My hell at the SABC
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SABC contributing editor and specialist anchor Vuyo Mvoko speaks out about Hlaudi Motsoneng and Jimi Matthews.
Johannesburg - The SABC has never been a paragon of a great anything. It has been a work-in-progress, with degrees of success as generations of well-meaning South Africans tackled the extraordinarily and complex task of undoing decades of apartheid misuse of this national asset.
Of course not everyone covered themselves in glory at it - including former news tsar Snuki Zikalala, a comical Ali of not insignificant proportions. He did for president Thabo Mbeki at the time, what Motsoeneng is doing for President Jacob Zuma now - singlehandedly arrogated unto himself the right to speak for and do in the name of.
In the SABC newsroom at the time, it was Zikalala’s way or the highway - just like Motsoeneng told staff last week that you “go left while we going right, you are out”.
While the two men are extreme, the SABC has over the years also produced a different kind of leader, the one myself and my colleagues discovered a few years ago in Jimi Matthews, who resigned last week.
The way Matthews ended the careers of some of the best people we had, only a mercenary would. As Motsoeneng reminded all last week, after the collaboration with Matthews ended, it was the SABC’s own journalists and editors who would go to him as chief operating officer, complaining of just how useless a leader Matthews was.
Of course none of that prevented Motsoeneng from making Matthews the acting group chief executive, while showing his disrespect for him at every turn, even mocking his sartorial shortcomings.
Now Matthews is gone, leaving a few confessions and mea culpas in his wake.
But no one is impressed with his “Hlaudi-made-me-do-it” and “to-the-extent-that-I-was-complicit-I’m-sorry” resignation letter.
I speak from bitter personal experience. I went from being able to walk into his office any time, any day, to discuss work, to a point where I don’t remember us speaking over the past year at all.
Even on the day he issued the instruction to can the On the Record show I presented, he did it via somebody else.
Apparently he - or was it his minder - could not stand watching Public Protector Thuli Madonsela being on the programme thatevening.
And I made it worse by announcing that the next day I would be discussing state capture. I was summarily informed there would be no next show.
The next day, Matthews wanted a disciplinary process initiated against me for tweeting that there would be no show that evening.
The one time I finally got an opportunity to ask Motsoeneng about the decision - at a workshop in the Vaal - his reply was that it was a corporate decision, and if my immediate superiors didn’t approve or couldn’t explain it, then they don’t deserve to lead the newsroom.
I couldn’t stay for the last day of the workshop as I had to dash back to Joburg for our first election debate.
No sooner had I finished my first recording for the day that the news came that there had been a bloodbath.
The top three editors, who were all acting in positions above their own, had all been returned to their normal positions and a completely new head of news had been appointed in an acting capacity.
I still can’t tell whether Motsoeneng is just another, probably more extreme, version of Zikalala.
As one chief executive once remarked about Zikalala - his heart was in the right place, he just hadn’t brought his mind along. Many believe that Motsoeneng, like Zikalala, is the pawn of powerful people.
What cannot and should not be pawned, though, is the SABC. It’s too important an institution for its integrity to be impugned, and for the intelligence of everyone associated with it or the public that’s supposed to be benefiting from it to be undermined.
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What we are dealing with here is not a choice between 90 percent local content and the starvation of our musicians.
The current source of conflict between the chief operating officer and the corporation’s senior journalists is not about making a choice between showing violent images of arsonists versus showing the good story of schools and bridges that are being built, and water and other services that are being delivered.
The editorial conferences where my colleagues expressed their views that led to their suspension are where any news leadership discuss and debate daily.
While fundamental differences may arise, there are procedures and laws to be followed.
And when journalists say no to censorship, they are also referring to self-censorship, and are by no means implying there’s no censorship in other news organisations, but rather speaking out of a desire to see the SABC leading in journalistic excellence.
We are saying there’s no point in doing the right thing by promoting women to leadership positions - only to reduce them to policing duties, or walking around with their cellphones glued to their ears as they take arbitrary instructions on who to put on air.
I’m sure there are many people who think, correctly, that there are a lot of opportunists out there who have hijacked the SABC and want to use it for all sorts of agendas.
And there are surely lots of others who will want to use the current crisis for their own ends.
But this gulf of mutual incomprehension is not reason enough to abandon our collective wisdom and our ambition to correct the wrongs we are witnessing.
Nor is it too late for the party that once stood for good to show its leadership and say #NotInOurName.
* Vuyo Mvoko is the SABC’s contributing editor and specialist anchor, and formerly its group political editor
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.