The sabotage that wasn’t at the SABC

Errors and sheer incompetence at the SABC seem to have been the real cause behind the broadcasting of an embarrassing video clip of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s rehearsal of a speech about gender-based violence (GBV) in September last year.

The state broadcaster made a blunder when it aired to millions of South Africans a clip of Ramaphosa rehearsing his speech in the wake of GBV incidents against women and the protests that followed the killings of women in the country. These were mainly fuelled by the rape and murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana. In the rehearsal video Ramaphosa fluffed his own lines and asked to start again.

The SABC quickly claimed that it had discovered a well-co-ordinated plan to sabotage Ramaphosa, when its employees who were in charge of the broadcast went on air with the rehearsal video clip, which was later corrected.

Phathiswa Magopeni, the broadcaster’s head of news, told the public: “A preliminary investigation we had shows that there is an element of co-ordination that was meant to sabotage the president, which led to an incorrect clip being played. Someone just decided to change the original clip without telling anyone.”

She went on to say that what she had learned from a team meeting after the incident had led her to conclude: “We do suspect that this was a well-thought [out] and co-ordinated chaos.”

She also said that those who were involved would face consequences. Subsequent to this, three people were suspended after they had submitted reports about the events on the evening of September 5 2019.

But, according to numerous sources who provided evidence that the Mail & Guardian has seen and listened to, there was no sabotage. Some of the audio clips are from a meeting attended by Magopeni, the station’s foreign editor, Sophie Mokoena, who was acting head of news on the day, output editor Njanji Chauke, Fullview executive producer Megan Lubke and producer Rozalia Whitehead.

At the meeting, Magopeni told them that the SABC’s board was baying for blood over the incident and that action should be taken.“I have been called to resign, I’ve been called to take responsibility for everything that happened … So we have to deal with this issue, what I want to know is how we ended up with that clip on air,” said Magopeni.

What has emerged now is that two video clips were sent from SABC Cape Town to the studio in Johannesburg —the rehearsal clip and the final-cut version.

In his report on the incident, Chauke said producer Whitehead deleted or disregarded the correct, edited clip. “My assessment is that even if she wanted to replace the clip published by me much earlier, it seems she didn’t even do quality control or listen to the speech because she would have learned much earlier that she was actually publishing ‘chaos’.”

He said that when it became clear that the wrong clip was being aired, he ran to ask why she had done it. In his account, “she was lost for words. She didn’t have an explanation.”

Meanwhile, bulletin editor Solomon Ntuli said that neither the video editor — who was a freelancer — nor Whitehead had ensured that the right recording was cued for going on air. “Neither did the video editor satisfy himself/herself that the clip was edited properly before it was published,” said Ntuli in his report.

In her incident report, Whitehead said that she was informed by Lubke that she was cutting a video clip which was a rehearsal — but that time pressures meant they didn’t see the confusion. “I went back to the video editor and found that there was another speech on the same feed. There was a distinction between the rehearsal and the final version. I assumed that what followed after the rehearsal was meant to go on air.”

At the aforementioned meeting after the disastrous broadcast, Mokoena also raised the fact that part of the reason for the blooper was the rehearsal clip having being fed into the system in the first place. “Cape Town sent the feed to Johannesburg. They know that they were supposed to send the clean one. The producer and video editor did not follow the SOP’s (standard operating procedure), which says that you must play, watch and listen to a clip before publishing it.”

Mokoena added: “You never take things for granted because there could be mistakes. If the video editor had looked at the video, he could have picked up where the president made a mistake.”

What these reports, video and audio clips show is that there was no planned sabotage against Ramaphosa, but rather a case of a bad day at the office and incompetence.

When asked for comment, SABC spokesperson Mmoni Seapolelo told M&G on Thursday: “The SABC can confirm that three individuals within news division were taken through internal disciplinary processes … these processes were pursuant to internal investigations which established misconduct in relation to the incident. In light of this, the SABC contends that the nation was in no way misled as the internal processes confirmed misconduct. The SABC will continue to enforce quality control and adhere to the set standards of reporting accurately.”

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Thanduxolo Jika
Thanduxolo Jika

Thanduxolo Jika is an investigative Journalist and Co-Author of We are going to kill each other today:The Marikana Story. The Messiah of Abantu.

Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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