A few months before this spring’s South African elections, a young radio reporter with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) went to Upington, a remote town sandwiched between the Kga-lagadi desert and the Orange River in the Northern Cape. She went there to interview Evelina de Bruin, an elderly woman who’d received a brick house from the government through its housing program.

In the 1980’s, de Bruin had been internationally famous as one of the oldest people sentenced to death in South Africa, accused in the “common purpose” murder of a black policeman at the height of the apartheid era violence. Poor and illiterate, she happened to be in the area at the time this policeman was murdered, and for that she was sentenced to death, along with her husband and 12 others. Three years later, their death sentences were commuted, and eventually the “Upington 14,” as they were known, were freed from jail.

Now de Bruin was getting her first house. It would be the first place she’d ever lived with running water indoors and electricity. Our reporter interviewed her about this and about the huge changes in her life since her lonely, bewildering spell on death row more than a decade ago. When her story was submitted to one of our radio current affairs’ programs, our reporter received a sharply worded note from the show’s producer: “You must wake up! Its election time. Everybody’s getting houses.”

The comment struck me as inappropriately political. Was it the job of radio reporters to focus more extensive coverage on the local government official tasked with handing out the new house, built as part of the South African government’s ambitious public housing program? Even more striking to me was this producer’s failure to recognize the great human story behind the far more obvious government angle. Here was an elderly domestic worker who was nearly executed by the apartheid government and living in the same township that was the scene of the tumult that led to her trial, being handed the keys to a tiny brick house.

Transforming the SABC

Such editorial decision-making is part of the challenge of operating South Africa’s biggest news medium, the public broadcaster’s radio news service. It evokes the very similar challenges confronting many South African news organizations and journalists today: the need to search for narratives to portray and explain the enormity of change during the first decade of democracy without being a mouthpiece of the government.

At Radio News and Current Affairs, a division of SABC that I have headed for the past two years, our scope is vast. We broadcast news and current affairs in 11 official languages and in two languages of the indigenous San communities in the Northern Cape. We broadcast some 35 hours of current affairs each day on 13 public broadcast radio stations and about 240 bulletins daily for 16 radio stations. We also manage 10 newsrooms across the country. Our reach is significant both in terms of our reporters dotting every corner of the country and in our vast audience of 15 to 18 million listeners. The biggest newspaper in South Africa, by contrast, has a readership of about three million.

Apart from keeping this ship going, our greatest challenge is to construct a culture of journalism that can break decisively with the broadcaster’s past when it was the voice of the state. Efforts to establish high journalistic standards for the SABC remain at the heart of an internal political debate. Allister Sparks is an accomplished South African journalist who wrote in his book, “Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa,” that “transforming the SABC has been one of the most challenging and frustrating tasks in the new South Africa. For 45 years this giant broadcasting monopoly dominated the airwaves as an explicit and unashamed propaganda machine [of the apartheid state].”

When South Africa’s political leaders negotiated the transition from apartheid to democracy in the early 1990’s, the first and most urgent task was to reform the state broadcast media into a public broadcaster. Without taking this step, the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela, acknowledged there could be no free or fair elections. Amid great political controversy, a new board of directors of the SABC was appointed in 1993, a year before the first democratic elections. And the news service, encompassing both television and radio news, was guaranteed certain legal protections ensuring editorial independence.

Pressures Journalists Confront

But the nitty-gritty of that transition has not been easy. The pressures are threefold:

  1. How to reconcile the duties of a public broadcaster with commercial imperatives;

  2. How to distinguish legitimate political pressure on the broadcaster from abuse of power;

  3. How to build a culture of journalism at the public broadcaster to ensure news is credible and interesting.

During the past decade, the SABC has been caught in an uncomfortable contradiction. By law, it carries an onerous public broadcast mandate, yet it relies almost entirely on advertising revenue to cover its costs. The government provides just one percent of the SABC’s annual budget. Its remaining operating funds come from advertising on the more commercial television channels. The SABC runs three terrestrial channels, and those bring in 87 percent of its revenue. Gathering and broadcasting news in any language is expensive; to do so in 13 languages for radio and 11 for TV is particularly costly.

Commercial pressures are a reality for many of our news and current affairs shows, and broadcasters are therefore often pressured to endorse commercial products on air. So far we’ve been able to resist having our broadcasters do straight endorsements, but we’ve agreed to having them announce “sponsorships,” in which they state that the news bulletin or program is being brought to listeners by “such and such a bank,” for example.

Political pressure is more subtle, nothing like it was in time of apartheid. More of a nag than coercion, it comes from politicians in the governing party as well as in the opposition parties. In KwaZulu-Natal, for instance, a fiercely contested province on the eastern seaboard during the recent elections, we fielded complaints daily about coverage or the lack of it. Our news division took over responsibility for the editorial content of a program on our Zulu-language station, Ukhozi FM, in which members of the provincial legislature were interviewed. We did this mainly to ensure that editorial standards of fairness were adhered to in the pre-election period. The politicians were annoyed that journalists, rather than disc jockeys, were now overseeing its content. “Does this mean we can no longer write our own questions?” one asked me.

Perhaps this is progress. In the early 1990’s, before the first democratic elections, some 10,000 people died in political violence in the region. The stakes here remain high, and Ukhozi FM has about seven million listeners. Control and influence of the news on Ukhozi thus became a key target in the battle for votes between the ANC and then-Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s more conservative Inkatha Freedom Party.

Telling a Good Story

The third pressure we face is perhaps the hardest to deal with, but it is key to dealing with the other pressures, commercial and political. It’s pressure we put on ourselves to establish common and decent editorial standards across the breadth of Radio News. Our scope is so big and so diverse and runs in so many languages that it is impossible to control the flow and quality of news by dictate. We’ve tried to establish the obvious journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness, but we need to find ways to combine these standards with the ability to spot and tell a good story.

Why is this so hard? In part, it is because many journalists who work at SABC today once worked for the old state broadcaster. Loyalty to power, wherever it was located, was the key to survival then. So the culture of questioning, of curiosity and wonder that should grip all journalists is often understated, due to a similar phenomenon that grips our print media. Ten years into democracy, many journalists are struggling to redefine their relationship to government. It is not the government of old, easily defined as the enemy. Neither—though many in the cast of characters are the same—are they comrades of old who were on the same side of the barricades as journalists who covered their fight against apartheid.

To cover a democratic government in a developing country—one that has made huge strides in what it delivers to the people but has also been peppered with its own abuses of power—is a complex task. To appreciate its dynamics involves understanding the enormous social transition in the country. In his book, Sparks quotes Joseph Lelyveld, the former executive editor of The New York Times and once a distinguished correspondent in South Africa, asking South African journalists: “You are sitting on one of the truly great stories of our time. What are you doing with it?”

This question remains a central one for today’s public broadcaster journalists. Not only are we the biggest news medium in South Africa, but also we are one of the freer in the subcontinent. If we cannot adhere to high journalistic standards in doing our jobs, we risk being undermined by those in political power who can accuse us of being inaccurate or shallow or irrelevant, and do so with rationale arguments on their side.

It is partly for these reasons that editors at Radio News, in coverage of the run-up to the country’s third democratic elections, decided to systematically look at changes in the country during the past decade by exploring the country, province by province, until we had compiled a week’s series of each of the nine provinces. Our reporters of various languages set out to the furthest reaches of the country, from rural areas to large cities, to find and tell stories of change in the lives of ordinary people. Then their stories were translated into each of the other languages, so those once considered regional could be heard in every corner of the country.

This assignment meant our reporters had to abandon press conferences and turn their microphones away from politicians and towards ordinary South Africans. They had to grapple with statistics and facts so as to be able to convey the big contextual picture before using narrative skills to tell it through the stories of ordinary people. Among them, these reporters told remarkable stories. Here are just a few:

  • A story of a black entrepreneur in a mining town in the North-West province, who has soared to success on the wave of the worldwide platinum boom;

  • A story about how political battles between elected leaders and traditional chiefs in the far north of the country have delayed delivery of piped water;

  • A story of the “Karretjie” people— sheepshearers who live on their donkey carts—from the Northern Cape and how they struggle to send their children to school in the post-apartheid era of compulsory education.

And, of course, there was the story about a woman, once on death row, who is now a homeowner.

Pippa Green, a 1999 Nieman Fellow, is head of Radio News and Current Affairs at the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

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