Police officers guard an election station where protests took place in Durban, South Africa. In the lead up to South Africa's November 1 municipal election, two news teams were harrassed and detained by supporters of the ruling African National Congress and, separately, Johannesburg police arrested a Newzroom Afrika reporter. (Reuters/Rogan Ward)

News crews harassed, reporter arrested during South Africa’s municipal elections

On October 21, 2021, in the lead up to South Africa’s municipal elections on November 1, supporters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) held a news team from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) against their will for two hours demanding coverage from the public broadcaster. On election day, SABC reported another crew was harassed by ANC sympathizers and Johannesburg police separately arrested a Newzroom Afrika reporter in a polling station before releasing him without charge.

Motsebi wa Monareng, Nhlamulo Mabaso and Lungile Nqcongwane, SABC reporters, were waylaid in the Buffelshoek township northeast of Johannesburg by a group of about 20 people, many wearing ANC t-shirts or travelling in vehicles branded with the party’s logo, according to Monareng who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, media reports and a statement issued by the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), an industry body of editors and senior reporters. The reporters were on an election-related assignment about lack of water in the area, Monareng said.

The group, including a person who identified themselves to the reporters as a local ANC ward councilor, demanded that the journalists interview them, accusing SABC of bias against the ANC and threatening to burn their vehicle, confiscate their equipment and delete their footage, Monareng said.

“[They] started harassing us and banging on our vehicle,” he said.

The group blocked the crew’s vehicle for two hours until police responded to their call for help and escorted them to safety, said Monareng. Police opened a criminal case and investigations are ongoing, he said, adding that the incident had traumatized him and his colleagues.

Mpumalanga Province ANC spokesperson Sasekani Manzini did not respond to several CPJ phone calls requesting comment.

Mpumalanga Province Police spokesperson Donald Mdhluli referred CPJ’s queries to the provincial head, Brigadier Selby Mohlala, who did not reply to CPJ’s requests for comment sent via messaging app and text message.

On November 1, the broadcaster reported that SABC News senior reporter Pimani Baloyo and colleague Mahlatse Phaladi were accosted in an apartment block in the town of Tzaneen, northern Limpopo Province, by residents in ANC-branded clothing who complained about SABC coverage and asked them to leave. Donald Selamolela, an ANC provincial spokesperson, was quoted condemning the incident. CPJ was unable to reach Baloyo and Phaladi or independently confirm SABC’s account, which said the crew were unharmed.

A screen grab from a video taken of Ziniki Mhlaba by his employer, private broadcaster Newzroom Afrika, as he holds a microphone during a broadcast outside a voting station in Soweto township in Johannesburg on November 1. Police interrupted the broadcast and held Mhlaba for two hours before releasing him without charge. (Moraga Mpaphuli/Newzroom Afrika)

In a separate incident on November 1, police in Soweto township in Johannesburg arrested Ziniki Mhlaba, a reporter for the private broadcaster Newzroom Afrika, during a live broadcast from a voting station, the journalist told CPJ via messaging app. Local media also covered the incident. Newzroom Afrika cameraman Moraga Mpaphuli was not arrested, Mhlaba said.

Police said they were responding to a complaint from the official presiding over the vote and ignored Mhlaba’s assertion that he was entitled to cover the voting, the journalist told CPJ. A video shared on Twitter by a local news agency Free State Central News reviewed by CPJ shows a male police officer pushing Mhlaba while a female officer tries to block the camera and forcibly turn it off. Police also confiscated cellphones from voters who filmed his arrest, he said. 

“My hands were hurt by the male officer who was grabbing my hands and pushing us away,” Mhlaba said. “The male officer started assaulting me, twisting my arms and tripping me before he arrested me.”

In an interview about the incident that Newzroom Afrika published on YouTube, Mhlalba said he was handcuffed and held for about two hours before being released without charge. Newzroom Africa News Director Katy Katopodis called the arrest “outrageous” on Twitter and in interviews.

Brigadier Vish Naidoo, a South African Police Service spokesperson, did not respond to several CPJ text messages requesting comment, or return multiple phone calls before publication. Kate Bapela, a spokesperson for the Independent Electoral Commission, an independent body that manages elections, acknowledged receipt of CPJ’s email requesting comment but did not respond before publication. Glen Mashinini, who chairs the Commission, was cited in a news report saying he regretted Mhlalba’s arrest and there would be an investigation.