BOOK EXTRACT

Paper Tiger: Newsrooms were torn apart by suspicion, recrimination and a witch hunt after Iqbal Survé fired Alide Dasnois

By Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield 28 October 2019

Chaos erupted in the Cape Times newsroom - and Independent Newspapers - the night after Nelson Mandela died. New owner Iqbal Survé fired Dasnois amid accusations of disrespect towards Mandela, but many pointed to a Cape Times article about one of Survé’s companies as the real reason. "In the months that followed, newsrooms were torn apart by suspicion, recrimination and what many believed was a witch hunt to expel those not prepared to toady to the owner." This extract recounts events as they unfolded on 6 December, 2013.

For the rest of that day, Dasnois dodged repeated calls from Cape Times colleagues who had no idea what had happened and who wanted urgent instructions on the coverage of Mandela’s death. Head of news Janet Heard, who was managing reporters and photographers, wanted to know from Dasnois whether to send photographer Brenton Geach to Mandela’s home in Qunu in the Eastern Cape to cover events there. ‘Around 3p.m., I still had no word from Alide, and Brenton called to say that he had been told to chat to Chris about Qunu. Strange. Something was wrong. There was indecision. No planning.’

In the late afternoon, Heard and her family went to the prayer service to mark Mandela’s death at the Grand Parade. ‘Amazing sombre atmosphere. I sms’ed Alide to ask if everything was ok.

“No,” she replied.  I said I would try call her later.

‘We walked down Adderley Street, into Twankey Bar for a drink. I was called by NPR radio in the US to do a live link-up about the atmosphere in Cape Town that day. It went fine. Brenton called. I called Alide,’ says Heard.

‘Alide told me she had been fired from the Cape Times with immediate effect, not to return to the office. Chris was to take over as editor for Sunday. I was devastated.’

On Saturday morning Chris Whitfield was at his Rondebosch home when his mail inbox pinged. It was a letter from Sekunjalo’s lawyers, ENS Africa, addressed to Whitfield and copied to the email addresses of Dasnois, Gosling and Howard.

Dear Sir,

RE: SEKUNJALO INVESTMENTS LTD

We write to you at the instructions of our client Sekunjalo Investments Ltd. We refer to the reporting in the 6 December 2013 edition of the Cape Times concerning the release by the Public Protector of her final report into the award of the tender by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to the Sekunjalo consortium.

Our instructions are that you have reported extensively over the past two years on the allegations by the disappointed bidder Smit Amandla and Mr Pieter van Dalen of the Democratic Alliance regarding Sekunjalo’s role in the award of the tender for the management of the research and patrol vessels of DAFF.

Our client has instructed us to record the following:

a. It has been alleged that Sekunjalo Investments Ltd is guilty of corruption; that it misled and/or defrauded DAFF; that it lacked the experience and expertise to undertake the management of the research and patrol vessels of DAFF; etc.

b. These allegations have been thoroughly debunked.

c. The report by the Public Protector clears Sekunjalo of all wrongdoing.

d. It would have been appropriate, after months and months of sustained attacks on the integrity of Sekunjalo, if the Cape Times had published on its front page the more accurate articles which were buried on page 18 of Business Report of 6 December 2013, that Sekunjalo had been vindicated, and that the company demanded an apology.

In the premises our client demands a front page apology on Monday 9 December from both the newspaper’s editor Alide Dasnois and the journalist concerned, Melanie Gosling, and that proper prominence be given by the newspaper of the findings of the Public Protector concerning Sekunjalo.

It is only appropriate given the history of aspersions cast on the company.

If you fail to accede to this demand, Sekunjalo will issue summons on Tuesday against the individuals concerned in their personal capacity, as well as against the newspaper, for the recovery of damages suffered by the company.

The company will also lodge a complaint with the Press Ombudsman for breaches of the Press Code if this demand is not met.

Kindly be guided accordingly

Yours faithfully,

ENS AFRICA

Whitfield could not believe his eyes. He tried to phone Howard but could not reach him. Meanwhile, he had to edit the Cape Times the next day. He had been editor of the newspaper from 2001 to 2006, but this time his editorship would last exactly one day.

Melanie Gosling remembers that Sunday. ‘I walked into the Cape Times expecting much of our day to be taken up with the story of Mandela. There was still so much to be told,’ says Gosling.

‘As we usually did with big stories, I expected a special morning conference of brainstorming with editors and reporters about new angles, who was to do what, and the general buzz and activity that goes with a big story. It didn’t turn out that way – at least not for me.

‘As I walked in, I was surprised to see Chris in his office.

He never worked on Sundays. And, even stranger, the general manager Sandy Naudé was in the office with him. Management was definitely not seen in the newsroom on Sundays. I wondered what was going on.

‘Then as I put my bag down at my desk I saw Alide’s office was empty. I turned to the other reporters and asked where Alide was. They said they didn’t know. I asked how come Chris was at work on a Sunday. They didn’t know either.

‘I soon found out. My phone rang and Chris asked me to come to his office. I walked down that strip of ugly brown nylon carpet that clashed with the blue, feeling a twinge of apprehension that comes from a sense of things not being quite right.

‘I went in and Chris laid it out. It was the Sekunjalo story.  Iqbal Survé had fired Alide. He was threatening to sue her,  sue the Cape Times, and to sue me – unless Sekunjalo got what it demanded: a front-page apology from Alide and from me the next day.

‘I was stunned. What on earth? Alide fired? Me sued? All this because of the story on the Public Protector’s findings on the DAFF tender to Sekunjalo? I could not quite take it in. Alide had been fired because of my story. ‘But what was wrong with my story?’

‘“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Chris replied. ‘The company lawyer Jacques Louw had since been through my story, and through the Public Protector’s report, and had told Chris that there was nothing wrong with it.

‘“Jacques is with Iqbal now, trying to work something out,” said Chris.

‘So many questions were flying through my mind: Was Alide really fired, never coming back? Or was it just a fit of temper on Survé’s part? Who would edit the paper? Would I be forced to publish an apology? I would never do that. But would the paper do so anyway, in my name?

‘“So what do I do now?”

‘“Nothing for the moment,” Chris said. He would come and address the staff about Alide.

‘I walked back across that stretch of ugly brown carpet to my desk, and went into my emails to find the letter from Sekunjalo’s lawyers. I read through Sekunjalo’s complaints, and its demands. I had had threatening lawyers’ letters before – what journalist hasn’t? – but I had never had a letter from my own newspaper company threatening to sue me. A newspaper owner suing its reporters?

‘I stared out of the window at the Greenmarket Square traders. Everything looked the same as usual, but there was something that for me had changed forever.’

At 11a.m. Chris Whitfield called together the newspaper’s staff for the usual morning conference. ‘Chris told the staff that Alide had been fired as editor. There was a stunned silence,’ says Gosling. ‘Reporters, photographers and subs stared at him, then at each other, trying to take it in. Then came the questions. Why had she been fired? Was it for real or would she come back? What would happen to the Cape Times? Who was going to be editor? Chris answered as best he could, and told us he would edit the Cape Times for the time being, and that despite what had happened, he knew the newsroom would carry on and bring out a good paper.’

‘There was shock, tears, disbelief,’ says Tony Weaver. ‘We went about our jobs, numbed by events, but journalists are journalists – when other people mourn, we report their grief, when disaster strikes, we roll into work mode.’

‘We produced a fine paper that day, miraculously,’ says Heard.

‘We pulled together. Delivered a cracker diary. Fortunately we had loads of banked stories in our holding queue.’

After the 11a.m. meeting Whitfield asked Tony Weaver to come into his office: ‘Read this … never in my life,’ he said, giving Weaver a printout of the letter from ENS Africa.

‘I can’t do it. I am going to have to resign.’ However, Weaver persuaded him to wait and to address the issue with senior management.

Whitfield phoned Howard and told him about the letter and said that he would not be running the apology. ‘Let me talk to him [Survé],’ said Howard. ‘I’ll get back to you.’ He never did.

The apology never appeared and the issue was not raised by the company management again.

Meanwhile, word of Dasnois’s dismissal had ‘spread like wildfire’, says Heard. ‘We tried to get Chris to have the company release a statement about Alide. No luck. An article appeared on the Mail & Guardian website, detailing the threat of legal action, and the firing.

‘Everyone was calling us. Chris could not take calls,’ says Heard.

Sanef was later to release a statement condemning what seemed to the organisation like editorial interference and calling for clarity.

‘It was a ghastly day,’ says Gosling. ‘Staff were shocked, bewildered and angry.’ Around lunch-time Dasnois sent the staff an email.

Dear colleagues

I’m sorry not to be with you today working on the Mandela story.  But I’m sure that whatever happens in the next few days the Cape Times team will focus on the only thing which matters at the moment: covering the Mandela story as well as we possibly can and producing newspapers which all of us will remember with pride.

Good luck with it!

Gosling replied.

Dear Alide,

We are shocked and appalled at your being fired as editor of the Cape Times.  I am sorry that it was over my story that you were fired, but having said that, I know you would never have allowed the CapeTimes not to carry the story – whoever might have written it – because we would not have been doing our  jobs as journalists.

Your being fired is dreadful for you personally, and for the Cape Times of course, but it has far bigger – and frightening –- implications for press freedom in this country.

Everyone here is rooting for you, and there is not a single staff member who does not want you back where you belong – at the helm of this newspaper, the oldest daily in South Africa.

A comment on the cover of Gerald Shaw’s history of the Cape Times, which management gave us last week, makes a point which is pertinent today: ‘In addition to portraying the great dramas of the century, the book records with absorbing frankness the paper’s internal battles between editors, concerned to serve the public interest, and management …’

Today the Cape Times is working on one of those ‘great dramas of the century’, the death of Nelson Mandela, while in the background our editors are desperately fighting the owners for editorial independence.

It is a day to remember, for both those reasons, and one that I wish with all my heart will be resolved in the interests of the public good. As Shaw says, the story of the Cape Times is ‘the story of a vigorous tradition of independent journalism’. We can’t let that go.

*Janet Heard remembers that at about 9.30 pm. she got a message from chief sub-editor Glenn Bownes saying that the company had released a statement that former Cape Argus editor Gasant Abarder had been appointed editor of the Cape Times and Dasnois had been removed from her post. ‘No explanation at all.’

The next morning the Cape Times carried a brief note about Dasnois’s dismissal.

That weekend marked what many saw as the beginning of a purge which Iqbal Survé was to undertake in order to turn the Cape Times and the other newspapers into vehicles for his own political and business interests. Yet news of his arrival on the scene, a few months earlier, had been greeted with relief by staffers fed up with the slow destruction of the newspapers under the previous owners and ready to welcome a new owner who promised to invest in journalism at last.  DM

Paper Tiger is published by Tafelberg, an imprint of NB Publishers. This is an extract from Chapter 2, Firing.

Alide Dasnois is the former editor of the Cape Times and Business Report. She is parttime associate editor at GroundUp news agency based in Cape Town. Veteran journalist Chris Whitfield is the former editor of the Cape Times, Cape Argus and Weekend Argus, and former editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers Cape.

*Disclosure: Janet Heard is managing editor (Cape Town)  at Daily Maverick

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