Some say it was the ANC's best chance to steer public attention away from its disastrous handling of the economy. Some say they just couldn't wait to spark an outrage so people would stop talking about textbooks being five months late in Limpopo. Some say the public stopped thinking about Richard Mdluli when a painting went up in the Goodman Gallery. All we know, it's called The Spear.
The saga of Richard Mdluli reads like something from a John Le Carré novel. At the centre of this drama, a crime intelligence boss who is credited with being the key to a president’s master plan for a second term, but he’s embroiled in an off-again, on-again inquest into the murder of his lover’s husband. Charges of corruption and nepotism are stacked against him, and there’s a damaging report citing how the intelligence boss “plundered” government resources.
The report talks about crime intelligence buying political influence while spook insiders sketch the scenario of a vicious battle for control of state security resources. This as the country’s president hurtles towards a bitter re-election bid within his own political party.
The dénouement of the Mdluli epic was a long time coming, but its momentum gathered at the same time as former ANC activist and artist Brett Murray was hanging a Lenin-esque painting in Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery.
The ANC was keen to downplay the Mdluli spectacle, what with its details of spook bosses, millions in ill-gotten gains, murder and spy vs. spy battles. On Monday 21 May ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe pooh-poohed the Mdluli matter and the next day, President Jacob Zuma refused to be drawn on the issue in Parliament.
With the government and the ANC fighting the Mdluli battle in the trenches, the war to win the hearts and minds of the masses and to shape public discourse was presented with the perfect opportunity. It came in the guise of Murray’s painting called The Spear. City Press published the artwork a couple of days after the exhibition opened on 10 May 2012.
“City Press were first off the mark, so we are being punished for being first. But when you need a target, you can’t use an incoherent target like hundreds of websites or millions of Facebook pages or countless tweets. You need one target for your anger, and that is what we are,” says City Press editor-in-chief Ferial Haffajee, who has spent the past week living in the eye of a storm.
City Press and The Spear became an easy target for wrath. “I think the ANC and its partners are politicians of long standing, so they must have been quite sure that this was an issue they could successfully exploit,” says Haffajee, before talking about her decision-making process on the artwork.
“I took the picture around the newsroom because I would be silly not to know it would have a reaction, but I don’t think any of us anticipated the effect it has had. That effect only started happening after the ANC brought it into the public sphere by asking City Press to remove the picture from its website,” she says.
“Our publication of the artwork has positioned us as a soft target. But I do think that it would be naïve of me not to acknowledge that, beyond the ANC, the artwork has exposed the hostility of a divided nation.”
The past couple of days have seen an outpouring of vitriol against City Press on Twitter, and reports of City Press being burnt at ANC marches in KwaZulu-Natal.
The tripartite alliance is incredibly effective at channelling national rage at a common enemy – this time it is City Press. But when you start unpacking the Sunday paper’s investigations into Zuma’s connections with Mdluli, and the history of antagonism with City Press, a larger context of anger emerges.
“The reporting we have done at City Press goes directly to power, and to the heart of power. The plan around Mdluli was the master plan to help keep President Zuma secure. Mdluli was going to be made National Police Commissioner, and the investigative reporting around that – not only ours but Sunday Times and Mail & Guardian’s – completely derailed that grand plan,” says Haffajee.
Writing in the Weekend Argus, Fiona Ford says that when Zuma appointed his new Cabinet in 2009, Julius Malema protested the racial make-up: “Minister of police, minister of intelligence, minister of justice, they are all Africans, but we cannot just be reduced to security,” he argued.
Ford says Malema missed the point – the Zuma administration was all about the security cluster. And in the security cluster, Mdluli was made the king of the spooks despite being linked to the murder investigation of his lover’s dead husband.
But even though he had friends in high places, after an epic battle to stay in power Mdluli’s rule came to a crushing end this week. This after a civic organisation called Freedom Under Law launched an urgent interdict to prohibit the good general from playing any professional role within the SAPS.
An affidavit filed by FUL’s Mamphela Ramphele cites: “(i) the decision by the Head: Specialised Commercial Crime Unit on 6 December 2011 to withdraw criminal charges of fraud, corruption and money-laundering against Gen Mdluli; (ii) the decision by the Acting National Director of Public Prosecutions on 2 February 2012 to withdraw criminal charges including murder, kidnapping and defeating the ends of justice; (iii) the decision by the National Commissioner: SAPS on 29 February 2012 withdrawing disciplinary proceedings against Gen Mdluli; and (iv) the decision on 31 March 2012 by the National Commissioner to reinstate Gen Mdluli as head of Crime Intelligence.”
Dr Ramphele testifies: “The way in which Gen Mdluli had been dealt with by the respondents reflects an extraordinary degree of a lack of accountability and a breach of a culture of justification under the Constitution, which our courts have sought to impose on those who exercise public power.”
The affidavit details an act of conspiracy, death threats, and how charges against Mdluli were withdrawn by Zuma supporters.
It must be remembered that Mdluli has played a pivotal role in Zuma’s ascension to power. Mdluli oversaw the investigation of Zuma’s rape case in 2006 when he was the Gauteng provincial police commissioner. Later he played a major role in uncovering the alleged plot to unseat Zuma at Mangaung, a conspiracy said to allegedly involve Tokyo Sexwale.
A March 2012 article by the Mail & Guardian offers exacting insight into Mdluli’s role within the presidency. In President Zuma's phalanx of praetorian guards the Mail & Guardian talks of Mdluli as the man Zuma “owes for his acquittal on rape charges”.
“President Jacob Zuma seems to be creating a personal shield and spear in the justice and security sectors: a phalanx of praetorian guards allied to him and to each other,” the article reads, highlighting Mdluli as the leader of this phalanx.
It is ironic then that Murray’s Lenin-like portrait of Zuma exposes his most painfully private parts at the same time that the press has succeeded in exposing his inner core. The painting is a humiliating unrobing, while at the same time the Mdluli debacle bares all about the machinations of Zuma’s security power cluster.
Haffajee was teaching in India when the ANC signalled its “outrage” by sending City Press a legal request to remove the offending artwork from the newspaper’s website. Another missive was sent to the Goodman demanding the artwork be removed.
Photo: Members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) demonstrate against the showing of a painting by artist Brett Murray, outside a court in Johannesburg May 22, 2012. Two men vandalised a portrait of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed on Tuesday, intensifying a heated debate about the picture that has enraged the ANC. REUTERS/Ihsaan Haffejee.
“I was pretty incredulous, I couldn’t quite believe it was happening, and that is how the whole week has been for us. It has been quite surreal,” says Haffajee about a week past that went from ANC lawyers’ letters to a damning speech by South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande. In this speech he drew parallels between the paper’s publishing of the satirical portrait to Mail & Guardian publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.
During his speech at the National Union of Mineworkers’ conference at a casino on the East Rand, Nzimande said: “What is the difference between the legitimate anger of the Moslem community, and that of the African community and other decent South Africans?”
He then said anyone who defended the portrait was a part of South Africa that had rejected reconciliation. “We want to say to those who are defending this portrait as freedom of speech and expression: there is a big difference between freedom of speech and freedom to insult,” Nzimande said.
“We have been insulted, our dignity has been assaulted and violated, and we have been made to feel naked. Nobody else, with no amount of English, will make us feel different or change this reality.”
“We need to demonstrate our disgust at this portrait and all what it means to the president, his family, to the majority of our people and all decent South Africans. We therefore call upon all the entirety of the working class and all our people that, as from this Sunday, they boycott the City Press newspaper!” Nzimande exclaimed, using an “us vs them” onslaught that labelled dissenters to the anti-Spear cause as treasonous racists. Emotions ran high at the conference and City Press journalists were evicted, says Haffajee.
“It has been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, because just as things were calming down, things got worse. You have to ensure that your entire team is with you and behind whatever decisions are being made, and that they are feeling OK. Some people got thrown out of the NUM congress, people had threats and hate mail, and Twitter can be quite vicious,” she says, adding that against the tripartite alliance’s “total onslaught” the spirit in the newsroom has remained strong and they are standing firm.
Back in the emotional heat of the Spear saga the ANC failed to enforce its will through an urgent interdict and threw its full weight behind Nzimande’s call for a boycott. Cosatu joined the fray and as it did the Mdluli issue had little, if any chance, of entering a public discourse, dominated by the artwork, the high drama of an emotional president’s “I’m hurt” confessional and his lawyer breaking into tears in court. The populist die was cast – Mdluli was out and a nation obsessed and divided was consumed by the saga of The Spear.
On Sunday night EyeWitnessNews reported that Gwede Mantashe was unsure whether the tripartite alliance’s boycott had been successful or not. Haffajee will only know in a couple of weeks whether the call has held muster.
“I have no idea. Sometimes boycotts work, and sometimes they don’t,” she told Daily Maverick. “I can’t tell you right now, I will only get the figures in a couple of weeks. It takes very long to get figures through.”
This is not the first time that the ANC, SACP and Cosatu have crossed swords with City Press. Nzimande penned a letter to the Media24 management team in 2006 in which he claimed the City Press’ editorial team were political lobbyists rather than journalists, and were intentionally creating divides within the ANC.
“It has over these years become very clear that the City Press editorial leadership team is so embedded in factionalist battles inside our structures, such that this team is now incapable of rising above these; hence this extraordinary letter we are writing directly to you,” Nzimande wrote.
The letter takes issue with a story headlined “Cracks in Zuma’s NEC” and the quoting of “anonymous and faceless sources” that talk about the president’s bursting into anger over alleged “plots” against him. “To me this story is an attempt to sow divisions and create internal suspicions amongst the elected leadership of the ANC,” the letter read.
The same year Cosatu took issue with City Press about a story that alleged an investigation was underway into general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s misuse of a union-owned credit card. Cosatu denied that such an investigation was underway and labelled the story spurious.
The ANC has made regular complaints against City Press at the Press Council, of late relating to the paper’s exposés of Premier Cassel Mathale and corruption in Limpopo province, as well as Julius Malema’s financial shenanigans and backers. Despite ongoing investigation and exposure by the paper, Malema wrote a letter to City Press saying he’d still buy the paper in defiance of the ANC boycott call.
“During my tenure as President of the ANC Youth League, I have been a victim of vilification and disreputation by many of South Africa’s leading newspapers. The newspaper which I believe encroached on my personal space and undermined my integrity most as an individual was City Press,” Malema said.
“In a marathon of articles that lasted more than six months, City Press ran a public trial on me and my finances with very damaging undertones – that I am the most corrupt politician in South Africa.”
“The banning, boycotting and call for the closure of City Press not only amounts to media censure, it undermines the judiciary, which is still in the process of determining the right and wrong of what the ANC believes are absolute truths,” Malema wrote.
He added: “Banning newspapers simply because we disagree with them, and boycotting them on the basis of believing that our conception of truth is absolute, poses a real threat to our democracy. I normally do not read newspapers, but as a peace-loving South African and a committed member, servant and supporter of the ANC, I think I should buy two copies of City Press this Sunday to protect the true values of the African National Congress.” Malema signed the letter ‘Commander in chief of Economic Freedom Fighters.
Haffajee says she’s received the full support of her management team as well. “They have been very concerned. They asked if we need protection and they have been with us every step of the way. They realise that with the boycott call there’s a requirement to invest lots of money to build a contingency plan, so we’ve got advertising art, we’ve got security points on standby to look after our vendors, and we have had to increase our advertising across the board to counteract the impact of a boycott.”
Sunday 27 May 2012 was the day that the boycott of City Press was to come into effect. (Ironically, Sunday 27 May 2012 was also the day Mdluli's suspension was confirmed.) “I think it creates a really poor precedent because it has a chilling effect on journalists, and on editors,” says Haffajee talking about the call to boycott.
“It creates a climate of rule by populism, which means that next time they don’t like what a paper publishes or journalists write, they will mobilise against them and so easily rally popular opinion against that journalism and free media. I think it is very worrying.”
Viewed in this context the action against City Press looks to be much more than a sanction against a paper whose editor is a woman who's refusing a president and a ruling party’s request to censor her paper’s right to freedom of expression.
Make no mistake: the ANC is pushing for a censure of a paper whose investigative team has come way too close to the truth for comfort, whose mere existence is threatening to disrupt its power-play at a time that's critical for the Zuma regime. They can couch their calls in whichever righteous wool they please, the real truth is out there and it will not be silenced. DM
- The spear of the nation stays up by Ferial Haffajee in City Press.
- Zuma: It hurts in City Press.
- Who is shielding Mdluli? in Weekend Argus.
- Mdluli report's shocking revelations in Mail & Guardian.
- Mdluli’s tangled web on CorruptionWeb.
- Politics of paranoia: How JZ is winning the spy battle in Mail & Guardian.
- City Press special reports – The Mdluli Files.
Photo: City Press editor-in-chief Ferial Haffajee.