How the ANC captured the SABC

James Myburgh traces the rise and decline of independent public broadcasting in South Africa post-1990 (July 2006)

The following article first appeared on the Ever-Faster News website on July 23 2006



The South African Broadcasting Corporation has recently come under a great deal of criticism for its pro-Mbeki stance. First there was the decision to can a documentary on Thabo Mbeki, then it was reported that a number of black critics of the president had been blacklisted from its news programmes by news head Snuki Zikalala. These revelations provoked outrage in the press. Green, former government spokesman and head of SABC radio news, added her voice to the condemnation conceding that “At times in the post-apartheid era”, the SABC had become “a political grazing ground for the ruling party faithful”.

In response to this pressure the chief executive of the SABC, Dali Mpofu, announced an investigation into the allegations of blacklisting – to be conducted by a predecessor of his, Zwelakhe Sisulu, assisted by Gilbert Marcus SC. The terms of reference of the inquiry have not yet been made public, but it is difficult to see it facing up to the root causes of the politicisation of the SABC – of which the blacklistees are only the most recent victims. To really understand where this all began one has to go back to the early 1990s to the Prague-spring of public broadcasting in South Africa.

The SABC in the early 1990s

Up until 1990 the South African Broadcasting Corporation had effectively operated as a mouthpiece for the National Party government. Although the original 1936 Act governing the SABC was based on the legislation governing the BBC the Afrikaner nationalist movement had effectively captured the organization – with its members being placed in key positions.

However, the SABC had liberalized its news coverage following F.W. De Klerk’s election as state president, and then the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1990. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review in November 1991 noted that, “just as South African politics have opened up in the past two years, so has the SABC. Once-demonized politicians like African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela appear regularly on the air, and talk shows include representatives of South Africa’s broad political spectrum, from communists to neo-Nazis.”

At this time it was politic for the ANC to hide its more totalitarian aspirations beneath calls for state institutions to be made ‘independent’ (of the National Party.) In a speech in November 1992, Cyril Ramaphosa, then Secretary-General of the ANC, stated that:

“The ANC believes that unquestioning loyalty by a public broadcaster to a ruling party is incompatible with democracy - whether or not the ruling party enjoys the support of the majority of the population. When the ANC wins the electoral support of the majority of South Africans, it will not seek to replace the National Party as the subject of the SABC's slavish loyalty. And we want to establish both the principle and practice of that independence now. The ANC is committed to public broadcasting which is independent of the government of the day, and which owes its loyalty not to any party, but to the population as a whole.”

In March 1993 Dullah Omar reported that “the ANC, together with the democratic movement, has fought a long struggle to remove the SABC from government hands and place it under independent control.”[1] Although seemingly sincere, such rhetoric was soon belied by the conduct of the ANC. In reality the state broadcaster was the first state institutions the ANC managed to extend ‘political leadership’ over, even if it took a number of years for that to deepen into effective control. The extension of ANC control over the SABC really took place in three waves, each of which will be dealt with in turn.

The first wave

A high level ANC document had identified the SABC in August 1992 as “a highly strategic and fairly vulnerable target for campaigning”.[2] And, in August 1993 the ANC managed to secure the appointment of Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri as chairman of the SABC board. An article in the Weekly Mail & Guardian (6th August 1993) stated that Matsepe-Casaburri was “an exile in Lusaka and returned to South Africa in 1990…She is active in the ANC Women’s League and was nominated for a national executive committee position on the ANC at its 1991 congress, narrowly missing election.”

The article described her as a “political animal” without a “reputation of political independence”. She admitted to an interviewer in September that she was still “a member of the African National Congress and I make no apologies for that. But I’m known to be a very impartial person”. (WM&G 24th September 1993) Her ‘impartiality’ in this job would later be rewarded by the ANC first with an appointment as Premier of the Free State and then promotion to Minister of Communications under the Mbeki presidency.

In December 1993 the SABC board proceeded to make a series of political appointments to executive positions within the organisation. The Sunday Nation editor, Zwelakhe Sisulu, was appointed as the understudy to group chief executive Wynand Harmse; Govin Reddy was made executive head of radio; and, Solly Mokoetle, formerly of Radio Freedom, was made senior general manager of radio.

In a letter to Matsepe-Casaburri the SA Broadcasting Staff Association stated that these appointments were a “flagrant deviation from the board’s own values and vision”, in particular “impartiality, equitability…(and) sensitivity to the diverse nature of South African society. We view the appointment of publicly ANC-aligned persons to the SABC’s executive as a perpetuation of the previous board’s political bias.”[3] The Sunday Times story was headed, “New appointments lead to fears of ‘same again’”.

The article stated that the “appointment of three ANC sympathisers to top positions at the SABC has sent a gust of apprehension along the corridors of the state broadcasting corporation’s headquarters…TV and radio journalists tell you, with nervous backward glances, that they’ve been this way before and dread the prospect of returning.” The article quoted one senior staffer as saying “It looks like it’s going to the same again, only worse”.[4] Initially however these fears appeared overblown with SABC television news managing to maintain its professionalism and independence – providing fair and balanced coverage of the 1994 elections.

The second wave

At the time of the transfer of power it suited the ANC to maintain the pretence that it supported the principle of independent and impartial state institutions, even as it infiltrated party operatives into key centres of power. By 1996, once its grip on political office was secure, there was a determined effort to bring state institutions under greater party control—first by pensioning off members of the ‘old guard’, then by bringing the selection of candidates under its’ control, then by filling key positions with political appointees.

The next wave of serious political interference hit the SABC in mid-1997. While it seems that radio news was regarded as satisfactory by the ANC, it was reported that Sisulu and the top management had come under fire from the liberation movement “for the news content of television, a more powerful and influential instrument than newspapers or radio. Many, both in government and the SABC, perceive an active anti-ANC stance from the news department.”[5] That same weekend the Sunday Times stated that it had “learnt from reliable sources that the ANC is unhappy with TV news content and has pointed this out to the SABC management. Among those who allegedly complained is ANC spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa.”[6]

The top layer of protection for the ‘independents’ in the television news department was removed when the contract of Jill Chisholm, the chief executive of television, was not renewed. In late May there was an active purge of the television news department. On the 23rd of May Jeremy Thorpe, the person directly in charge of the television news bulletins, was removed from his position.

Thorpe had criticised (internally) the disastrous decision, in April, by the SABC hierarchy to cut off its subscription to the South African Press Association (SAPA). The editor-in-chief of Radio News, Barney Mthombothi, had defended this decision on racial grounds accusing SAPA of being “part and parcel of the mainstream media. Its mindset is that of the white media.”[7] In an internal memorandum in response Thorpe stated that television news could not afford to do without the Sapa service and could not rely on the "short, often disjointed, invariably uncontextualised, often inaccurate and sometimes barely understandable copy from radio news".

He added that he had been saddened, angered and disgusted by Mthombothi's “diatribe" against Sapa in the print media. "Sadness that a simple, and probably temporary breakdown in negotiations should have escalated into an all-out public war of words between two respected organisations; anger and disgust that blind arrogance and petty egos have left those of us who benefited from Sapa's service battling to do our jobs."[8]

The memorandum was leaked, and Thorpe was sacked ostensibly for this lack of cravenness, but probably because he was wholly independent of the ANC. Thorpe took the matter to an employment tribunal and the SABC was forced to pay him a substantial sum in compensation. He was not, however, reinstated to his position.

On the 27th of May it was announced that Joe Thloloe had resigned after Sisulu decided to demote him and insert the SABC board member, Allister Sparks, above him – as editor-in-chief of television news. Although Sparks had a distinguished record as a print journalist his appointment was widely considered to be a political one. One article described him as “closer to the ruling party” than Tholoe, whose political background was in the PAC. It also pointed out that Sparks had been placed in 142nd position on the ANC’s January election list before in the 1994 elections but had turned down his nomination.

Sparks’ appointment was backed by a pro-ANC cabal in the news department headed by the political editor Phil Molefe. Molefe had drawn up a memorandum which attacked the ‘old-guard’ in the news department and effectively accused SABC television news of being a “volkstaat broadcaster” which worked against the “democratic forces.”[9] (He was not disciplined.)

Following Thorpe’s and Thloloe’s departure other non-ANC staffers, including current affairs editor Sarah Crowe and the head of television news, Ivan Flynn, resigned from their positions. This moment in mid-1997 was the point at which the independence of SABC television news was effectively broken, from now on the continuing battles within the public broadcaster would very much be an internal ANC affair.

The third wave

At the ANC’s Mafikeng Conference in December 1997 the new ANC leadership acquired a formal mandate to bring all state and parastatal institutions under political control. This was done mainly through the deployment of ANC cadres to key state positions, and the requirement that all ANC activists, wherever they were located, should carry out the instructions of the party centre. The ANC leadership now made little effort to maintain the pretence of abiding by the separation of party and state. As a high level ANC document drawn up in the middle of that year bluntly put it:

“Transformation of the state entails, first and foremost, extending the power of the NLM over all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on.”

Such resolutions would presage a third wave of political interference at the SABC. After the May 1997 purge it seems as if SABC news department was divided between out-and-out ANC loyalists and ANC sympathisers. The loyalists placed loyalty to the ANC over all other loyalties; while the sympathisers, although supportive of the ruling party, would have baulked at taking direct instructions from Luthuli House.

The ANC finally brought SABC news firmly under its direction by centralising ultimate control and then appointing loyalists to those positions. Snuki Zikalala was perhaps the most prominent of these appointees. Zikalala was one of the 37 senior ANC leaders who had, in 1998, applied for amnesty from the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. He had left South Africa in 1974 to join MK, the ANC’s armed wing. He had learned about bomb making and had been based in Botswana before moving on to Lusaka and then Bulgaria where he studied for a doctorate in journalism and worked as a journalist for a Bulgarian newspaper. He had also written numerous political essays for Sechaba and the African Communist. He had returned to South Africa after 1990 and worked as an ‘ANC journalist’ before joining the SABC.[10]

In May 1998 Zikalala was catapulted by Sisulu from his job as a TV news labour reporter to the position of radio news deputy editor-in-chief. Sisulu stated that Zikalala's “major area of focus in his new position will be to concentrate on establishing a single news department in the corporation in preparation for the 1999 election.”[11] In December 1998, once Sparks’ contract was up, Zikalala was promoted to deputy editor-in-chief of both Radio and Television news. By 1999 SABC news was being run by a triumvirate of three ANC loyalists: Enoch Sithole, chief executive of news, Molefe, head of TV news, and Zikalala, deputy editor-in-chief (then head of bi-media news).

An ANC assessment of the ‘balance of forces’ published in 1999 noted that the media and public debate were “critical” centres of power, “because even though we may have made progress in material terms, unless the forces for change are able to exercise hegemony, it will impact on our capacity to mobilise society.” In this regard it noted that, “The transformation of the SABC did take much longer than we thought and more needs to be done at middle management level.”

A brief interregnum and Zikalala’s return

There was something of a waning of party control of the public broadcaster with the breaking up of the triumvirate in 2001. In that year Sithole resigned, and Zikalala and Molefe were pushed out of their positions following a boardroom reshuffle. Zikalala was then appointed spokesman for the Minister of Labour. Although the SABC news could still hardly be described as non-partisan (its sympathies were firmly with the ruling party) there was some loosening up, and the opposition Democratic Alliance received relatively fair coverage during the 2004 national elections.

However, in May 2004, after the SABC board was packed with Mbeki-loyalists Zikalala returned as head of television news. He was asked in an interview how he could go overnight from being a government spokesman to being the person in charge of reporting critically on that government: He replied,

“I'm not the only one. The head of SABC radio [Pippa Green] was working for Treasury, in Trevor Manuel's office. She got appointed and no one said anything. Her husband is in the President's policy unit at the Union Buildings. It's a family that is fully entrenched in government, and no one says anything about that. And she is in charge of the most powerful medium of information, which is radio. No one says anything about that. Her job is more powerful than mine.”[12]

By July the Sunday Times was reporting that “Fear and discontent stalk the newsroom at Auckland Park” as Zikalala “forces his underlings to toe the government line…The way he talks about ‘my minister’ and ‘my government’ leaves little doubt about the tone he expects these ministerial mentions on the news to take.”

The real fight, Chris Barron wrote, was “between chief operating officer Solly Mokoetle (formerly with the ANC's Radio Freedom) and Zikalala.” Mokoetle “was the ANC's man in the newsroom before Zikalala arrived. When the ANC/government was unhappy with news coverage he'd have to take the flak. However, he confined himself to conveying the government's concerns to the news people. Further than that, he usually didn't go.”[13]

What went wrong?

Looking back over the SABC over the past ten years what is most noticeable is the jarring contradiction between the legislative and constitutional requirements for the public broadcaster and the lived reality. The former require inter-alia that public broadcasting be fair and promote a diversity of views, and that it maintain “a high standard of accuracy, fairness and impartiality in news and programmes that deal with matters of public interest.” These have proved to be (to borrow the words of James Madison) mere “parchment barriers” against the encroaching spirit of ANC power.

Although the ANC leadership conceded these fine words and phrases to their opponents in the negotiations, they were able to get their hands on two crucial levers of control – the ability to appoint (and promote) their preferred candidates, and remove those who displeased them. 

Candidates appointed on their merits to state institutions, after open competition with their peers, are unlikely to feel beholden to those who selected them. Their sense of loyalty will generally be to the institution, the public interest, and the constitution. This sense of public spiritedness is generally secured in most liberal-democracies by ensuring that such appointees cannot be removed from their positions, or their careers curtailed, by the political bosses of their department. The first loyalty of political appointees, on the other hand, is to their patron.

Generally, the less deserving they are, the more loyal they have to be. It was through such appointments and promotions that the ANC first extended their influence over the SABC. To exert truly effective control however what was needed was the ability to remove people. Jeremy Thorpe’s sacking on contrived grounds was particularly significant in this regard. You only have to make an example of one person to scare a hundred. And it established a precedent of politically-inspired removals, to which many pro-ANC journalists would themselves eventually fall victim.

In these circumstances, even if a political appointee (no matter their abilities) will lose their position if their faction loses influence, or they fall out of political favour. It is difficult however to feel too much sympathy for some of the people (such as Sparks and Mthombothi) now being presented as victims of political intolerance at the SABC – they lived by the sword before they died by it.

James Myburgh

July 23 2006


[1] South 20th March 1993

[2] “‘The Alliance assesses the past two months’: Presented to 23 August 1992 tripartite summit”, SA Labour Bulletin vol. 16, no. 7, 1992, pp. 31-35.

[3] Star 14th December 1993

[4] Sunday Times 19th December 1993

[5] WM&G 30th May 1997

[6] Sunday Times 1st June 1997

[7] Sowetan 17th April 1997

[8] Mail & Guardian 25th May 1997

[9] Sunday Times 1st June 1997

[10] Beeld 14th May 1998

[11] Finance Week 4th June 1998

[12] Sunday Times 25th April 2004

[13] Sunday Times 14th July 2004