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

Posted: 07/01/2013 10:35 pm


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.

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  • 1918

    Born July 18, 1918, son of a counselor to the paramount chief of the Thembu people near Qunu in what is now the Eastern Cape. He is widely known in South Africa by his clan name, Madiba. <br><em>Caption: Portrait of South African political leader Nelson Mandela between 1945 and 1960, wearing the traditional outfit of the Thembu tribe. (Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1940s

    Mandela devoted his life to the fight against white domination, leaving Fort Hare university in the early 1940s before completing his studies. He founded the ANC Youth League with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. <br><em>Caption: Nelson Mandela (3rd from right), leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Patrick Molaoa and Robert Resha charged with treason by the South-African Union walked to the room where their trial was being held, Drill Hall, Johannesburg, South Africa.(API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1961-1963

    Mandela was among the first to advocate armed resistance to apartheid, going underground in 1961 to form the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation). Charged with capital offences in the 1963 Rivonia Trial, his statement from the dock was his political testimony. "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." <br><em>Caption: The South African political leader Nelson Mandela giving a speech before the African Congress. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1964

    He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. <br><em>Caption: Eight men, among them anti-apartheid leader and member of the African National Congress (ANC) Nelson Mandela, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial leave the Palace of Justice in Pretoria 16 June, 1964, with their fists raised in defiance through the barred windows of the prison car. The eight men were accused of conspiracy, sabotage and treason. (OFF/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1960s - 1970s

    Mandela spent nearly two decades as a prisoner on Robben Island, a barren lump of rock that sits in shark-infested waters off the coast of Cape Town and served as the apartheid government's main jail for political opponents. During his incarceration, Mandela largely faded from the public imagination in South Africa, although his then-wife Winnie kept the ANC torch alight throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. <br><em>Caption: Winnie Mandela, wife of jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela, defied her banning order by addressing a huge funeral crowd on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 1985, in Mamelodi Township at Pretoria. (AP Photo/Greg English) </em>

  • 1980s

    In the 1980s, he became the focus of the international anti-apartheid movement, and the "Free Nelson Mandela" slogan started to seep back into South Africa despite heavy censorship and curbs on political movements. <em><br> The demonstration for liberty of Nelson Mandela in Paris, France on June 1, 1986. (Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1990

    F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last white president, finally lifted the ban on the ANC and other liberation movements on February 2, 1990, and Mandela walked free from jail nine days later, an event beamed live around the world. <em><br>Leader of National Party F.W. de Klerk at press briefing during private visit to Windhoek, Namibia. (Selwyn Tait/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1994

    A year later he was elected president of the ANC and in May 1994 was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president. He used his prestige and status to push for reconciliation between whites and blacks, setting up a Commission led by Archbiship Desmond Tutu to probe crimes committed by both sides in the anti-apartheid struggle. <em><br>Caption: President Nelson Mandela of South Africa celebrates his historic election win at the ANC victory party on May 2, 1994, at Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1998

    South Africa shared the pain of Mandela's humiliating divorce in 1996 from Winnie Mandela, his second wife, and watched his courtship of Graca Machel, widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, whom he married on in July 1998. <em><br>Caption: Winnie Mandela (c), then-wife of African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela, and then-head of the ANC social welfare department, announces 15 April, 1992, in Johannesburg to journalists that she resigned from her position in the wake of the collapse of her marriage with the ANC leader and renewed allegation of her involvement in townships killings. At right, her lawyer, Ismael Ayob. (REVOR SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1999

    In 1999, he handed over to younger leaders he saw as better equipped to manage a fast-growing, rapidly modernising economy - a rare example of an African leader voluntarily departing from power. <em><br>Caption: South African Presiden Nelson Mandela (C) flanked by deputy presidents Thabo Mbeki (R) & F.W. de Klerk. (William F. Campbell//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)</em>

  • 2007

    In 2007 Mandela celebrated his 89th birthday by launching an international group of elder statesmen, including fellow Nobel peace laureates Tutu and Jimmy Carter, to tackle world problems including climate change, HIV/AIDS and poverty. <em><br>Caption: Former South African President Nelson Mandela, left, is helped to his feet by his wife Graca, unseen left, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, right, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, center, after the launch of 'The Elders,' in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday, July 18, 2007. (Greg Marinovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images) </em>

  • Mandela made his last appearance at a mass event in July 2010 at the final of the soccer World Cup. He received a thunderous ovation from the 90,000 at the Soccer City stadium in Soweto. He was hospitalized for nearly a week in January 2011 in Johannesburg with respiratory problems. The icon celebrated his 94th birthday in July 2012. <em>Caption: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, 94, and his wife Graca Machel at his home in Qunu, South Africa, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)</em>

 

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