Sithandiwe Velaphi (left), a senior reporter from the Daily Dispatch, is in hiding following death threats from an anonymous caller. Two unidentified men threw a rock at a South African Broadcasting Corporation vehicle containing Atule Joka (right) and two other reporters. (Photo Credit: Alan Eason, Rhodes University) . 

South African journalists attacked, threatened, harassed in separate incidents

In March 2023, journalists in multiple towns in South Africa were attacked, harassed, or threatened in connection with their reporting.

On March 2, in the city of Newcastle, Mayor Xolani Dube and his deputy Musa “Sugar” Thwala accused Estella Naicker, a reporter with privately owned newspaper Northern Natal News, of being paid by political rivals to write negative stories about them while she reported on a residents’ association filling potholes in the city, according to the journalist, who communicated with CPJ via messaging app, and a statement by the South African National Editors’ Forum, a local trade group.

Thwala asked Naicker what she was doing there, told her no one had invited her, and said that he and the mayor were unhappy about her recent coverage of them. He warned her against publishing further stories about them without talking to him first and asked her to leave.

Naicker had recently reported on alleged corruption in the municipality, according to CPJ’s review of the newspaper’s print edition. Naicker said she did not obey their orders and instead went across the road, where she began taking photographs.

Two of the mayor’s bodyguards approached, took her phone, and deleted the pictures she had taken that day. “After that, I had two of their bodyguards standing on either side of me so that I don’t take other pictures,” Naicker told CPJ. 

Naicker called Mbali Butale and Zianne Leibrandt, both journalists with Northern Natal New’s sister newspaper, the Newcastle Advertiser, to support her and record any further incidents, according to those sources and Butale and Leibrandt, who communicated with CPJ via messaging app. When the pair arrived, four bodyguards approached and threatened to slap the journalists if they took pictures. “The atmosphere was very hostile,” Butale said.

Thwala approached the group and told Naicker that he had warned her more than three times to stop publishing stories about him, saying, “I will not warn you again,” according to the journalists.

Thwala and Dube left shortly after, and the reporters finished their assignment. CPJ contacted Thwala and Dube via messaging app for comment but did not receive any replies. 

On March 8, in the city of East London, Sithandiwe Velaphi, a senior reporter from the privately owned newspaper Daily Dispatch, received an anonymous phone call that warned him to watch his back as people were hired to shoot him because of his investigative stories, according to a SANEF statement and the journalist, who communicated with CPJ via messaging app. 

Velaphi’s employer immediately withdrew him from the field for his safety, according to Cheri-Ann James, his editor, who communicated with CPJ via messaging app. Velaphi said he was unsure which stories had prompted the threat, but he had recently reported about assassinations and alleged fraud and corruption.

“I am working remotely and avoiding public places,” Velaphi told CPJ, adding that he filed a police report in East London on March 10, and the matter was being investigated as of April 6. CPJ called and messaged the Fleet Street Police Station for comment but did not receive a response.

Separately, at about 2 a.m. on March 20, in Cape Town, two unidentified men threw a rock at a South African Broadcasting Corporation vehicle, according to news reports, a SANEF statement, and Angie Kapelianis, SABC’s head of news input, who communicated with CPJ via messaging app. 

Corbin August and Atule Joka, both reporters, and Oratile Tlhoaele, a video journalist, were gathering footage for SABC ahead of an opposition-led protest when the two men hurled a rock at the vehicle’s front window and hit Tlhoaele in the head, according to those sources and Joka, who communicated with CPJ via messaging app. 

Tlhoaele received treatment at a hospital for head wounds, and the journalists reported the incident to nearby law enforcement officers at the time.

South African Police Service spokesperson Novela Potelwa told CPJ by phone that the attack on SABC journalists is under investigation by police in Cape Town.