The Sagarmatha saga continues to rumble on. In a recent column, we witnessed the absurd made-up phrases with which Adri Senekal de Wet, the editor of Business Report and lickspittle-in-chief of its owner, Iqbal Survé, defends and promotes her master’s corporate ambitions.
This follows a damning critique by Sam Sole, for investigative journalism centre amaBunghane, of the questionable value of the proposed listing of Sagarmatha Technologies. Sagarmatha is a cobbled-together vehicle consisting of Independent Media, the African News Agency, a property website and an online retailer, which promoters were comparing to Amazon, Apple, Tencent and Google, claiming it would be worth at least R12-billion.
After the JSE withdrew approval for listing Sagarmatha, amaBunghane doubled down with an analysis of another vehicle listed by Iqbal Survé, Ayo Technology. As was to have happened with Sagarmatha, Ayo’s value was boosted by a pre-listing private placement, taken up in its entirety by the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) using money from the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF), at a price of R43 per share. At the time, Ayo’s net asset value was 15c per share. This deal increased Ayo’s apparent value eightyfold, without any change in the underlying fundamentals. A great deal of that increased value accrued to Survé’s family trust.
In response, Senekal de Wet once again put frantic pen to paper. In a hefty opinion piece, she ventured to educate her readers about the PIC.
She begins by tooting her own horn:
“Just last week, I wrote about speaking truth to power as an Afrikaner woman and editor, and about exposing hidden agendas and networks.”
And what are these “hidden agendas” and “networks”? Independent Media had accused various journalists and media competitors of being part of “StratCom”, and her editorial opinions followed suit.
StratCom, short for “strategic communications”, was an apartheid-era disinformation campaign against liberation movement activists, which had recruited journalists in compliant media. According to Senekal de Wet, what was then called the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) was part of this group, and those journalist patsies still work in the media, including for amaBunghane.
The journalists that are now covering Sagarmatha and Ayo Technologies, and daring to question their valuations, are, according to Senekal de Wet, part of a new StratCom, conducting apartheid-style dirty tricks against Iqbal Survé in particular, and black business in general.
This is pure fantasy, of course. The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) called the accusations “not only defamatory, but disgusting”. The Weekly Mail, far from being collaborationist, was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid media. Far from being a tool of the apartheid government, it got banned.
The bravery for which Senekal de Wet pats herself on the back was actually just the temerity to make false accusations with a straight face, and to play the victim card as a white Afrikaner.
She routinely argues that “journalist colleagues who work for our competitors” are unfairly targeting Independent Media, as if this smear makes any sense. Perhaps media owners might benefit from discrediting competition, but in most reputable publishing houses, those owners do not get to dictate editorial content. Editors decide what does and does not get published. This time-honoured policy of editorial independence stands in stark contrast to the deplorable situation at Independent Media since its takeover by Survé’s Sekunjalo Investments.
Journalists gain nothing by attacking the competition. They would be saddened by the decline of once-great titles such as the Star, the Cape Times, the Sunday Independent, and the Argus, not only because of a sentimental attachment to the history of their trade in South Africa, but because they derive material benefit from successful, thriving competition.
The media in general is under sustained commercial pressure, and as a result, so is the remuneration of journalists. The existence of many potential media employers serves to bid up salaries and freelance rates. The fewer competitors there are, the worse off journalists will be. Besides, what journalist would needlessly burn bridges with a potential future employer?
If journalists devote special attention to criticising a rival media house, this is a sure sign that they no longer consider it a potential employer, because it no longer fosters journalistic integrity and excellence, and brings the profession into disrepute. Nobody celebrates the disgrace into which Independent Media has fallen as a corporate sockpuppet for Iqbal Survé’s dubious business ventures. Just as a bully with an inferiority complex lashes out at peers who do better, the vindictive accusations by Senekal de Wet are a psychological defence mechanism. They are baseless and irrational.
In her headline, she claims to separate fact from fiction regarding the PIC. She doesn’t correct any misconceptions, however. She merely states a few obvious facts about the PIC, and implies that they are somehow relevant to the matter at hand.
She says that it has invested in many companies, which is trivially true. It is also entirely irrelevant to the question of whether it should be investing in Sagamartha Technologies, or should have invested in Ayo Technologies.
It has had both successes and failures, she says, which is once again irrelevant. She says it is the largest investor on the JSE, which is true, thanks to its command of vast coffers of public money, but is also irrelevant. She says that its investment portfolio has grown over the last decade. It would be a travesty if that weren’t true, considering that GEPF money constitutes the majority of its assets under management, and comes with a guaranteed income stream from payroll deductions and employer contributions. The relevance of this fact is, again, unclear.
She lists other companies that have also made bad investment decisions, but it is hard to discern how this is a defence of a proposed PIC investment in Sagamartha Technologies or its actual investment in Ayo Technologies. Is she suggesting that it would be okay for the PIC to overpay for assets because others have done so too?
If the performance and investment policy of the PIC were relevant, Senekal de Wet might be reminded that it is the bondholder of last resort for South Africa’s state-owned enterprises (SoEs). The reason for this is that private investors will not go near those bankrupt disaster zones, so the government has sacrificed the independence of the PIC, directing it to prop up failing SoEs instead of making responsible investment choices.
She suggests that the PIC tries to support black businesses, and this is also true. Supporting the developmental goals of South Africa is part of the mandate of both the PIC and the GEPF.
But having a mandate to support black business does not imply that any and every black-owned entity is worthy of support. Nor does it justify massively overpaying for shares in private placements, which is the main criticism the PIC faces in respect to Sagarmatha and Ayo.
It might consider job creation, growth stimulus and social impact in its investment decisions, but first and foremost it has a fiduciary duty to its clients not to invest funds recklessly, which duty is already on perilous footing in light of its exposure to the SoEs.
Nowhere in her 3,200-word tome does Senekal de Wet offer any defence of the valuations of either Sagarmatha or Ayo Technologies. She does not answer any of the substantive criticisms levied against Survé’s corporate finance schemes. For example, she does not explain in what fantasy world the loss-making African News Agency, operating in a very difficult media environment, could possibly be worth almost 1,000 times its annual revenue.
Instead of explaining such anomalies, as a competent stakeholder relations executive might do, she imputes racist motives to critics, relies on extraordinary ad hominem smears, exhorts readers to respect her corporate paymaster, and weaves grand conspiracy theories of malice and persecution. Even if all of her paranoid delusions were true, her boss’s businesses would still be dreadful investments at the price he is asking, and the questions surrounding them would remain unanswered.
Senekal de Wet wouldn’t know journalism if it snuck up and spanked her with a rolled-up newspaper. Even as an obsequious toady, however, she cuts a desperate and floundering figure. In her ham-fisted attempts to defend her patron and his dubious business schemes, she only turned them – and her own newspaper – into a laughing stock. DM