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The PIC report and Sekunjalo: South Africa’s Milly Dowler moment

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Ed Herbst is a veteran journalist who these days writes in his own capacity.

Media observers have been, to say the least, gobsmacked by the way in which newspapers in the Independent stable have chosen to interpret the findings of the Mpati Commission of Inquiry into the Public Investment Corporation, PIC. At the same time, attacks by those newspapers on Daily Maverick and its founder and editor-in-chief, Branko Brkic, have become increasingly hysterical. Veteran Sekunjalo observer, Ed Herbst, casts a jaundiced eye on the unfolding saga.

Since the Sunday Independent and all titles of the Independent Media group have elected to end their membership of the South African National Editors’ Forum and to no longer subject themselves to the national Press Code, or the authority of the Press Ombud, their news reporting can no longer be objectively challenged or adjudicated upon, other than before court. This has necessitated this cautionary note to all other media.”

Footnote on a cautionary media release by the Department of Public Enterprises, 7 March 2020

Branko Brkic, editor-in-chief, Daily Maverick: One thing I want to stress — we have never been sued by Mr Survé or the EFF for our exposés. We are, however, taking legal action in connection with this. Readers should draw their own conclusions.”

Unpacking the single-sourced accusations against Daily Maverick published in Iqbal Survé-owned media by Rebecca Davis, 11 March 2020

Anyone who watched the televised evidence before the Mpati Commission of former Iqbal Survé employees such as Kevin Hardy and Siphiwe Nodwele and current employees such as Naahied Gamielden and Abdul Malick Salie knew for a fact that the subsequent front page attempts in his newspapers – see here and here and here – to exonerate him and the former CEO of the Public Investment Corporation, Dan Matjila were devoid of truth and simply smoke and mirror spin.

And so it proved when the Commission’s report was released– see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

What the Commission’s report makes clear is that Dan Matjila’s connivance in facilitating Iqbal Survé’s deals played a major multi-billion rand role in the PIC rot.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) has welcomed the report saying it is “scathing about the extreme malfeasance that took place in the PIC under the leadership of the former CEO Dan Matjila” and it expresses concerns about the safety of workers’ pension funds.

Compare that statement to the article by Sizwe Dlamini and Adri Senekal de Wet three weeks ago which was headlined PIC Inquiry report clears ex-CEO Dan Matjila, black-owned companies and which, as is now obvious, was a pre-emptive lie aimed at damage control.

Ann Crotty, one of the journalists to suffer Iqbal Survé’s “Stratcom” smear sums this up succinctly in a Moneyweb article: The R4.3-billion investment in Ayo is currently worth R270-million.

The R2-billion investment in the Independent News & Media may now have zero value.

Transformation martyr

What I found bizarre, however, was Survé’s attempt at the Mpati commission to cast himself as the world’s first and only transformation martyr.

As Tim Cohen noted in a recent Daily Maverick article:

The ANC’s economic policy is complicated and faceted, but it rests on a single notion: redistribution. The numbers are a bit dated now, but according to a World Bank study, South Africa can claim to have the most redistributive budget in the world.”

In terms of that redistributive policy, South African company owners are forced by law to meet ethnic employment quotas which reflect the demographic composition of the country.

They have no choice.

Yet Survé claimed at the Mpati commission that, because he wishes, like every other company owner in the country, to comply with this legislation, his life is at risk.

No one else has ever experienced such a murder threat for that reason and yet Survé claims that he is forced to employ bodyguards to protect him in his multi-million rand Silo precinct enclave in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront from these anti-transformation assassins.

If that was true, every law-abiding company owner in the country, striving to meet his/her BEE targets, would be in mortal danger, the hit squads would be working overtime and the most sought-after shares on the JSE would be those of funeral providers such as Avbob and Doves.

Ex-AYO executive, Siphiwe Nodwele, has his own take on Iqbal Survé’s transformation claims as does Dougie Oakes and that is understandable when one considers the unprecedented number of editor-level staff who are not white who have “transformed” themselves into former Sekunjalo employees in the past six years – at the rate of more than two a year:

Moshoeshoe Monare, Philani Mgwaba, Makhudu Sefara, Karima Brown, Vukani Mde, Ellis Mnyandu, Unathi Kondile, Wally Mbhele, Steve Motale, Lebogang Seale, Gasant Abarder, Yunus Kemp, Jovial Rantao, Lindiz van Zilla and Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

That number might well increase if Chris Whitfield’s prediction proves correct.

Three of them have impugned Survé’s stewardship of the former and once-respected Argus Group newspapers.

Philani Mgwaba in Paper Tiger by Whitfield and former Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois: “My private concerns turned to alarm when, soon after Iqbal Survé took control, editors began to receive instructions from Iqbal’s underlings and acolytes to publish opinion pieces that shamelessly flattered and promoted him and/or defended him from legitimate questions that were being raised about his curious business interests.” P142

Moshoeshoe Monare in Paper Tiger: “The last straw was when he wanted to write a column in all the titles “reassuring the readers” of his intentions, and editors were asked to write another column agreeing with him. I refused and resigned.” P139

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya in Daily Maverick:

It is now history that those who were critical of Iqbal Survé have been vindicated. My experience in the last two years of working as an editor at an Independent Media publication was a complete farce.”

Two other senior journalists who are not white, Azad Essa and Tatenda Gwaambuka have described Iqbal Survé as a threat to media freedom in Africa and I am sure that another of his former employees who is not white, former Sunday Independent editor, Wally Mbhele, concurs with that view.

A further two journalists who are not white, Mondli Makhanya and Dougie Oakes have expressed similar sentiments with Oakes making the unchallenged claim that lying is part of the Sekunjalo corporate ethos.

Milly Dowler moment

In July 2011, British people, normally stoic in the face of its tabloid press excesses, exploded in outrage and revulsion when it was revealed that the News of the World had hacked the phones of murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler’s parents.

That led to the closure of the News of the World and the two-year Leveson Inquiry which recommended a change to existing legislation to enable the imposition of harsher sanctions against such reporting. No political consensus could be achieved in this regard, however, and Leveson’s proposals were not implemented.

I believe South Africa’s Milly Dowler moment occurred when the Department of Public Enterprises issued a cautionary notice against the reporting of Sekunjalo Independent Media, which has conducted a venomously abusive campaign against President Cyril Ramaphosa and Pravin Gordhan and rival news organisations and the journalists working for them – see here and here and here and here and here and here – to an extent which is unprecedented in South African newspaper history.

Up till now, respected journalists such as Sam Sole and Ferial Haffajee and Jacques Pauw have had to defend themselves but, on 7 March this year, a government department spoke up for ethical journalism and raised its voice against the pervasive dishonesty of Iqbal Survé’s news company which we have had to endure for the past six years.

That, I believe, was South Africa’s Milly Dowler moment – the moment when a government department spoke out against the corrosively amoral journalism – see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here – of a once-respected newspaper company.

Three days after the DPE cautionary media release, I was able to reveal that Sekunjalo Independent Media’s ombudsman post did not exist and that its purported claim of self-regulation was a pack of lies. The company was forced to take down the relevant section of its website and if you try to access www.independentmediaombud.co.za you get the following message:

“Maintenance mode

“Sorry for the inconvenience.

Our website is currently under construction.

Thank you for your understanding any complainants can be sent to the following email address: [email protected].”

Now Daily Maverick founder and editor-in-chief, Branko Brkic has taken the logical and overdue next step and will challenge the incessant lies of Sekunjalo Independent Media in court.

So, too, will Jacques Pauw.

When Survé was given the perfect opportunity to testify under oath about his defamatory abuse of Alide Dasnois during a farcical disciplinary hearing when he swore he would use his “billions” to destroy her reputation and harm her prospects of future employment, he cut and ran, settling with her on the eve of a Labour Court hearing.

Since then he and Sekunjalo have made constant SLAPP-type threats – see here and here and here and here and here – to sue his critics for anything from millions to billions, but nothing has come of those threats.

In contrast, on the two occasions that victims of his newspapers’ routine defamation have resorted to the courts, they have ruled in the complainant’s favour – see here.

As Peter Bruce has pointed out, the days of Sekunjalo Independent Media are numbered. Sekunjalo’s fake news attempts to counter the findings of the Mpati Commission – see here and here and here have not succeeded and President Cyril Ramaphosa has urged that its recommendations be expedited.

77. The Commission recommends that the Regulatory and Other Authorities should consider whether any laws and/or regulations have been broken by either the PIC and/or the Sekunjalo Group; determine what legal steps, if any, should be taken to address any such violations; and assess whether the movement of funds between accounts, as indicated above, was intended to mislead/defraud investors and/or regulators.”

That process is already under way – claims of judicial interference notwithstanding – and PIC board chair, Reuel Khoza, has promised the swift retribution which is so clearly needed and which a corruption-weary public so desperately craves.

The attempt by the PIC to protect the pensions of our civil servants has seen a plethora of Sekunjalo Independent Media articles defining it as “racially and politically motivated”; “frivolous”; a “racist witch-hunt”; a “threat to media freedom”; a “crime against democracy”; a “fishing exercise for political gain”; a “violation of constitutional rights” and an “attack on media and black people”, not to mention “bizarre and ludicrous”.

Sekunjalo Stench’

The Mpati Commission findings increase the taint around Sekunjalo and companies like British Telecoms SA and Sasol and BDO have already sought to distance themselves from what has become known as the “Sekunjalo Stench” – as has the reformist faction of the African National Congress.

Claims of “blood money” against Branko Brkic and Daily Maverick ring hollow when you censor at the behest of the country persecuting its Uighur minority – see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here – as part of a system which has claimed the lives of more than 90 million victims and impoverished a lot more.

When you are rewarded for doing that, the “blood money” claim against Daily Maverick is simply odious.

What rings just as hollow are Sekunjalo articles claiming that rival media companies are anti-transformation when the number of editors who are not white and have left your employ while impugning your editorial integrity is without precedent in South African newspaper history.

Equally unconvincing is playing the race card against people whose concerns subsequently prove to be justified.

This is all a matter of profound public interest. Iqbal Survé has reneged on repaying what he still owes the PIC while nevertheless servicing the loans of his Chinese funders (or at least he claims he did). This could ultimately have an adverse impact on the wellbeing of almost two million government employees and current civil service pensioners.

The GEPF is a defined benefit scheme which means that the Sekunjalo shortfall will ultimately be repaid by taxpayers like you and me should he continue to default, as seems likely.

In the late 1970s, it was reporters from the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Express who exposed the Information Scandal.

Four decades later it was the #GuptaLeaks reporters who struck a blow against Zuma faction State Capture and, unsurprisingly, Iqbal Survé’s newspapers played no role in that extraordinarily valuable investigative journalism.

The cause of ethical journalism and its anti-corruption component is enhanced if government speaks out against its antithesis – as the Department of Public Enterprises did about Sekunjalo’s reporting a fortnight ago – our own Milly Dowler moment. DM

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