SABC fined after Seven Oaks 'eviction' story proved not true - The Witness

31 December 2019 - The findings of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) into the complaint made by Grant Meyer against the television news report on the dispute with two occupiers has redeemed the reputation of the Seven Oakes, KwaZulu-Natal farmer.

David Christianson

The findings of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) into the complaint made by Grant Meyer against the television news report on the dispute with two occupiers has redeemed the reputation of the Seven Oakes, KwaZulu-Natal farmer.

The BCC found that the ‘impression … created of a cruel farmer who had evicted vulnerable people who had been living on his farm for more than 60 years’, was simply ‘not true’. The BCC ordered that a correction be broadcast and imposed a fine of R10 000 on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) for ‘broadcasting news that is not accurate, true and fair’.

The complaint has its roots in the efforts made by Meyer to make alternative arrangements for two occupiers – sisters Sizane and Ntombi Zwake (the Zwake sisters) – whose occupancy had become problematic. The two do not and never have worked on the farm but reside there because their late mother had been an employee of the Meyers. Sizane works at a sawmill and Ntombi receives a disability grant.

Meyer went to considerable lengths to find acceptable alternative accommodation for the sisters. Meyer would have been within his legal rights to insist that the Umvoti Municipality accommodate the sisters in tents, which is the minimum obligation under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act. But Meyer believes he has a duty of tolerance towards the sisters and that tents are not adequate accommodation. But his kindness was not reciprocated.

Meyer attempted to arrange a ‘win-win’ outcome. He first sought to find the Zwake sisters land at their birthplace, Ngome near Keates Drift. When the sisters rejected this option, Meyer went to some lengths to find them RDP houses in Greytown. The municipality was at the time implementing a housing project, Phase 2 of the Greytown Slums Clearance Project. Working against official (municipal) unwillingness, Meyer managed to have the sisters jump the queue; after successfully passing a means test, each was allocated a two-bedroomed RDP house with full facilities and ownership rights.

However, when the time came to move, the Zwake sisters refused to do so. It is likely that they had taken (misleading) advice from land activists who had advised them that they had a strong claim to a portion of the farm. It is also possible that they would be required to pay for rates and services in Greytown, whereas they had been living free of all such charges on the farm.

The relationship between Meyer and the Zwake sisters had by this point long broken down. The two had proved to be troublesome and destructive neighbours over a two-year period. They had prevented the erection of a boundary fence, destroyed farm facilities and allowed visitors who were later found to have committed theft. This culminated in the visit on 25 July 2017 by Mr. Tshabalala of the Landless Peoples Movement, accompanied by about 20 other people who claimed to be members of the Economic Freedom Fighters. The group threatened Meyer, saying: ‘You are finished. The days of your white skin (pulling his cheek) are numbered and Malema is coming’.

Tshabalala later brought an SABC news crew to the farm. Their report, broadcast on Channel 404 on 17 August 2019 was the subject of the complaint to the BCC. In its ruling, the Commission summarised the impression left by the news item:

1.            That the Zakwe sisters had been evicted from the farm after having lived there for more than 60 years.

2.            That the sisters did not want to leave the farm because that is where the graves of their forefathers are located.

3.            That Meyer colluded with the government and the municipality by forcing the Zwake sisters to sign an eviction order without explaining their rights to them.

4.            That interviews with the sisters confirmed the narrative to this point.

5.            That the official document shown on screen with the heading: ‘IN THE LAND CLAIMS COURT OF SOUTH AFRICA’ was an eviction order signed by all parties.

6.            An interview with an official of the Umvoti (Greytown) municipality confirmed that the sisters would be relocated to municipal housing.

7.            That Meyer’s legal representative said the eviction order ‘stands’ and that the farm dwellers must leave the farm before the end of September 2019.

With the exception of point 6 – that the sisters had been allocated municipal housing – every substantive claim made in the news broadcast was found by the BCC to have been incorrect or misleading.

The Zwake sisters had not resided on the farm for 60 years. Their father only came to work for the Meyers in 1991 and was joined by his wife and daughters (the sisters) some years later. The Commission pointed out that the statement is clearly impossible as the older of the two sisters is no more than 40d and the younger is described in the news item itself as ‘34-years old’.

The graves of the sisters’ forefathers are not located on the farm. During the news item, white beehives (which vaguely resemble tombstones) are shown on screen while the voice-over refers to the ‘graves of the forefathers’. The SABC, in its response to the complaint, argued that the news item never claimed that the beehives were tombstones. But the commission dealt with this suggestion in short order. If the intention was not to link graves to the footage of beehives, its purpose was ‘incomprehensible’ and the only possible conclusion was that this footage ‘was not accurate or truthful and that it was not fairly broadcast’.

The third point – that Meyer colluded with government by forcing the Zwake sisters to sign an eviction order – was dealt with at length by the BCC.

It found, first, that the document shown in the news item was not an ‘eviction order’ but rather ‘A Deed of Settlement’ in which the sisters accepted the deal whereby they obtained the RDP houses in Greytown in return for voluntarily vacating the farm. It is not an ‘eviction order’ and the distinction is clearly drawn in the text of the document. ‘The dispute … is settled … (and) it will not be necessary to pursue an eviction order via litigation’, it reads. The Commission found that it would have been ‘grossly negligent’ for the journalist to have been unaware of the nature of the document. But, on balance of probability, they were of the opinion that deliberate misrepresentation was more likely than negligence. In essence, the Commission found that the journalist, Vusi Khumalo, chose to put the sensationalist impact of a story about ‘eviction’ ahead of the more mundane truth about a negotiated settlement.

In the broadcast, the claim is made that the Zwake sisters were forced to sign the Deed of Settlement and that their rights were never explained to them. But the BCC accepted the counter-evidence presented by Meyer’s lawyer, the Zwake sisters’ state-appointed legal representative (Mr Sitole from Shembe Attorneys) and the municipality’s lawyer, all of whom were present at the signing. They testified that the details of the Deed of Settlement were explained at length, in isiZulu, to the sisters. The Commission noted that the evidence is that the sisters ‘were happy with the settlement and this implied they were happy to leave the farm and move to better housing’.

The BCC went on to conclude that ‘the statement by the farm dwellers in the interview that government colluded with the farm owner against them is just as doubtful’. It asked: ‘What are the chances that … a provincial government department and a local municipality (both) controlled by the ruling ANC, would collude with a (white) farm owner against vulnerable’ landless farm dwellers to evict them from the land they are occupying?’ 

In their response to the complaint, the SABC’s layers tried to argue that they had relied on the information sourced from the Zwake sisters. The adequacy of this excuse was rejected by the BCC. The journalist had access to both the farmer’s lawyer and the Zwake sisters’ legal representative. ‘A responsible journalist would have done more investigation after stumbling upon such blatant contradictions and after reading the Deed of Settlement. A journalist need not be a lawyer to know that there are always two sides to a story’, the Commission said.

The BCC pointed out that with expectations of restitution and farmer uncertainty ‘we have a potential time bomb on our hands in this country’. The media, it asserted, ‘(has) a responsibility to inform the public … truthfully, accurately and fairly.’ All these attributes were lacking in this broadcast, it concluded.

The story is on-going. While the Zwake sisters have missed their chance to find accommodation in Phase 2 of the Greytown Slum Clearance Project, there is a third phase coming up.

‘We’ll just have to see if we can get them in then,’ says Grant Meyer.

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