The Broadcaster Has No Clothes

WHEN THE BILLBOARDS WENT UP AT OR TAMBO, Durban, and Cape Town International Airports at the end of March, they marked the first glimpse of what’s coming soon to a TV near you.

Those larger-than-life faces beaming down are SABC’s international correspondents, reporting from bureaus in Jamaica, Senegal, Nigeria, China, Kenya, Harare, Sao Paolo, London, the DRC, New York, Washington and Brussels. The campaign marks the April kick off of the 24-hour news schedule for SABC News International, which launched its limited programming test phase in July 2007, and now, finally, is bringing the channel into African homes here and around the world, the real story of Africa, through African eyes.

Or not.

Because unless you are one of the estimated 65 000 people in South Africa who have a decoder that receives the government-owned Sentech’s Vivid platform – a sort of pay TV model, only you buy the decoder for about R200 rand and then you are forever plugged into their bouquet of channels which includes SABC News International, along with a slew of religious broadcast favourites like Spirit World and the Hope Channel – you won’t be seeing much of it at all. Maybe you’ll be able to catch it on SABC 2 in the old SABC Africa slot which runs from midnight to 5 am. Or, if you are in the Washington DC area, you might be able tune in sometime in April.

See, now, this where things start to get fuzzy.

It all started with a City Press article that didn’t seem to make any sense.

On February 16, the paper reported big plans afoot at SABC’s news division about the 20 bureaus to be dotted strategically across the globe by 2010 to feed SABC News International and its April switch to the 24-hour news schedule.

The confusing, scratch-your-head omission in the article was two-fold. SABC News International, which the government-owned broadcaster, by its own account, was pouring hundreds of millions of rands and untold resources into, was only being seen by those 65 000 people who have a decoder? For the record, this generous number comes from the SABC, which bandied about estimates between 6 000 and 60 0000 during various conversations but ended up with an official count of 65 0000. Meanwhile, Sentech refused requests from Empire to confirm how many viewers they have or where they are located, saying that information was “not for public consumption.”

The two in the fold was this: what was going to happen with SABC Africa? Their contract with MultiChoice, which allowed the news and entertainment channel to be broadcast a large chunk of the 1.5 million viewers in South Africa and another 650 000 in 47 countries on the continent, was about to expire any day. At the end of March to be precise. Which would, potentially, leave the channel with no platform from which to broadcast.

Surely there was something more to this. Surely there was a gargantuan component missing, unseen by the masses, a grand plan for these channels, known only to SABC’s high-ranking executives and board members and we, the people, shouldn’t really be worrying our pretty little heads about it.

After all, when SABC News International originally went live in 2007, it was hailed by President Thabo Mbeki as Africa’s opportunity to “break free of Western news agendas and give a more rounded picture of the continent,” according to a Business Report article about the launch. It was dubbed African’s CNN.

So, after years of planning, and nearly a year of on air testing, the mere fact that the SABC was going live with a 24-hour news schedule should have us all gathered around our TV sets waiting to see how the world looks through African eyes. Unfortunately, the reception on this channel isn’t easy to get, no matter how you tweak it. It took me three weeks solid to get things into focus.

—-

With not much to go on from the SABC’s series of websites, their marketing department seemed like a good place to start to clear things up. At least before talking to SABC’s head of news, the embattled Dr. Snuki Zikalala himself. No chance. Seems the good doctor was taking all the queries, down to every detail, himself. There was no background information, no history, no projections and no marketing material that might give a bit more insight about either SABC Africa or SABC News International and how they were related or unrelated and where they were headed.

I was able to get an appointment for a week later, and continued on my own to gather as much background as I could. I made some calls to relevant sources close to the SABC and quickly found that, almost to the number, they all needed some serious couch time, to get it off their chests. “It’s hell,” one insider told me. “On paper, it’s damn reasonable,” said another, “but there is a conspicuous lack of planning.”

There were charges of overseas bureaus filled with state-of-the-art equipment that correspondents didn’t know how to use, and complaints of impossible mandates on those correspondents to file several stories a day in different languages in order to feed SABC 1, 2 and 3 along with SABC Africa and SABC News International and the broadcaster’s 18 radio stations. An impossible task, I was repeatedly told, even for the most experienced broadcast journalist.

I ended up at a dark Northern Suburbs café to meet Secret Source #1, from now on referred to as SS1, who told me of a staff meeting on a rainy Wednesday in late February at the SABC offices, where SABC Africa’s rank and file met to discuss their future. They were told about the expiring contract with MultiChoice, were assured of ongoing negotiations, and were given virtually no options for their broadcasting future. “What happens if MultiChoice says no?” voiced one concerned staffer. “Don’t worry,” they were told in response, “you’ll still be paid.”

Say it ain’t so. How could management not know what would happen just weeks before the contract was ending? They must know. They’re being cagey. Nope, SS1 assured me, that wasn’t it.

“SABC Africa is the basket case of the whole operation,” SS1 told me point blank. “They don’t know what they are doing. Honestly. There is no vision.”

SS1 offered up a precise example on the lack of execution for the visions of the great pan-African channel with a recent tale. On February 28, as the continent’s story of the year broke in Kenya when opposition leader Raila Odinga – who accused President Mwai Kibaki of stealing the elections – signed a power-sharing deal with his rival to end the violence, Al Jazeera was streaming live, CNN and BBC were sending through regular reports. But back at SABC Africa, SS1 told me, the day’s soapies played without interruption to MultiChoice viewers across continent, apparently despite the fact that they actually have a bureau in Kenya. “I’m sitting in Africa and this is an African story,” SS1 said with a shake of the head. “They didn’t even break into programming.”

This was the first of many long conversations with SABC insiders, but as it turns out, my last with this particular source. After our initial meeting, SS1 missed two appointments and then stopped taking my calls. SS1’s last words, as we sat in the café, still sit with me. “What do you as an employee do?” SS1 asked. “You shut the hell up, that’s what you do. You just don’t go there.”

I wasn’t surprised SS1 went quiet. Considering.

It was less than a year ago, right about the time that SABC News International launched, that, the Mail&Guardian reported, CEO Dail Mpofu had his top 20 managers sign letters consenting to a polygraph test in an effort to determine the source of a leaked internal audit report which centered around the activities of legal services head Mafika Sihali. Leaked information to media outside of the SABC is, apparently, to put it lightly, dealt with rather harshly.

But perhaps even more disturbing were the February articles in the City Press and U.S. entertainment industry trade magazine Variety which reported that SABC internal auditor Elsie Oosthuizen, who was investigating “influential individuals” for the SABC, was under 24-hour bodyguard protection after receiving threatening phone calls and was reportedly followed as she drove out of the broadcaster’s Auckland Park offices.

What do you as an employee do? You shut the hell up. You just don’t go there.

—-

The day before I get into see Zikalala, one of his assistants briefs me a bit, for background only, he says, with all details to be confirmed through Zikalala. I learn then that the news component of SABC Africa and SABC News International are to merge as of April 1. SABC Africa will become, primarily, an entertainment channel.

On the fourth floor of the SABC TV building, at the very end of a long corridor lit in government-issue florescents, is the modest office of Zikalala, the Group Executive of the SABC News and Current Affairs Division.

According to his bio, he runs Africa’s largest news organisation, with over 1300 staff and a division which provides content for three terrestrial television stations, two satellite channels, 18 radio stations and a variety of new media channels. He’s a veteran journalist with a Phd in Journalism from Sofia University in Bulgaria, where he began working in 1980 while in exile. When he returned to South Africa, it reads, he worked for the South African Labour Bulletin and the South African Congress of Trade Unions as a researcher before joining SABC as a labour correspondent in 1993. Just five years later, he was appointed Deputy Editor in Chief for Radio and Television News and Acting Editor of SABC Africa. Zikalala went through several incarnations up the corporate ladder – with a stint over at the Department of Labour in communications from 2002 to 2004 – ending up at the top of the pile at SABC News. What is missing from is CV is, of course, his widely reported blacklisting of SABC commentators in 2006.

It’s warm out this Thursday afternoon in early March and Zikalala is dressed in executive dapper, a dark pin striped suit and tie, wire framed glasses framing his exposed head and a wary smile. The flat screen TV in his office is tuned to a fuzzy image of President Thabo Mbeki speaking in parliament – the SABC News International logo floats in the corner.

We take a seat on the couches by the glass coffee table and I pull out my list of questions and my tape recorder. I never tape, but this seems like one I don’t want to miss a word of – I’ve found that information in these offices isn’t easy to come by and I’ve got a feeling that things are going to get confusing.

We get right to the point: the MultiChoice contract is due to expire at the end March. What will happen to SABC Africa with its new entertainment format? What is the plan for an alternative platform for SABC News International since the viewership possibilities are so limited with Vivid?

The good doctor assures me that MultiChoice “is interested in both channels” and SABC is “just waiting for them to come back to us.” I mention that the deadline for those negotiations are pretty tight, just about three weeks away, in fact. What are the alternatives? I ask. “We are waiting patiently,” he tells me with a laugh, hands folded in his lap.

He tells me about the plans to sell the channels to a “number of broadcasters”. In America, he mentions a deal with MHZ Networks, the details of which, I am told later, are still being “ironed out and remain confidential”. Apparently, SABC News International will broadcast from sometime in April on MHZ-2, which reaches 2.2-million terrestrial viewers in the Washington DC area, plus another million through various operators including Comcast Communications, Cox Cable, Verizon FIOS and RCN. Even this, if it does happen as planned, this venture won’t be generating cash for quite a while – Zikalala tells me there’s still a ways to go to prove to advertisers that people are actually watching what’s being served up.

“Kenya, they are very interested,” Zikalala says. “We are now in Uganda on the Vivid platform. We are looking into East Africa, into Tanzania. We are working on a strategy to sell the channel to the whole continent. In Europe, we are entering into agreement with European TV. Jamaica is interested.”

But all this sounds so familiar. In several news reports at the time of the 2007 launch, Zikalala boasted about “interest from African, American and European broadcasters in carrying the channel.” There is a long stretch between interest and execution and the time of execution still has not come.

Anyway, he tells me, even if MultiChoice comes through the way they want it to, it will be only for the South African bouquet. This is part of the deal structure they’d like to change. Zikalala tells me he’d like the new deal to be more like, say, CNN and BBC who can sell their content to the rest Africa at will, with exclusivity only in South Africa. A MultiChoice spokesperson would not confirm this or any of their deal structures in any way, saying contract details are not public information.

We talk about the way the organization is set up, and he patiently explains the structure. SABC’s TV News division, whose News Gathering department is fed with news from SABC bureaus in South Africa, as well as the new international bureaus, along with various international news services like Reuters. SABC 1, 2 and 3 – which have an public broadcast mandate – as well as SABC Africa and SABC News International – which both have commercial mandates – all get their news here, in a sort of cross-utilization of resources which must make for lots of budget overlaps between the educational and commercial divisions.

We discuss the new bureaus and he tells me that there are between two and four people in each – tight operations, he says, with small offices as to not incur astronomical costs. In Kenya, for example, there are three, two journalists and a cameraperson. Everyone must be multiskilled. Their mandate: to file one to two short news stories per day, in different languages, whenever possible, three short news stories for radio each day, in different languages, whenever possible, plus maybe one or two packages for current affairs, and then, of course, the longer feature that they must deliver on each week. Oh, and the live cross Q&As for one of the 18 radio stations, on an as needed basis.

That sounds like a lot for one or two people, I say. “Yes,” says Zikalala with a laugh. “But they must work, they are employed to work.”

It’s a situation those working for the international 24-hour news bureaus are facing everyday – increasing workloads from cost-cutting employers. But, later in the month, when I read the list of mandates required for the SABC international correspondents to Hamilton Wende, a veteran broadcast journalist who works for various international news agencies across Africa, he echoes what I’ve been hearing from those SABC insiders. That kind of workload is flat out impossible. “Nobody can do that much every day,” Wende says. “Sure, on big breaking story you run like that every day but in an ordinary week, no way.”

We discuss budgets and Zikalala tells me he’s allocated an annual operating budget for the news channel at R60 million, reaching toward R100 million by 2012. In July, he says, a new studio will start going up, for an additional cost of R45 million. Currently, the news briefs and one of the current affairs programmes for SABC News International is shot in a cramped studio located on the second floor of SABC’s Henley block, where most of the broadcaster’s soapies and talk shows are produced. Total set up costs on the operation? He’ll get back with me.

Turns out these days neither of the channels are generating much in the way of advertising, and the only revenue for these commercial ventures are coming out of that MultiChoice deal which pays SABC Africa an annual fee to use its content which is set to come to an end in March. So what’s the sales strategy, then?

“We are setting up a sales strategy,” Zikalala assures me. “We have one person now and we are recruiting more people.” Seems that the sales strategy plan, much like the broadcast plan and the marketing plan, have fallen off the business plan or at least the timeline plan. But the noble imperative still stands strong.

“We as Africans must provide news with a pan African slant,” Zikalala tells me as our interview comes to a close. “Africans are sick and tired of stories being told by people who don’t live on the continent. These people come in, they shoot, they report, and they leave – and they are the ones who become the experts on Africa. We are living on this continent. It’s not just about AIDS and strife and war and poverty. It’s about democracy. This continent has huge potential. We want to give hope to Africans. We want to be the light for them.”

Amen. Hallelujah in fact. Who could argue with that? Who, living on this continent, doesn’t want that for all of us, for so many reasons, commercial, educational, social, for our communities, for our well-being, for our children, for our confidence, for our history, for a better future. For Africa. For the world. I wish I could tell you that I believe in the dream. But, after an hour and a half with the man who’s heading it up for us all, I leave, a bit sad, with so many more questions than I had going in, mostly about how they can possibly pull this off.

“It’s all vapour,” says Secret Source #2, waving at the sprinklers lightly showering us at a Melrose Arch café the day after I met with Zikalala. “You know, it doesn’t exist. It’s all talk and no action.”

From 2003 to 2005, when SS2 was working on the big 24-hour news plan, they were well poised to get it right, without competition getting in their way. Al Jazeera hadn’t broken into the market yet – there were no eTV 24-hour news aspirations on the horizon and Telkom Media’s 24-hour news channel probably wasn’t even on the whiteboard.

“If you would have told me we’d be having this conversation five years later, five years after all these big plans, I’d have told you no way,” laughs SS2 in disbelief. “Now they are going to do it again? I don’t think so.”

During SS2’s tenure, there were two missed launches: one in late 2005 and another in early 2006. SS2 says they didn’t go ahead because key staff was not in place, agreements with other broadcasters were not negotiated, and they just plain didn’t have the content to make it work.

“We thought it was a commercial venture but it had no commercial objectives,” SS2 says. “They are camouflaging a political strategy as a commercial one. Nothing has changed. This is exactly the same conversation that we had in 2006.”

But maybe camouflage is as strong word. After all, I’ve read the board’s stated corporate goals many times – it’s etched right into their annual report. “Ensure that the SABC plays a meaningful role in supporting the objectives of the African Renaissance and NEPAD,” it reads. This political imperative is part and parcel of the deal.

Still, I need more background to really understand what’s happening. I need something tangible, something concrete. Well, SS2 says, why not just have a look at some of the plans from back then? Indeed, why not. SS2 promises to send them through.

I head back to the SABC offices the following Tuesday morning to talk with Dr. Saul Pelle, the head of SABC Africa news and, more recently, SABC News International. I bump into Zikalala in his office before my meeting to pick up the available marketing materials. What I am given is a single sheet of paper showing the new billboard, along with a slightly worn glossy brochure, surely from the original launch which outlines the programming at the time, with photos of international anchors, none of whom match the current incarnation on the billboards. He tells me in passing that negotiations with MultiChoice have just been extended for three more months; although as Empire was going to print, a spokesperson for MultiChoice would only confirm that there were negotiations underway to negotiate a three month extension. Maybe in July we’ll know where we in South Africa can tune into the African CNN.

Pelle’s office is located in the far corner of what is still operating as SABC Africa’s newsroom. “I know you are not going to ask me a lot of questions,” he says, as we shake hands. I laugh, “Why do you say that?” “Because you already talked quite a bit to Snuki.” I get the feeling this is a man who does not want to take responsibility for what’s being said here; all the key information must come from the chief.

It’s not tough to see where he’s coming from. Google gave me a little background. Saul Pelle was the child actor who starred in the 1971 American movie Tokoloshe, alongside Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. His CV tells me that Pelle was a journalist with the ANC’s Radio Freedom in the late seventies, received his Phd in Journalism from Zikalala’s alma mater, the University of Sofia and, throughout the eighties, he worked as a journalist with Radio Sofia. More recently, Pelle was in the Foreign Service stationed in Brussels, the DRC and Angola. He joined SABC Africa in 2006, taking over for Phil Molefe, the veteran broadcast journalist who is now operating out of SABC’s Radio Park, as General Manger of International Affairs. Themba Mthembu, who was the project manager for the 2007 launch for SABC News International is also now gone, back to his regular role as head of SABC Television Current Affairs.

But it’s Pelle’s diplomatic background that stands out most in our talk. He speaks like a politician – not unlike Zikalala himself.

We discuss the bureaus in Africa, the importance of covering the Diaspora and of going into China because it’s an “important market and also to be able to reach as many people as possible who have not had access to African news from an African perspective.”

I ask if he’s concerned about the MultiChoice deal and the possibility that there’s actually no alternative platform. “It’s not about MultiChoice,” he assures me. “It’s about the channel. In the next 20 years, say for instance, we will be the same as CNN and Al Jazeera, almost all over the world. Clearly it could be a concern to be only on Vivid. But our strategy is to go out there, to sell to other people.”

Like Zikalala, he talks about “some interest in Jamaica”. He also says there is “some interest in the US”. Maybe he doesn’t know about the MHZ deal that Zikalala has told me about. Maybe he’s just being coy. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that vapour that SS2 was referring to.

I ask about how the rank and file are dealing with the changes. “There is a nervousness here,” Pelle admits. “They are not sure that this is really happening. They wonder if they will still retain their jobs, but I point to this.” At this, Pelle pulls out a hand-written sketch on a piece of oversized white paper that appears to maps out programming for the channel. “We are going to need more people.”

When I inquire about the costs of the bureau set up, he rubs his face. “I don’t know,” he says, “a lot of money. But we are talking about return on investment. We are talking about the long term.”

It’s no wonder Pelle couldn’t give me any ballpark figures. Numbers over at the SABC aren’t easy to come by. It took more than a week to get answers to basic follow-up questions like numbers of viewers on Vivid, outlines of deal structures with the American network MHZ, MultiChoice and Vivid, along with the original launch date of SABC Africa (so far I’ve been told, at different times, 1999, 2000 and 2003) and operational and set up costs for SABC News International. You know, the sort of stuff you pull right from your business plan.

Like, for example, the one SS2 sent through dated November 2004. Project name: SABC Africa 24 Hour News Service and Africa Bureau Expansion Initiative.

It’s here I learn that SABC Africa’s licensing agreement with MultiChoice includes an annual payment of R26.5 million in exchange for the exclusive rights to SABC Africa on the continent. I also find some history. SABC Africa, it reads, was founded in 1998 as the fourth channel of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. It evolved from a news and current affairs channel into a news and entertainment channel, following the 2003 absorption of the now defunct entertainment channel Africa2Africa.

The rest of the documentation manages to support everything SS2 told me. The detailed plans. The false starts. The intricate research. The grand vision. And, ultimately, the evidence that despite all the resources, cash and research poured into these plans, not much is tangible, and we’re a solid five years in.

When SABC finally does come back to me with numbers, the sheer magnitude of the operation – and the commitment of the SABC coffers – come through loud and clear. Bureau set up costs: R20 million per bureau, which at 12 bureaus, puts us at a running tally of R240 million. With that kind of dough, my international news producer assures me, “You’ll get a bloody nice bureau.” Definitely the sort of cash needed to put the broadcaster into the big leagues. But not really the tight, small, basic bureau operation that Zikalala mentioned in our original meeting.

Set up costs back in South Africa for SABC News International, I am told, come in at R90 million. Add to that the R45 million studio Zikalala mentioned and we’re in this for R375 million just to get our feet on the ground. Annual operating costs for SABC News International: R60 million. Plus another R12 million per bureau for R144 million brings us to an annual operating budget of R204 million.

And although the news created by the bureaus will be used by the entire news component – the News Gathering division – those international bureaus are clearly created for the 24-hour news expansion, especially when you look at their roll out.

The sales strategy? All of those superfluous matters seem to have taken a back seat, the MultiChoice deal with SABC the only money-generator and that seems to be, at the moment, at least compromised. “At this point,” I am told in response to my email follow up questions, “advertising revenue on the channel is negligible.”

The take away here is no matter how you slice it, this is costing heaps of  cash for a supposedly commercial project with, apparently, no commercial imperative, just as SS2 claimed from the get go, or at least nothing substantial on the visible horizon.

I called Secret Source #3, SS3, an SABC insider who had been helping me piece the historical research together and fill in when things stopped making sense. Through all the management changeovers, and stops and starts and missing links, where does the blame lie with all of this?

“Look,’ SS3 told me, “what is happening is that the board is giving high level mandates which the executives agree that they can deliver on, without ever asking the people who actually do the work if it’s possible.” And the result seems to be that, in all of the complexity of setting up a world class African 24-hour news station, even with all of their resources at hand and a seemingly loose piggy bank from which to draw, the SABC can’t seem to put all of the essential elements into place.

According to a December 2007 article in The Times reporting on Independent Communication Authority hearings, the broadcaster attempted to force the five companies awarded pay-television licenses in 2007 – including On Digital Media, Telkom Media, Walking on Water , eSat and MultiChoice – to carry and pay for use of SABC content with “must-carry” licensing conditions. According to an Icasa spokesperson, those deliberations are still underway.

It doesn’t take a high level insider to deduce that, after years of negotiations, MultiChoice isn’t clamouring for their content. Not that they don’t want some of what SABC Africa has to offer. Unfortunately, it seems that what they are interested in are soapies like Isidingo and Generations, not their less-than-stellar news coverage.

Perhaps that’s what CEO Dali Mpofu realised in December of 2005, when he told the Mail&Guardian, “The strategy here is so huge that’s its irrelevant what happens with us and MultiChoice.” Back then he was proposing the two channels just as we are supposed to be seeing them in April of 2008 – one news and one entertainment. He called MultiChoice the “easy option”. “My own view,” he told the paper, “is that we should take the difficult route and forge partnerships on the continent. We can’t be dependent on pay TV, which reaches a very small and rich audience. We would like this to be a mass-based offering.”

It was a bold man making those declarations in 2005. A man on a mission. “By early next year, we will roll out a concrete plan. For me, this is one thing I will see through.” But things change. Fast forward two years later, at launch time in 2007, and the news reports quoted Mpofu as saying the public broadcaster would negotiate with MultiChoice to carry SABC International on its DStv platform. Nearly a year later, negotiations are, apparently, still underway.

SS2 would say I told you so and those documents would back that up. If the SABC had gone through with the originally planned launch in 2005 or even 2006, they would be way ahead of the competition. By now Al Jeezera has spread it’s tentacles across the continent and it, along with the BBC, are widely hailed as the best African news coverage around.

Closer to home, in May of 2007, Telkom Media announced that they had snapped up Jimi Matthews to head their 24-hour news channel which will be broadcast their own low cost pay TV platform, which will be giving MultiChoice a run for their money. Matthews was the former head over at SABC TV news, who worked for Reuters as a cameraman, editor and senior producer in South and Central Africa.

In December last year, eTV announced plans for a 24-hour news channel to be launched on MultiChoice, with SAfm’s Jeremy Maggs and 702’s Redi Direko as lead anchors.

It’s true that neither Telkom Media nor eTV are passing out glossy rate cards with detailed marketing material and their launches are right around the corner. Their spokespeople say they are keeping their cards close to their chests in an increasingly competitive market where poaching staff and intelligence from your neighbors is the most popular game in town.

Telkom Media’s Chris Van Zyl says their 24-hour news channel will offer up pan African news with South Africa as the focal point, initially taking feeds on international stories from services like Reuters. Van Zyl says the channel has a name in the works, but that it won’t be disclosed until closer to the launch date in July or August.

Debora Patta, head of news at eTV, was equally guarded, not offering up specifics on programming, but intimating a news coverage similar to Telkom Media’s, with plans for African bureaus later on, possibly sending reporters to other parts of the continent on the bigger stories. Launch date, Patta says, is mid-year. “We’d be foolish to set a time and then not make that date,” says Patta. “Closer to the time, once all our ducks are in a row we’ll give a proper launch date.”

And she has a point. It is sort of foolish to go out there are shout about what you are going to do and when, and then get caught with your proverbial pants down in a sort of naked news scenario. Because even if we can’t see any marketing materials from the competition, it appears, at least for the moment, to be for strategic reasons. Meanwhile, the SABC has had a humungous head start, with all those plush bureaus and hard-working correspondents in place and an enviable infrastructure to exploit. But at least the competition knows where they’ll be broadcasting.

Maybe it’s not all doom and gloom for SABC News International. Hark back to 1980 and Ted Turner’s CNN, which operated unchallenged for more than 10 years with a notoriously underpaid staff. It took the channel over five years to break even. They scrimped, and clawed their way through the dark, paving their way for everyone else, offering up coverage the world had never seen before and changing the way the West goes to war with their coverage of the Gulf in 1991 and how politicians around the globe campaign. But they, and all the imitators since, still can’t cover Africa the way Africans could. If only we could just get it right, it could be so right.

Here’s to the African dream beaming to you live from Africa through African eyes. I only hope it will not die another unnecessary death even before it gets a chance to breathe. It doesn’t have to end this way. Or does it?

March 2008, Empire

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