The Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ) has commissioned me to train nine senior South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) journalists in the ways of interviewing.
Following is the story of the first time I trained SABC journalists. Twenty-two years ago. At the time I was lead TV journalism trainer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
Johannesburg, South Africa, 1994
Buildings reflect the ideas and values of the people and organizations that build them. This building is clearly designed to keep ideas and values out. Dangerous, alien ideas and values. Like truth and democracy and common decency.
Massive pillars built to stop invaders — even tanks — guard the entrance. A sign orders us to leave firearms and explosives at the reception desk. We carry no firearms or explosives. Only ideas and values. Should we declare ideas and values?
Our bags go through a metal detector. Guards armed with automatic rifles watch us like jackals watch rabbits. We pass more guards, through a turnstile and we’re inside.
Welcome to the Johannesburg headquarters of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Welcome to the voice of Apartheid.
It’s four months before South Africa’s first-ever democratic election.
I’m taken to meet the senior managers of SABC-TV News. They sit around a long, polished, teak table. All of them men. All of them middle-aged to elderly. All but one of them white.
The boss is SABC-TV journalism’s Editor-in-Chief, Johan Pretorius. He got his job as a reward for being spokesman and apologist for the Apartheid regime of former President P.W. Botha. Pretorius introduces me.
I look around the faces at the table. They’re masked cold Afrikaner faces. These are the men who feed the great lie of Apartheid. These are the men who believe the Afrikaner has a covenant with God; that God gave the Afrikaner this land and decreed that people of color would be servants — hewers of wood and drawers of water — until the end of time.
Pretorius admits that SABC has problems. He talks of the need to “regain” believability. His voice is soft, worried, distant. The Corporation needs help, he says vaguely. The introduction ends. There is a long pause.
I ask politely “Gentlemen, how can I help?”
They’re confused. Where are the lectures on the evils of Apartheid? Where are the righteous attacks on SABC’s news coverage? These people aren’t used to being consulted. They’re used to doing what they’re told.
I start at the end of the table and ask the same question of each manager. How can I help? Reluctantly each answers, admits change is necessary and puts himself on record in front of his colleagues.
For the rest of the day I walk the managers through our training plan. We will teach story structure, story focus, writing, interviewing and on-camera performance. But underlying everything will be a strong and constant focus on democratic journalism. I take less than an hour to describe the plan for each of the craft skills. Democratic journalism takes two hours.
At the end of the day I go around the table again. “Any problems?” I ask each of them. “Any problems?”
Nobody has a problem he wants to talk about in this room. So none of them question the virtues, the righteousness, the inevitability of revolutionary, democratic changes in SABC journalism.
Now all we have to do is persuade the journalists.
Dan David and I sit in my hotel room late one evening and argue.
We’re the first foreign TV journalism trainers invited to run workshops for SABC-TV newspeople. Dan is a Mohawk from Kanehsatake, Québec. I’m a Canadian, born in England. We’re the colonized and the colonizer. South Africans find us a very odd couple.
We argue. What if we train the SABC journalists to write better and perform better and interview better and tell news stories better? And what if they turn around and use the training to push better Apartheid propaganda?
What if we’re collaborators in the Apartheid system?
Desks and chairs in the training room are arranged in respectful rows, like a classroom, to face the main table. Dan David says the Mohawk way — a circle, with everyone equal — is better. The trainees look puzzled but politely push the desks around until we have a circle.
Three quarters of them are white. In this country, at this time, whites still talk the talk and walk the walk of unquestioned god-given authority.
I ask them what hours they want to work. Nobody answers. They look at each other, confused.
A white reporter who lives in nearby white Rosebank finally says “no problem.” He can work whatever hours we want.
A black reporter from Soweto says shyly “it is good to get this sort of respect.” Then she explains the problem of getting her children to and from school and catching a bus and sharing a taxi to get to the SABC and back — all without getting caught up in township violence or police roadblocks. We agree on hours to suit the people from Soweto.
Dan David asks the group “what do you want out of these training workshops?” The quiet lasts forever.
Nobody has ever asked them questions like these before. Whatever your rank at the SABC, you don’t make decisions for yourself. You do what you’re told.
We wait. And slowly, slowly the closed, guarded faces change and people start to talk. First the whites. Then the blacks. Mostly, they have questions. What’s the role of the journalist in a democracy? Who decides what the story’s about? Can foreign journalists report what they actually see and hear? What happens if the bosses don’t like a journalist’s story?
They complain about foreign journalists who despise SABC reporters as government lackeys and won’t talk to SABC journalists — won’t even share lights on location shoots.
They want to be respected as real journalists.
By afternoon we’re discussing democracy.
We’ve been warned that some of the journalists in our SABC workshops are spies for Military Intelligence. We know that all of them, black and white, to some degree have been collaborators in — and apologists for — the Apartheid state.
Our job as we see it is to help turn the SABC journalists from state broadcasters serving the government to public broadcasters serving the people.
One of them tells us wryly “… all you have to do is change us from fascists to democrats in a few short weeks.” She laughs.
We sit in an auditorium crowded with SABC journalists, black and white. They’re preparing to cover the election. It will be South Africa’s first democratic election after 342 years of white rule and abuse. These journalists have never covered a democratic election. Few know what democracy is.
Two smooth-talking white men in cheap suits try to sell us bulletproof jackets. It’s like an obscene Tupperware party. Except that every journalist in the room knows three colleagues have already been killed covering the run-up to the election. And the odds are that over the next couple of months some of the journalists sitting here tonight will also die while covering a story.
The salesmen proudly show off a selection of jackets. They claim the cheapest (21 layers of Kevlar) will protect against bullets from most handguns. The next will handle 9-mm ammunition. The most expensive jacket has a ceramic insert and, they boast, will likely stop an AK-47. It depends, apparently, on how many times you’re shot. And how close you are to the gun.
A reporter worries if she wears one of the jackets in the black townships she’ll be mistaken for a cop or a soldier — which is not a good idea in the townships. No problem, says the salesmen, you can get the jackets in white or pastel if you like. With tear-off Velcro MEDIA patches. A few people laugh.
The questions are practical. How much do the jackets weigh? How hot are they? What makes them better than the old flak jackets? Somebody asks, not too seriously, how they’ll protect his head?
They won’t, says the salesman. You have to learn to duck. Fast. Nobody laughs. They know. And it isn’t funny.
This is Election Coverage 101 for SABC journalists.
There’s an old African saying: if you take something important away from a people you must replace it with something of value.
To these SABC journalists job security has always been most important. As long as they do what they’re told, their jobs are safe and they don’t have to think.
It works this way — South African politicians tell SABC managers who tell SABC producers who tell SABC editors who tell SABC reporters what to cover and how to cover it.
The journalists don’t have to see and speak for themselves. They’re not responsible for their stories. They do what they’re told. The devil makes them do it. By now, however, they know the Apartheid regime is dying. The ANC will take power within months. The ANC thinks differently.
So they have a choice. They can stay secure. They can try to keep their jobs by doing what they think the new ANC government will want. That way they’ll remain servants of the state. Just serve different masters.
Or they can risk their jobs by behaving like real journalists, honestly reporting what they see, hear and believe to be the truth. That way, they’ll be servants of the people.
We tell them you either guard the free marketplace of ideas or you poison it. We tell them free and honest journalism is the shining jewel of democracy. Without it, there can be no democracy.
We tell them that they’re either whores for the state or servants of the people. There’s no middle ground. They have to make a choice.
We tell them the reward for making the honorable choice — giving up job security to serve the people — is something of great value. We tell them it’s the only way they’ll be able to respect themselves as journalists. And it’s the only way foreign journalists will respect them.
We tell them the price is worth paying.
It’s easy for Canadians to say.
Nelson Mandela comes to the SABC building for an election rally. It’s 32 long years since he was thrown into prison for treason. Just five years since he walked out of Viktor Verster Prison, clenched fist raised in victory, basking in the warm sun of freedom.
Everywhere, journalists and technicians and drivers and cleaners and even a few managers leave their jobs, abandon desks and machines, stream towards the meeting. For the first time since we get here, the face of the SABC is mostly black and joyous.
Mandela gets up on the platform in front of the crowd and looks out at the faces trusting him, needing him, and great waves of hope and love and respect flow between the old man and his people.
This is the man who will epitomize “the nobility of the human soul” at his inauguration as president four months from now. He stands on the platform in front of all the people who’ve served Apartheid so faithfully for so long, who now want so very much from him, and tells them Apartheid is dead.
And suddenly there’s a new light and a new truth in the faces of the people working in this place of lies. They chant “viva” and “viva … Mandela… viva” and “amandla (power)” and fists come up in salute because now they know the new light and the new truth are theirs for certain.
Mandela speaks slowly, deliberately, carefully, like a headmaster rallying the school at assembly. When he’s president, he promises, no more censorship, no more government interference. The SABC’s time as an arm of government propaganda is over.
He says the words everyone wants to hear. Words about hope and change and freedom and a new South Africa. But as he must, he warns against expecting too much too soon. And there is a threat, a hint of steel, when he warns the white men who run the SABC that their time as servants of Apartheid is over, that the SABC must become part of the new, democratic, non-racial South Africa. In the future the public broadcaster must serve all the people.
The journalists around us in this mass of people listen carefully, sensitive for codes and ambiguities. They may not be real journalists but they know the language of politicians.
Back in the workshop everyone, black and white, agrees that Mandela means what he says. But almost everyone is skeptical that he can deliver. Just like the last government, they predict, the next government will want to control the SABC’s journalism. Whether Mandela wants it or not.
After a while, it will be just like before.
But things change fast in South Africa.
Dan David and I teach journalistic story structure, story focus, writing, on-air performance and interviewing. All the usual skills. But underlying everything, the rock on which it’s all based, runs our theme, the ethics of democratic journalism.
By the end of the first three weeks of workshops you can tell the difference. It’s not overwhelming yet, but it’s there. The journalists are starting to think for themselves. Their journalism is more honest, less institutional. Stories are more objective, more professional. There are, thank god, fewer white guys in military uniforms and suits in their stories.
And there’s something else. Something wildly different in this place. The buzz, the excitement, of freedom is in the air. You can smell it, taste it, feel it in the newsrooms, the editing rooms, the hallways and the cafeteria.
Democracy is struggling to be born.
Things change fast in South Africa.
SABC’s high command decides to cancel a fairly hard-hitting (for South Africa) Sunday evening Current Affairs program called Agenda. They’re going to replace it with an entertainment program.
The journalists revolt. All but three of the entire news division, women and men, white and black, sign a petition refusing to accept the decision. They threaten to take the fight all the way to the SABC’s Board of Directors.
Their courage touches the heart. These people have nowhere to go if they’re fired. Nobody hires tainted SABC propagandists.
The bosses back down. The rebels win.
Agenda stays on Sunday nights.
Johannesburg’s Rockey Street is alive, noisy, crowded, sexy. Like Toronto’s Queen Street. Or Manhattan’s Broadway. Or London’s Carnaby Street. Except that almost everyone is shades of dark and people laugh out loud because life is sweet and, who knows, tomorrow maybe you’re dead.
You can smell the energy, feel the hot, sensual, seductive hand of freedom touching people on the street, in the funky, slutty bars and restaurants.
One hot and scented night when the Jacaranda trees flower and people kill each other all over South Africa because freedom is too fast or too slow, Dan David and I go out to dinner on Rockey Street. We eat on the patio of a trendy restaurant in the warm night air under Africa’s moon.
Our hosts are four South Africans who came to us in Canada secretly the previous year for training in democratic journalism and got all excited and went home to start something called the Public Broadcasting Initiative (PBI). Its stated, open objective from the beginning is to overthrow the Apartheid regime at the mighty, monolithic SABC.
These PBI people know no fear. They’ve fought Apartheid for years, risked their careers and their lives for the cause and are, without doubt, more than somewhat crazy.
The first thing they do when they get home from Canada is start a very public fuss because the government appoints the SABC’s Board of Directors and fills it with lackeys of Apartheid.
Within months the SABC surrenders. Public hearings are held to decide who runs the Corporation. Today there are a few black people and brown people and even women on the SABC’s Board of Directors.
The PBI crazies’ second battle is to persuade the SABC to invite foreign trainers to teach its journalists democratic journalism before the election. PBI wins that one too. And promptly invites Dan David and me to South Africa.
The PBI crazies take us to dinner.
Sylvia Vollenhoven is there. Passionate and intelligent, dazzling, urgent, incredibly honest, the color of milk chocolate. She speaks of the new South Africa like a mother talks of the child she carries.
And Amina Frense, friend and adviser to Nelson Mandela, dark, wise, gentle and impenetrable.
And David Niddrie, the strategist, the politician, the wily chess player who thinks nine moves ahead of most people and fifteen moves ahead of SABC mandarins.
And John Matisonn. Smart as hell, pale, white-shirted, gray-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.
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 slavery are willing to share power with the slave owners.
“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.
We go back to eating and drinking and plotting strategy and telling stories and laughing together.
Tsepo Khumbane joins us. She’s plump, sixtyish, dressed in traditional robes, laughing at life because she is a simple black woman from the bush who fought for black dignity and women’s dignity. And suddenly she’s a very important member of the SABC’s new Board of Directors.
When we leave, deep into the morning, Tsepo and John and Sylvia and Amina and David and Dan and I toyi-toyi down Rockey Street singing freedom songs. Strangers smile and step aside to let us though. And some dance with us.
I never did toyi-toyi down any street back home with any of the terminally important Directors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Things change fast in South Africa.
Some assessments written after the workshops by SABC journalists, black and white:
• Journalists are (now) workers for the people, not the state.
• It has awakened in me that part of a journalist which is perhaps the most important — the right and ability to question.
• I am now going to do all in my power to do my best, to try my hardest and in that way serve my corporation and most importantly my country.
• I felt privileged to be treated as an honourable journalist.
• It was really powerful stuff. It unleashed feeling and needs which had been tucked away. Perhaps because that was the only way to survive in the SABC.
• The course gave me my very first opportunity to practice democracy in the SABC. THANK YOU SO MUCH.
It’s late one evening after a training seminar behind the tank traps at SABC headquarters.
Executive Editor, Christo Kritzinger, the man who runs the SABC’s day-to-day TV journalism, drives Dan and me back to our hotel.
Kritzinger is largely responsible for the SABC’s role as propagandist for Apartheid. People say he’s also a high-ranking member of Military Intelligence.
We go to the bar, drink beer and talk tiredly of politics and sport until out of nowhere — as easily as if he’s claiming membership in the Rotary Club — Kritzinger tells us that until he quit recently he was a member of the Broederbond, the all-powerful-all-male-all-Afrikaner secret society which designed Apartheid and runs South Africa.
A few days later, just before we return to Canada, Kritzinger hands me a note:
Journalism is indeed a cause.
And our loyalty is to the people.
The most honest of all professions.
Thank you for reminding us.
St. John was right.
“The Truth Shall Make You Free.”
Things change fast in South Africa.
Postscript — Shortly after we leave South Africa Christo Kritzinger takes early retirement from the SABC because of ill health. He dies shortly thereafter.
And in its July, 1994, edition Southern Africa Report runs this story about Christo’s boss, the man who introduced me at the senior manager’s meeting:
Johan Pretorius, 49, South African Broadcasting Corporation TV News editor-in-chief, has announced his retirement from the Corporation after 180 members of (the SABC’s News Department) handed senior executive Zwelakhe Sisulu a petition expressing lack of confidence …
There is nothing — absolutely nothing — more exciting that watching democracy struggle to be born.
Adapted from the second edition of Tim Knight’s book Storytelling And The Anima Factor.