Almost everyone who watches our politics closely has been waiting for the smear season to truly commence. So high are the stakes, so deep the divisions, so important the prize, that it was inevitable that those who felt they could succeed through a smear campaign would do it. Now, three-and-a-half months before the ANC’s conference, this latest season can be declared officially open. The way in which the latest smear against Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has been managed, the way it has been responded to, and the fact it happened in the first place, give us several clues to the nature of the actual behind-the-scenes campaigning. It also reveals what is happening in parts of our media at the moment. And of course, it indicates that someone believes they have to fight dirty to win. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
In Russian politics, Kompromat (Russian: ?????????; short for ???????????????? ????????, literally “compromising material”) is compromising materials about a politician or other public figure used to create negative publicity, for blackmail, or for ensuring loyalty. – Wikipedia
On Friday evening a series of questions posed by Steve Motale, the editor of the Sunday Independent, started to circulate on Twitter. They were directed to Ramaphosa, and stated that Motale was in possession of a series of Ramaphosa’s emails to several young women. The inference was that Ramaphosa was in some kind of intimate relationship with them. According to the published questions, Motale asked Ramaphosa if he was in “romantic relationships” with the listed women, if he was financially supporting them, if he had unprotected intercourse with them (suggesting that this would undermine his position as Chair of the SA National Aids Council) and if he was not being hypocritical by slamming sugar daddies when he appeared to be one. Motale allegedly went on to ask if there had been a pregnancy, and if he had requested one of the women to send him some images (of what we will leave to your imagination).
Ramaphosa’s people sent out a statement immediately saying the claims were untrue, and that a full statement would be released later. It is unclear how exactly the questions were leaked, and whether the leak came from Motale’s side or Ramaphosa’s. If you are faced with questions from a media organisation that could be damaging to you, you could control the story by releasing the questions. Journalists consider it dirty to do this, but it is very effective.
On Saturday afternoon, just as the Sunday papers were signing off on their front pages, Ramaphosa released a full statement, saying the claims were untrue, that he would not discuss personal matters, and that he and his wife support 54 young people who are currently studying. He went on to say that the privacy of these women had been invaded. Ramaphosa then went on the offensive, saying that it “represents an escalation of a dirty war against those who are working to restore the values, principles and integrity of the African National Congress and society.” He linked this campaign to a “broader campaign that has targeted several political leaders, trade unionists, journalists and civil society activists”, pointing out that nearly all of the people “targeted in this way have taken a public stand against the capture of our state institutions”.
This was clearly Ramaphosa absorbing the punch, and then counter-attacking. Without Ramaphosa having to say it, it is clear that he believes this smear campaign against him is the work of those supporting President Jacob Zuma, and thus Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. It is probably the best possible response he could come up with in such a moment.
The statement deals with the claims, provides an explanation for the payments, includes his wife as a sponsor of these young people and changes the story with his veiled attack on Zuma. Considering the overwhelming evidence that our law enforcement agencies have been captured, many informed people would be willing to accept Ramaphosa’s explanation, and may already believe that the security agencies are playing a political role ahead of December.
On Saturday night Ramaphosa went to court to try to stop the Sunday Independent from carrying any story based on the emails. He lost, on the basis that the hearing was not urgent, and was ordered to pay costs.
Then, on Sunday, those old rivals the Sunday Times and the Sunday Independent carried two very different accounts. The Independent suggested that Ramaphosa was using “his massive wealth to prey on multiple women”. They used the word “allegedly”. Perhaps to cover themselves, or perhaps because their lawyers insisted (although it’s not clear if any lawyers were a part of the decision-making process here at all). The Sunday Times on the other hand carried an interview with Ramaphosa in which he admitted to having had an extra-marital affair with a doctor. He said that he had broken it off eight years ago and told his wife. Their report also carried a quote from his wife, Dr Tshepo Motsepe, supporting him, and talking of her love and respect for him.
For those with long memories, Sunday morning may have been reminiscent of a certain morning in 2006. Eleven years ago the Sunday Times carried a report of a rape charge being laid against Zuma. That report was on the front page of their first edition. The second edition that Sunday morning of the Sunday Independent carried a report saying that the accusation was not true, and providing an alternative explanation. The same thing appears to have happened here. One paper was running a damaging story, the other paper was used for damage control. Dirty? Yes. Part of the rules of the game? Probably.
Then there are the personalities involved in this.
Motale himself has played a fascinating role over the past two years. He was formerly the editor of The Citizen – a paper that has not really played any agenda setting role in our politics for probably decades. It is not a paper read by those who make the decisions that matter in the way that, say, Business Day is. Two years ago, seemingly out of the blue, Motale wrote an open letter to Zuma, in which he apologised for his previous reporting on him. The reason for his apology, he explained, was that he had finally read the judgment of Judge Hilary Squires in the Schabir Shaik case. He went on to say that he had now realised that Zuma was not the subject of that judgment, and that only Shaik was. Thus, he said, he had been wrong to always assume that Zuma should be investigated and charged with corruption emanating from that judgment.
This letter led to some public comment, and an invitation to both Motale and the writer of the reporting/analysis/opinion piece that you are currently reading, to appear on one of those now thankfully cancelled New Age Business Breakfasts. It was part of a bigger discussion about the media, and also featured Ferial Haffejee on one side of the spectrum and Hlaudi Motsoeneng on the other. Before the event, I could not help but notice how nervous Motale was. Make no mistake, going on live TV on the biggest channel in the country is nerve-wracking. Doing so with Hlaudi in the room made it worse, because you could never tell what ridiculous thing he would say or do next. But even for all that, Motale looked entirely strung out.
Then, during the debate, he could not answer the main point that I put to him repeatedly – that he had been looking at the wrong judgment. While Squires was the first judge to rule on the Shaik case (and famously did not use the phrase “generally corrupt” to discuss the relationship between Shaik and Zuma), the final panel of judges to rule was the Constitutional Court. And they very much found that this relationship related to criminal activity.
He was sitting in the chair next to mine, and his foot tapping was uncontrollable. At one point in the debate, he pulled out a piece of paper from his jacket and appeared to refer to it. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had written it himself, or if it was written by someone else.
Someone else who appeared to be playing an active role during the debate was Kenny Kunene. He spoke from the audience, critiquing me for an interview I had conducted with Mac Maharaj several months before. That interview was on the Midday Report, and had been posted on 702’s website. It was unlikely that someone would remember such an interview, unless they had done some active research and listened to it recently. In other words, from what I could see Kunene was an actor in this.
Last year The Citizen ran a series of stories attempting to implicate former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, while he was running the Treasury, of wrongdoing during a contract to upgrade systems at SARS. The Hawks denied the paper’s main claim that it was investigating him. This culminated in the paper publishing on its website a recording it said was from a conversation with Manuel in which he told the reporter to stop “f***ing” bothering him. But it later emerged that what the paper had not explained was that it was actually several conversations spliced together, and thus the context was misleading.
Eventually, Motale was suspended by The Citizen’s owners, was reinstated by a court, before finally leaving the paper. Considering the strange history he now possessed, it was surprising for many people in the media world that he was then given what should be one of the plum editing jobs in the country, that of running the Sunday Independent. While the paper does not come close to the Sunday Times or City Press in terms of circulation or influence, it was still a huge step up. Sunday papers can set the news agenda in ways that dailies cannot. It was not clear at this stage what the owner of the Independent Group, Dr Iqbal Surve, was really planning. Or if he even knew of the relationship between Motale and Kunene.
Then, two weeks ago, Motale had his first big exclusive. Splashed on the front page of his paper was the report that the High Court had ordered the sheriff to auction Luthuli House. The reason, the paper screamed, was to pay a R25-million debt the ANC owed to a company called Resurgent Risk Managers for work it had done for the party during last year’s elections. It was the kind of agenda-setting story that any journalist would love to publish.
Except for the fact that it wasn’t true. All of it. There was no judgment, no order, no documents. Amazingly, the paper had published the claim without even seeing any court documents to prove it. The very next day, papers in the Independent Group published an incredibly embarrassing apology. The Star carried it on its front page. It was probably the first time in our newspaper history that a paper had published an apology on its front page on behalf of another paper. Which is surely an indication that the pressure on Surve, Motale, and the group in general, must have been intense. The apology also stated that three reporters who worked on the story had been suspended.
But there was no mention of whether Motale, the person who surely would have pushed the final “publish” button, was one of them. We know now he was not suspended and remains editor despite making this huge mistake in the first few months on the job.
Curiously, during Saturday night’s legal hearing around whether Motale’s Ramaphosa story could be published, it was reported that both Kunene and Andile Mngxitama of Black First Land First were in court with him. If you believe that you can judge a person by the company they keep, one presumes that there is the pungent whiff of Saxonwold somewhere in there.
This backstory suggests that there are people in our media environment who are playing a role that goes beyond reporting the facts they uncover or analysing the events they observe; it appears to be some sort of active role. Of course, no journalist is perfectly objective, and it can be argued that the mainstream media, here and in other countries, is not even always fair. But there is a difference between reporting and analysing with a bias, and playing an active political role while claiming to only be playing a journalistic role. Is it too much to suggest that Motale has crossed the line from one to the other?
There is a lot that can be said about political smear campaigns, and whether they are effective, and whether they could be effective in our current political environment. Obviously, it depends on the smear itself, its strength, and whether it is believed, and whether it affects public opinion. But the race that the country is watching in December is not about public opinion. It has only to do with opinion inside the ANC and the mechanics and machinations of branches, regions and provinces. At the same time, surely, many branches, probably most of them, maybe even nearly all of them, have already made up their minds as to which way their delegates will go. This is not a normal political race in which people try to use the media to change the mind of those who vote. It is something much more complex than that.
Ramaphosa has probably done enough to ensure that the idea that he was “using his financial wealth to prey on multiple women” does not take hold. His alternative explanation that he and his wife provide help to young people has power here. So does her support of him. We are not talking about a vulnerable woman who has to rely on Ramaphosa for financial support and thus has to stand by him in public. We are talking about a person who is both a doctor, and a Motsepe. She surely could not be forced or coerced, which strengthens the suggestion that she is standing by her man through her own free will. Like his previous wife, Hope Ramaphosa, she wants him to be president.
It is also hard to see how the suggestion that Ramaphosa had an affair makes him worse than Zuma. If we are going to judge people by their private life, this can be seen as rather boring compared to Zuma’s: Ramaphosa has not, as far as we know, felt the need for an urgent shower after unprotected intercourse, he has not had intercourse with the daughter of a friend that she felt was rape, didn’t have a child with a daughter of another friend … we could go on. Of course, Ramaphosa’s opponent is not actually Zuma. Technically, it is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. But by now, gender issues aside (is it correct to refer to her has Zuma’s ex-wife?), they are surely the same political unit. What affects one must affect the other.
All of this would suggest that while smears can be effective, there are also limits to what they can achieve. Ramaphosa is not perfect, there are many questions he should answer, about his morality, Marikana, his money. And journalists should ask them. Most politicians would have similar problems. But he does have an advantage in that there is no need to smear back. So strong is the evidence of Zuma’s role in corruption, from Shaik through to Nkandla, all the way to the #GuptaLeaks, there is almost nothing more that anyone could do or say to make his public image worse.
The power of the smear may be to drag Ramaphosa down with him. To show that it is not good versus bad, but rather bad versus bad. This could be effective in some ways. But, in a week in which a new survey suggested the ANC would only win 47% of the vote if an election were held tomorrow, it must surely do even more damage to the image of the ANC. Essentially, people in the party are damaging their rivals, leading to the public image that all of their leaders are bad choices. Again, an indication of how damaging these political fights are to the ANC as a whole.
There are also of course questions to ask about how on earth Motale got hold of the private emails of the Deputy President of the country. He would be correct to say that as a journalist he cannot be asked to reveal his source. But it will raise suspicions that the intelligence services are involved. That they have taken a decision to play in this battle. The director-general of the State Security Agency is Arthur Fraser. A man who seems to have benefited from corruption at Prasa. The Minister in charge of State Security is David Mahlobo. who believes that all of us are under threat from sinister foreign forces. A man who thinks nothing of jamming cellphones in Parliament, or of receiving a massage in a parlour owned by a criminal. When you consider that there is vanishingly little evidence of probity in our intelligence services, well…
We have always known that the fight in the ANC in 2017 was going to be dirty. For Ramaphosa’s supporters, forewarned is forearmed. They knew it was coming, and were ready to act. It almost certainly won’t be the last. Ramaphosa was prepared to admit his affair, he knew it would come. The question now is how desperate is the other side, and what tactics are they now preparing to use.
Buckle up, there’s turbulence ahead. DM
Photo: From left, Jacob Zuma, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa are seen at the final session of the ANC’s National Policy Conference, Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, 5 July 2017. Picture: IHSAAN HAFFEJEE