The publicly released responses to the grievances alleging political interference by the SABC board chairperson and CEO lodged by former Head of News Phathiswa Magopeni make for electrifying reading.
Distributed separately, the responses are excoriating in their takedown of the grievances lodged against them by Magopeni with:
- CEO Madoda Mxakwe setting out his arguments as to why her grievance is “riddled with factual inaccuracies, deliberate distortions of known facts, allegations deliberately made out of context and blatant lies with the sole purpose to avoid accountability” and is made “in bad faith”.
- Board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini setting out his arguments as to why her grievance is “misconceived, or at worst, deliberately designed to try and avoid the consequences of her misconduct, for which she was ultimately found guilty. In doing so he says that “the timing of her grievance alone is telling… Magopeni’s assumptions are devoid of any factual basis, are unsubstantiated and are denied”.
Madoda Mxakwe’s response
Bongumusa Makhathini’s affidavit
Both of their responses are detailed and, in my view, devastating for her grievances. But many respected academics and commentators on South Africa’s media and political scenes have weighed in on the firing of Magopeni, largely on her side. On 25 January, writing in Daily Maverick, Raymond Suttner described the situation as one which Magopeni was being “victimised”. This was repeated on 31 January in an article Suttner published in Polity.Org. And Prof Anton Harber, writing in Business Day on 21 January wrote: “it seems there is confusion in the SABC about what editorial independence means, and how to handle embarrassing situations like this.”
So what is going on?
There is no doubt that this is a matter of vital public importance given the news behemoth that is the SABC and its ability to shape the nation’s opinions on matters.
Magopeni’s leadership in the newsroom has been evident in a number of important positive changes that have taken place at the SABC. For example, the SABC’s new Editorial Policies are world-class. And a critically important change in them is that the Group Executive of News and Current Affairs (Magopeni’s title at the SABC) is designated as the Editor-in-Chief of all SABC News services and platforms. This was a huge step forward from the days when upward referral went to the Group CEO.
The SABC won plaudits for its 2019 election coverage from Media Monitoring Africa, after many reports critiquing its election coverage.
It is not surprising that her firing should cause disquiet.
But those watching the SABC closely have also noted causes for concern in the newsroom under her leadership. The much-criticised Ace Magashule interview took place under her watch with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) finding (along with imposing a fine on the SABC), that the interview was “not truthfully, accurately and fairly presented and it was not presented in the correct context”. What was so concerning about this matter is that the SABC immediately (in December 2020) acknowledged to the two organisations that had complained about the interview, Media Monitoring Africa and the SOS Coalition (*see writer disclosure below) that “the concern about the editorial quality and journalistic posture of the interview, in relation to editorial policies and prescribed Codes, is noted and fully accepted”. However, it then took a long legal fight for the SABC to be forced by the BCCSA’s Appeal Tribunal to broadcast an apology in late 2021. This, despite the SABC’s own Editorial Policies clearly undertaking that “when a serious factual error has been made, it should be admitted and corrected as soon as it is realised”. The SABC News team resolutely failed to comply with its own Editorial Policies on correcting errors, which policies had been launched just six months prior to its acknowledgement of failures surrounding the Magashule interview — notwithstanding Magopeni participating actively in all of these processes.
I do not know the facts behind the alleged breakdown of trust between the CEO and Magopeni that was the reason publicly given for her firing. But it does have to be noted that in his ruling on her disciplinary hearing for airing a programme in violation of a court order and in which he found her guilty of negligence, Adv Cassim SC (the hearing chairperson) held, among other things, that “The content of the programme belonged to her department and her written responses both of the 3 and 19 November 2021 demonstrated a lack of understanding of her role in the sphere of accountability and corporate governance.” Ouch — the editor-in-chief of the largest news organisation in the country being found to lack an understanding of her role in accountability and corporate governance — surely that is extraordinary?
The finding against Magopeni
If Magopeni is of the view that her disciplinary process, firing and the handling of her grievances by the Board, are unfair then of course she has every right to head to the courts or other tribunals (the CCMA for example) to seek redress. But that is, make no mistake, where she (and others) should go. The calls for interventions by Parliament or the Minister which are starting to make the rounds are entirely misconceived, unwarranted and downright dangerous.
In my view, the SABC management must manage employees and the SABC Board must manage the grievances against its chair and the CEO as an executive director, and anyone (including a member of the public) who is aggrieved at any decision can turn to the courts. To invite executive or Parliamentary interference is to invite the exact harm that Magopeni alleges was done to her by the CEO and the chair — political interference.
Phathiswa Magopeni’s grievance
That said, the detailed responses of the CEO and the board chairperson appear to answer her grievances firmly and fully and are well worth a read. For example:
One of her grievances concerned the CEO and board chairperson’s alleged failures to respond to alleged attacks on Magopeni by the ANC’s Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte. In his response, the CEO states that within five days of receiving Magopeni’s report on the incident in which she explicitly states, “I am requesting that the matter be reported to the IEC”, he ensured that the SABC had lodged a formal complaint against Duarte at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The board chairperson in his response states that he directly telephoned Duarte about the incident and says he stressed the independence of the SABC, castigated her for attempting to intimidate SABC journalists as alleged and informed her about the proper channels for complaining about election news coverage. He said Duarte undertook to lodge a formal complaint against the SABC with the IEC but to date has not done so. Astonishingly, the CEO’s response contains verbatim correspondence from Magopeni after the SABC’s complaint against Duarte was lodged at the IEC, stating that she notes “with dismay a letter directly written to the Group CEO and the Board Chair [this was the one complaining of Duarte’s intimidation during the elections] being submitted to the IEC”! Her grievance in this matter appears to be both about the SABC doing nothing about her treatment at the hands of Duarte and about it lodging a complaint to the IEC on that very issue without running it past her before submission. These appear to be inconsistent positions to adopt in my view.
Another grievance concerned her refusal to interview President Cyril Ramaphosa when offered an interview during the elections. Both the CEO and the Chairperson addressed this, denying that they had pressurised Magopeni to do the interview and saying that she had previously complained about the lack of access that the SABC had to the President. The CEO acknowledges that he and Magopeni met with the ANC about this lack of access and the CEO says that when the interview was offered but at a rival station’s offices, he went in to bat for the SABC telling the ANC that this was unacceptable and that any interview would have to be done at SABC premises. He states that “at no stage in my initial engagement with Ms Magopeni did she object to the interview with President Ramaphosa” and that when she informed him that SABC news would not do the interview “at no stage did I force, bully or threaten Ms Magopeni to change her decision” and that when Magopeni informed him that the interview was not in their schedule, “that is where I left the matter with Ms Magopeni.” The board chair also addresses this issue in his response, saying that when he had a conversation with Magopeni about her declining the interview with President Ramaphosa he was “simply trying to understand her rationale” given her previous concerns about the President not honouring “the SABC’s previous requests to interview him before”.
Without more, none of this appears to rise to the level of political interference but again, it is for the courts to decide whose version of events is correct. However, it is clear that the board chair and the CEO adopt similar positions and their versions of events are mutually supportive.
That the board chair and CEO have put their responses in the public domain is to be welcomed — this assuages some of the concerns, for example as expressed by Raymond Suttner in his 31 January piece about what would happen to the grievance procedures given her firing. One hopes that the processes of the Board’s committee to investigate the grievances will be as similarly transparent as the actions of the board chair and CEO — after all, fairness and transparency go both ways and are due to the board chair and CEO in their grievance processes as they were due to Magopeni in her disciplinary hearing. DM
Disclosure: Limpitlaw is a former board member of Media Monitoring Africa and chairs the legal subcommittee of the SOS Coalition. She writes here in her personal capacity and the views expressed are her own.