SA revolution is being televised: John Carlin meets four journalists bringing democracy to the South African Broadcasting Corporation

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The Independent Online
THE REVOLUTION is not expected in South Africa until next April when, barring a catastrophe or a miracle (whichever way you look at it), the African National Congress (ANC) will win the general election and lead the country's first democratic government. At one institution of state, however, the revolution is already well under way.

Without fanfare, democracy is creeping up on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), a news monopoly faithful to the Saddam Hussein school of journalism. 'We are at war,' a director-general of the SABC said 12 years ago. 'We are involved in the politics of survival. The SABC cannot stand aside . . . We cannot cast doubt on the rulers of our country.'

During the last three years, since the legalisation of the ANC, things have changed. Black political leaders have been regular chat-show participants. But the bias in the presentation of news has remained. Take the massacre at Boipatong in June last year, when Inkatha warriors rampaged through the township at night, killing 42. Fifty per cent of the footage that night centred on a grief-stricken black policeman whose car had been set on fire by ANC 'comrades' in retaliation for the attack. No mention was made of the reason why the car had been targeted - allegations by dozens of witnesses that the police had escorted the Inkatha killers into the township.

Gross distortion has remained the order of the day. But not any more. Or at least, next time it happens there will be hell to pay. Last month, despite resistance from President F W de Klerk, the Afrikaner male dynasty lost its control over the SABC board. Ivy Matsepe-Casseburi, the new 'chairperson', is not only black and a woman, she has never made any secret of her allegiance to the struggle for liberation.

More important, however, are the changes at Agenda, a news and current affairs programme broadcast daily at 8.30pm which, as a foreign television producer put it, 'wants to be Newsnight when it grows up'. Mrs Matsepe- Casseburi's functions will be mainly honorary. The new head of Agenda, Ameen Akhalwaya, exercises power.

He was appointed two weeks ago by an SABC executive desperate to be seen to be even-handed for fear of losing their jobs under an ANC government. Mr Akhalwaya is a widely respected journalist whose political leanings are well known. A vigorous trade union campaigner for the rights of black journalists, he established South Africa's first 'alternative' newspaper in 1985. The Indicator provided a voice for those who had none. Nelson Mandela wrote to him from prison. 'In one letter he argued the case strongly for journalistic balance. He said one had to reflect everybody's views because 'if we as leaders don't know what people are thinking, we cannot be leaders'.'

Mr Akhalwaya, 47, does not believe that under an ANC government the SABC will switch from one 'His Master's Voice', as he put it, to another. 'Circumstances in the past did not allow for objectivity. In the Indicator we were constructively supportive of the liberation movements. Now things are different. Everybody can have their views aired. On Agenda it will be a team effort. There are still many guys there with a National Party background. What we have is a melting-pot of ideas, which is very exciting. But the real guarantee that we will retain our independence as public, as opposed to party, broadcasters is that we have a team now of committed professional journalists.'

Some more than others. Much dead wood remains but if Mr Akhalwaya's faith is justified, it is in large measure because of three print journalists who joined the SABC before it became fashionable. Thandeka Gqubule, 27, set the trend. A black woman whose family has a long history of loyalty to the ANC, her move to Agenda in January was seen by some as an act of heresy. Charles Leonard, 32, joined four months later and Jacques Pauw followed on 1 June.

Ms Gqubule began her career at the progressive, and then heavily censored, Weekly Mail in 1987, where she acquired a reputation as a courageous reporter - not least because she was one of the first to take on Winnie Mandela. Mr Leonard, who also worked at the Weekly Mail for a while, specialised on the far- right. Having escaped beatings by the skin of his teeth from Eugene Terre-Blanche's henchmen, he was less fortunate when he encountered a white policeman at a march on 2 February 1990, the day Mr de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC. The policeman beat him badly, he sued the Minister of Law and Order and won substantial damages.

Mr Pauw is lucky to be alive. He broke the story of the police death squads in 1989, when he worked at the liberal Afrikaans weekly Vrye Weekblad, and then wrote a controversial book called In the heart of the whore, laying bare the strategy of state murder. No journalist has been braver or more successful in exposing the 'Third Force'. 'They say I'm a Communist,' said Mr Pauw. 'But the truth is that if I lived in Britain I'd support the SDP.'

Over lunch last week, the SABC's three musketeers discussed their unlikely fate. 'Look, there are problems, man. There are problems,' Mr Pauw said. 'SABC news and current affairs is a corporate bureaucracy isolated for many years from the rest of the world. It's rather like Springbok rugby, they lack skill because they lack exposure.'

'In fact,' Ms Gqubule said, 'it's not a journalistic institution. You go numb when you go in there. At the Weekly Mail there was always a vibe, gossip, a big story in the air. Here there's no buzz, no expectancy. Everybody's a zombie. They're civil servants, not journalists.' Mr Leonard agreed: 'There's no culture of journalism. The people there don't even read the newspapers, which I find scary. And besides, some of these guys work for Military Intelligence, for Christ's sake]'

But would they win in the end? 'There are enormous possibilities,' said Mr Pauw. 'SABC has a real chance of becoming a genuine public broadcaster.' Mr Leonard added: 'We have Ameen, who's a real journalist, and already he's made such a big difference. He understands the business.'

'There's definitely Big Brothers watching still,' Ms Gqubule said, 'but we can beat them.'

A case in point came the week before Mr Akhalwaya's arrival, over a story Mr Pauw did about a bugging scandal involving the head of a big Afrikaner bank, a member of the Broederbond, the society that pulled the strings of South African politics. The old guard at the SABC pulled the programme just before broadcasting. But Mr Pauw insisted, got some lawyers on his side and the old guard caved in; the programme was broadcast three days later. 'They're still trying to protect their mates,' said Mr Leonard, 'but they can't any more. You can't stop history.'

Ms Gqubule still sees a battle ahead to remove racism from the hearts and minds of the SABC. 'It's bloody racist. I confront it every day. At the Weekly Mail race didn't matter to anyone but now I've become racially militant. But I'll tell you, it's fun too. It's amazing for the Afrikaner bosses to be told what to do by the strong black women on the new board. It challenges everything. The Afrikaner macho thing, as well as race. And gee, I'll tell you what else is fun. Putting on 'kaffir' music in my documentaries on TV1]'

'Fun' is what all are having, grumble as they might. 'It's exciting, sure,' Mr Leonard said. 'It's exciting to be tagged as lefties, the new breed, bringing the new broom.' Mr Akhalwaya defined his objective as 'introducing South Africa to South Africans, overcoming our abysmal ignorance of one another, especially among whites'. Mr Pauw put it more simply. 'We're introducing South Africans to journalism. That's the real revolution. Not our politics.'

(Photograph omitted)