We almost never make it up. Promise.
9 December 2016 15:24 (South Africa)
South Africa

Trainspotter: How The New Age, ANN7 and the Guptas have spun state capture

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa
the-new-age-front-page.jpg

The New Age and Africa News Network 7, the print and television propaganda wings of the Zupta cabal, have always had an interesting relationship with truthiness. But the unreality has been ramped up significantly over the course of the last several weeks. RICHARD POPLAK falls down the Gupta media rabbit hole and emerges into a multiverse where big is small, wet is dry, and where Zupta Inc. is little more than a benign force for good in a swamp of CIA-engineered evil.

During the reign of the Louis XIV, which coincided with an unhappy time for France’s great unwashed, the Sun King and his court drained the treasury to such an extent that new revenue was required if France was to stave off bankruptcy. The country’s subjects were already massively overburdened, and whilst conceiving of his new tax regime the monarch encountered a sensation with which he was unfamiliar—an attack of conscience. Alarmed, the Sun King summoned the learned Doctors of Paris for an urgent consultation. It didn’t take long, however, before the August counsel determined that it was impossible for the regent to inflict even the slightest harm on his people by further taxing them. Was it not the case that the entire sovereign state, and everything in it, belonged to the king by the law of divine right? According to the Doctors’ impeccable theological reasoning, His Majesty was doing no more than taxing himself.

The pain, they said, was the Sun King’s alone to bear.

Here at the foot of the African continent, we are ruled by our own Sun King. He and his Doctors of the Learned are no less exacting in their ability philosophise their way into the pockets of the poor. If you hope for some insight into their Weltschmerz, if you hope to understand the precise alchemical process by which they spin lumps of lead into nuggets of gold, you need go no further than the newspaper and TV station owned and operated by the Gupta family. In a land once universally loathed for the efficacy of its propaganda machinery, The New Age and ANN7 are both a retread of, and a deviation from, the old school bullshittery that South Africa was reared on.

If anyone had told the apartheid fascists that, in the distant future, local propaganda would consist of a paper that has the design language of a remedial school colouring-book, and is called, of all things, The New Age (TNA), I’m guessing they would’ve been somewhat taken aback. The Gupta media empire’s genius, if it possesses any, is its ability to channel the ingrate simplicity of a Brand SA open-for-business brochure into something that approximates “news”. Reading TNA or watching ANN7 for even a day has the same effect as subsisting on rice crackers and lemon water: the head spins, runes appear on the back of eyelids, bowels liquefy, God communicates in upbeat infographics.

But TNA and ANN7 are not just intended to create a “representative” reality in which actual reality is sucked through a black hole and crapped out the other side of the universe. They are also a giant scam. According to figures provided by the South African Audience Research Foundation, the New Age had a daily readership of 153,000 over the course of the 2013/2014 financial year, a number apparently so impressive that government lavished the paper with R10,199,988 worth of advertising. (This doesn’t count parastatals, which when combined with government spending amounted to R75 million in 2012, all for a paper with dubious circulation numbers). And yet the Sowetan, which boasts a readership ten times higher than TNA’s, reaped half a million rand less in government ad spend. Titles with a readership comparative to that of TNA’s, like the Pretoria News or The Mercury, received R868,994 and R509,298 respectively. Even the Department of Higher Education and Training’s Blade Nzimande, who wanted to the “market” to regulate university fees during the Fees Must Fall crisis, pumped R2 million into TNA in 2014.

We haven’t even begun to discuss the fact that state owned enterprises, like the plane crash that is South African Airways, last year blew R9.4 million it doesn’t have on purchasing around six million copies of a paper its passengers don’t read, while rail parastatal Prasa, arguably a bigger disaster than SAA, spent R3 million subscribing to TNA over the course of 2012/2013 financial year. Nor have we touched on the giant money suck that are the recurring New Age breakfast events, during which the ANC fat cats show up to jabber over eggs benedict—an indulgence that cost flailing energy parastatal Eskom an astonishing R43 million in 2014, and is broadcast by the SABC at taxpayers’ expense.

That cash—your cash— is funneled into an entity called Oakbay Investments, the James Bond villain’s umbrella corporation that holds the Guptas’ disparate business interests. From there, the money is spread throughout a patronage network that, unlike any TNA story, ever, has gone totally viral. But media empires, even those as profitable as Oakbay’s, are hard to wrangle. Arch quisling Nazeem Howa, who serves as Oakbay’s kitty-petting Dr Evil, has recently been forced to deny allegations made by Themba Maseko, former head of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), who claimed that President Jacob Zuma arranged for him to meet the Guptas in order to ensure a steady flow of state money into the content-free pages of TNA. “We are bemused by Mr Maseko’s six-year-old allegations, which are totally unfounded,” said the unctuous Howa. “It is clearly part of an ongoing, coordinated campaign involving others, to continue an already vicious politically-driven attack, using the Gupta family as a proxy.”

Which brings us to the reality-generating function of Oakbay’s media arm: anyone who runs the math, or who understands the slightest thing about the South African media space, knows that the paper and TV station would be unsustainable without preferential treatment by the government. What’s more, all the money pumped into Gupta media is removed from the government advertising pool, which squeezes revenue for competing media houses less friendly to the very same government. No matter. The narrative runs as follows: Any and all criticism of the president’s (fictitious) relationship with Guptas must be dismissed because there is a plot to topple Zuma!—one that been engineered by a group of intransigent ministers within the ANC, all of whom are backed by white capital and (probably) the CIA, while the beneficent Oakbay founders are merely a sideshow, a proxy, a piñata beaten to near death because racism. The story is appended with only thing South Africa manufactures in the Zuma era—a hashtag:

#ZumaMustFallPlot.

* * *

How does this play out in the (un)real world? Let us take as an example the Zuptaverse’s pre-game coverage of the ANC’s recent National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting, which took place just last weekend. You could take a few moments of your precious, dwindling life to scope some of the screen grabs, or you could take my word for the fact that in the Zuptaverse, the NEC has been divided into two camps: “all the president’s men” and “the rebels.” How would the meeting play out? Sort of like Star Wars without the Wookies, the Millennium Falcon and the fun, in which white monopoly capital house boys like Cyril Ramaphosa plot against the prez and true revolutionaries like Free State premier Ace Magashule. The TNA report insisted that, “the rebels may be hoping for repeats of post-Polokwane incidents”, while Zuma “may relate the row around him to the balance of forces in South Africa.” The president, the report claimed, was likely to “refer [the NEC] to the people who are controlling our economy.”

It was a war of the just against the captured, of the free against the enslaved, of good against evil. Which is what The New Age, ANN7, and, to no small extent, the ANC do best: inversion, unlanguage, unmeaning, the steady erasure of sense.

(Important parenthetical: as appalled as some members of the NEC may have been by the Zuma/Gupta nexus, no one in the ANC NEC had the balls to nudge the president into recall territory. So the outcome of the meeting was all but ordained: because of Zuma’s recent shenanigans, the NEC, like astronauts in a Kubrick movie, has determined to “investigate” the ontological and operational forces that govern the Zuptaverse. This means that (slightly) more power has been accrued by Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, more censure has been dumped on the Guptas and their mini media conglomerate, and more spin needs to be spun in order to turn this into a “good news” story.)

Anyway, having gamified the NEC meeting, it was left to the TNA’s political editor, Ricky Naidoo, to define the now de rigueur “the Guptas offered me a job” confession of deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas as a crazed “rant.” If someone were to insist that Naidoo routinely smoked high-octane crack out of the tailpipe of a bulletproof Gupta Maybach, his willingness to be a shill for the Guptas would make slightly more sense. Sadly, no one has. The following really does need to be watched to be believed:

And so it goes.

In any propaganda campaign, there is always a token willing to be trotted out for the cause. In this case, it has been political performance artist Andile Mngxitama, first of the September National Imbizo, then of the Economic Freedom Fighters, now of Black First! Land First! Mngxitama, who endured an unamicable fallout with the EFF crew, has argued that it’s wrong to focus on the Guptas when post-apartheid South Africa has been defined as “state capture” at the hands of white capitalists. No argument on the latter point. But by suggesting that the Guptas exist somehow apart from mainstream South African capital when their energy wing is listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, by insisting that anti-Indian racism is the reason for the opprobrium unleashed upon them by an enraged South African public, by ignoring the fact that their fake media outlets suck outrageously from the government teat, is to dodge what the Guptas actually represent: the absolute abrogation of any sense of civic duty by Jacob Zuma and his mafia. (Back when he was wearing a different beret, Mngxitama referred to the Guptas’ obscene peacocking of wealth as a manifestation of “hyper anti blackness.” He may want to review his old notes.)

Did Nelson Mandela love him some rich white Brahmin? You bet. Did Thabo Mbeki dress up in ideological Thatcher drag and boast about it? Yebo. But both men, I’d argue, had the good of the country and the advancement of its people at heart—even if they did make mistakes, and even if their ultra-rich backers didn’t care one way or another.

As we’ve learned on numerous occasions and in numerous ways, Jacob Zuma doesn’t give the people of South Africa a second thought. The Gupta family, who function as his walking, talking ATM machine, has drawn so much ire because they’ve done almost nothing to cover their extractive tracks—except reinvent the news. The reports of their appallingly indiscreet behaviour, and the claims of their gauche insistence on inserting themselves into the highest levels of executive power, has rattled this country in ways little else can.

We’re not experiencing “state capture” in the proper Putin-esque sense of the term—this isn’t a milenarian project to enrich an elite so that they can help enact Mother Russia’s historical prerogative as Earth’s Most Important Country.

Nope. We’re stuck with the fact that we’ve handed over everything to a Sun King and his Doctors of Paris, whose chief occupation is thievery, and whose attempts to cover it up result in editorials written in crayon by morons. They don’t want a historical outcome. They have no ideological bent that they’ve bothered to exercise. They just want stuff. Their vision of South Africa is as sad and as empty as an ANN7 broadcast, or worse—a TNA op-ed. Flashy colours, snappy graphs, bargain basement CNN Us vs. Them pseudo-mythologising. Life in the Zuptaverse: Up is Down. Rich is Poor. And Jacob Zuma, by the laws of divine right mandated by his counsel, bears all the pain. DM

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles




Do Not Miss

Daily Maverick has suspended comments on the site. Until the interwebs figures out a better way to deal with the naughty kids in the class, the space for your comments is on our Facebook page and the Twitterverse.

Alternatively, you are welcome to send a letter to the editor.