ghosts of sabc

It’s been almost a year since my last trip to South Africa. Before I hopped on that plane, I tried to write about my misgivings or vague worries about South Africa, and the journalists I’d come to know and respect there. My gut feelings have since become definite and growing concerns. 

I wrote it for a conference newsletter. It was about my growing unease with the SABC, the national public broadcaster, and by extension the nation itself. Jacob Zuma’s scramble for power seemed to stomp upon the very ideals of the anti-apartheid era that had amazed so many around the world, and seemed to signal a return to the bad old days of self-censorship if not state censorship. But the truth is that the African National Congress had already installed its very own version of the Broederbund into the nations institutions, including the SABC.

We just didn’t want to believe it. At least, I didn’t want to believe it. That’s what this piece was trying to say, while also trying to highlight the positive for the conference.  I’m not sure it succeeded at doing either. My only excuse is that I didn’t have first-hand knowledge when I wrote it.

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April, 2008.

Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Ontario, Canada.

I remember my first day at the SABC. It was a few months before the ’94 elections. I’d never seen such massive security at a broadcaster – in peace time too. I had been to military bases and prisons in Canada. I’d once landed in the middle of a coup in Fiji. But the SABC surprised me. Airport-style scanners, signs telling people to check their pistols, armed security with hand-held detectors. Huge metal grates that could descend from the ceiling. The SABC was a fortress built to keep people out.

You must understand: I had just left a rundown, mouse-ridden, old red brick building in downtown Toronto. People sometimes wandered in from the street, roamed the hallways looking for someone to curse at about that stupid show we did the other day. Some labelled our modest workplace “the Kremlin.” We called it national news at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. So the contrast, to me, spoke volumes about the mindset of those who had built the SABC in Johannesburg.

I was amazed by the facilities. State-of-the-art studios and equipment. Need to hook up with reporters in Baghdad? Not a problem. Technicians ran full out to put their shows on the air. Journalists walked into amazing stories with their crews, all with apparent abandon despite the gunfire. Yet, back then, many or most felt – and were treated – like lepers for working where they did.

In those early days, people looked at me and other foreign trainers with a mix of fear, ambition, and hope. Some saw us either as career saviours or executioners. For a few, it was a chance to see if adaptive colouring could work. For others, it was all about people who knew  people in power. But the old powers were getting tossed, retiring, or changing jobs. The notion that we could change anyone’s future was nonsense.

We might offer some new skills? But most were already highly skilled. Tricks of the trade? We knew that would wear thin quickly. So we settled on offering hope. We looked for those who wanted to claim or reclaim something they had lost. The rest was up to them.

We helped people dig deep into themselves, to find that creative spark that changes a bland piece of writing into something that cries out to be read. That same spark that changes a boring slice of video into absolutely mind-blowing television. But we could only point the way. They had to find that love of storytelling, that love of craft, for themselves.

Most of the people I worked with craved for change. One person told me that he wanted his self-respect back; by trying harder than ever to perfect his craft. Another person said the training was the first time anyone at SABC had respected her, encouraged her to think, took her ideas seriously.

I could go on about the people who blossomed, or the ones who stumbled. Some may prefer me to concentrate on all of the things that went wrong during those transitional years, or have gone wrong since. But my mind keeps creeping back to successes like the amazing coverage during that first election. Nobody in South Africa had ever done anything like that before. That was also when SABC journalists decided – en masse – that they would never, ever ride in with the Hippos again.

I can recall scenes from live coverage of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. I still hear moans of grief from documentaries that went beyond the hearings, deep into the minds of murderers and victims alike. Later, there came stories of secret arms deals. Early warnings about an impending energy crisis and global warming. Darfur. Squatters in Johannesburg turning abandoned buildings into self-contained villages. Stories about people groping for a place in the new South Africa.

The SABC is still evolving. The ideal, according to public broadcasters abroad, is that it should strive to become something that keeps everyone else honest. It would do so by example; by serving all of the people, all of the time; by never bowing before advertisers, lobbyists, governments, or any single segment in society. If it can do that, the SABC upholds a standard against which all other institutions begin to compare themselves.

That’s why some may look back at those earlier years with longing and even nostalgia. The transformation of the SABC, only fifteen years old, began with lofty sentiments and high ideals. But, as the saying goes, reality bites. Everything has changed with time. The whole country has changed – and still is. That process may be most visible and accessible to South Africans through the lenses and microphones of the SABC. 

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