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Exclusive interview with newly-elected SANEF chairperson Sbu Ngalwa

By Backyard Online

Shortly after South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) announced its newly elected committee, BCKYRD caught up with the incumbent chairperson Sbu Ngalwa in one of the eateries in Linden. Ngalwa, the former editor at the Daily Dispatch, quit his position at Tiso Blackstar (now Arena Holdings), in December 2018, when the company was retrenching workers in droves, and he reemerged last year as the political editor at the new television channel Newzroom Afrika. At age 36, and 17 years’ experience in journalism, Ngalwa led the Daily Dispatch team to greater heights. The Eastern Cape, Butterworth-born, now takes the reins at SANEF at a volatile time in SA media; plagued by retrenchments and closure of many household and established titles, among other things.

Chairperson of SANEF, Sibusiso Ngalwa. PIC: Supplied

What are the objectives of the chairperson?

SANEF has a mandate which is to champion media freedom and ensure media freedom in this country, but also ethics in journalism. As chairperson that becomes my role as well, working with the management committee and the council of SANEF. But obviously, leaders have ideas and have different world views, so in as much as leadership has a responsibility, and the mandate of SANEF is clearly defined, personality does come into play. So, no one leader is like the other.

What is your leadership philosophy? Some people think that you may have accepted a poisoned chalice. Do you agree with this observation?

I wouldn’t say that. I care about journalism and I care about the conditions of journalists, and I care about the general perceptions of how media is viewed in this country. I come into this role at a time when the industry has been dealt a heavy blow by COVID-19. The research we did, looking at the impact between March and June, we saw that over 700 journalists have lost their jobs and over 80 small publications, I’m talking about small publications in localities that have had to close down during this period.

You would know that publishers, magazine publishers that have closed down; I mean Bona magazine, Drum is now all digital, which is good, but others have had to close. This is all happening – all these numbers –  this was before COVID-19, before SABC announced their retrenchments, before Media24 announced theirs, before Prime Media. So the reality is that it’s more, there are more people that have been impacted, and we know for a fact that, it’s historical that the media had been declining over the years; and as former newspaper editor, obviously, I would have sat through meetings where you look at the numbers dwindle, or you get a good spike on a particular day.

I do not believe that sustainability of the media is a project that will be championed by media owners. It is us as journalists, you guys outside of SANEF – we as members of SANEF, we all care about journalism. In fact, if COVID-19 has done anything, it has actually exposed that the differences that exist between us are actually not insurmountable. If there’s a time to work towards a common goal, it’s now. And for me, I think that’s the most important thing that I’d want to do over the next two years; to make sure that we bridge those gaps. You may not be a member of SANEF but in terms of our thinking and our outlook, and the things that matter to us the most, we share a common vision. We may differ in terms of how to get to that point, but I think, for me, that’s the most important thing.

The SANEF’s top four comprise your deputy; Adriaan Basson, Secretary General; Mahlatse Mahlase, Treasurer; Nwabisa Makhunga and of course yourself. Although it might be early to know, but do you think you will make you a formidable team to meet the challenges at hand?

The SANEF council is made up of a fair mix of people and people who love journalism, you know. We know it’s not easy and it’s not about pride or anything, I mean you don’t get paid for it, but it takes up most of your time. But it’s important. What I can tell you is that the work ethic of those four people is impeccable, and part of that was actually to say, in taking SANEF forward, do we just overhaul the whole thing or do we keep some of the members from the previous council?

The SANEF AGM, on August 22, discussed pertinent issues that are troubling the journalism sector in South Africa, if not the entire continent. Can you briefly outline these issues and perhaps what you consider to be some of the outstanding resolutions?

We discussed on the labour issue and what we said is that, though we may not be a union, let us initiate conversations that involve journalists; that involve the unions and what they result in … I’m sure something will come up with that. SANEF must be able to play a role because there’s no other voice. It’s not as though you guys don’t understand SANEF’s mandate, it’s actually because you are demanding, and it’s a cry for help. You are saying, ‘guys, we all know, we all care about media freedom, we all care about ethical journalism, but as things stand these are the issues that are uppermost in our minds, so find a way’. That’s one of the things we will be looking at, starting those conversations and perhaps, hopefully, they will lead to a formation of a union of journalists or an association of journalists, which is not a matter of, which is not SANEF; but starting these conversations because we all know these conditions.

SANEF planned the Media Ethics Committee long before Covid-19 outbreak. Are we going to see anything happening in the near future?

It’s happening, the report is coming at the end of September. Judge Kathleen Satchwell is probably compiling the report. She received some inputs and complaints and other issues that people were raising, and that’s another uncomfortable conversation because we know the damage that was caused to the industry and we know the trust deficit that exists. But we don’t turn the other way; let’s actually work towards reclaiming some of that space. So that report is coming out and it will be, I’m sure it will lead to uncomfortable conversations, but also it’s important to reflect. So, insofar as that is concerned, that is coming.

What would you say about yourself as a leader?

I believe that leadership doesn’t change you, it just exposes you for who you are. In every positions that I’ve occupied, I’ve tried my very best, to be the best version of a leader that I can be. Leadership is not how you think yourself to be, it’s how the people you work with perceive you.

Word amongst some members of the media is when the going was getting tough at the Daily Dispatch, where you were the editor, you left your position when the staff needed you the most. How would you counter this narrative?

I didn’t just decide to leave. When the time comes and, actually, frustrated by some of the issues, you know your time has come, there are things you can do. Actually, it comforts me that there were expectations and people were still hoping that with the little that I had done at the time that I was there, that I would be the guy who takes them to a proverbial Canaan. When your time has come, it has come. Remember, I’m also an employee and if we get to a point where we all have our own personal dreams and aspirations, there are things we want to do and at that time I knew that I had reached a point where I had to leave. Staying any further was not an option and there were things I wanted to do, there were things I wanted to pursue, which I have pursued, and then I came back.

Chairperson of SANEF, Sibusiso Ngalwa. PIC: Supplied

SANEF is considered a toothless dog by both members of the public and journalists. What will you do differently as chairman in order to regain the public’s trust?

People make a mistake of judging SANEF based on what they want SANEF to be. Remember, primarily SANEF is tasked with the responsibility to champion media freedom in this country, and also take up and ensure ethical standards are adhered to within the industry, and in that regard, primarily that regard, SANEF has done that – and continues to do that. This predates the last Management Committee. But, what is the issue is that the journalists, they don’t have a union, and perhaps the unions don’t understand the intricacies of newsrooms, they are too broad, as a result they do not represent that view, or the frustrations of media workers very well.

Has SANEF spoken to trade unions about this?

This issue came up in the last AGM and it was debated thoroughly. Obviously there was a viewpoint that said we are not a union, therefore let’s not get involved. But the prevailing sentiment was that SANEF cannot just look the other way and say we can’t get involved. So, we had that debate at length and one of the things that we said was that SANEF may not be a union, and it will never be a union, but SANEF must be able to start a conversation, and its uncomfortable conversation. And this is not the first time that SANEF has done that.

Really? What are some of the uncomfortable conversations that SANEF has had before?

SANEF comes from an era where, between ‘98 and ’99, there was a split between black and white editors over the issue of racism in newsrooms. Black editors took a position to say that they would go to the Human Rights Commission – subpoena or no subpoena. What had happened is that SANEF had been formed without dealing with the underlying issues. We’d just had a government of national unity, so it made sense that the black editors and the white editors would come together, would fold their bodies and form SANEF, without actually dealing with the underlying issues. That thing nearly broke SANEF, it divided SANEF – Thami Mazwai (SANEF’s founder member) resigned. This led to uncomfortable conversations and the report by Human Rights Commission, which was actually accepted by newsrooms, and I believe that was the starting point of some of the transformation that you starting to see in newsrooms.

Secondly, when Ferial Haffajee was the chairperson (in 2006) of SANEF, the issue of unequal gender-pay in newsrooms came up and that led to the research which is still being done even now, Glass Ceiling Research. That glass ceiling research report was uncomfortable; some editors actually didn’t even participate. But the report from that was a turning-point in the media industry, because it’s actually appalling, the dominance of men in newsrooms and lack of diversity. So, the point I’m making is that SANEF has initiated uncomfortable conversations in this country.

We are still having these discussions of sustainability which need to involve everyone because we may be on opposing sides, throwing insults at each other, standing at opposing sides. One of the things is to say let’s have a conversation about what are these different ideas because one thing happens is that as media companies shrink, it means that the people who are sitting on the fringes of the economy, who are sitting in rural areas are not covered. Those newspapers that are closing are there; the need is dire in those areas. So what do we do? That’s one of the conversations we are having. Also, one of the ideas I’ve advanced is the issue of zero-rating of the news websites. Remember, people complain that they buy data and it makes no sense that they also have to subscribe (to news outlets).

But these are two different things. Media houses need to be viable; they need to make money to be able to function. Journalism costs money, and good journalism costs money. Anyone can write fake news and clickbait, but the reality is that if you want journalism to produce, you need to be able to go wherever to get the story. However, we have not yet started the issue of zero-rating with the cellphone network providers, but it’s one of the ideas that one has. This means that it will be easy to access credible news sites from anywhere without having to use data. That’s not new, this has already happened, but with education institutions, and all the other networks recognise that. That’s happening and that is part of the work done by civil society to make sure that there’s accessibility. That’s just raw, it’s just an idea to say that our thinking is not in the now, we are looking beyond this.

For me, the main thing is actually to ensure programs that look at the sustainability of the media. But also more importantly, I know that with the impact of COVID-19 some of the colleagues have been affected, some have died, and on top of that, people end up depressed. They get anxiety and depression. What that then means is that issues of mental health support are important, so newsrooms have to ensure mental health support of their employees. As SANEF that’s one of the things that we’ll be championing during this period; to emphasize and even over-emphasize the importance of mental health support because that’s a very crucial thing for journalists around this period.

Have the underlying issues at SANEF been dealt with?

They have been, they have been. Newsrooms are transformed. But you can always argue about the narrative because the narrative is determined by the people, their worldview and you can never say it’s enough because obviously the media is a contested space. At a basic level if you understand society, you would know that media and media narrative is always contested. Everyone has their own biases; we all have our worldviews. We all come from different backgrounds which shape our thinking, so transformation is an ongoing thing. It’s not a once off event but it’s a continuous thing. Actually you’ve seen instances, even in corporate SA, where transformation has been reversed. So it’s not to say that all is well, there will never be that moment because we always have to be constantly conscious of the realities of our societies, and also whose views are being championed and whose views are dominant.

Surely giving relief to unemployed journalists won’t go on indefinitely. What do you think can be done for journalists who have been affected by the current economic crisis that the country is faced with, including the novel corona virus?

For me, I think the most important thing is to make sure that, while we may have come up with the media relief fund, as immediate relief for journalists, the reality is that, that’s a finite project; the money will run out at some point. But what happens beyond that? That’s my main issue. That is what I’m more interested in. That’s a finite thing that is intended as immediate relief, and only that. What we are looking at, issues that we are looking at as the new management committee and council is the issue of sustainability. We are starting a conversation to say, what do we do to make sure that beyond this period we still have a media that is vibrant, an independent media that is able to carry forward good quality journalism?

No doubt you have been following social media trends in the past couple of days. What do you make of #SouthAfricanMediaMustFall? Do you think it’s something that SA media should worry about?

I don’t know what its sources are, but we always get detractors as the media and that’s why we need to also be careful with how we phrase our reporting and how we refer to people. And why we must always at all times remember to go back to the press code and look at how those sensitive issues are dealt with –  issues of gender, race and all sorts of discrimination, how you treat children and how you report on people. As reporters, we, also should check against our own biases. So, for me, I look at it from that perspective but obviously to say that the media has gone through a very difficult period in terms of its credibility has been called into account, I’m very much aware of that. It’s part of the ongoing work, which is why Judge Satchwell’s report is part of that work to remedy that situation where we must also call each other out.

Will SANEF look into the toxic relationships between government communicators and journalists? You may be aware that freelancers have complained about not being respected by the government communicators, and that has escalated during the Covid-19 period.

Relationships are dynamic and it’s not new, but what is always important is that we must always continuously engage. It’s not that journalists are free of blame. Some of those things that break down those relationships are actually personalities that don’t get along. That has got nothing to do with journalism, and sometimes you get spokespersons that are less friendly, you get that. But those are things that we constantly raise and Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) actually is quite open to engagements between ourselves and them. So, on that I’d say it’s just part of the continuous work that we have to keep working on.

2 thoughts on “Exclusive interview with newly-elected SANEF chairperson Sbu Ngalwa

  1. He sounds interesting. I would have liked to hear him more on how SANEF would address challenges facing journalists in the newsrooms with the owners of media houses without having to step on their toes since they are still employees in respective institutions they come from. I would have also liked to hear more on race relations. It’s very clear that race is still an issue in the media sector. This was demonstrated when workers at Tiso Blackstar went on strike last year. It was only black bodies with placards out in the street while their white colleagues were in the office taking pictures of those participating in the strike through the windows.

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