South Africa’s young democracy may have been a shining example to the rest of the world for a while, but dreams of real freedom of expression and of the media seem to be nearing the end of their usefulness to SA's ruling party. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Mpumalanga has become a dangerous province for investigative journalism. There’s a shadowy force that threatens, arrests, assaults and otherwise intimidates reporters who ask inconvenient questions and publish uncomfortable truths. As Jacob Zuma’s fight to retain another term in office intensifies, the malevolence is spreading.
For the past two years Sizwe sama Yende has been uncovering graft in Mpumalanga, yet another of South Africa’s provinces that’ve become infamous for attacks on the media and downright dangerous for journalists. In this time Sama Yende has been attacked by an armed assailant, has had his car’s brakes tampered with, been offered a bribe and his employers have had to hire bodyguards to protect him.
“There have been quite a few incidents. The first one was when I was accosted by someone as I entered my house one Friday night. That person had a gun,” says Sama Yenda, the City Press investigative journalist whose work exposed how wide spread corruption had become in Mpumalanga under ANC Premier David Mabuza.
In August 2010 the ANC-aligned SA National Civics Organisation (Sanco) added Sama Yende’s name to a list of journalists it called “traitors” because of their criticism of Mabuza. “Sama Yende and Mzilikazi wa Afrika are committing high treason by fabricating stories that destabilise the province. They are traitors. Premier Mabuza cannot focus on governing, because he must now focus on answering these smear campaigns that they publish,” Raymond Makamo of Sanco said at the time.
Sama Yende says there has been a litany of attempts to intimidate him. “In another incident I found that the brake pipe of the City Press car I was driving had been cut. Fortunately, I was not driving at high speed and I felt the brakes becoming weaker and weaker.” When Sama Yende took the car in to a repair shop, he saw the brake fluid pipe had been cut through. A short while after this incident, the reporter’s petrol cap was found to have been forced open with wire.
The latest incident was one of bribery. “I sent questions to the former spokesman for Premier Mabutho Sithole about a tender awarded by the department of agriculture in 2008. There was a forensic report that had uncovered that the tender was irregularly awarded. He offered me a bribe of R5,000 not to take the matter further.”
Sama Yende reported the bribe to the police and the matter is to go to court. He says numerous other incidents reported to the authorities were ‘swept under the carpet’. “All I can do as a journalist is go to the police and they take down my case, but nothing happens. I have no doubt that people are feeling very uncomfortable about journalists like myself who expose corruption. People don’t want to be exposed for the wrong they are doing,” he says.
Uncovering corruption in Mpumalanga means speaking to politicians, activists and people working in government and Sama Yende says the provincial government is characterised by a climate of fear. “You can feel the tension. People in government come across corruption every day, but they are so scared to speak about it. It is not easy to get people to speak about corruption because they fear for their lives. There are stories of assassination and everyone you speak to believes their organisation is under surveillance.”
Sama Yende is not alone. In the past week Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley spoke out about a series of worrying incidents involving two of the paper’s investigative journalists Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter. “We’re worried because Mzi has been pulled over, has had a gun pointed at him and been forced off the road. Mzi and Stephan are under surveillance and we know from our contacts that they are being monitored.” Sunday Times is based in Johannesburg in Gauteng.
Hartley says there is a high degree of knowledge in government about the work the Sunday Times does, and says the paper wants to make surveillance and intimidation a matter of public record. “We would rather put this all in the public space and make it known that we are watching what is being done so they won’t get away with it.”
Wa Afrika made world headlines when he was arrested at the beginning of August last year on trumped up charges that fell apart when he went to court. To date no one has been held accountable for this. “Nothing was done about the fact that he was arrested, no one has been investigated and no one has taken any steps to hold people accountable. This means there is tacit approval of this action from the political powers that be,” says Hartley.
The intimidation of journalists in South Africa is nothing new. Reporters were regularly targeted under the apartheid regime – only then it was easy to know who the enemy was, says Max du Preez, author and founder of one time anti-apartheid Afrikaans newspaper, Vrye Weekblad.
“We had similar experiences, but the atmosphere was such that we expected intimidation, harassment and attacks,” says du Preez. “It is different now because we all thought we were living in a constitutional democracy. Back then the regime was nasty, we expected the worst and were so paranoid about our people’s safety, we’d even keep our own colleagues in the dark until we’d printed a story.”
Du Preez, together with Jacques Pauw, chronicled the horror of police death squads at Vlakplaas, a story no other local mainstream media would touch at the time. “We knew our enemies would not follow the law. Our cars were sabotaged, our offices were blown up by Vlakplaas. If you go into the field of investigative journalism and expose powerful people it means you make powerful enemies. But this shouldn’t be happening now because this is the stuff that belonged with the Eugene de Kocks and Wouter Bassons of this world.”
De Kock, or “Prime Evil” as he was dubbed, was responsible for the kidnapping, torture and brutal assassination of hundreds of anti-apartheid activists. Basson, also known as “Dr Death”, was the mastermind behind apartheid’s chemical and biological warfare projects. “It is hard to deny that the hatred of the media perpetrated by the ANC has nothing to do with this,” says Du Preez. “What we are seeing know is a psychosis of the enemy, and it is the result of a police culture that’s going haywire.”
Jane Duncan, former head of the Freedom of Expression Institute and now Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society at Rhodes University’s School of Journalism, says there is a particular problem related to reporting on events in Mpumalanga, and adds that this deadly “disease” was spreading. “It is evident that reporting on matters related to the power struggles in politics is becoming a deadly affair. It (Mpumalanga) is becoming a deadly place to practice journalism,” says Duncan. Duncan says that what’s happening with journalists in Mpumalanga must be contained and eradicated. There have been numerous reports from other provinces too.
“There is a growing criticism and intolerance of the media and this relates to whether Zuma can secure a second term (as president). There are many around Zuma who have tasted the fruits of high office and want to ensure he maintains his presidency, because they too want to secure their positions. Critical reporting raises questions about the activities of Zuma’s elite which causes sensitivity and this is why we’re seeing action around journalists like Wa Afrika and Sama Yende.”
Duncan says the harassment, intimidation and aggression against investigative journalists is something political activists on the ground have to face almost daily. “I have heard many accusations of intelligence (personnel) harassing political activists and of arbitrary arrests. This is an ongoing complaint by political activists.”
At a recent gathering at the University of Johannesburg Duncan says there was a torrent of complaints from activists present, but that the worst assaults were reported by people from Wesselton near Ermelo, Mpumalanga, and Ficksburg, Free State.
“The intimidation is so widespread it is hardly surprising it is now affecting newsrooms,” says Duncan. “Journalists need to report on the growing intolerance on the ground and the many, many incidents of harassment against activists. Until reporters start exposing how the security apparatus of the state is being used to silence dissent, until we build up an understanding of the full picture, journalists will not be able do something about this.”
Duncan says journalists don’t do enough to report on the abuses of power in small towns and rather wait until this rot spreads and becomes big news. “When it bleeds into the big cities and into newsrooms and hits journalists in their faces, only then do they start taking these problems seriously. You cannot defend media freedom unless you are going to defend freedom in society generally,” says Duncan. DM
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