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Watching the Watchdog: As South Africa's State Broadcaster Goes, So Goes the Nation

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

It's 1993. Twenty-one years ago. Toronto. A year before South Africa's first-ever democratic election.

A group of South African print journalists have secretly arrived at the CBC to learn the ways of television journalism so they can go home and fight even harder against the evil that is apartheid.

I'm lead trainer on this international TV journalism training project.

It's the last evening of the workshop. We've broken out the beer and wine and everyone has made their final speeches. Then, out of nowhere, someone in the group starts singing the great African liberation anthem, Nkosi Sikel' iAfrika.

Everyone, trainers as well as participants, joins in. And we cry and laugh while we sing because we know the beast that is apartheid is dying and freedom is finally coming to South Africa.

The next day the group flies back to South Africa and immediately starts something called the Public Broadcasting Initiative (PBI). Its stated, open objective is to destroy the apartheid-serving regime at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

They start by somehow persuading the SABC to invite two CBC trainers to train its journalists in democratic journalism before the coming election -- first democratic election in South Africa's history.

Which is how, a few months later, Dan David (a fine trainer who will later head the newsroom at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network [APTN]) and I are in Johannesburg. And why we're invited to dinner on noisy, crowded, joyous Rockey Street by the leaders of the PBI we worked with in Toronto.

Among them is Sylvia Vollenhoven, an award-winning international newspaper journalist. Sylvia is passionate and intelligent, urgent, incredibly honest.

She speaks of the South Africa to come under democracy like a mother talks of the child she carries.

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 semi-slavery are now offering to share power with their former masters.

"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.

When we leave, early into the morning after much drink, laughter, spicy food, and remember whens, Sylvia, Dan, and I and the rest of the group toyi-toyi down Rockey Street singing freedom songs. Strangers smile and step aside to let us though. And some dance with us.

I tell you all this because while South Africa and much of the world keep watch on the old lion lying there in a Pretoria hospital, Sylvia Vollenhoven is fighting the SABC she once helped reform from state broadcaster to public broadcaster. The same SABC where she was once a much respected senior executive.

The fight is all about an investigative TV documentary the SABC commissioned her to produce. It's called Project Spear and tells the story of four billion dollars that went missing as the apartheid government fell and the African National Congress (ANC) took power.

Sylvia describes Project Spear on her website thusly: "Spies, Lies & Stolen Billions. A thorough investigation on Apartheid banking corruption and the puzzling passivity of the present regime about all that."

"The story explores among other issues: How was the money stolen in the dying days of apartheid; where is this money now and most importantly why is the [ANC] refusing an offer to recover about three billion Euros. Most of the money is allegedly ferreted away in illegal bank accounts mainly in Europe."

The SABC approved the script for Project Spear. Then one day its senior commissioning editor emailed Sylvia: "I don't think the current government would take kindly to (certain) statements ..." The email also stated that the documentary was "too sophisticated" for the network's audience.

The upshot was that after many emails back and forth and a few requested changes, the SABC told her it had decided not to broadcast Project Spear. And when she tried to buy it back so she could find another broadcaster, the corporation flatly refused.

Just last week, the SABC told Sylvia it was suing her for making the story public.

By chance, Sylvia had asked me to screen an early version of Project Spear and give my professional analysis of both the documentary and the SABC's rejection of it.

"[Project Spear is] tough, complex, fair-minded, balanced and as objective as such a film about official plundering of public coffers can possibly be.

"And yet your public broadcaster and supposedly peoples' network, the SABC, refuses to either screen or sell it.

"I'm afraid this tells a lot more about the Zuma government and its cozy relationship with the SABC than about any flaws in Project Spear.

"In a real participatory democracy the film would be shown, followed by a reasonably impartial panel discussing its merits and demerits."

And that's where it stands.

Nelson Mandela lies dying in a Pretoria hospital.

The government he once headed as the rainbow nation becomes more and more like the kleptocracy that was the apartheid government it replaced.

And the SABC reverts back to the servile state broadcaster it was before Sylvia Vollenhoven and her colleagues turned it into a democratic public broadcaster.

Cry, the beloved country.


Tim Knight lived and worked as a journalist in South Africa for eight years.

Nelson Mandela (Captions by AP)
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