News boss Phathiswa Magopeni under fire amid fears that SABC entering a new phase of capture

SABC CEO and chairperson exerted political pressure on the Group Executive for News and Current Affairs to give the ANC positive coverage ahead of the election, according to a grievance lodged with the SABC.

News boss Phathiswa Magopeni under fire amid fears that SABC entering a new phase of capture
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The SABC will not comment on a grievance lodged by its heads of news and current affairs Phathiswa Magopeni against the CEO and chairperson, whom she alleges interfered in two major national news stories.

In an eight-page grievance letter, Magopeni details how SABC CEO Madoda Mxakwe and board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini pressured her to give the ANC more airtime than she and her political team had scheduled.  

She also alleges that Makhathini tried to influence how the SABC covered the inauguration of a new AmaZulu King after the death of King Goodwill Zwelithini in March 2021.  She is facing what she claims are trumped-up charges related to how an interdicted episode of Special Assignment aired in October.  

The SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) and the Campaign for Free Expression demand that Magopeni’s disciplinary hearing related to the Special Assignment episode on tow-truckers “take place openly and transparently. An open and transparent process will not only assist the public to make up its mind on the case, but will also aid the SABC to dispel the perception that the process is part of a political witch-hunt,” said Sanef chairperson Sbu Ngalwa, who reiterated that the organisation had respect for the broadcaster’s internal processes. 

“Too much is at stake for this to happen behind closed doors. Ms Magopeni has said that she is being hounded out because she has resisted political interference. We need the public to see if this is a return to the days when factional politics dominated the SABC and buried its public service mandate,” said the Campaign for Free Expression’s executive director Anton Harber.  

Media lawyer Dario Milo, who has recently won significant cases for greater tax and political donation transparency, represents Sanef and the Campaign for Free Expression. 

Magopeni said they are trying to axe her while working a “corrosive and unbearable” environment. 

Daily Maverick sent the broadcaster detailed requests for comment.  

SABC spokesperson Gugu Ntuli said “The SABC is not commenting on the matter.”  

SABC News rides high with Magopeni as saddle-woman

Magopeni was appointed Group Executive for News and Current Affairs at the SABC in 2018 after an exhaustive search for the right candidate.   She came to the SABC from eTV, where she was a senior news executive.  In three years, Magopeni and her team restored trust and credibility in SABC News after the era of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who ran the broadcaster into the ground.  

In 2020, the Broadcast Research Council said that SABC TV had a viewership of 30- million, far and away the highest in the country. The SABC free to air news service is watched by 40% of the total available audience, while the SABC 24-hour news channel on DStv has 40% of total news viewers, up from 14.7% four years ago. 

A scholar, as much as she is a news manager, Magopeni is a stickler for systems and rules. During an election, the SABC is subject to higher standards of fair play than the rest of the media: it must give equitable and proportional airtime to all political parties. 

In 2021, the news team devised strategies to do so, and it added the successful Service Delivery Gauge programme to its schedule. Producers and journalists went out to test whether municipal promises were kept or not.  The outcome was public broadcasting at its best: rooted in people’s experiences, a barometer of government service and interviews with politicians and municipal officials that went beyond public relations puffery.  

This programme got the goat of the ANC Head of Elections, Fikile Mbalula. On November 25, he blamed the SABC for the ANC’s poor showing in which the party’s support dipped below 50% for the first time since in the democratic era. While there was an outcry against his scapegoating, what was not well-known at the time, was that the ANC and the Minister had found willing ears in the organisation’s C-Suite. 

SABC CEO takes over Magopeni’s role; SABC chairperson jumps in too 

In October, the ANC circumvented Magopeni to go straight to Mxakwe to get its way, Magopeni revealed in her grievance letter. Mxakwe communicated directly with ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe. 

“On Sunday 24 October 2021, Mr Mxakwe called me about the ANC’s Mr Pule Mabe, who wanted to set up a radio interview for the ANC President who was campaigning in Limpopo,” Magopeni wrote.

“The idea initially seemed to be about the SABC going to a private radio station to cover an interview that was being set up there for the ANC President. I objected to this because SABC News is a public news service with a national footprint servicing 18 radio stations and allowing this would have made a mockery of the SABC’s own radio stations…,” Magopeni continued.

By summoning the SABC, Mabe did what the ANC has always done to the broadcaster: treat it as a state, not a public broadcaster.  She stood firm against corporate and political pressure and insisted that the SABC interview the President on its terms. “As a result, the interview did not happen. I have every reason to believe that the strange charges against me are the repercussions of my refusal to consent to the interview. As the editor-in-chief, it is my obligation to protect and maintain the editorial independence of the SABC’s public news service, to safeguard its integrity, and to ensure that its controls are not breached,” Magopeni wrote.

Later that day, the interference got worse. SABC board chair Makhathini’s number turned up on Magopeni’s phone. He asked what she had done to schedule the interview. “I said I had done nothing because it would have been an editorial transgression. He (Makhathini) said the ANC President was in his final leg of the campaign and would be making his way to the SABC afterwards.  

“He asked me if the President would have to leave the SABC without doing the interview, I emphatically said ‘yes’ because no editor had knowledge of that interview and it would be a breach of editorial transparency in our newsroom processes…I also told him of the standing invitation for the ANC President to be interviewed by the Politics Editor, as it was the case with all interviews done with parties represented in Parliament,” Magopeni recounts in her letter.

“What concerned me most is that both the Board Chair and GCEO know the sensitivities involved in editorial processes as I have on numerous occasions tried to explain why certain practices were forbidden where news and current affairs is concerned,” said Magopeni.  She reiterated how traumatic the years of capture had been on the SABC newsroom and how its credibility and trust had been abused by a series of CEOs and editors who had not been able to withstand political pressure.   

Since 1994, the ANC struggled to understand the difference between a state and a public broadcaster, which has never been a stable institution.  In turn, CEOs like Mxakwe and chairpersons like Makhathini have not been able to withstand the lure of proximity to political power. They are not the first SABC executives who interpret their roles as opening the airwaves, not so much to the people, as to the politicians.  

It doesn’t help that both men have previously operated in public affairs roles where the definition of success is to lobby politicians and other stakeholders and finesse the government rather than stand up to it.  Mxakwe was in chocolates before with Nestlé and Makhathini in cigarette sales at BAT SA; both sectors require cushy relationships with power because the sectors are highly regulated. Public broadcasting is a different kettle of fish and needs executives like Magopeni, who stand for the public rather than politicians.

‘Trumped-up charges’

Her bosses drew the gangplank for Magopeni a few days after she refused to send her team to a private radio station to interview Ramaphosa, she writes in her grievance. On Tuesday morning, 2 November, she received a text message from Mxakwe instructing her to submit a report on why the Special Assignment episode had aired.  

Magopeni was shocked. She had just come off a 48-hour, no sleep shift. It was the day after elections, and the SABC broadcasts to the nation, which was watching in record numbers of more than 50-million eyes and ears. She asked Mxakwe for some time to prioritise the election results.  “At that stage, I had not slept for a solid 48 hours…but he insisted,” writes Magopeni.  

The airing of the Special Assignment episode had been weaponised against her. Until then, the SABC’s top lawyer Ntuthuzelo Vanara had dealt with the tow truckers lawyers. But Mxakwe suddenly started looping the head of HR into the communication. Magopeni could see the wood for the trees and the noose for her neck. “His doggedness to use the Special Assignment incident against me was blatant right from the start,” wrote Magopeni.  

Analysing this argument, blaming Magopeni for the airing of the interdicted episode is a bit like taking down Ramaphosa for the state of Johannesburg. There are four levels between her and the error. 

In her grievance letter, she writes that the schedulers for the television channel have not been asked to account. 

Mxakwe and Makhathini were seemingly exercised enough by the ANC demand to interfere. 

Neither responded to a separate letter Magopeni had written to them. In it, she had reported that the ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte had publicly upbraided and scolded her at the IEC results centre in Pretoria on 2 November. Instead, they submitted a letter to the IEC and submitted Magopeni’s note to it even though she had offered to write a formal report to the elections commission. “I am still horrified by this…I am aggrieved that my letter written directly to them was submitted to the IEC as a complaint lacking critical detail from the newsroom and without me being informed,” wrote Magopeni. DM

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