We read today that Jimi Matthews has resigned from the SABC. Jimi has for some time now been head of news at the SABC, in fact at the time of his resignation he was acting SABC CEO.
I met Jimi in the apartheid years of the 1980’s when he worked for Reuters and was based in Cape Town. Jimi saw his fair share of the horrors of apartheid through the camera lens but later, in our new democratic era and when we had hoped that we had seen the last of the censorship of the previous era, he joined the SABC.
[divider]He rose through the organisation and today can look back on a most successful career. Today, however, Jimi took to twitter to say he was leaving. The reasons made me think that nothing much had changed, with the political masters at the SABC controlling the staff in very much the same way as they did back in the dark days when Fredo also worked as a news hound at the SABC in Cape Town. In those days Fredo also came to the conclusion that if one wanted to retain your integrity, you needed to move on.
Jimi stated in his letter that ‘For many months I have compromised the values that I hold dear under the mistaken belief that I could be more effective inside the SABC than outside, passing comment from the side-lines. In the process, the prevailing corrosive atmosphere has impacted negatively on my moral judgement and has made me complicit in many decisions which I’m not proud of.” Jimi proceeded to apologise to the ‘many people’ he let down by staying silent instead of speaking out.
Fredo is now busy with his memoirs, called ‘A life worth living’ and recalls that back in 1976 he also experienced interference and victimisation from the dark forces who had as their only intension that of keeping the apartheid government in power. Fredo remembers that back in 1976 he was told by an editor that someone from the security police wanted to meet me.
I was asked whether I had any objections. I should have known better, but at the time thought nothing of it and said agreed to meet him.
The security police officer arrived and came to see me in the TV News room where I was working on a story. We exchanged pleasantries but he soon got to the point. He told me that they knew that I had many contacts in the media. Would I be prepared to pass information on to them if I thought anything of interest came up? I was stunned! For the first time I realised what this was all about and I was furious with myself for getting myself into that situation.
I politely thanked him for coming to see me but told him that he should understand that I will never spy on any of my contacts or friends. I also told him I did not appreciate being put in that position. He left, but I knew that from then on I would be watched too. It was an eerie feeling and for me, one which became even more real later on when some of my news programmes where targeted in higher circles at the SABC. I am pretty sure that my telephone, at home and at the office, was also bugged. From then on I was extremely careful what I said on the telephone or in conversation with people I did not know very well.
With the help of my friends at Auckland Park, journalists I have the greatest admiration for, I still managed to get my programmes for Top Level and Deadline Thursday night on the air without them being censored by the hawks at Auckland Park. Top Level was aired at 19:30 on Sunday nights and we developed the practice of packaging the programme on Sunday morning in Cape Town and then feed it to the main control room in Johannesburg late in the afternoon. There it would be set up for broadcasting later the evening. We correctly thought that the little circle of men who were tasked with controlling what the nation should hear would be too busy with their Sunday braai’s to drive to the SABC to screen a programme.
Most of the programmes could not really be questioned by the SABC masters, but in the case of the programme of the life and times of Dr Danie Craven in 1980 they would certainly have interfered because it was severely critical of the Government and the Broederbond. The claim by Dr Craven in the programme that ‘in South Africa it was not God who prescribed, but the Broederbond’ caused a bombshell on the Monday when these statements were also reported by the Cape Argus. The masters were furious, but they could not do much about it without revealing their shady dealings to control the SABC news content. Instead, they decided to simply target all the work I produced thereafter to make sure nothing of the same nature was ever broadcasted again.
[divider]At that stage, by the end of the 1970’s I was in any event making new plans which would carry me into the private sector corporate world. I was surprised though when this programme on the life of Dr Craven was nominated for an Artes Award in the category for best news programmes. Artes Awards were at that stage South Africa’s own radio and television ‘Oscars’ and was usually celebrated at a very glamorous event and broadcasted live on television. I finally won the award and this restored my confidence in the SABC somewhat. I do believe that the political masters were not happy at all at this turn of events. There were after-all many good people at the SABC who did remarkable work despite the interference from the political masters.
I know that Jimi is one of those who will follow his own integrity and that he came to the same cross-roads, especially in the present climate at the SABC.
Recently I met Jimi’s father – the esteemed poet whom I should have met much earlier. Mr Mathews senior is indeed a man worth knowing and he would be pleased to hear about his son’s latest decision. In this case there is only one loser – and that is the SABC and its political masters.