Opinionista Sasha Planting 31 January 2021

Lies, damn lies and misinformation – it all comes out in the State Capture wash

Our human capacity to be shocked, outraged and scandalised never ceases to amaze me. Though you would have to be dead to be impervious to the information coming out of the Zondo Commission this past week (January 25-29, 2021).

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Speaker after speaker has attested to how the State Security Agency (SSA) became an organisation dedicated, initially – back in 2008 – to ensuring that Jacob Zuma ascended to the presidency, and then to ensuring that he stayed there. To hell with national intelligence or the safety of ordinary citizens. Instead, billions of rand were funnelled from the SSA into propping up the Zuma regime.

The people involved were brazen, greedy, criminal and immoral – though they don’t think so. But expressing that opinion is largely meaningless and getting het up is a waste of energy.

I’m a business journalist and I tend not to stray into the political realm, but there is something about this week’s revelations that sticks in my craw. It’s the news that the supposedly impartial African News Agency (ANA) accepted R20-million from the supposedly impartial SSA to influence the national news narrative and to counter the bad publicity around former president Zuma’s government.

For the record, I don’t believe there is such a thing as neutral or impartial media. Most have an ideological bent. But in ANA’s case the ideology appears entirely self-serving.

The revelation came from Dr Sydney Mufamadi, who was minister of safety and security from 1994 to 1999, who testified at the State Capture Commission of Inquiry this week.

ANA CEO Vasantha Angamuthu responded to his testimony in a statement, saying that “ANA was not set up to be, and is not, a front for the State Security Agency”. However, she added that ANA was contracted to “provide multimedia training for SSA analysts and interns across Africa” and to carry positive stories about South Africa and the government.

I can’t put it better than my colleague Rebecca Davis, who wrote earlier this week: “In other words, the newswire had spies in its newsrooms across Africa and was paid by the SSA to carry positive stories about the Zuma administration – which is almost precisely what Mufamadi told the Zondo Commission.”

For those who can’t be expected to know, ANA was resurrected out of the ashes of the defunct South African Press Association in 2015 and was an asset for which Sekunjalo paid the princely sum of R500,000. ANA, it said, would be positioned as a news agency syndicating African content to Africa, and the rest of the globe.

The revelation that South Africa’s malodorous spy agency paid a supposedly independent media platform for “training” and positive reporting on the government is shocking to say the least. I have nothing against the idea of news organisations seeking out positive stories in a sea of negativity, as Daily Maverick does regularly. But when you do not disclose that the stories have been placed and paid for, then in effect you have bought into, and are actively supporting, the theft and thuggery carried out by the SSA in the name of Jacob Zuma.

But this is more than an internal affair. If ANA sold its soul to the SSA and indirectly, Zuma, who else has it sold it to?

This is where I question the involvement of the China Africa Development Fund (CAD Fund) in ANA. It has never added up. Why would a foreign private equity fund pay R357-million for a stake in tiny news agency that was acquired for R500,000? (The invested amount was paid into ANA’s Nedbank account on 27/05/2015 according to the report of the PIC Commission.)

CAD Fund is a Chinese private equity fund solely funded by the China Development Bank, a Chinese government policy bank. The fund’s primary purpose is to foster Sino-African investment through bridging finance, financial advice, Africa specific managerial advice, and identification of potential investment opportunities as well as connecting African projects to Chinese investors.

One of its biggest investments was the 2010 deal that saw it contribute R382.5-million into a R1.65-billion investment by Jidong Cement to build a cement plant in Limpopo.  

While infrastructure projects are its stated focus, the fund seems to have an appetite for investing in what it perceives as supportive media. In December 2013, CAD Fund supported the acquisition of Independent Media by Sekunjalo and acquired 20% for R400-million, according to a 2014 article written for M&G by Sam Sole and Craig Mckune titled “What’s black and white and in the red all over?”

Why would this Chinese fund be making outlandish investments in media assets that deliver no returns?

According to global risk consulting agency Control Risks, Chinese investors were concerned about the replacement of Zuma by Cyril Ramaphosa as president in early 2018, worrying it would have an adverse impact on SA’s relationship with China, and therefore their investments. In other words it believed it had a vested interest in the outcomes of the SA elections. With this in mind, a few million here and a few million there to influence the media was small change.

For the South Africans who allow themselves to be used, and are unwittingly used, be afraid. Because it never ends well. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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