Sunday, July 24, 2011
Who Stuffed Up South Africa
A tongue-in-cheek look at our main culprits
I am not sure of the date, but at a guess, it would have been 1999 or thereabouts. I was in London at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) to attend a lecture given by my friend and mentor David Rattray on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. I was particularly excited because David had told me that none other than the legendary Sir Wilfred Thesiger would be attending.
At a reception after the lecture, which had captivated a packed RGS,
I was sort of nervously hanging around, until David, typically, told me to stop lurking about like a fool and introduced me to the world’s greatest living explorer, then about 80 years old.
I forget what I said, but I do recall shaking his hand. David always used to say that “history is not that old”; and back then, shaking the hand of the grandson of Lord Chelmsford (he of Isandlwana infamy), I certainly felt its proximity.
David used to tell a wonderful story about Thesiger. On his last trip to South Africa, Thesiger visited Isandlwana on the anniversary of the battle, 22 January.
There were the usual goings-on: folk dressed up as redcoats, an impi, political bigwigs, various ceremonies and prayers and so forth.
And then there was this old, bent man with his weather-beaten face and alert, sharp eyes.
One cannot imagine what it was like for Thesiger to visit the place that would have had such monumental significance in his family. All we can do, is remark on how this old English gentleman reacted to it.
The way David used to tell the story, IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose own grandfather had fought at Isandlwana, was also attending the ceremonies.
Thesiger spotted Buthelezi and approached him, whereupon these two dignified old men – one an icon representing British colonialism, the other a Zulu chief – held each other in a long, tearful embrace, something the local news photographers managed to miss.
I think there would have been no better image of reconciliation, and no better story with which to illustrate the extraordinary nature of this country.
The names that follow in this book are a decidedly mixed bunch. They count among them the egotistical, the incompetent and the corrupt. Some caused death and misery and mayhem. Some created the problems we still face today. Some can be considered “great” in certain ways, and yet are deeply flawed.
Some are pure evil, some profoundly silly. Some threw it all away and some never had it. Some are just annoying, and some represent many of the names that didn’t make it onto the list. But all of them, together, stand as a slightly odd monument to the people of this astonishing country.
Inevitably, the compilation of a list of notorious South Africans will be cause for some debate, perhaps even anger.
Lastly, a word on the title of this book. I hope it’s not too controversial – or, rather, that it’s just controversial enough.
Because as much as I’ve enjoyed delving into the sordid tales of some of the dodgiest and most destructive people to have taken their toll on our country, I can’t say that I agree with the premise. It’s just that 50 People Who Tried Their Damndest To Stuff Up South Africa But Couldn’t Quite Manage It In The End isn’t as catchy, is it?
So, while the various and varied characters featuring on these pages may have done their best to stuff up this fine land in which we live, I must declare their collective failure. It’s why I choose to live here. I love the place.
Book editor: Alexander Parker
Julius Malema born 1983
President of the ANC Youth League; pinup boy for black racism, tenderpreneurship and the implosion of rational political debate in South Africa
Julius Malema’s a fat little man. How he got so fat is obvious. He is fat because he has lots of government-tender money and no class whatsoever, and the classless rich always get fat.
In Malemaville, Limpopo, KFC is gourmet; and obesity, in the absence of an enlightened mind, is said to speak of significance.
Of course, it doesn’t help to resort to personal insults. It’s best to debate the facts but, as the KFC Kid knows so well, it sure makes you feel better. After all, when Kiddi Amin was engaging in the first real salvos in his war against Jacob Zuma by espousing the genius of Zanu-PF’s ruinous land-reform programme in Zimbabwe, he reacted with much vitriol when challenged by a BBC journalist.
Malema had described Zimbabwe’s opposition MDC as “Mickey Mouse”, and had mocked their “air-conditioned offices in Sandton”, to which the BBC’s Jonah Fisher pointed out that Malema himself lived in Sandton.
Well, it struck a nerve; and instead of being smart about it and responding that there’s nothing wrong with a successful South African citizen residing in Sandton – as opposed to a foreign political party – he went ballistic.
The problem with going ballistic is that it shows all your cards; it’s your best work. This, in your fury, when you really, really care, is everything you’ve got. Forget in vino veritas.
When a man’s truly angry, you’re going to see to the centre of his soul. Which, in this particular case, was illustrative for the rest of us.
Malema accused the journalist of having a small penis, saying whatever was under his “trouser” was “rubbish”. This was intellectual shock and awe, Malema-style. A slam-dunk tour de force of off-the-cuff critical political thought from the man who would be president.
In this little moment, young Julius had exposed his hatred of media and their questions, his utter disregard for how he makes South Africa look from abroad and, of course, the scale of the rancour and poison at the heart of how he thinks.
He had made it clear that what he lacks in intellect he makes up for in a vicious hate-filled demagoguery, choosing victims of least resistance, the obvious targets – because young Julius is the playground bully who learnt nothing at school other than how to steal the other kids’ Milo. So it’s the media. It’s the mines and their owners. It’s white people in general and farmers specifically.
The ANC’s Struggle history has gifted the likes of Malema a song that contains the exhortation to “shoot the boer, kill the farmer”, giving him a deeply shabby, quasi-cultural excuse to encourage people to hate (at best) and murder (at worst) others because of the colour of their skin.
It is, of course, vindictive and dangerous, and were it born out of a long and deep personal struggle to free South Africa’s poor from apartheid, it would at least give some context to Malema’s seemingly bottomless font of racial bile. But it isn’t.
Malema was born in 1983. Nelson Mandela was released when he was seven and South Africa was a fully fledged democracy when he was 11. So Malema is no Struggle hero. He’s a veteran of nothing but carpentry classes.
The end assumption can only be that the motivation behind Malema’s hatred is power and money. Bizarrely, it is what Malema himself narrow-mindedly uses to define the “whiteness” he seeks. He wants the nice clothes, the nice watch, the fancy cars and the house in Sandton, and he wants to exercise power for his own ends. How to do it? Mobilise the masses behind some fictional race war. Shout hate into a microphone. After all, it worked for Idi and Adolf.
Malema is, it is sad to report, acting out the archetype, playing it to a tee. In “Africa, the Post-Colonial Balls-Up”, Malema is trying his darndest for a leading role. But so far he’s Mugabe without the menace, Amin without the charisma. He’s Bonaparte without the talent, Julius without the Caesar.
This is a man who manages to involve himself in (rather suspicious) tenders in his native Limpopo, then takes the money and fails to complete the work, impoverishing communities and the Treasury, and looting hard-earned tax rands in the process.
When he fails in his endeavours to win mining tenders, his reaction is not to redouble his efforts to put in better tenders; it is to demand the nationalisation of those same mines.
What Juju wants, Juju will get – or he’ll rage and scream about the forces aligned against him. And it doesn’t matter if people must die, lose their incomes or flee the country to the detriment of us all.
Malema will support Mugabe while Zimbabweans starve. He’ll encourage murder.
He’ll foment hatred against the former oppressor, the colonialist, the white devil, management, Cosatu, even Zuma now – whatever seems convenient at the time. He’ll do whatever he needs to do, even if it means making headlines abroad and making TIME magazine’s list of 50 international morons.
I imagine Julius was a bed-wetter. Perhaps he still is. His obsession with being king, his unending deep-in-the-pit-of-his-stomach yearning to be Very Important, to break free of his own smallness… it speaks volumes. My suspicion is that what’s under his trouser is what’s problematic. Once he’s been and gone – for, surely, he will one day be gone – we’ll not be measuring Malema’s influence in votes or supporters, but the number of his chins and the inches on his waist.
Malema is a waddling stain on South Africa, a fine country inhabited by good people, and better than Malema in ways too myriad to mention. A book in itself. So we should take comfort from the fact that, before too long, Malema will be a mere nasty memory, just like his kindred spirit, political peer and intellectual equal, Eugene Terre’Blanche. Speak up, Julius. Shout it out! Hasten your own demise!
Where’s Brutus when you need him?
(See Steve Hofmeyr and Eugène Terre’Blanche in the book)
The minibus taxi driver
Visually and aurally offensive, inconsiderate, non-indicating, corner-cutting, danger-courting, stress-inducing, road-law-violating transporter of the vast majority of South Africa’s blue-collar workforce
It’s easy, if you drive a car, to blame minibus taxis. But here are some facts: Very few taxi drivers own their own taxis. Of the 200 000 or so people employed in the industry, only 20 000 own vehicles. Most work for an owner, who tells his drivers that each taxi must deliver to him R1 000 a day. Anything on top of that is the driver’s pay. Hence, you see, the pressure. The pressure to get back to town to get the next load. The pressure to jam in as many passengers
Be under no illusion: a taxi driver’s life is gruelling. It is seldom the drivers who can’t be bothered to maintain the vehicles; it’s the owners. And the owners are usually amoral, violence-inclined gangster bosses who run the entire industry – so that’s more pressure to deal with, just for good measure.
Of the 40 or so people who die on South African roads every day, fewer than 10% are killed in taxi-related accidents, illustrating that taxis are not quite the Great Satan of South African roads that we imagine them to be. But let’s not get too carried away here with compassion and understanding because taxi drivers deserve every ounce of fear and loathing we impart in their general direction.
To explain the surprising statistic above, taxis constitute less than 2% of the vehicles in South Africa, which is to say they cause a disproportionately large number of road deaths.
The AA reckons that around 70 000 of them, equating to nearly half the country’s taxi fleet, are involved in accidents every year. In other words, they do crash an awful lot and they are indeed the scum of the universe. The reason is obvious: a total disregard for traffic laws and other road users.
Here’s the worst of it, though: because of minibus taxis, we have all become horrendous drivers. While taxis may be ugly and noisy, while their drivers are content to play games with the lives of 16 people at a time by running red traffic lights and driving on the wrong side of the road, while the incessant honking is infuriating and the state of the vehicles is shocking, the sad fact is that many South Africans of all kinds – rich, poor, black, white – are a disgrace on the road.
In the past few years, an orange light has come to mean “floor it”. Nobody knows how to use a traffic circle. Nobody wants to join a queue.
Nobody wants to let anyone into a queue.
Drivers speed irresponsibly in places where people live and children go to school. Zebra crossings are completely ignored. No one wears a seat belt. Children sit on drivers’ laps. Drivers happily block traffic if it will save them a few seconds. People who drive fancy cars or SUVs (or fancy SUVs) think they are more important than other road users… the list is endless. And it’s topped by the unending propensity of South Africans to get absolutely shit-faced on a Friday night and deem that an acceptable state in which to drive home. Everyone else is doing it, right?
Of course, the fact that the police have decided to vigorously enforce the tiny fraction of the rules of the road that happen to be the most lucrative – speed limits – and completely ignore the rest of them, doesn’t help. So we know we can cross solid lines, turn without indicating, run red robots, undertake on the hard shoulder, talk on our cellphones and all the rest because the metro cops are eating KFC under a bush with a speed gun, or taking “rent” from unregistered taxi drivers. And so the AA’s annual warning that “in almost all cases, an accident is preceded by a traffic violation” goes unheeded year after year.
Meanwhile, pedestrians are their own worst enemies, and they make up nearly half of the 40. As if in bold defiance of Darwin, many see fit to get motherless and walk along highways with nary a concern for their safety.
Hence the (genuine) health warning that appears on five-litre papsaks of wine: “Don’t drink and walk on the road, you may be killed.”
The advice, however, remains largely ignored, and the more daring of them do it at night while wearing dark clothes.
The truth is that the aggressive Sandton mommy in her SUV shouting at taxi drivers is as bad as the taxi driver himself, and the careless pedestrian is as much a liability.
We’re all responsible for the utter stress, mayhem and carnage on South African roads.
But because they are so utterly disinterested in the impact their appalling behaviour has on other people’s lives, the South African bad driver has a face. And it’s the sociopath behind the wheel of the Hiace.
A pox upon him!
Joe Modise23 May 1929 – 26 November 2001
Minister of Defence (1994–1999); thug; Mbeki ally; the man behind the arms deal
There have been books written about the arms deal. Some excellent, some rather long-winded, all considerably damning. So we’re going to keep this simple. The essence of the arms deal, announced in 1999, is as follows:
Firstly, to pay for it, we diverted incredible sums of money from far worthier causes such as healthcare, housing and energy infrastructure (see Alec Erwin in the book). As of October 2010, it had cost a reported R67 billion – which works out to around 2.2 million RDP houses.
Secondly, we got the wrong stuff. There is no credible threat to South Africa’s sovereignty, now or in the foreseeable future, and certainly none that would require three diesel-electric attack submarines (costing around R5.5bn in 1999) or four stealth frigates (also around R5.5bn, including helicopters) to repulse. The frigates, you’d think, might at least protect our fishing rights and do a bit of patrolling, but they cost R8m a day to run and there’s no budget left over to deploy them effectively.
As a result, in 2008 the navy declared that it “urgently and critically” needed eight to 12 multipurpose patrol boats, at around R300m each. Then we have our 26 new JAS 39 Gripen fighters, which are exceptionally cool, but are short-range single-engine planes built for northern European conditions. More to the point, we only have nine pilots (and one navigator) capable of flying them as of November 2010 and, like the navy, we can barely afford to run them. Also, fighter jets don’t provide a peacekeeping role, so the air force subsequently had to order hugely expensive heavy-lift transport planes for this purpose (a separate controversy altogether). And that’s just a taster of that aspect of the deal.
Thirdly, the reason we diverted incredible sums of money from far worthier projects and the reason we got the wrong stuff is because the entire process was born of corruption, bribery and back-door shenanigans.
As every South African knows, there has never been a comprehensive parliamentary enquiry into the arms deal, despite constant requests from the public, opposition leaders, Cosatu, the British government and various other interested parties. On the one hand, this is an astounding realisation, given the sheer weight of evidence pointing to widespread bribery and corruption at virtually every level of the procurement process. Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO), for example, believes that R1bn in illegal “commissions” was paid by BAE Systems to facilitate deals – and they just provided the jets.
On the other hand, the decision to not investigate is not surprising at all: there are just too many big names who could take a fall – from Thabo Mbeki and Zuma down through the government to all the various influential businessmen and companies involved – and there has, evidently, been too much pressure from too many directions to allow it to happen.
In October 2010, the Hawks officially closed down their investigation.
Without some kind of official enquiry, it will be impossible to say for sure who did what and who got what out of the arms deal. And even if there were one, it would doubtless be dreadfully politicised. So we’re just going to take all the allegations and evidence out there and dump the blame for this gargantuan political, socioeconomic and military debacle onto the head of Joe Modise.
You may recall Johannes “Bra Joe” Modise as the minister of Defence who presided over that little foray into Lesotho when the South African National Defence Force couldn’t read a map right and got into a spot of bother while trying to prevent a coup in that country. It was a rather embarrassing affair all round. But Modise was a lot more than a debacle in Lesotho.
A truck driver and gangster in 1950s Alexandra, he is recalled as a rather bad bugger by veterans of the Struggle. As a founding member and then commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, he came with a serious reputation.
“Everyone in the ANC was frightened of him,” Sibusiso Madlala, a senior MK operative, explained in an interview with historian, RW Johnson. “They knew he had killed people himself, that he was completely ruthless and that he had presided over mass torture and executions in the MK punishment camps.” On top of this, he was widely held to be an informer for the apartheid government, and he was later suspected of playing a role in the murder of Chris Hani, a rival of his and of his ally, Mbeki.
In the transition to ANC rule, Modise played an important and early role in negotiations, and he shrewdly and deliberately positioned himself to become South Africa’s first black Defence minister, a position that would offer plenty of opportunity for self-enrichment. Modise had shown great support in getting Mbeki into the position of Mandela’s heir apparent, and Mbeki repaid the favour by letting him do pretty much as he wanted in the Ministry of Defence – and that meant cashing in on the upcoming arms deal, despite objections from the likes of Jay Naidoo, Joe Slovo and Trevor Manuel.
Modise was involved in all aspects of the arms deal. Among other things, he intervened in the contract for light fighter trainers, ensuring BAE Hawks were selected rather than the cheaper Italian alternative.
One of the principal beneficiaries of this deal, according to the SFO, was Fana Hlongwane, Modise’s friend and adviser, who they say pocketed £3m. Indeed, it was later observed that Modise’s close friends “seemed to be men who had profited from the arms deal”. His daughter even found her way onto the board of one of the companies designated for counter-trade agreements.
And when he stood down as Defence minister in 1999, he himself joined the boards of several companies that had benefited. All in all, Modise is said to have received more than R10m in arms-deal “commissions”, according to Andrew Feinstein, author of After The Party.
No one is claiming that corruption didn’t exist before the arms deal or before 1994. Indeed, the story goes that the first thing the Nats did when handing over the country to the ANC was ensure they were all set up with nice beach houses and game concessions to retire to. But the arms deal stands as a crucial landmark on South Africa’s post-democracy path: the moment when so many ANC freedom fighters, who had defined themselves in the collective drive for the liberation of South Africa and a better life for all, decided it was time to change focus and look out for number one. It was the biggest post-democratic gravy train of them all and, with Modise as its chief conductor, it proved to be unstoppable.
As a final illustrative vignette, consider the fate of Tony Yengeni, the only politician to have been convicted for taking a bribe related to the arms deal, a discount on a Mercedes-Benz, which saw him serve five months of a four-year sentence.
Problem is, the company that admitted it “rendered assistance” in getting him his new wheels, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, admits it did the same for 30 senior government officials. Thirty!
Whether they actively profited from the arms deal or they just watched their friends and colleagues do so, the new rulers of South Africa had quickly learnt what it meant to cash in at the expense of their fellow countrymen. And, for leading by example, we have Joe Modise to thank for this.
Louis Luyt born 18 June 1932
Businessman and rugby administrator; president of the South African Rugby Football Union (1994–1998); face of the ugly South African
There’s a particularly cutting sketch you can watch on YouTube by the British comedy puppet show, Spitting Image. It’s called “I’ve never met a nice South African”, and it’s an enlightening product of its time – 1986 – when the apartheid Saffer was the pariah of the world. Released just after PW Botha had failed to cross the Rubicon and was implementing his state of emergency instead, the song is characteristically savage.
It talks of South Africans – meaning white South Africans – as a “bunch of talentless murderers who smell like baboons”, “arrogant bastards who hate black people” and “ignorant loudmouths with no sense of humour”. (It is, a quarter century later, really quite funny.)
Such thoughts, no doubt, went through the minds of the New Zealand rugby team and delegation at the dinner to celebrate the end of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Let there be no doubt of the event’s significance: It was a glorious moment in this country, and now Morgan Freeman has even done a movie emphasising just that. That’s why it takes an individual of rare mean spirit to leave a bitter taste in the mouth after such a special day. Louis Luyt was his name, and he turned out to be the turd in the punch bowl. Because here was a guy who didn’t know how to win with any grace.
Speaking at the gala dinner, Luyt, president of the South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) at the time, opined that not only was it good and right that the Springboks had won the Cup, but had they been allowed to play, they would have won the last two as well – one of which, of course, the All Blacks had won. Luyt was doing the spitting image of the Spitting Image South African whom no one can abide. He was being a deeply unfunny, egotistical loudmouth.
Famously, the Kiwis walked out of the dinner and went back to their hotel.
Luyt had made his fortune as a fertiliser salesman in the 1960s. Some say he was so good at his job that there are still farmers in the Karoo with stockpiles of his stuff. Unfortunately, however, he didn’t stick to his calling.
Presumably, he had some charms back then and the money went to his head, turning him into the boorish megalomaniac South Africans would come to know once he’d wangled his way into the presidency of Sarfu. He spent five years in the role, a period in which he conducted himself as the untouchable king of rugby, dismissive of any and all outsider opinion or sensitivity. It was, and still is, remarkable that such an unpleasant and divisive man could hold this important position for so long, and it was no surprise when it all ended in scandal and brouhaha, and his forced resignation in 1998.
Along the way, he unconscionably dragged Nelson Mandela into court to testify in a commission of enquiry into rugby in 1996. It was a humiliating moment for many South Africans, the first time the man who freed the country had been in a witness box since the Rivonia Trial of 1964; and it came only a few years after Luyt was justifiably accused of racism when, during the Springboks’ first match after readmission, against New Zealand at Ellis Park in 1992, the Tannoy played “Die Stem” in a “deliberate breach of a pledge not to promote apartheid symbols”.
These boorish acts were, it seems, perfectly in character for the man because Luyt, back in the 1970s, had been central to an assault on South African media by the apartheid government. At the time, the state was becoming increasingly fed up with so-called liberal newspapers, such as the Rand Daily Mail. In response, Minister of Information Connie Mulder and State President BJ Vorster attempted to buy SAAN, the holding company behind the Mail and the Sunday Times. Luyt was their frontman. When that failed, Mulder secretly, and again illegally, gave millions of rands to Luyt in order that he set up a pro-government newspaper. He went ahead. It was called The Citizen, and it’s still going today. Unsurprisingly, the paper’s editorial direction was decidedly pro-National Party, the only English-language paper with that particular sentiment.
In time, the secret got out, reported – in a rather delicious irony – by the Rand Daily Mail.
It was known as the Information Scandal, and it probably cost Mulder the presidency. Vorster himself was eventually forced to quit, too. (See BJ Vorster in the book)
Once he had been, finally, mercifully ejected from the corridors of power at Sarfu headquarters, Luyt went on to pursue the ultimate vanity project: he started his own political party. The Federal Alliance, established to protect “the rights and integrity of Afrikaners”, contested its first election in 1999 – but no one was particularly surprised when it folded shortly thereafter, having won no seats. After all, who would want to support a frontman for apartheid state propaganda, a decidedly offensive after-dinner speaker and a man with questionable views on his melanin-rich compatriots? Luyt the Lout really is, much to our impoverishment, straight out of Spitting Image.
Snuki Zikalala born 12 May 1951
Ex-MD of SABC News and Current Affairs; Mbeki fan; Stalin fan; censorship fan; destroyer of the public broadcaster’s last vestiges of independence
Perhaps the warning was there, in his CV. Snuki Zikalala learnt his version of the trade of journalism at a Soviet university in Sofia, Bulgaria, deep in the Eastern Bloc. That right there should have got the alarm bells ringing.
Zikalala is another man steeped in the Struggle, another returnee from exile and communist influence. The struggle for winning freedom and democracy in South Africa was one thing, but actually doing democracy is another altogether, as he would find out.
He started as head of news at the South African Broadcasting Corporation in April 2004, exactly 10 years into South Africa’s democratic age. His position was one of enormous reach and power. The SABC, lest we forget, wields 18 radio stations and four television channels, three of which are free-to-air. Most South Africans are unable to afford satellite news from the BBC, Sky or even Al Jazeera.
Most South Africans live out of range of independent radio, such as Talk Radio 702 or 567 Cape Talk. So for the great majority of us, the SABC is the only news source we will ever receive. Add that to a widespread lack of understanding of how democratic institutions work and the nature of what democracy means, brought on by the still-real effects of Bantu education, and it’s clear just how crucial the SABC is in forming opinions.
Sadly, Zikalala was to set about creating a propaganda machine that would not just trumpet the pro-ANC agenda, but would specifically look after and protect his master and president, Thabo Mbeki. Zikalala was, it almost goes without saying, an Mbeki acolyte.
He was once described, rather marvellously, by the late Mail & Guardian columnist Robert Kirby: “He smiles obsequiously and exudes something even stickier than glycerine.”
Indeed, evening after evening, SABC News viewers would be subjected to the image of Miranda Strydom leading the top story of the day about a glorious speech the president had made somewhere. This was more the GCIS* than the news. But it was the news as Zikalala saw it.
Under his guidance, the SABC very seldom reported on deeply troubling societal issues such as HIV/Aids and crime; newsreaders were, in fact, instructed not to lead bulletins with a crime story.
And it brooked no criticism of the ANC, the president or his ministers. When Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was booed at a rally in 2005, the SABC refused to broadcast the footage.
A documentary on how Mbeki had come to power was quashed for having elements that were considered unfit for broadcast – which is to say, it included some constructive criticism.
But perhaps Zikalala’s greatest crime was to compile a blacklist of political commentators whose thoughts were, he felt, counter-revolutionary, anti-ANC or anti-Mbeki, and who were subsequently banned from appearing on SABC radio or TV programmes.
When the Sowetan broke the story, the SABC naturally did its best to deny the allegation, but it had the carpet pulled out from under it when veteran radio man John Perlman confirmed that the blacklist was real, during a 2006 broadcast of his morning show on its SAfm radio station. (Perlman resigned shortly after being given a verbal warning for his on-air actions.)
An independent commission of enquiry into the blacklist affair established varied motives for people being banned from the public broadcaster’s airwaves, and discovered how far removed from legitimate journalism the productions at the SABC had become.
Karima Brown, Business Day’s erstwhile political editor and a former ANC activist, was banned for asking difficult questions – “spreading untruths” was how Zikalala was said to have described it. Pius Ncube, the Zimbabwean archbishop, was banned from commenting on what was happening in Zimbabwe.
So was Trevor Ncube, the Zimbabwean owner of the Mail & Guardian. Moeletsi Mbeki, the president’s younger brother, was banned for his regular criticism of the government and South Africa’s BEE policies.
Paula Slier, the veteran reporter in the Middle East, was referred to as “that little Jewish girl” and was banned for allegedly being too pro-Israel. The report noted this comment from Zikalala: “From the movement where I come from, we support the PLO”.
As the Zuma/Mbeki showdown gathered momentum in 2007, it was, for SABC-watchers, almost amusing to witness the public broadcaster flail about as it tried to work out how to report on what was going on.
The corporation was pro-Mbeki, and yet the ANC was rapidly turning pro-Zuma. In the run-up to the event, Mbeki was interviewed on 15 SABC stations; Zuma on exactly none. You could almost see the hand-wringing as the propaganda machine had to deal with increasingly serious fallout for its master, and there was little surprise when it all came crashing down.
Zikalala’s suspension by group CEO Dali Mpofu in May 2008 was quickly matched by the counter-suspension of Mpofu by the SABC board.
The corporation veritably ground to a standstill as the quagmire of politically motivated warring was resolved, and it took a full year before Zikalala was sent on his way. He left, he claimed, with his head held high, even while his demoralised staff, the (new) SABC board, media watchdogs, various political parties and the public in general celebrated his departure.
But by then the damage was done. Not forgetting the general incompetence that had befallen the SABC under Zikalala’s reign – his satellite TV brainchild, SABC International, lost astronomical amounts of money – in a few short years, the public broadcaster had reverted to what it was pre-1994: the mouthpiece of the ruling party.
The ANC and its appointees in Auckland Park had become, it seems, content with carrying on the fine tradition of lies, propaganda and mismanagement started by the apartheid state, and it is difficult to see the SABC shaking off this reputation any time in the near future.
Zikalala, like any head of news who had gone before him in the corporation’s history, could have been great. He could have taken the broadcaster across a Rubicon of its own.
He didn’t, and the people it hurts most are mainly poor and black – the people who rely on the SABC for their news-gathering.
Zikalala struck a blow for Stalinism by keeping ordinary people ignorant of the truth, and tried to establish a kind of ghastly Ministry of Truth in which he played the role of Big Brother.
But for the colour of his skin, he would have done well under Vorster or Botha. Shame on you, Snuki.
*That’s Government Communication and Information System, if you weren’t aware. The actual GCIS is “responsible for communication between government and the people”. No one really knows what it was doing while Zikalala was in charge of the SABC.
For the other 45 characters, go out and grab
“50 People Who Stuffed Up South Africa”,written by Alexander Parker and illustrated by Zapiro (Two Dogs Publishers).