Opinionista Helen Zille 28 May 2017

From the Inside: The anatomy of a sham scandal

In this post-truth era, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish real scandals from bogus ones. Spotting the difference has become more important than ever, given the ease with which scandals are created, escalated and sent into orbit through social media.

In the parasitic relationship between social and conventional media, fake news is often used to generate outrage, and fake outrage, in turn, to generate news. Things that should generate outrage often pass unnoticed.

Outrage manufacturing becomes particularly marked in the months before political parties hold elective conferences for new leadership. During this period, internal jockeying for positions includes candidates raking as much muck on their opponents as possible.

Healthy scepticism is, therefore, a useful attitude with which to approach the many “revelations” that make their way into the media as South Africa’s major political parties approach their congress season.

It is fascinating to watch the links between some politicians and those journalists who are prepared to provide a public platform for their schemes. A few journalists even become pro-active agents in a party’s internal battles and vendettas.

It was in this frame of mind that I read an article in last week’s Sunday Times headlined: “Contractors ‘paid for DA MEC’s bash’.”

The opening paragraph read, “Acting DA provincial leader Bonginkosi Madikizela is facing allegations of impropriety after a swanky birthday bash in his honour was apparently partially funded by construction companies that benefit from projects financed by his department.”

Despite the inclusion of a denial from Mr Madikizela himself, who is the provincial Minister of Human Settlements, the overwhelming impression left by the headline and the article is that contractors funded a party for the political head of a department that awards contracts and tenders worth billions annually. If that were true, it would (at the very least) be improper. At worst, it would indicate corruption.

So confident was the journalist of the latter that he publicly predicted the unfolding scandal would end Madikizela’s career.

Before long, the lines were buzzing. Journalists wanted comment. The party hierarchy advised me to take urgent and immediate action.

The next day, the story escalated with a breathless front-page headline in the Cape Times screaming: “Madikizela birthday party sleaze”, followed by an article dripping in insinuations.

Experience, life’s best teacher, cautioned me to proceed carefully, gather as many facts as possible, and speak to the individuals involved before determining a course of action or making a public statement.

I knew at least two things:

  1. Bonginkosi’s candidature for the provincial leadership at September’s Western Cape Congress meant that his opponents would be looking for every reason to publicly discredit him, and
  2. Whatever may have happened in relation to his birthday celebration, the provincial procurement system would not have been influenced by it because we have built a firewall between politicians and the supply chain management system.

So if it turned out that there were contractors who thought they could buy favours by sponsoring the event, they would end up sorely disappointed.

Nevertheless, if there had been such an attempt, it would have been wrong and action would be required. It was obviously important to establish the facts.

My first discussion was with Bonginkosi himself. I told him I was going to investigate the issue in as much detail as possible, so that I could determine an appropriate course of action. He welcomed my approach. He told me the party had been organised as a surprise for him. He thought he was going out to a birthday dinner with a group of friends, only to walk into a room full of guests shouting “surprise”.

What he knew about the background was as follows: He has, for years, been part of a 20-strong network of friends who support each other, specifically in times of celebration and bereavement, helping to raise money for events ranging from parties to funerals. This group (loosely based on the traditional stokvel saving model) meets on a regular basis. When Bonginkosi was elected the DA’s interim Western Cape leader, they wanted to throw a celebration party for him.

Bonginkosi vetoed the idea. He said it was not appropriate in the circumstances, and could potentially be interpreted as lauding it over other candidates. They accepted his reservations, and later hatched a plan to give him a surprise birthday party instead. It was a closely guarded secret. After the event, when he enquired who had paid for it, they told him that a fundraising subcommittee had called on people to make donations. He accepted their word and thought nothing further of it. This was normal in his friendship circle, he said.

He confirmed the newspaper’s claim that Ms Pumla Zantsi, a partner in a construction firm doing business with the province, had contributed a multilayered, multicoloured cake, worth R3,000. That was the only contractor involved as far as he was aware.

Bonginkosi told me that he and Pumla were part of the mutually supporting friendship circle. They had been friends for 20 years, from the time they were both activists in Khayelitsha and long before he had even thought of joining the DA. For her part, Pumla had been a contractor to the province long before Bonginkosi became provincial Minister of Human Settlements. She had never used her presence in their “stokvel” network to seek a business advantage or political favour.

In any event,” said Bongikosi, “do you think that I can be bought for a birthday cake?”

I thought about our conversation. A long-standing friend buys you (an admittedly expensive) cake, from her own pocket, and it turns into a scandal because her company does work for the province, and has done for years prior to your arrival on the scene? This put a completely different spin on a story that had been touted as a career-ending scandal.

But of course, there could conceivably be more to the story than that, so I investigated further. A party at the One & Only hotel does not come cheap. I started by making contact with Pumla Zantsi. She immediately agreed to meet and was entirely forthcoming. She explained that the group of friends had met over many weeks to organise the party. They had nominated a fund-raising committee who had approached prospective donors. She gave me the full donor list, ranging from people who had contributed to the incidentals (such as tea and coffee at their planning meetings) to those who had paid for the big ticket items such as the hotel’s bar tab. I then submitted the donors’ names (and the companies with which they are associated) to the Chief Financial Officer of the Department of Human Settlements, to determine if any of them are contractors to the Department or the Province. None, he responded.

I managed to get the telephone number of the major donor, a Mr G, who is based in Durban, where Bonginkosi’s sisters live, and where he once lived himself. He still has a large friendship network there. Mr G confirmed that he had covered the lion’s share of the cost, and that he has no business interests in the Western Cape and none in construction, and that he had elicited further donations from his network in Durban. None did work for the Western Cape either, he assured me.

Next, I had to check whether the people who said they were donors were the ones that actually paid for the party, so I contacted the relevant hotel manager and asked to see copies of the invoices and receipts. He was unable to give them to me, due to client confidentiality, so I asked the party organisers to source the documents for me.

They promptly did, and my office undertook a reconciliation which showed the accuracy of the information we had been given.

Next I scoured some of the photographs from the party and, with the help of the Department of Human Settlements, identified two contractors who attended as guests: Mr M and Mr P. Neither had been on the donor list, but I called them nevertheless to find out whether they had been asked to contribute, and whether they had done so. “I wasn’t asked for a cent and I didn’t pay a cent”, replied Mr M. He had been invited to the party because he had known Bonginkosi through political circles from the time he was still a member of the ANC.

Mr P told a similar story. He was a subcontractor to Mr M, who had phoned during the festivities to encourage him to pop into the party. Mr P did.

By then, I had followed all the leads open to me. And I am confident that, on the information available, there is no more to the story than that. Meanwhile, the impression has been indelibly created in the minds of the newspaper-reading public that the minister has been involved in shady dealings involving contractors to his department paying for a lavish birthday party. The ineluctable deduction is that he is corrupt.

The ANC has reported the allegations to the Public Protector who has powers to probe the matter even more deeply than I did. I will pass on everything I have to assist her. And if anything further emerges, I will study it very carefully.

The one question I have not answered to my satisfaction is where, from inside the DA, this allegation came from in the first place. The newspaper has kept its sources anonymous. I have said it before and I say so again: when it is established that informants have leaked fake news to the media, they (and their motives) should become the focus of the story, because they have not acted in the public interest, only in their own.

It is time that this becomes standard practice in the media. Too much damage is done by anonymous sources spreading fake news, aided and abetted by journalists who know, if they are honest, that their revelations have nothing to do with speaking truth to power. DM

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