It’s 1993. A year before South Africa’s first-ever democratic election.
Small groups of journalists secretly leave South Africa for intensive training workshops at Canada’s public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), in Toronto, Canada.
You could call them voortrekkers (“those who go ahead”). They’re pioneers sent by the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid political and human rights groups to study the ways of democratic journalism.
CBC trainers work with them on storytelling, story focus, story structure, writing and performance.
And always — running like a golden thread under every workshop — is an emphasis on journalistic ethics and morals. On journalism as public service. Journalism as telling truth to power. Journalism as platform and guardian of the free marketplace of ideas.
Once home, the voortrekkers are expected to introduce these concepts to the apartheid-serving state broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), in time for the desperately important 1994 election.
Somehow, they’re to change the SABC from the propaganda arm of the apartheid government to a broadcaster that reports fairly, honestly and objectively on the election.
At the time, I’m executive producer (emeritus) of all CBC’s TV journalism training. My job is to lead some of the voortrekkers’ coaching workshops.
The voortrekkers’ job is to turn the SABC from state broadcaster to public broadcaster. From fascist lapdog of apartheid to the democratic voice of the people.
On the last evening of our last workshop we make speeches, share a few drinks, say emotional farewells and embrace. Many tears. Then quite spontaneously the whole group breaks into the African liberation anthem, Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.
Lord, bless Africa
May her horn rise high up
Hear Thou our prayers
And bless us.
While still in Toronto, four of the voortrekkers dream up a political pressure group called the Public Broadcasting Initiative (PBI), aimed straight at the SABC.
Once home, they meet top SABC officials, politicians and thought leaders at all levels. They push and probe and question and debate and always, always, they demand that by election time the SABC become a public broadcaster of the stature of CBC and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
All four are already experienced Struggle journalists. Intelligent, focused, tough-minded and deadly serious. All become key agents of change at SABC.
They’re Sylvia Vollenhoven (SABC executive producer, news). David Niddrie (SABC board member). Amina Frense (SABC managing editor, TV news and current affairs). And John Matisonn (producer of SABC’s 1994 radio election coverage).
Comes election day, international observers rate both the election and SABC’s coverage as successful, free and fair.
The SABC finally earns the right to the honourable title of public broadcaster.
The CBC, PBI, Sylvia Vollenhoven, David Niddrie, Amina Frense and John Matisonn keep the promise.
In my book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, I write of Matisonn:
“Smart as hell, pale, white-shirted, grey-trousered, black-shoed like an intellectual bank manager. Rubbing his hands together with religious delight as he describes one more in his endless list of wonderful ways to screw the SABC fascists and free the journalists to free the people.”
Now, Matisonn has written God, Spies and Lies, subtitled Finding South Africa’s future through its past.
He writes of the CBC training workshops:
“For SABC television, Canada’s CBC was helpful beyond our expectations.” “It would not have been the same without them …”
Matisonn abhors South Africa’s past, is fearful of its present, and sadly pessimistic about its immediate future.
His book joins a long list which critically examine the country’s manifold and manifest problems. For instance, a recent Sunday Times list of the top five new non-fiction books all cover South Africa’s brutal, racist, classist politics.
God, Spies and Lies is about these politics, of course. But it’s focus — as seen through Matisonn’s hugely experienced eyes — is mostly on the journalists who cover politics and politicians.
Among his journalistic good guys during the apartheid years are Charles Bloomberg (political reporter, Sunday Times), Joe Thloloe (Director, Press Council), Hugh Lewin (author, Bandiet out of Jail), Peta Thornycroft (freelance journalist, Zimbabwe), Max du Preez (editor, Vrye Weekblad), Tony Heard (editor, Cape Times), Laurance Gandar, Ray Louw, Alister Sparks and Rex Gibson (all editors, Rand Daily Mail), and Joel Mervis (editor, Sunday Times).
The big news in the book though, is Matisonn’s charge that the late Tertius Myburgh, powerful, respected editor of the Sunday Times during the apartheid years, was secretly an apartheid spy.
According to Matisonn and sources he quotes, Myburgh killed some of his own reporters’ stories about the ruling National Party crimes and the immense power and influence of the extreme Afrikaner right-wing secret society, the Broederbond.
“Myburgh betrayed his staff. He betrayed his profession. Most important of all, he betrayed his readers who were dependent on the media to tell them the truth.”
“The facts are clear. Tertius Myburgh was the mole, and numerous courageous people paid a price when he was editor of the Sunday Times.”
“And his own comments show he knew exactly what a traitor he really was.”
Matisonn is no admirer of President Jacob Zuma and his wholly-owned ANC either.
His opening paragraph sets the stage:
“For a couple of months in the near perfect summer of 1990/1991, Jacob Zuma came to stay in my house …”
“Twenty-five years later, my former house guest has all but morally bankrupted Nelson Mandela’s ruling African National Congress (ANC). President Zuma’s vision-free leadership, questionable personal behaviour and attempts to use his political power to distort the judicial system render him no better than Italy’s corrupt bunga-bunga partying ex-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. How far has this great party fallen!”
But what of the SABC, 21 years after that fair, balanced coverage of South Africa’s first democratic election? Does it stay a public broadcaster like CBC and BBC?
Is SABC today a bastion of courageous investigative journalists speaking truth to power, serving the free marketplace of ideas, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted?
Here’s Matisonn on the SABC:
“The door between jobs in the … SABC board … revolved, entrenched political interference instead of a culture of independence. Conflict … was fanned by loyalties to party structures instead of the institutions that paid their salaries.”
God, Spies and Lies is long (448 pages). It’s well written, crammed with day-to-day, often complex revelations about political skullduggery Matisonn comes across during his forty years as journalist and public servant.
He seems to have known every major player in the modern South African political diorama, every ANC leader since Oliver Tambo, and every government leader from John Vorster to FW de Klerk to Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma.
His book should be read by every journalist needing to understand how easily greedy, self-serving politicians can poison democracy’s free marketplace of ideas.
Actually, it should be read by everyone who cares anything about democracy, freedom of information and modern South Africa, the former rainbow nation.
Last words are Matisonn’s summation in God, Spies and Lies:
“For a brief, shining moment, we thought we had harnessed history, and perhaps we had. But history is an unruly mount. No sooner had we turned to take in the view than it broke free, galloping in directions we knew not where. A new generation must embrace its challenge. They inherited a constitution that makes it possible. It’s up to them to find the will.”
(God, Spies and Lies by John Matisonn, published by Ideas for Africa in association with Missing Ink. R290).
Tim Knight is a journalist, filmmaker and communications trainer who’s worked for three South African newspapers, Zambia TV, United Press International, ABC, NBC and PBS in New York, and the CBC in Canada. His book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, is now in its second edition.