End of Days

Iqbal Survé’s campaign of lies

By Ferial Haffajee 25 November 2019

Iqbal Survé. (Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / Gallo)

Nearing the end of ‘empire’, businessman Iqbal Survé has engaged in a war on truth as vicious as that unleashed by the Gupta family using the global PR company Bell Pottinger.

Iqbal Survé wields power through his control of mass media titles which he has turned into weapons he trains on perceived enemies as the walls close in on his empire, as amaBhungane today reveals.

Last week, I got caught in it and came away with a sense both of its power and its impotence.

With failing newspaper titles, most held aloft by copies given away or sold below cost, people who are attacked write his war off as one fought with dummy bullets. But with the portal www.iol.co.za still one of the largest in the country, the disinformation disrupts truth and can harm the reform of South Africa after the decade of State Capture.

Weaponised titles and business mirages

There is little left in Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent Media by way of content. Day after day, both the front pages of his titles and the business title Business Report are weaponised to fight his battles. Without the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), which has funded his media and IT companies, Survé would not have been able to expand his businesses. But as the liquidation notice served by the PIC on the media part of his business has shown, and the details of a Financial Sector Conduct Authority investigation into share manipulation reveal, he is at the end of days.

Survé has not honoured his loan agreements and there is a claim of an initial R800-million by the PIC as the amaBhungane investigation shows. In addition, the share manipulation investigation could reveal that his listed entity Ayo Technology is an empty shell.

Now under serious investigation, Survé has turned his mass media on the PIC and an assortment of enemies. Alongside this, he has turned his media to boosterism and puffery as he veils his disassembling empire in grandiose announcements.

This week, for example, Business Report splashed on its front page an unlikely story of Survé starting a global blockchain company, through his holding company Sekunjalo.

Sekunjalo Investment Holdings has partnered with a leading company in China, Ultrain, to build a pan-African chain that would create an Africa-wide blockchain-enabled business ecosystem, the African Chain 3.0.”

His previous boondoggles were Ayo Technology and Sagarmatha, which he proclaimed would be “African unicorns” (technically, companies valued at $1-billion) and which he valued at an initial R12-billion. In 2015, his titles trumpeted the launch of the African News Agency (ANA) seeded with a claimed initial investment of $200-million with investor Ladislas Agbesi.

Four years later and despite the highest apparent capitalisation of a media company in South Africa and Africa yet, the Daily Maverick reported that ANA served retrenchment notices on its 25 journalists this month. In other words, ANA was another of Survé’s business mirages.

It is misinformation of a higher order.

More dangerously, Survé and his journalists have also geared up disinformation campaigns skewering individuals who call his game.

Former SA Reserve Bank (SARB) governor Gill Marcus faced a massive campaign after she asked a series of tough questions of Survé at the Public Investment Corporation Commission of Inquiry chaired by Lex Mpati, where she sat as an adviser to Mpati. Former deputy finance minister Mondli Gungubele faced a similar campaign. Survé’s Sunday Independent attempted to take out President Cyril Ramaphosa when he ran for the job of ANC president.

Survé initially backed candidate Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and tried to out Ramaphosa in a sex scandal.

That failed and the businessman’s titles have since led the media dirty tricks campaign against both Ramaphosa and the Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan. Sam Sole of amaBhungane was dragged through the Sekunjalo sewers after he previously also exposed how there was nothing in Ayo and Sagarmatha except hot air and the pensions of government’s retired and employed workforce. Survé’s journalists and his titles repeat untruths again and again in the propaganda pattern established by the Nazi Goebbels, who found that a lie repeated often enough is made believable.

How does the war on truth work?

Last week, Survé turned his guns on the media and on me for a column I wrote on why a book written about him titled Paper Tiger by Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield revealed him to be a weak and Machiavellian leader.

Thereafter, journalist Ayanda Mdluli began a five-part series to critique increasingly critical media coverage of his boss’s crumbling businesses.

I hardly read his titles but my aunt WhatsApped last Thursday “Did you see what he wrote about you?” “I told you about him.” She is not a fan.

I looked and there it was. A headline piece took me apart for the criticism as part of the five-pronged series on the media. As an opinion writer, I often write critically so I can roll with the punches. But there were untruths in the foundations of the story and I set out trying to get them fixed. Here’s my story of what it’s like getting caught in Survé’s war on truth.

A little story of how disinformation works — and trying to set it right.

My aunt believes that Survé wrote the series himself and used Mdluli as a foil. I like to give journalists the benefit of the doubt, so I got hold of Mdluli after the first story had appeared last Thursday. It was a generally incendiary article, but that has become the norm in Survé’s world of threats.

Here is an example:

For the record, Independent Media has a large grouping of indigenous people of South Africa as shareholders. By attacking Indy (the Sekunjalo Independent Media group), Haffajee is, albeit indirectly, launching an assault on them.”

A review of Paper Tiger and a critique of Survé’s leadership style had now become an assault on all “indigenous” people working at Sekunjalo Independent Media. It’s a classic example of how disinformation campaigns work — they turn critique to a supposed attack and escalate into conflict quickly to expand the threat and intimidate the target.

Mdluli’s opinions are his own, but facts matter and he seemed to have a few wrong. Here is an account of how I tried to get these fixed in at least 20 calls to him (across three days), three to his executive editor (one of which was returned, but which I missed) and several messages to the company’s head of corporate communications to find out what I could do to prevent the spread of disinformation. As journalists, we have nothing but our reputations and I had to fight for mine.

Claim: “Giving Tony Leon the benefit of the doubt”.

In one part of his series, Mdluli says:

This is the same Haffajee who recently gave Tony Leon the benefit of the doubt when Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba said the former DA leader had asked him to give his friends a R300-million tender.”

Fact: I’ve never written about Tony Leon in relation to how his company, Resolve, allegedly tried to get a deal out of Johannesburg from Mayor Mashaba. Mdluli promised on numerous occasions to send me the link where I had written this, but he never did. When he became frustrated with my calls, he told me to escalate to his executive editor, Sifiso Mahlangu, which I did, without success. This is what happens in a disinformation campaign — there is no recourse to a fix because it does not play by the rules of journalism, but is disguised to look like it.

Claim: “You and the likes of Ed Herbst have also come out to discredit my coverage of the PIC Commission in public because of your disdain for the company that I work for.”

Fact: This is from an email Mdluli sent to me as he tried to explain his motivation for his series of articles making various claims. The fact is that I have never read his coverage of Judge Lex Mpati’s commission of inquiry into the PIC and I have never written about it. Until he wrote about me, I did not know of nor had I read Mdluli’s work. Again, he did not provide links to the articles he alleged I had written despite numerous requests to do so, which is another example of how disinformation is never based in fact.

Claim: “I know very well that you have written two articles and another where you make comparisons to Doc and Beezos [sic].”

Fact: This is also from the email Mdluli sent to explain his motivation and his method. I use it here to illustrate another point about the disinformation machine that Survé is running. It is very unprofessional. While insiders may call him “Doc”, this is not how you refer to your owner with whom there should be the professional distance if you are a professional journalist.

In addition, there is no such person as “Beezos”. Besides the review of Paper Tiger, I had once before written about how Survé could learn from Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, who used an independent blogging site to out an attempt at extortion by a US tabloid which published details of his extra-marital affair. The point was that the good media owners don’t use their own platforms to fight their battles. Mdluli not only misspelt Bezos, but he also missed the bigger point. Spectacularly.

Claim: “Haffajee has edited the City Press publication, which she was removed from when City Press’s circulation fell…”

Fact: This was Mdluli on Sunday 24 November in the third part of the series, this time dedicated to Dasnois, but in which I again played a starring role. I tried to call him to retract the fact that I had been removed. In fact, I loved City Press and moved on after six years. All newspaper titles’ circulations have declined because most of us read online and not in print any longer. Mdluli did not answer, so I asked the Media24 CEO Ishmet Davidson for a fact-check. Here’s what he sent me.

I hereby confirm that you left City Press on your own volition and with great sadness for many. In fact, if I had my own way you’d still be with Media24,” said Davidson. Then he found the press release he put out when I resigned four years ago to learn online and to begin to master it.

Ishmet Davidson, on behalf of Media24’s news division, thanked Haffajee for her contribution to City Press and South Africa. ‘Often setting the news agenda, Ferial has fearlessly reported on numerous issues which may otherwise never have come to light. She has been an exceptional editor at City Press’ ”.

Conclusion

Davidson’s email made me a little teary, to be honest. It’s been a difficult few days trying to deal with Survé’s anti-truth machine. While most colleagues make light of his machinations and the weaponisation of his media, it hits home and people notice — I haven’t stopped receiving calls about the series. And, in trying to use old methods of correction and seeking recourse, and failing, it’s clear that in a war on truth, no recourse to old methods of fact will work.

The media magnate pulled his titles and online platforms out of the Press Council’s system of co-independent regulation so there is no recourse to a fix. Survé exercises power without responsibility. Yes, one can go to court. But there’s an opening price of R100,000 on a defamation suit and it’s unaffordable for the targets of Survé’s war.

I have access to this platform to expose the disinformation machine and Survé’s war on truth for what they are, but what about the other people he has targeted?

It has made me realise that you can’t simply write him off as the doctor gone mad, the dictator disassembling as his ephemeral and corrupt business empire turns to sand around him, like Ozymandias’s statue.

Survé requires as much attention as the Gupta family patronage received — like them, he has looted the public purse (the retirement funds of government employees) and like them, he has engaged a massive disinformation campaign as a cover for that. DM

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