In my attendance at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering: Media Edition in August 2018, which saw some of the most prominent journalists in attendance, particularly in relation to the recent State Capture saga of the past 10 years, I posed a simple question to City Press editor Mondli Makhanya.
I asked: is there a reflective process within media spaces with regard to how it consistently seems to align itself with factions within the ruling party, the African National Congress. I used the example of how the media, leading up to the Polokwane Conference of the ANC of 2007, framed former president Thabo Mbeki as an unrelatable technocrat, presenting an ideal alternative in Jacob Zuma as a man of the people, who understands the struggles of everyday South Africans and was a needed change from the supposed bureaucrats that had been leading the ANC before him.
I asked this question, mindful of the alarming excitement the media fraternity had over the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as the ruling party and state president, and whether we would not, after his regime, witness a further bashing of him as he leaves the echelons of power, while a new excitement is created around whoever may be the incoming president.
In Makhanya’s response, he asserted that those in the media community had been against Zuma from day one. Then, in his closing remarks, he said something that made me gasp, to the amusement of the gentleman seated next to me. He said it has been a difficult past few years, but at least now as South Africans we can breathe easily, the good guys are in.
This cemented a belief that many journalists try to brush off too easily as an attack on media freedom, a very dishonest assertion that seeks to stifle critique on an institution that has an extreme amount of sway in terms of public opinion in any society, and largely determines the fate of the characters of many public figures. It is a belief that understands that journalism, ethical journalism which is founded on independence, objectivity, fairness, facts and consistency, are principles that have long been lost in the South African media fraternity, if they were ever there at all.
The allegations of corruption and of aiding and abetting State Capture against former minister of finance and now Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan, and the stark difference in how a simple investigation into them are being responded to by prominent media houses and persons, in comparison to how every other case was framed with other individuals, are a case in point.
We saw glimpses of it with former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, and how his admitting to lying about meeting the infamous Guptas was cajoled into a narrative of “an honourable man” who should be forgiven, but the resilience of the narrative was not as persistent — and Nene duly buckled and resigned.
What we are witnessing with the Gordhan saga, however, is propaganda that would put Goebbels to shame. The likes of Faith Muthambi, Malusi Gigaba, Lynne Brown, Duduzane Zuma and Bathabile Dlamini have all been burnt at the stake since their association with Zuma’s corruption. The Guptas have rightly been pursued, in the name of accountable governance, in a quest to clean the state of corrupt individuals. The attitude towards individuals such as Nene and Gordhan, however, is hypocritically different.
Having witnessed and accepted this as a reality of a media community that has all but lost its credibility, what Daily Maverick themed as an analysis, and what was titled A Frontal Attack on Pravin Gordhan, Version 2018 on 11 November shook me out of a spectator position. The article pits Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane against Pravin Gordhan as an adversary, with ridiculous claims being made.
It is laden with conspiracy, undermines a government institution, takes an ironic jab at the Economic Freedom Fighters (ironic as they were heroes when this accountability was directed at Zuma and his ilk) and frankly, baselessly paints Gordhan as an infallible deity in South African politics.
Grootes’ analysis reveals the common trend in attitudes towards the Gordhan saga — that is, it assumes innocence. He writes:
“There is much heat and smoke blown at and around Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan at the moment. To establish the truth, the agendas behind those claims must be examined carefully to determine what motivation lay behind them. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the future of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture may hang in the balance here. If Gordhan leaves office, the Commission itself may fail as a result. That in turn could mean the ANC itself loses the best chance it currently has of dealing with the Zuma era’s State Capture.”
To assert that there is an agenda into the questioning of the omission of sensitive information in Parliament, by a public representative, as in Gordhan’s case with regard to meeting the Guptas and the nature of those meetings, descends to an infantile level of conspiracy. Gordhan claims in his leaked affidavit to the Zondo Commission that he did meet the Guptas inadvertently, at a meeting to discuss possible investment into MTN by Indian billionaire [Mukesh] Ambani.
That this was inadvertent is highly implausible, that he could not recollect the presence of Ajay Gupta beyond being reminded by the then Treasury chief of staff Dondo Mogajane is laughable. There is no way a minister of finance would meet a billionaire investor and would somehow not remember that there was another individual present unknown to him. Such a meeting would not have proceeded if the minister is as ethical as many would like us to believe.
How one can describe the insinuation that the fate of the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture hangs in the balance, depending on the result of the probe into Gordhan — that if he leaves office the entire inquiry itself may fail — is beyond me. The framing of Gordhan as the be-all and end-all of corruption-busting has reached levels that have hampered coherent thought in this country.
How independent is the commission if it is dependent on Gordhan remaining a minister? What judicial role does Gordhan play in the machinations of the inquiry? What we need to be clear on is that we are being not-so-subtly prepared for a discrediting of the inquiry itself, due to its earliest victims being media darlings, and not those who everyone expected to be the first to bite the bullet. What needs to be firmly understood is that the judicial commission of inquiry is not a factional enterprise. It does not have a slate of victims — it is investigative, objective and uncompromising. Its integrity will not be measured by the social clout of individuals. The ruse of Gordhan as a saint will gradually unravel itself.
Grootes laments about how the matter regarding the early pension pay-out given to then deputy SARS commissioner Ivan Pillay by Gordhan was abandoned by then National Prosecuting Authority head Shaun Abrahams in 2016. He questioned the subpoena — and the timing of it — from the Public Protector coinciding with his appearance at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry. This is all irrelevant. Gordhan should, like every other individual, subject himself as a public representative to any and all inquiries into him, his affairs in relation to the state and any possible corruption without smokescreens being created to project his innocence, while casting doubt on reputable institutions and legislative arms that function under their own ambits and objectives.
If the Public Protector deems it fit to conduct this investigation, she must be allowed to do so without personal attacks on her character. There are numerous critiques that can be levelled at the former Public Protector and how her report into State Capture was far from exhaustive, letting many individuals slip through the cracks, creating a perception that State Capture was a phenomenon that a few individuals in a collective Cabinet can absolve themselves of. Besides, the allegations against Gordhan go beyond the Pillay saga, with an exhaustive list of damning questions forwarded to him by the EFF, to which we still await a response.
This of course is where Grootes’ analysis takes its most hypocritical turn, in terms of allegations without substantiation, invoking allegations that have long been abandoned by the relevant authorities (something he awkwardly attacks Mkhwebane for) and sketchy conspiracies.
He delves into his critique of the EFF by citing its president, Julius Malema’s, past tax-related matters and his apparently large tax bill. Irrespective that these are matters that have been resolved or abandoned, he speculates that:
“Gordhan, through his various previous roles at SARS and as finance minister, is likely to be well aware of the real source of this money. He may also know all of the financial details of the case, which may make him dangerous to Malema.”
What is being suggested here? Is Grootes saying that the reputable corruption buster may have information on Julius Malema that he is withholding from the relevant legal authorities, that may damage Malema’s reputation and make Gordhan a threat to Malema? How does being a threat then manifest itself? Could it be through extortion or blackmail? Or are we expected to be baited by a claim that the same man who is regarded to be honourable beyond reproach, has pushed Malema into a corner with this information? If so, to what end?
Grootes needs to understand the slippery slope of conspiracies and how it contradicts the very image he tries to create about Gordhan. Extortion and withholding information that could possibly be incriminating to another individual, is illegal. If Gordhan has any incriminating information regarding how Julius Malema accrued money, he must come forth with it.
In what he probably regards as a tactical manoeuvre, he squeezes in the beating of a dead horse in terms of the EFF and the infamous VBS saga. The report, compiled by Terry Motau SC, makes no mention of the EFF or any of its leadership. However, one Pauli van Wyk, from Daily Maverick’s investigative unit, has made claims that the deputy president of the EFF, Floyd Shivambu, received money that was looted from the bank, from his brother Brian Shivambu. To date, we are yet to see a shred of evidence.
If conspiracies are anything to go by, it can be said that this charge against the EFF — for something where there is no evidence — was a pre-emptive measure to ensure the EFF has a cloud over its head whenever it speaks on matters relating to corruption, perhaps anticipating that Gordhan would soon find himself in this predicament.
The tedious inclusion of Malema’s name in relation to the collapse of Limpopo’s finances is also a routine attempt at character assassination that hypocritically is not backed by any evidence — as per Grootes’ own standards — never mind that Malema at no point led the Limpopo government.
Amusingly, the response by the public, particularly on social media, to the palpable media bias is dismissed Donald Trump-style as from possible fake Twitter accounts and that:
“It is also possible that this is the work of third-party actors, people or countries who simply benefit from chaos and disruption in South African politics generally.”
Grootes grasps at straws as it seems difficult to conceive that the South African populace is not that gullible. They can see through politically motivated opinion that masks itself as journalism. To fuel this claim, that the EFF critiques the media because it fears it, he refers to the litigation the EFF is pursuing against self-proclaimed political analyst (as are many), Prince Mashele.
Mashele, who makes unsubstantiated and defamatory statements against the EFF and its leadership, is being sued by the EFF and rightly so. The democratic right for freedom of expression and opinion comes with responsibilities, and for far too long in this country people can tarnish the reputation of others, using platforms as analysts without any consequences. If anything, the case against Mashele serves to strengthen democracy, creating a culture of claims being substantiated and reporting and analysis that is based on fact.
Grootes’ true aspirations and fears are revealed near the end of his analysis. That the darling Ramaphosa may be compromised because the Zondo Commission is casting a bad light on the darling faction within the ANC, and not those everyone expected it to, at least not yet.
In his opinion, the EFF is afraid of the possibility of reform within the ANC that may stem from the Zondo Commission and the testimonies that come from it. In his mind, if Gordhan follows Nene in resigning, it may have effects on others who are yet to testify before the commission and hinder its progress. Again, lying to the commission or not being forthcoming to it is not a responsibility of the EFF and the implications this may have on the reform or lack thereof of the ANC are honestly not our problem.
The goal and purpose of the Zondo Commission is to investigate and unravel State Capture, not assist the ANC to reform. It is not for the EFF to fear or not fear. If others do not come forward, they can be legally obliged to do so. It is not a crisis. The truth is our main prerogative. The President of the Republic is also not obliged to defend Gordhan, as Grootes seems to suggest.
Imagine if this was something he had to do in relation to all those being investigated and who c0me under scrutiny for corruption. Again, there is pre-emptive guilt and innocence presumed on some, not others, when it comes to State Capture. Grootes concludes by saying:
“With all of that said, it is also important to remember that if Gordhan is guilty of wrongdoing, he should be held accountable. But it is surely also the case that anyone making those claims needs to bring proper evidence, not just public suggestions…” A statement that he himself uses selectively. One that applies to Pravin Gordhan, but not the EFF in relation to everything he writes about it in his article.
There is a myriad conspiracy, irony and hypocrisy posing as analysis, and in the worst-case scenario as journalism. Sadly, it is an attitude that is all too common in media discourse. Should you challenge it, you are a gag to freedom of expression.
Grootes is correct on one thing: There are difficult and important battles under way in our politics. One is the dictatorship of the press. DM
Sinawo Thambo is the EFF Student Command chairperson of the Western Cape and a student at the University of Cape Town.