What's in the canned Mbeki doccie

It is a pacy, daring and, on the whole, entertaining documentary. For 24 minutes I was quite riveted by Unauthorised: Thabo Mbeki, the documentary canned in May by the SABC.

A well-written script presents the key moments of President Thabo Mbeki: a young scraggly Mbeki in exile; his strategic (some might say ruthless) climb to the top; the way in which his personal life was subsumed by politics; his dalliance with Aids denialism; his work in Africa and his insecurities.

Its use of archival material is skilful: Mbeki’s march to 10 Downing Street in 1964, the exiles returning to South Africa, the early African Nation Congress conferences are all evocative.

Early on, we see Mbeki at the 1997 Mafikeng conference where he was made crown prince of the ANC, beating off Cyril Ramaphosa. Speaking about the question he had faced a million times—“How will he step into Madiba’s shoes”—Mbeki said: “[I don’t want to], because you always wear such ugly shoes.”

In turn, Madiba’s counsel to Mbeki at that conference is used to frame the documentary.
“One of the temptations of a leader elected unopposed is to settle scores,” he said. It was a prescient speech and during it, the documentary shows Mbeki shifting uncomfortably.

A key narrative laced through the documentary compares Mbeki with Chris Hani, the realist versus the radical. Its subtext appears to be this: what might our country have been like if the radical had not been killed? It then rather awkwardly raises the conspiracy of Mbeki’s involvement in his murder without including the fact that rightwinger Janus Waluz was found guilty.

It is on this point that producers Ben Cashdan and Redi Direko first conflicted with the commissioning editors at the SABC who did not want loose themes left dangling.

Archival research was exhaustive and edited to present a picture of Mbeki very different from the treatment we are used to on the SABC.

Under the hand of editor Snuki Zikalala and presidential reporter Miranda Strydom, Mbeki is covered in straight up and down style, with no analysis. “President Mbeki went here, did that, said this.” When he faces questions or crises, the broadcaster tends to ignore or downplay these. Viewed through such a prism, the disputed documentary was unauthorised and unusual.

It deals openly with the plot allegations levelled at Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa, with the latter featured saying “It’s my right to say ‘I don’t like him’, that’s not a plot”.

The tone of the documentary is generally critical of Mbeki, though it is balanced.

The business analyst Jenny Cargill is characteristically straight, there is archival material of a jocular president and of his famous “I am an African” speech. Mbeki’s mother, Epainette, reveals that as a boy, “…he read everything he came across”.

Because 10 interview subjects refused interviews, the narrative voices are journalists: author and political analyst Allister Sparks, City Press editor Mathatha Tsedu and co-producer Direko.

Those who refused interviews were subjects within Mbeki’s circle, while his detractors, like South African Communist Party boss Blade Nzimande and the Treatment Action Campaign’s Zackie Achmat, feature.

Commissioning editor Beathur Baker says this detracted from a key requirement of the series, which was intimacy and entertainment. The series brief was not for a hard political documentary (which it was), but for a more engaging and entertaining profile.

“Viewers can relate to universal, human experiences such as love, loss, family, drive and idiosyncrasies,” says the series proposition.

It was none of those things, but Cashdan and Direko say this was not for lack of trying. They kept the SABC informed of interviews turned down and of their back-up plan.

In addition, another imperative of the broadcaster was lost in the months of production: Baker wanted to give the brief to Direko (“a first-time black female director”), but her voice was lost, as Cashdan controlled the cameras.

Baker also says that the producers made unauthorised changes on the day of transmission, the immediate reason for the canning. New material was added; existing interviews edited out.

Still, no vaguely informed South African would have been be surprised or shocked by the documentary. There is nothing in it that is not contained in the numbers of Mbeki biographies by Sparks, William Mervyn Gumede, Richard Calland and Sean Jacobs, Adrian Hadland and Jovial Rantao, among others.

Nothing in it has not been broadcast on any number of radio stations, including some of those within the SABC stable, like SAfm.

There are no new revelations or investigations not in the public domain. However, two SABC in-house lawyers, attorney Bernard Hotz of Werksmans Attorneys, the junior counsel Anthony Stein and senior counsel Azhar Bham, all found that the documentary was “incurably defamatory”.

Hotz said that he could not comment on the elements which were “incurably defamatory”, but said he had been guided by the Supreme Court of Appeals finding in the case of the former housing minister Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele against the Mail & Guardian, which found that the right to dignity was a higher right than public interest.

There is other case law and practice that bats for freedom of expression and could also have been consulted, but it is worth remembering that the SABC sought legal opinion after it had taken a decision to spike the documentary.

In addition, it is highly unlikely that the Presidency would have sued the broadcaster, given the generally favourable coverage it receives.

With the relationship between the producers and the broadcasters tested by public squabbling, there seems only a slim chance that the documentary will now be screened.

This case is not simply one of the SABC once again toeing the line.

Indeed, there is no evidence that a call came from the Union Buildings to stop transmission. And the unravelling relationship between the producers and the commissioning editors played no small role in the final decision.

Cashdan and Direko maintain that they were never asked by the SABC to add in any information about Hani, but that this would certainly not have been a problem. They also state that they worked together closely throughout and that neither of them took control.

Mpofu is trying new things at the SABC. The Unauthorised series is one example; the way in which he dealt with the broadcaster’s decision not to broadcast a story about the deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka being booed is another.

But one can’t help thinking that the decision not to broadcast the documentary and then seek legal opinion to buttress the decision was an opportunity lost.