During Parliament’s inquiry into the fitness of the SABC board to hold office, some details emerged of an altercation that I was involved in with Brian Molefe, who was then the CEO of Transnet, and is now, as the on-again off-again CEO of Eskom, the subject of intense media scrutiny and a source of public perplexment.
As South Africans grapple to understand how a small group of individuals, including Molefe, that seem to adhere to the ethos of gangsters rather than public servants have been able to divide the spoils of the state, I’ve decided to recount the whole story.
What I encountered was a man who was not only willing to lie blatantly on a public platform, but who still had the gall to try to bully me and my bosses for challenging him. The exchanges, of which I have some records, provide some insight into the same man who, after not being given R30-million, is again in charge of a state-owned entity that will be part of deciding whether South Africa’s future is bright or dark, in more ways than one.
So this is how it all went down:
In early 2014 I was told that Molefe had agreed to come in for an interview on the business show that I hosted, Business Review, on SABC news’ 24-hour news channel, aired on DSTV404. Transnet had just concluded a R50-billion train deal – South Africa’s biggest ever – that would see locomotives being supplied by four different companies. It sounded like good news to me and I was interested to meet Molefe who, at the time, was seen as a bright light among SOE leaders.
When I was doing some reading ahead of the interview, however, I encountered a red flag. It had been reported that one of the locomotive suppliers, Chinese firm CSR, had previously been the subject of a probe by the Public Protector, and furthermore that the probe related to a previous deal with Transnet. It was obvious to me that I had to ask why, given the outstanding question mark, the same company was being given another contract.
The best course of action was to confirm the probe with the Public Protector’s office before raising it on air, and I admit that I did not. It was out of office hours and I was under immense time pressure. I followed my gut and experience and, given the volume of reports, the authority of the outlets that they came from, and the fact that there were no retractions, I decided it was fair to raise the matter. I honestly believed that Molefe would expect the question.
Instead he acted shocked and asked what I was talking about, live on air. He said it was the first time he had ever heard of such an investigation. This turned out to be a lie.
The interview continued. Molefe was angry and I was angry with myself for not anticipating his response. When I was finished the show I was told that he and some other Transnet officials were waiting for me in a guest room. I’m not sure exactly who was in the room that night, but I clearly remember an American woman who was introduced as a member of the Transnet board because she was loudly admonishing a young producer on the show when I walked in.
An argument ensued and Molefe demanded an apology on air and wanted me to admit that it was not true that a contract with CSR had been investigated. I did not believe that an apology was in order and I wanted a chance to confirm the investigation with the public protector. I advised that he could speak to the head of news, Jimi Matthews, if he wanted to take the matter of an apology further.
I wrote to Matthews and my immediate boss, Thandeka Gqubule, that evening but, in the event, Matthews was called that night and he contacted me before I got home. He was concerned that Transnet was threatening to sue the SABC, but he agreed to give me time to get written confirmation from the public protector about their investigation.
The next day letters flew back and forth. I was seeing what was coming through from Transnet and was formulating responses that were vetted by an executive producer and Matthews. During the course of the day I obtained written confirmation from the public protector that the investigation existed. The protector’s office further indicated that the investigation had been delayed because Transnet had not responded to a request for information. Once Transnet was told about the confirmation, the tone of the accusations against me changed. I was accused of being a racist and of going on a “tirade” based on my beliefs about Chinese goods.
As evening approached I remember being told that Molefe was coming to the SABC. Matthews left the office but Gqubule, the Political Editor and I attended a hastily convened meeting with Molefe and other Transnet officials. He again called me a racist and said that it was clear I did not believe he could run a parastatal based on the “shape of his nose”. I refuted the claim, which I don’t think he believed anyway.
It was now clear that there could be no defamation case, so I wasn’t quite sure why the issue was being dragged out. Molefe admitted that Transnet had received a request for information from the public protector. When I pointed out that this contradicted his claim – live on air – that there was no investigation, he pulled out Transnet’s response letter, which was more of a short note. It contained a few lines and said that Transnet had enclosed a report from a Namibian publication which, in Molefe’s view, proved that there was no problem with the CSR trains that were the subject of the probe. He implied that that response meant the investigation had effectively gone away, although this didn’t explain why he had claimed categorically during our interview that he had never heard of the probe.
Since the whole dispute had arisen because I had cited media reports, I found it deeply ironic that Transnet’s response to a public protector investigation was to enclose a scrappy newspaper clipping.
Throughout the meeting I was grateful for the intervention of Gqubule who vigorously defended my right to ask questions about matters that were in the public domain. She also questioned how Molefe and Transnet could have dismissed a Chapter 9 institution with such a curt note.
The rest came out in the parliamentary hearings. I had to excuse myself because I was preparing for a show that night. Thandeka was asked to escort Molefe to Ellen Tshabalala, the then Chair of the SABC board, who was waiting for them in another building. She demanded that Gqubule fire me and I was told later that Matthews had been pressured as well.
Molefe had acted with impunity. He walked into the SABC as if he owned the place, knowing he was supported politically. Words were used and arguments were made but I had the distinct impression that the real message was “you’re either with us or against us”. This attitude, on the part of some officials, is increasingly being exposed. Lip service is paid to the ideas of democracy and transparency, while back room deals are done. They have got away with it for so long that they think this latest round of scrutiny will also pass. For the sake of my country, I sincerely hope that is not the case.
On the flip side, Gqubule’s response was brave and ethical and Matthews was mature. Our discussions focused on editorial matters alone. The fallout left me feeling loyal to my immediate bosses and sympathetic towards managers who face pressures that leaders in private media houses simply cannot understand. It partly explains my choice to remain at the SABC which itself has been under fire.
The public outrage and the honesty of my colleagues who have spoken out about their experiences will hopefully lead to immensely positive change at the SABC. The negative consequence, however, has been the implication that journalists at the SABC have no independence. The truth is that the SABC, like the ANC and like South Africa itself, is full of contesting views. While I disagree with many editorial decisions, they are at least justified in editorial terms. Often the SABC’s coverage is fair and critical of authority, but I’ve realised that it’s very hard to shift perceptions, even when people are looking directly at something that should challenge them. There are problems to be addressed at the public broadcaster but I also know that private media houses aren’t perfect. As with any guest, when Molefe was in front of me I was able to ask the questions I believed were important. I can remain at the SABC as long as this remains the case, as long as there are signs of change, and as long as I am allowed to speak out truthfully about how I can function here as a journalist, because public perceptions about my employer affect me personally.
My experience with Brian Molefe has sharpened my own beliefs around the role of journalism. Currently if the media portrays leaders in a negative light – be it US President Donald Trump, President Jacob Zuma, or Brian Molefe – claims of “bias” and “fake news” ring out immediately. Journalists should go into a situation without preconceived ideas, but we are entitled, and in fact we are compelled, to make judgement calls.
Once someone like Molefe has shown that they are capable of lying compulsively, everything they say or do should be treated with circumspection. If officials try to dupe journalists and the public, we should spend more time and expend more effort to hold them to account. People’s behaviour counts both live on air and behind the scenes during interactions with journalists. DM
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The Hindenburg had a smoking room.