In the South African winter of 2005, a young broadcast reporter, Mandla Zembe, went to cover a rally for the anniversary of the Soweto uprisings in the eastern seaboard province of KwaZulu-Natal. Two days earlier, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki had dismissed his deputy, Jacob Zuma, after he’d been named in a trial of a businessman as having been involved in a corrupt relationship. Zuma, who is from this province, was a popular guerilla leader in the underground army that fought the apartheid regime and has voluble support in the region.

As the provincial premier spoke, the crowd expressed itself forcefully, pelting him with bottles and other objects. Premier S’bu Ndebele, like all premiers, is appointed by the president, and the crowd now regarded him as Mbeki’s man. They also scrawled Zuma’s name on cars parked at the stadium. Under this barrage, the premier had to be rushed off the stage with his bodyguards protecting him.

Zembe filed hourly reports for the radio news bulletins on all the stations of the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). He reported the story, too, for the SABC’s evening TV bulletins.

At the time, I headed SABC’s radio news service. I spoke to Zembe, one of our best reporters, several times that day as the story developed. About an hour before the main TV news bulletin, a senior SABC manager in Johannesburg called me. He demanded that I "discipline" Zembe for his inaccurate reporting. Premier Ndebele had complained after the radio reports aired, claiming that he had neither been pelted with objects nor driven from the stage. My manager told me he’d promised the premier time on our current affairs show on the Zulu-language station Ukhozi to set the record straight, as well as prime time on TV.

Zembe was badly shaken. As he’d driven out of the stadium through the hostile crowds, his car had been pelted. "You should see my car. It has ‘Zuma’ written all over it," he said. When he had arrived in the newsroom, he’d found armed bodyguards there — and assumed they were the premiers’. They didn’t talk to him, but their presence made him uneasy. That evening someone called to threaten him with death. Even harder for him, he told me, was that he didn’t know what to do because his story was accurate. I advised him to stay with the truth.

The premier used the airtime afforded him to deny that he had been forced to cut short his speech or leave the stadium earlier than planned. The next day newspapers around the country carried pictures of Ndebele leaving the stadium under a metal table that was carried by his bodyguards to shield him from the welter of objects thrown from the stands.

KwaZulu-Natal has always been a hard place for SABC journalists to work. Some three years earlier I’d rushed down to Durban, the province’s capital city, to wrest from the police a tape they had confiscated from a radio reporter. The tape contained an interview with a man who had held his wife hostage over a grievance related to his tow-truck business and alleged police corruption. The police had shot him dead minutes after the interview although he seemed to pose no threat to his wife. Then they had taken our reporter’s tape.

I bristled with righteous anger, but this soon fizzled in the face of truth. The reporter, a veteran from the apartheid era at the SABC, had given the police the tape without protest. This was what he’d done in the past, he said, and had seen no reason why he should not do so now. In sharp contrast to the young, postapartheid Zembe, who had clung to the truth of his story against authority, this reporter was steeped in the art of acquiescence.

The irony: Zembe has since left the SABC; the old reporter is still there.

Clash of Cultures

This profound clash of cultures does not manifest itself only between old and new journalists; there is also a sharp divide between editors and reporters from both eras who are committed to journalism and a cadre of managers, also from both eras, who see the public broadcaster’srole quite differently. This clash is especially keenly felt in the provinces, where the SABC has a vast network of journalists and radio stations that, if robust, can seriously irk local rulers. The instinct of managers in the head office of Johannesburg, and their proxies in the provinces, is often to soothe the feelings of the local big fish.

In one sense this is because the SABC has had a hard time shedding its shoddy past. During the apartheid regime it was, in the words of Allister Sparks, "an explicit and unashamed propaganda machine." Under the new democratic government it has emerged with a much more representative board of directors, as well as legal protection from political interference. Its editorial charter pledges fairness and public service journalism, with a news service that produces news in all 11 official languages plus, in the case of radio news, two other San languages.

Yet the SABC is an organization that continues to make almost as much news as it produces. One reason is this clash between old and new. Another is its contradictory structure and practices: At times in the postapartheid era, the SABC has been run as a professional public news service; at others its operations are impelled by the bottom line (the government funds less than five percent of its running costs) and, at still others, it becomes a political grazing ground for the ruling party faithful. Often these trajectories coincide. But the nub of the problem lies deep in the institutional culture that, despite numerous changes in executive leadership, has not changed much. This culture affects editors’ and reporters’ ability to investigate stories and break new ones.

During apartheid, black reporters who reported news for the African-language stations were closely tracked by (white) supervisors who spoke vernacular tongues and checked that news broadcasts did not offend government sensibilities. At times, black reporters were even whipped into submission. "If people were fortunate enough to be called to a disciplinary hearing, they could choose to be sjambokked [whipped] rather than fired," one reporter testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated apartheid atrocities.

Control of news was tight. An executive producer of an African-language radio current affairs show told me how, in the old era, he was assigned to interview a Bantustan leader (the stooges of apartheid who maintained the farce of black "independent" homelands). His briefing was not to ask questions but to just let the chief minister speak. And then he was not allowed to edit the politician’s musings: He had to play the tape in full on the current affairs show that evening.

When Managers Intrude

The challenge today at the SABC is that many of these control structures still exist, albeit in a changed form. And while press attention (local and international) focuses often on the rambunctious changes at the very top levels, little attention is paid to its nether regions. In these provincial bureaus, several journalists, both black and white, who tried under the dire circumstances of apartheid to do their jobs with integrity, are now in positions of responsibility as regional editors (provincial bureau chiefs also responsible for the local radio current affairs shows), executive producers of current affairs shows, and senior reporters.

Covering provincial affairs is crucial to tracking democracy and providing citizens with information. Provincial leaders are responsible for delivering services — water, housing, health care — to those so long deprived by apartheid. Success can mean promotion to the national cabinet; failure can mean ignominy. It can also mean that voters get rough, and in the past two years there have been sporadic demonstrations around the country protesting lack of delivery.

Given these circumstances, a robust editor and newsroom in a province can be a thorn in the side for an inept or tactless premier. In my years working at SABC I heard provincial premiers excoriate radio news anchors (who work in the provinces), slam regional editors for not providing coverage when they opened a public building, criticize reporters who did unflattering stories, and all the time find sympathetic ears among top management in Johannesburg.

Reporting provincial and local issues can be a lonely and sometimes dangerous job. In our worst case, a young provincial reporter, Sonnyboy Hlahane, who had covered local protests extensively, set up an interview one evening in a dilapidated rural area for a background story on the protests. The next morning the police found Sonnyboy’s body in a pool of shallow water with strangling marks behind his neck and scratch marks on his arms, hands and wrists. That was more than a year ago. No one has yet been charged with his murder and only his local colleagues seem concerned by this.

At times the battles over news coverage in the provinces are tough. Regional editors must ensure that the television bulletins broadcast out of Johannesburg are serviced and that the local radio bulletins and current affairs shows are accurate, fair and lively enough to attract listeners. But instead of empowering them to do their jobs, top managers in Johannesburg weakened them three years ago when, against protests of the news division, they installed regional managers in the provinces at levels above regional editors. In the news division, we were assured that our regional editors would still report to editors in Johannesburg, but we were concerned. These regional managers were given no staff and tiny budgets, yet they are paid big salaries and given generous car allowances and a mandate to be SABC "ambassadors" in their provinces.

In time, a measured campaign of interference began. It started in the far north when the regional manager would wander into the newsroom at deadline and "reassign" reporters already working on stories. A provincial cabinet minister might be having a cocktail function. "Go and cover that," he’d order a junior reporter. When I told him to stay out of our newsroom, he replied that he was "CEO of Limpopo" and could do as he pleased.

Soon the "big chief" culture spread. A regional editor in one province was hauled before a disciplinary committee by the regional manager for being absent for a day during Christmas holidays, although as his editor I had approved his leave. Another regional manager called the newsroom on a Saturday afternoon to order a cameraman to a funeral of a powerful businessman, a funeral where this manager was the master of ceremonies.

The risks for regional editors and reporters are significant, and thus it requires courage for journalists to speak out against these intrusions into their work. Resigning or losing a job in a country such as South Africa, where the market for broadcasting skills is tight, particularly in African languages, is not an option that many newsroom staff can afford to take. But if the editors don’t defend their space against these "ambassadorial" managers, who hanker for cozier relations with the local political and business leaders, public service journalism in our new democracy will be diminished.

Philippa Green, a 1999 Nieman Fellow, served as head of South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio News until 2005. She is a visiting Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment