The old and the dutiful

A strange thing about the SABC is that none of the six soapies it flights each day on its television channels has a fictitious public broadcasting institution as a backdrop. Yet it has a ready-made plot on its doorstep.

Take, for example, the appointment of Snuki Zikalala as new managing director for news and current affairs at the public broadcaster.

One layer of the soapie could be about how a party henchman was forced out by a board partial to the concept of having a public broadcaster answerable to the public instead of to the ruling classes.

Another would be about the same enforcer returning because the board has metamorphosed into one that is happy to advance the cause of the government of the day.

Still another development could cover the drama greeting the return of the party hack. The panic and the excitement it causes! The fears and threats of an expected brain drain as experienced, talented staff flee! And then the timing — almost two years to the day since his rueful departure from broadcasting house. The Bold and the Snuki!

But then art does not always imitate life — and SABC chief executive Peter Matlare will have to live with the reality that Zikalala, whom present and former managers and journalists thought had been written out of the script, will return to Auckland Park on May Day.

“Matlare wanted Snuki out because Snuki was more connected than he was in the [African National Congress]. Each time Matlare wanted to bounce something off with the political heavyweights, he found that Snuki had been there first and had given his version of events,” says a former SABC manager.

“By letting him go, Matlare was going to be the only boss. You may remember that Matlare advertised three jobs — head of TV, Radio and Africa — while Snuki was in charge of the bi-media project [merging television and radio reporting teams into one service called SABC News]. TV went to Jimi Mathews, radio to Pippa Green, Phil Molefe got the Channel Africa job and Snuki was kicked out.”

Zikalala told the Mail & Guardian that fears of a purge or settling old scores were unfounded.

He also said: “Like in any company, the CEO is the boss and I will respect the CEO’s wisdom. I want the CEO to succeed.

“I, as a manager, will respect the CEO’s decisions. I will do as I am told. But we must remember that I was appointed as an experienced newsman. The agreement with the CEO was that I would never deviate from the SABC charter and editorial policy and he would hold me to it.”

He sees his latest appointment as an opportunity to finish a job he was not allowed to complete.

This is a prospect that brings either joy or sorrow to those who were at the SABC when he left.

“There are journalists there who will feel buoyed by Snuki’s return,” the manager noted. “Those journalists who think that following a minister around is a story will be happy to see him return.”

A mid-career journalist at the SABC, who did not want to be identified, said those who are unhappy about Zikalala’s return are mainly white and influenced by racism. It is a sentiment Zikalala has also expressed several times in the media since his appointment was announced.

“Snuki gave black journalists dignity, which is why whites hated him so much. He raised black people’s salaries to match those earned by white staffers,” said the journalist.

“There are people who have been at the SABC for 10, 20 years and they have never been to Cape Town, let alone London, on a story.

“The other thing that made Snuki unpopular was that he was a straight talker. He had no time for gossip. If you raised issues with him hoping they would be kept secret, Snuki would raise them aloud in the corridors and you would feel embarrassed. Everyone knows that Snuki is ANC through and through. That has never affected his work as far as I was concerned.

“There were people who were celebrating when he left; others could not show that they were sad because they were left with the new bosses and people did not want to be seen to have been pro-Snuki.”

Zikalala is as unapologetic about his pro-black stance as he is about his past with the ANC.

The only thing that friend and foe seem to agree on is that Zikalala is extremely hardworking. Still they disagree on whether that is a blessing or a curse.

Said Zikalala: “I want to ensure that white people know that we are in charge; that black people must be respected in this country. I know there is a perception that black managers are lazy. I am not going to be a lazy black manager.”

Those who think that his dilligence is a curse say he is overzealous and interferes with other managers as he tries to show how hardworking he is. As a result, there are murmurs of impending mass resignations of top managers.

“I have heard the rumour that some people may leave. I don’t think that they will be leaving because of me,” he said. “People leave because they have other options.

“I stuck it out at the SABC even though I did not get on with Barney [Mthombothi]. I could not quit until my minister [Labour’s Membathisi Mdladlana] said ‘come and work with me’.”

If SABC managers leave because of Zikalala’s appointment it will not be the first time managers have left in protest against a new news boss.

The appointment of Allister Sparks as editor-in-chief of TV News coincided with the resignations of the then head of news, Ivan Fynn, and the head of current affairs, Sarah Crowe, in 1997. Jill Chisholm, chief executive television, did not renew her contract.

Zikalala said he was sad to leave the labour department. “We were like brothers and comrades. We were honest with each other.”

It is this close affinity with politicians that has made many nervous and caused fear that he will turn the SABC into his master’s voice.

The lobby opposed to his appointment, all of whom asked the M&G for anonymity, say it is not that Zikalala has such strong ANC allegiances but that he needs to unlearn some of the lessons he learned as a cadre of that organisation.

“It is not only that he was government spokesperson, but he is a bad manager as well. He has a commandeering style — probably because as a former Umkhonto weSizwe commissar, he was used to command structures,” said one SABC journalist.

City Press editor and Zikalala’s former colleague at the SABC, Mathatha Tsedu, thought it wrong to assume political allegiance meant that Zikalala would not be suitable for his new job.

“Snuki should not be persecuted for his commitment as a cadre of an organisation. Getting out of the country to go and fight [apartheid] cannot be turned into a negative. That surely can still count for something good in this country.

“What [Democratic Alliance MP] Dene Smuts and her ilk are attacking is the ANC and theirs is a veiled attack on his integrity as a person.

“The mention of Bulgaria university [Zikalala has a PhD from the University of Sofia, Bulgaria] and work for Radio Freedom is an attempt to create an impression that he is a buffoon who can’t write a story,” said Tsedu.

For some, appointing Zikalala is a mistake because he is a spendthrift. “I know that [the late former Tanzanian president] Julius Nyerere was an important person. But to send a huge contingent to Dar es Salaam to cover the funeral was a bit too much,” said another journalist.

The plot is there — it is now up to scriptwriters to weave their magic.

In true soapie style, friends have been known to turn their backs on each other when convenient and unlikely parties find themselves in the same bed. Those who were killed in one episode are resurrected in another.

This drama is set for a long run.

Will the blue helmet on Zikalala’s desk in a rather corporate-looking office prove to have been left there by mistake? Or it there to ensure that he’s covered once the enemy comes for his head?

Don’t miss the next episode of The Zikalalas of Our Lives — only on SABC, The Pulse of the Nation.

How the mighty have fallen:

1996: Ameen Akhalwaya, who had joined the SABC in 1993, left to join Absa. He died in 1998.

1997: Jill Chisholm, who joined the SABC as executive editor current affairs and Agenda, did not renew her contract.

1999: Barney Mthombothi, who was appointed as editor-in-chief for SABC radio news, resigned.

1997: Joe Thloloe, TV News editor-in-chief, resigned after the appointment of Allister Sparks.

1997: Sarah Crowe, the head of current affairs quit. Her departure was also linked to the arrival of Sparks.

1998: Sparks, who was the previous year appointed chief editor SABC News, resigned shortly after being chosen to head SABC’s 24-hour news channel. Apparently Sparks was unhappy about having to report to editor-in-chief Phil Molefe.

2000: Enoch Sithole, SABC news chief executive, resigned amid claims that he was Mozambican and not South African as he had claimed, and that he had lied about his qualifications.

2002: Snuki Zikalala was appointed deputy editor-in-chief radio news. He resigned after claiming a fall-out with Mthombothi.

July 2002: Mthombothi resigned for the second time after he had rejoined the SABC as chief executive for news in November 2000.

August 2002: Mathatha Tsedu had joined the SABC as Mthombothi’s deputy. He resigned as acting chief executive for news to take up the post of Sunday Times editor. — Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya and Sewela Mohale

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