In the 1970s, a group of senior NP bureaucrats and government ministers were involved in setting up a newspaper, the Citizen, from covert government funds, to counter the mounting criticism against apartheid from the local English media. Attempts were also made to bribe and influence foreign journalists. It was all part of the WHAM strategy – to “win hearts and minds”.
Key figures included Dr Connie Mulder, Minister of Information; General Hendricks van der Bergh, head of the Bureau of State Security (BOSS); Dr Eschel Rhoodie, from the department of information; Dr Nico Diederichs, Minister of Finance; and Prime Minister John Vorster. All were implicated in the Erasmus Commission report, and were forced to resign. It all fell apart because of a public-spirited whistle-blower and courageous reporting by Mervyn Rees and Chris Day, journalists at Rand Daily Mail.
Fast forward to the democratic era, and there are some remarkable parallels. There is the Gupta leaks, and some brilliant work by tenacious investigative journalists, unravelling a web of intrigue, and providing compelling evidence of state capture, implicating senior government bureaucrats and ministers. The Zuma government has promised a commission of enquiry, and the nation waits expectantly.
Since 1993 there were suggestions that the ANC was considering the possibility of establishing a newspaper (presumably to influence the court of public opinion). The government wanted the media to be “patriotic”, and this was emphasised by Jacob Zuma at the ANC’s Bloemfontein conference in July 2008: “Newspapers have by now had almost 15 years to inform the public. Their actions do not reflect their words. Our observation is that they do not inform on progress in the country. If you look at the columns and pages, it is sensational and it is not balanced. When you read what the clever media people write, you wonder whether they are describing the organisation you belong to. Newspapers twist the truth in their headlines. It causes damage. It is unfair reporting … Why should the ANC not start a newspaper to inform our citizens?” The subtext was that there should be no focus on corruption, which was eroding the entrails of out hard-won democracy.
There was no need for the government to proceed any further, because the Gupta-managed (and indirectly government funded) media, The New Age and ANN7 news channel filled the breach. Former Minister Essop Pahad played a major role in establishing The New Age, and he was “a director and senior advisor to TNA Media”, publishers of the newspaper. The Guptas claimed that they founded The New Age newspaper “not for the money” but because they are “just trying to do what is best for South Africans” and will “support the government of the day, at all levels”.
The circulation figures of The New Age are a secret and are not reviewed by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. In 2013, it was estimated that 76% of The New Age’s advertising revenue was from government departments, parastatals, and State-Owned Enterprises. In 2014 cash-strapped Eskom spent R43-million in New Age aligned projects. Wits media specialist, Anton Harber, contended, “the state sector is probably in contravention of the rules and laws that govern their expenditure because they have no way of evaluating the New Age‘s advertising and sponsorship proposition”. Jane Duncan, Professor of Journalism, argued that “there’s a non-transparent channelling of government advertising to prop up a media outlet that is now very clearly acting as a propaganda arm for the Guptas and the support for the Presidency and in return, the Presidency’s support for the Guptas”.
As the complex web of intrigue about the Gupta operations in South Africa unravels, and respectable national and international banks cut ties, they are forced to consider their options for their various companies. And so the chosen one for The New Age and ANN7 is Mzwanele “Jimmy” Manyi, former controversial government spokesperson (“Indians have bargained their way to the top”; “oversupply” of coloured people in the Western Cape).
This should not be surprising as in May 2014 Manyi had sent his CV to the Guptas, and he proudly defended his association with the “pariah” family: “I have a problem with hypocrites that we have in this country that are going to say Guptas this, Guptas that, and yet the same people have got nothing to say with banks of this country that are ripping us off every day – these hypocrites are quiet about this…The crime the Guptas have committed is to disrupt the white monopoly… If you associate me with a Gupta that does nothing to worry me because Guptas are not outlaws… The only people that have pronounced on the Guptas are people with no credibility, the liars that are correcting their mistakes every day. The white monopoly capital media. So I do not take media seriously in this country. I do not read their newspapers because they lie every day. So if media says Guptas are wrong, I don’t take that seriously – so what media says means nothing to me.”
It was clear that Mzwanele Manyi anticipated continued state support for his newly acquired media entities, which was the “best representation of RET”: “The government must put its money where its mouth is.”
Manyi stated that “vendor funding” was used for the R450-million transaction (R300-million for ANN7, and R150-million for The New Age), which he described as a “good story” for SA. According to Legalvision: “Vendor financing involves a loan agreement between vendor (seller) and purchaser under which the vendor of a business agrees to lend some or all of the purchase price of the business to the purchaser buying the business.” The terms and conditions are normally flexible and relaxed. However, Business Day reported that in October 2015 a valuation of Infinity Media Networks (which housed the media interests of Oakbay Investments) by accounting firm Cajee Razak & Associates estimated on a “fair market” basis that “the present value of future earnings (was) at R52-million for the value of the business enterprise and R41-million for 100% equity value”. Did someone rip Manyi off, or is he merely a front?
The NGO, Save South Africa argued that since “most of the (Gupta) family’s money has been siphoned from the public purse, they are effectively using dirty public money to hand over an asset from one rogue business to another, and using a questionable financial model to do so”. According to EFF, “Manyi will continue the business of fake news and reporting that characterises the Gupta media empire”.
The opinion pages of independent newspapers remain a powerful site for agenda setting and engaging with popular public opinion in an era when the space for democratic debate and dissent is fast disappearing. According to Mahatma Gandhi, the “freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forego”. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the US, once famously said that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter”.
Former president, Nelson Mandela, had argued that a “critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy… It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society”.
There is no evidence that Mzwanele Manyi’s new media acquisitions will pass this litmus test. Off course, Manyi could shock sceptics and put the nation first by initiating a public campaign against state capture and corruption. DM
Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity