By Tim Knight
The Jimi Matthews who’s just quit as the SABC’s acting Group Chief Executive was once a fierce defender of freedom of the press.
Particularly in public television where he’d worked for so many years.
I knew him back around 1994 when SABC lured me from Canada — where I’d been head of TV journalism training — to coach its newsrooms in the ways of democratic journalism.
My job was to lead a team of Canadian TV journalism trainers to help the SABC report professionally and honestly on the new Rainbow Nation’s first-ever democratic election.
Our mission was to help turn the corporation from a fascist state broadcaster to a democratic public broadcaster like the CBC and BBC.
By all accounts, we succeeded. The SABC got high marks for its independent, balanced, free and fair 1994 election coverage.
In those days, Jimi was a brave and highly respected cameraman/reporter who exposed apartheid’s atrocities with skill and courage.
He believed as we all did, that independent, free, honest journalism would be the cornerstone of this brave new democracy.
He too believed that this newfound professional South African journalism would guard the nation against inevitable challenges from the rich and powerful — particularly politicians.
But something happened to Jimi as he rose through the SABC’s corporate ranks, moved into bigger and bigger offices with bigger and bigger salaries.
And more and more power.
As the SABC lost its innocence and returned to being little more than a propaganda arm of the governing party, Jimi lost his mojo, his cajones, his courage.
Last week he got a lot of it back.
The new Jimi wrote that the “corrosive atmosphere” at the SABC had negatively affected his moral judgement. It had made him complicit in decisions he “was not proud of”.
“What is happening at the SABC is wrong and I can no longer be a part of it.”
“I also wish to apologise to the many people who I’ve let down by remaining silent when my voice needed to be heard.”
This finally, after all the years, was the Jimi Matthews we once knew and respected.
Enter the SABC’s Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a couple of days after Jimi’s resignation.
He bluntly told the corporation’s staff, including its journalists:
“If you are at the SABC, there is leadership, and if the leadership says you must turn right, you must turn right. If you turn left, you must get off the bus,”
Later that same day, in growing disbelief, I watched Motsoeneng dominate a bizzare SABC media briefing.
The “public” broadcaster’s Grand Poobah was in full paranoid, megalomaniacal, gunslinger denial. (more…)