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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

SABC and the massacre

While Gqozo was murdering peaceful marchers, the SABC was murdering the truth.

The ambush at Bisho was part of an integrated plan to turn, politically, our own tripartite alliance mass action campaign against us. Gqozo's SADF-commanded soldiers were just one element of that plan. Another most important element was the SABC.

The Campaign for Open Media (COM) has been monitoring the SABC for the last several months. The following are extracts from the COM report on SABC news coverage of the Bisho massacre. The report was compiled by COM media researcher, Bronwyn Keene-Young.

Monday's coverage of the Bisho massacre was characterised by an attempt by SABC to underplay the violent action undertaken by the Ciskei soldiers and create the impression that the ANC carried the ultimate blame for the entire incident.

TV 1 6pm news

In the 6pm news bulletin, without saying that troops had fired on protesters, the TV 1 newsreader said, over footage of the shootings: "From the pictures it's obvious how difficult it was to determine exactly where the shots were coming from." It seems ludicrous to suggest that such intense fire could possibly be coming from any direction other than the Ciskeian defence force. In any case, it had already been widely established by then that the automatic fire originated from the Ciskei seurity forces.

Before saying that journalists at the scene were unanimous that the shooting was started by Ciskei forces, the newsreader stated that the ANC and Ciskei have accused each other of the shooting. This is characteristic of SABC coverage of violence in which it creates a story out of allegations and counter-allegations without attempting to access independent opinion or provide a context of background information for the allegations.

In the Bisho case, it became clear from subsequent news broadcasts that the SABC did not desire to present independent viewpoints as this would have portrayed the Ciskei security forces in a negative light and fostered sympathy for the ANC. It thus chose to preserve a measure of viewer ignoranceby confusing details of the event and relying onparty-political accusations as initial information.

This view is supported by further examples.

While the newsreader was describing the shootings, a shot of a revolver lying in the dust was shown while the accompanying voice-overstated: "Ciskei 's defence force chief claims his troops had returned the fire of a group of marchers who had attacked his men." The shot of the revolver was not contextualised or explained. It could have been lying anywhere and carried by any person.

TV 1 8pm news - setting the context

The SABC ' s approach to the massacre became even more evident in the 8pm headlines: "Talle mense is dood in 'n bloedige botsing teen die Ciskei se weermag en oprukkende ANC ondersteuners." ("Scores of people were killed in a bloody clash between the Ciskei army and riotous ANC supporters.")

The first sentence of the news item itself went as follows: "Die regering het 'n kompanjie soldate in Ciskei ontplooi om nywerhede te beskerm en plundery te voorkom na vandag se voorval waarin 23 mense dood is. Die kantoor van die Staats President sê die stap word gedoen met inagneming van die veiligheidstoestand in Ciskei en met die toestemming van die land se regering." ("The government has deployed a company of soldiers in Ciskei to protect industries and to prevent plundering after today's incident in which 23 people were killed. The office of the State President said the step was taken in light of the security situation in Ciskei and with the agreement of the country's government.")

By beginning the news item in such a manner the SABC criminalised the very people who were victims of the massacre. Its first concern was to inform the public of measures taken by the state president to protect business in the Ciskei. This represents a total disregard for the tragedy in terms of the loss of life. It also clearly reveals the SABC's agenda to underplay the notion of "massacre" and rather emphasisethe concept of "disobedience", specifically disobedience attributed to the ANC.

The item went onto mention the number of dead and injured. But it did not, at this stage, even hint at who was responsible for the shooting. It then described the terms of agreement for the march and during this implied that the ANC marchers were armed by saying that according to the court order, no weapons would be permitted. The newsreader then reported a statement made by the ANC Border representative, Andrew Hendricks, that the marchers would be going to Bisho and not just to the stadium.

This was the context set up by the TV 1 news, BEFORE any footage of the actual march was shown. It had emphasised the terms of agreements and reported that the ANC intended to break them. In addition it described the shooting as a general consequence of the march. The SABC created a framework for the story which presented the victims of the massacre as the perpetrators, and the perpetrators as victims.

TV1 8pm - telling the story

After creating this framework the 8pm news finally went over to presenting the march. Firstly, it is noteworthy that the SABC reported an inordinately low figure for the march turnout. Independent radio stations and newspapers put the number of marchers at between 60 000 and 80 000. TV 1's reporter stated that there were 20 000 - a large divergence from the other estimated figures.

After describing the incident, the 8pm bulletin then reported Brigadier Oupa Gqozo's accusations that someone in the crowd had fired first. Then, as in the 6pm bulletin, a shot of a revolver in the dust was shown with the voice-over: "Hy sê verder dat in die stormloop, een soldaat van die Ciskei se weermag doodgeskiet is." ("He added that in the charge, one soldier of the Ciskei army was shot dead.")

The ANC's version of the shooting incident was not reported at all. However, live sound extracts from three different government officials were broadcast, all blaming the ANC and mass action for the shootings. The ANC received only one live sound extract on the news bulletin. This was a short interview with Steve Tshwete during the sit-in at the South African embassy, alleging that the government was involved in the massacre. This interview cut immediately to an interview with Hemus Kriel expressing his disbelief at and denial of Tshwete's accusations. It was followed by "reaction" to the events from the ANC and PAC, and concluded with the responses of two parties condemnng the ANC action - the Conservative Party and the Democratic Party.

The ANC was not officially approached by the SABC, despite the fact that various spokespersons had been available for comment since late afternoon (as evidenced by Radio 702 news, for instance). What is more, various other salient facts, many of which were crucial to the adequate understanding of events, had been excluded from the 8pm bulletin. The most important was that journalists on the scene had unanimously agreed that the marchers were unarmed. It is disturbing that SABC journalists were the only ones who believed the marchers were armed, or at least implied it by using particular footage in conjunction with particular statements.

The SABC did not report that National Peace Committee chairman John Hall had stated that no warning shots were fired. There was a brief 34 second interview with Dr Antonio Gildenhuys of the National Peace Accord, in which a sweeping reference was made to this effect, but the central importance of Hall's statement was disregarded by SABC news.

Agenda

The Agenda news magazine immediately after the 8pm news revealed unabashed partisanship towards the government. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pik Botha followed ANC spokesperson, Carl Niehaus. Botha was, therefore, able to reply to Niehaus's statements without the ANC representative being present to defend himself. Botha also received more time and more favourable questions from the interviewer. While Niehaus was challenged on the ANC's decision to march on the Ciskei, Botha was merely asked for information on the government's reaction and "where to now" questions. This provided him with plenty of time to castigate the ANC, uninterrupted by the interviewer. It also presented the government as a neutral rational force in the turmoil surrounding the killings, while not challenging it on its position with regard to its links to the homelands.

It may seem superficial to apply statistics to a fluid situation like a television interview but it is worth pointing out that in Niehaus's five minute interview, he was asked eight questions and was interrupted twice. Botha received just over seven uninterrupted minutes and during that time was presented with only six questions.

Radio Algoa

(TV 1 coverage of Bisho on the day of the massacre was only surpassed in its level of distortion by Radio Algoa, a regional SABC radio station.)

The following extractis taken from an SABC Radio Algoa reporter...who filed this report about an hour after the shootings:

"...Later, when it calmed down slightly one could gather that what had happened was that a group had broken out of the stadium and rushed Ciskeian soldiers firing as they came. The Ciskeian soldiers then acted in self-defence and shot back. Later reports came through that cars had driven into the stadium and that weapons had been dished out to people."

CCV 7pm News

While the coverage on CCV news improved on the day after the massacre, its initial reports presented remarkable bias towards the government and Ciskei's points of view. This is unusual as CCV coverage generally tends to be more impartial than TV1 news. 41% of the total time given to the Bisho incident was devoted to live sound statements from South African government officials. The ANC received only 14% of the total in an interview with Steve Tshwete.

TV1 News coverage In the following days

During the three days following the Bisho massacre, interviews or press conferences involving government officials or Brigadier Gqozo presented them in a medium close-up, with them dominating the frame. However, at Mandela's press conference, he was filmed ' from a distance and other people at the table were included in the frame. This presented a distraction in the camera which affected the impact of his statement. It also diminished his visual status during the press conference, whereas the close-ups given, especially to De Klerk, enhanced his physical status and projected him "into the living room".

On the day following the massacre protest marches held around the country were glanced over by TV1 news and no live sound extracts from any of the march leaders were broadcast. Reports on these marches were followed by a "stinging attack from the Ministry of Justice, the National Party and the IFP." The statements from these organisations were then read out.

Statements and reaction to the incident by the following organisations were entirely ignored:

     South African Communist Party spokes-man Essop Pahad: "the soldiers and others who committed these murders have to be brought to book."

     COSATU spokesman Neil Coleman: "sickening and nauseating the state president can imply that the unprovoked shooting of peaceful demonstrators was justified because certain guidelines were allegedly not adhered to.

     SA Council of Churches - called on the South African and Ciskeian governments to hold a referendum on Ciskeian leadership.

     Rhema Ministries founder the Rev Ray McCauley appealed to Brigadier Gqozo to allow church leaders to intervene.

     AZAPO president Pandelani Nefolovhodwe: the killings were "done with the assistance and full knowledge of the South African regime."

Nor were statements from these organisations and personalities broadcast the following day either, while reaction criticising the ANC and mass action was reported from the Conservative Party, the Herstigte Nasionale Party and various church groupings in South Africa - with the SA Council of Churches statements conspicuously absent.

Conclusion of COM's monitoring

SABC's failure as a public broadcaster has glaringly revealed itself in two ways during its coverage of the Bisho massacre. Firstly, and most obviously, it has continued to misrepresent the ANC and its allies in their programme of mass action, while extracting maximum positive publicity for the government and assuring it of an information laager from which to defend its image. Such selective reporting has characterised SABC news for a long time.

What is more disturbing, however, is the extent to which the SABC is prepared to go to achieve these ideological objectives. Over the past few months, it has followed a trend of reporting violence as a series of allegations andcounter-allegations. The reasons behind the violence have never been investigated beyond party political rhetoric. The SABC has provided a platform for political parties and security forces who, in their broadcast speeches, contravene the principles of the National Peace Accord, time and time again.

Such outbursts of intolerant rhetoric are not newsworthy in themselves, nor are they informative. However, these parties take full advantage of public occasions to deliver invective, fully aware that if it involves ANC-or Communist-bashing, it is bound to be carried by TV news.

Not only does this indicate a severe lack of responsible journalism by the public broadcasters, it also raises questions about the SABC's position in relation to violence in general. The following is an extract from Principle 1.9 of the National Peace Accord:

"It is clear that violence and intimidation declines when it is investigated and when the background and reasons for it are exposed and given media attention. There is, therefore, need for an an effective instrument to do that."

If the SABC continues to misinform the public or withold information on issues such as international dissatisfaction with events here, it is unlikely that its audience, especially the white population will come to terms with the need for change.

With each successive threat to the local and international image of the government - from the Goniwe murder signal, through the Boipatong massacre and the Gluckman revelations, to our present crisis - SABC television and radio increasingly reveal themselves as no more than an electioneering mechanism for the South African government and a dismal failure as a public broadcaster.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.