OP-ED: MEA CULPA

I was fooled by Iqbal Survé

By Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya 7 November 2019
Caption
Executive Chairman of Independent Media Iqbal Survé. (Photo: Gallo Images / Wessel Oosthuizen)

It is now history that those who were critical of Iqbal Survé have been vindicated. My experience in the last two years of working as an editor at an Independent Media publication was a complete farce.

Having written an article published by Daily Maverick in defence of Independent Media under the leadership of Iqbal Survé, Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield’s book Paper Tiger, on the Independent Media Group under the leadership of Survé, has disturbed my false peace on the subject. A lot has happened since that article was published in 2015.

It is my lot that fairness demands I say something about or denounce it altogether, lest history records me as I was when the article was written. I need to respond to my younger self. And set the record straight.

First, I do not regret writing the article. At the time I believed every word I wrote.

I was not coerced. I had not once been asked to place even a picture in the newspaper I was editor of, and I sincerely believed that the campaign against Survé was malicious and ill-founded.

By the time I rejoined the group (I had started my formal journalism career as a cadet at the Independent Newspapers School of Journalism and had my first job as a junior reporter at The Star), I had published many articles critical of the single-narrative journalism I had experienced in newsrooms.

Many of those were published in the progressive Mail & Guardian where ideas were always contested and no single conclusion was treated as official dogma to be followed by everyone, lest they be excommunicated. Many times, these opinions were printed side-by-side with others offering a different viewpoint.

When I worked in Pietermaritzburg as editor of The Witness, I again lamented how South African media had an unhelpful Joburg-centric view of life and treated anything happening outside of that city as irrelevant.

You do not need to take my word for it but can search for those articles online.

So, by the time I met Survé for the first time in the lobby of an OR Tambo Airport hotel, I did not need convincing that the media narrative could not continue to act as though the truth could only be seen through a Johannesburg northern suburbs paradigm.

I was sold on the idea of a media company that acknowledged that my perspective as someone constructed by the experience of being black, male and urban was as valid as that of any other person and that we needed a media company that celebrated that, instead of making black people second-guess their reality.

This is a reality that manifests in simple things. For example, where I come from, I had never heard anyone attach “convicted” whatever when describing someone who had been to prison. I come from a space where respect is lost, not earned, as it appears to be in the Western paradigm.

I am not saying that those who hold different viewpoints are wrong. I am saying they ought to know that those are not the exclusive ways of seeing the world.

As editor of The Mercury in Durban, we ran many stories critical of the city government led by the ANC. I never got a sense that such choices were displeasing to the boss because no feedback – praise or criticism – ever came to my office.

So when I wrote the 2015 article for Daily Maverick, I was convinced my colleagues in the media had it wrong. They were describing a scenario I had never experienced as an editor and a deputy editor at another Independent Media title before then.

To that extent, I am not embarrassed that I wrote the article I did.

I want to add too that to this day, I believe that the South African National Editors’ Forum decision to give Alide Dasnois the Nat Nakasa award for publishing a damning report on Sekunjalo – without recognising the reporter who actually wrote the story – was Sanef entering a terrain that was not theirs. The editors were fighting the owners’ battles. I say this without the slightest disrespect for Dasnois.

It was also bad manners to invite Survé and not whisper into his ear that his nemesis would be honoured at the function he was invited to. Sanef did not owe Survé insight into their plans for the night, but good manners are not about what the other person is owed.

All that said, it is history that those who were critical of Survé have been vindicated. The man has proved to have been the bad news his detractors had described – even if they did not have any evidence at the time.

My experience in the last two years of working as an editor at an Independent Media publication was a complete farce.

While there are many incidents I can point to, I am going to limit myself to two that I believe made me realise those I thought were hateful conspirators might actually have a point.

The first incident was Survé’s directive – styled as an invitation – to editors that they should write a 3,000-word article on their experiences at the group. I politely declined this invitation.

Other than not having time to write such a lengthy article in one’s free time, I thought it would be unjournalistic to write such a lengthy praise song because the boss was not a man who took criticism well.

After this incident, I started hearing about how I had failed to transform the paper because there were still too many whites who worked for The Mercury. I was told I needed to act tough against those who (mostly white colleagues) over weekends and in their private corners, criticised my leadership and editorship.

I pointed out that I was not bothered what individuals who worked under me thought. I was not the first, nor will I be the last manager to have their underlings believe he/she does not know what he/she is doing.

The other incident was the refusal to take responsibility when lawyers acting for the company sought to place on me as title editor at the time an article purporting to have been written by an investigative unit (that did not exist) and placed as an advertorial.

When the call came in that Wednesday ordering me to report to Cape Town the next day, I knew my race had been run. Or so I thought.

The directive was that I start a new job the following Monday in Pretoria. The family that I had uprooted from Johannesburg to Durban was now given a weekend to end their lives and careers in Durban and return to Gauteng.

I was going to be the symbolic editor of the Pretoria News Weekend. I say symbolic because I did not have a single staff member to report to me or help me put the publication together. This was the situation until December 2017 when we agreed with the company’s representative that the arrangement was a farce and we would enter into a “mutual parting of ways agreement”.

So do I stand by what I wrote at the time? Yes. History has, however, proven me wrong. Independent Media under Survé cannot be accused of being there for the glory of journalism or for the plurality of views.

I believed, but the reality is that I was fooled. DM

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is a former editor of Sowetan, The Witness, The Mercury, Pretoria News Weekend and deputy editor of City Press and Pretoria News.

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