By Joy Watson
As South Africans, we come from a past chequered by the curtailment of freedom of expression and the associated bullying and hard-nosed attempts to clamp down on those who insisted on speaking their truth. We have emerged from the deep-seated societal trauma that comes with the systemic shutting down of dissenting voices, the silencing of those who speak out against an entrenched system of injustice.
Many lives were lost in the fight for democracy and our hard-won bill rights, which enshrines freedom of expression, including freedom of the press and other media. These rights came at the expense of blood and tears. And so, while human rights are important all over the world, in South Africa, because of our past, they are hallowed; sacred ground. We come from a past that denied human rights to most of our citizens and we worked so very hard to dismantle the systems of oppression that wrought such calamity in our lives.
It is precisely because of this history, that it is a terrible, unforgivable tragedy that Suna Venter died on the 29th of June. Her death is a national tragedy because it was preventable. Suna died because of cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle has been damaged, associated with extreme levels of stress. Suna’s family is of the view that the stress associated with the autocratic management style at the SABC and it attempts to silence and control Suna and 7 other journalists who refused to comply, is the direct cause of her death.
Suna was a 32 year-old senior reporter and producer at the SABC. She started out at the SABC 8 years ago as a principled journalist, wanting to give vent to her passion of covering current affairs. She was full of life, giving of herself to others and leaving an imprint on the hearts of those whose lives she touched. She enjoyed ‘Life of Stone’ wine, had an affinity for fairylights, loved the process of picking out gifts at Christmas time and wrote poetry. She had a mother and a father who loved her dearly and worried about her well-being and the impact of the strain that she was taking at work. She had a sister and a brother who are devastated by their loss.
Suna was a humanitarian at heart and her passion for working on human rights issues took her to the frontline of war-torn countries such as Libya, Syria, Gaza and Egypt. A colleague talked about how she had endeared herself to children in Syria who openly expressed affection for her and looked forward to her return. She was a person who loved life, wanted to do what is right and wanted to make a difference in the world. So much so that she would take a stand for her principles in a context where there where ethical issues at hand. Suna was not afraid of questioning the status quo, even when this meant swimming against the tide.
Suna was one of 8 journalists fired by the SABC for their stance taken in challenging hegemonic styles of leadership and unethical policy stances taken by the SABC. This included the decision not to cover violent protests. Suna was not prepared to go with the flow – a flow that entailed a blatant culture of abuse of power with no questions asked. Together she and the other 7 journalists took the brave stance of putting their lives and livelihoods at risk to stop the interference in the newsrooms of the public broadcaster. This bravery was sneered at, ridiculed and treated with contempt. They received death threats, were harassed, followed and intimidated relentlessly as part of a quest to get them to be silent, to comply, to fit the mould.
One of Suna’s colleagues noted that as a single young woman, Suna bore the brunt of much of this harassment – her context as a single woman who lived alone made her a low hanging fruit for the bullies who sought to intimidate her. On one occasion, she was shot in the face with a pellet gun. She narrowly escaped major injury and needed surgery to remove the metal pellets from her face. Her flat was broken into several times, her tyres were slashed and the brakes cables of her car were cut. She was assaulted on three different occasions. On one of these, she was abducted, tied to a tree at Melville Koppies and had to watch as the grass around her was set alight.
What happened to Suna is a sustained, long-term campaign of acts of violence and intimidation. It was targeted. It was brutal. It sought to destroy. How terrifying it must have been to live with the fear of violence on a day-to-day basis, not knowing what might happen next; watching your back; tracing your steps and living with the constant fear that the hidden bully might jump out at the next corner.
Suna’s doctor advised her to walk away from her job in the interests of her health and well-being. In her commitment to our beautiful country, she refused to do so. She chose instead to stay on and fight a system rendered cancerous by the growth of the tumours of corruption.
And so it is that the impact of these acts of violence on Suna and by implication, on her family, is one that we should all own as South Africans. The loss of her life is not an isolated incident that affects her nearest and dearest. The loss of her life was preventable. Her death speaks to a narrative of ills within our society. Threats to our democracy. Tears in our tapestry of social justice. And we cannot sit back and watch this happen. We need to be vigilant and send out a very clear, united message of ‘Not on our watch!”