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s there.

SABC’s journalists are starting to think for themselves.

Their journalism is more honest, less institutional. Stories are more objective, more professional. There are, thank god, fewer white guys in suits or military uniforms in their stories.

And there’s something else. Something wildly different in this place. The buzz, the excitement, of freedom is in the air. You can smell it, taste it, feel it in the newsrooms, the editing rooms, the hallways and the cafeteria.
Democracy is struggling to be born.

Things change fast in South Africa.

SABC’s high command decides to cancel a fairly hard-hitting Sunday evening Current Affairs programme called Agenda. They’re going to replace it with an entertainment programme.

The journalists revolt. All but three of the entire news division, women and men, white and black, sign a petition refusing to accept the decision. They threaten to take the fight all the way to the SABC’s Board of Directors.

Their courage touches the heart. These people have nowhere to go if they’re fired. Nobody in the world hires tainted SABC propagandists.

The bosses back down.

The rebels win.

Agenda stays on Sunday nights.

Johannesburg’s Rockey Street is alive, noisy, crowded, sexy. Like Toronto’s Queen Street. Or Manhattan’s Broadway. Or London’s Carnaby Street. Except that almost everyone is shades of dark and people laugh out loud because life is sweet and, who knows, tomorrow maybe you’re dead.

You can smell the energy, feel the hot, sensual, seductive hand of freedom touching people on the street, in the funky, slutty bars and restaurants.

One hot and scented night when the jacaranda trees flower and people kill each other all over South Africa because freedom is coming too fast or too slow, fellow Canadian trainer Dan David and I are taken out to dinner on the patio of a trendy restaurant.

Our hosts are four South Africans who secretly came to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Canada the previous year for training in democratic journalism and got all excited and went home to start something called the Public Broadcasting Initiative (PBI).

The PBI’s stated, open objective from the beginning is to overthrow the apartheid regime at the mighty, monolithic SABC.

No more. No less.

These PBI people know no fear. They’ve fought apartheid for years, risked their careers and their lives for the cause and are, without doubt, more than somewhat crazy.

The first thing they do when they get home from Canada is start a very public fuss because the government appoints the SABC’s Board of Directors and fills it with lackeys of apartheid.

Within months the SABC surrenders. Now, public hearings are held to decide who runs the Corporation. Today, there are a few black people and brown people and even women on the SABC’s Board of Directors.

The PBI crazies’ second battle is to persuade the SABC to invite foreign trainers to South Africa before the election to teach its journalists democratic journalism.

PBI wins that one too.

Which is where Dan David and I come in.

The PBI crazies take us to dinner.

Sylvia Vollenhoven is there. Passionate and intelligent, dazzling, urgent, incredibly honest, the colour of milk chocolate. She speaks of the new South Africa like a mother talks of the child she carries.

And Amina Frense, adviser to Nelson Mandela. Wise, gentle, reserved, sardonic, impenetrable. A diplomat who understands the power of discretion, of subtlety.

And David Niddrie, the strategist, the politician, the wily chess player who thinks nine moves ahead of most people and fifteen moves ahead of SABC mandarins.

And John Matisonn. Smart as hell, pale, white-shirted, grey-trousered, black-shoed like a middle-rank bank manager. Rubbing his hands together with religious delight as he describes one more in his endless list of wonderful ways to screw the SABC fascists and free the journalists to free the people.

We talk of journalism and the future and hope and freedom and democracy. And the incredible generosity of black South Africans who, after 342 years of slavery are willing to share power with the slave owners.

“I don’t understand”, I say.

“It’s African democracy” Sylvia tells me. “Traditionally we believe you don’t own things — you share things. Africans are never alone. We are all of us part of each other. We share. So now we share with whites.”

She shrugs.

It’s an African thing.

I wouldn’t understand.

We go back to eating and drinking and plotting strategy and telling stories and laughing together.

Tsepo Khumbane joins us out of nowhere. She’s plump, sixtyish, dressed in traditional robes, laughing at life because she is a simple black woman from the bush who fought for black dignity and women’s dignity. And suddenly she’s a very important member of the SABC’s new Board of Directors.

When we leave, early into the next morning, Tsepo Khumbane and John Matisonn and Sylvia Vollenhoven and Amina Frense and David Niddrie and Dan David and I toyi-toyi down Rockey Street singing freedom songs. Strangers smile and step aside to let us though.

And some dance with us.

I never did toyi-toyi down any street back home with any of the terminally important Directors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Things change fast in South Africa.

A few assessments written after the workshops by SABC journalists, black and white, female and male:

  • Journalists are (now) workers for the people, not the state.
  • With all that I have received, I am going to challenge others and persuade them to get on the move.
  • It has awakened in me that part of a journalist which is perhaps the most important — the right and ability to question.
  • I am now going to do all in my power to do my best, to try my hardest and in that way serve my corporation and most importantly my country.
  • I felt privileged to be treated as an honourable journalist.
  • Apart from being of enormous value, the course was both mentally and emotionally fulfilling. It was really powerful stuff.
  • It unleashed feelings and needs which had been tucked away. Perhaps because that was the only way to survive in the SABC.
  • The course gave me my very first opportunity to practise democracy in the SABC. THANK YOU SO MUCH.

It’s late one evening after a training seminar behind the tank traps at SABC headquarters.

The SABC’s Executive Editor, Christo Kritzinger, the man who runs the Corporation’s day-to-day TV journalism, drives Dan David and me back to our hotel.

Kritzinger is directly responsible for the SABC’s role as government propagandist. People say he’s also a high-ranking member of Military Intelligence.

We drink beer and talk tiredly of journalism and politics and sport until out of nowhere — as easily as if he’s claiming membership in the Rotary Club — Kritzinger tells us that until he quit recently he was a member of the Broederbond.

That’s the fascist, all-powerful-all-male-all-white, Afrikaner secret society which designed apartheid and, in effect, runs South Africa.

A few days later, just before we return to Canada, Kritzinger hands me a note:

Journalism is indeed a cause.
And our loyalty is to the people.
The most honest of all professions.
Thank you for reminding us.
St. John was right.
“The Truth Shall Make You Free.”

Things change fast in South Africa.

Shortly after Dan David and I leave South Africa, Christo Kritzinger takes early retirement from the SABC. He dies a short time later.

And in its July, 1994, edition Southern Africa Report runs this story about Kritzinger’s boss, the man who introduced me at the senior manager’s meeting when I arrived:

Johan Pretorius, 49, South African Broadcasting Corporation TV News editor-in-chief, has announced his retirement from the Corporation after 180 members of (the SABC’s News Department) handed senior executive Zwelakhe Sisulu a petition expressing lack of confidence….

There is nothing — absolutely nothing — more exciting that watching democracy struggle to be born.

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.