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Digital Vibes R150m scandal: Let me count the ways we could spend it on good media


Fran Beighton is the Maverick Insider General Manager at Daily Maverick.

As Scorpio’s Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s investigation into the R90-million funds misappropriated by Digital Vibes as part of the R150-million Covid-19 and National Health Insurance communications contract was revealed, ripples of frustration and renewed anger were felt throughout South Africa.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

I felt them too. Like little #GuptaLeaks aftershocks. “How can they be this corrupt? We’re in the middle of a pandemic!”

I also had a couple of other questions rattling around in my head. As someone who works in the communications side of the media: who the hell pays R150-million to communicate about the greatest pandemic in a century? Did no one cost this? What were the line items? Or is a now-assumed “corruption tax” built into the final number?

My outrage about this hasn’t packed its bags and I have finally put my finger on why: we’ve done the government’s work free of charge.

My colleagues at Daily Maverick have, for 12 years, risked their lives to expose the corrupt and the criminal, the looters and the liars and (let’s go for the trifecta of alliteration) the Ace and the Aceholes. They haven’t just exposed all the misdeeds; they’ve covered the pandemic from every angle. Maverick Citizen, led by Mark Heywood and Anso Thom, has published more than 3,000 articles on Covid-19. All of it, free to access. We’ve held webinars with leading experts. We even invited Health Minister Zweli Mkhize to participate (we didn’t hear back). All of these webinars were free to attend.

In the middle of the pandemic, when other newsrooms were retrenching or closing their doors, we launched a newspaper – free to anyone with a Pick n Pay Smart Shopper card.

Unless you’re the African News Agency, there is no government funding for media in South Africa. Many of our colleagues in other organisations have resorted to erecting paywalls; not an ideal solution if your objective is to ensure that as many people as possible can access the information they need.

At Daily Maverick, we made the choice never to go the paywall route and Covid-19 has justified this decision a million times over. Or, more specifically, four million times over as our readership numbers at the height of the pandemic reflected.

What would we have done with R150-million to communicate about Covid-19? First, we would have given our journalists a raise. It’s a disgrace that mid-level accountants make more than senior journalists who put themselves at genuine risk to investigate and report on those in power.

We would have increased our print and circulation of DM168 so that those in every community, be it urban or rural, could have been informed of what was truly happening.

We would’ve asked our best journalists to dig into the fake news farms on social media and have them exposed and shut down.

We would have put money towards a free app so that anyone could download it. And then we would have negotiated with the network operators to allow all Covid-19 articles to be free from data costs to read. As a start.

Every day, I check my Maverick Insider dashboard that displays membership numbers and their contributions. I have to do some mental mathematical gymnastics as I work out how many salaries are covered. Salaries for the people whose work in the past few months alone have resulted in this:

R870-million paid back to the State from McKinsey as a result of the #GuptaLeaks McKinsey Dossier.

The SIU freezing R40.7-million worth of assets from 14 companies found guilty of the unlawful procurement of services uncovered in Maverick Citizen’s investigation into the decontamination of schools.

The announcement of a Life Esidimeni Inquest (finally) from continued pressure and coverage.

The exposure of corruption in the judiciary, SAPS, the Department of Health and the secretary-general of the ANC.

The exposure of the blatant lies of members of Parliament – on all sides.

The donation of three months worth of food in response to the stealing of food meant for 800 Gqeberha pupils.

If we go a little further back, we get to the exposure of the #GuptaLeaks and how State Capture has, as Marianne Merten tallied, cost South Africa R1.5-trillion.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, I know that we’re causing you some headaches but here’s a suggestion: next time there is R150-million to spend on communications, perhaps consider finding a way to sustain the real independent media of South Africa? A fund where media houses and whistleblowers get compensated based on corruption exposed?

As we’ve proven time and time again, we’re doing your jobs for you. We’ll even throw in the alliteration for free. 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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  • I know that there was a proposal placed before the minister 1 day after the lockdown announcement that would have done all the stage one communication (to 50 million mobile phones – with mobile being the only viable method of contact for this size reach) covering: What is COVID, what we can do (WHO 7 steps as text, image and animation dependent on phone), why we are locking down. This would then be followed up with localised (localised to approx 10km radius areas) of where to get help, who to contact etc.
    This campaign was costed out at around R35m and covered all the above – served as either text, image, linked microsite, animation dependent on phone (free to see, watch, download for to the receiver) and could provide accurate reporting (and the ability to tweak messages etc in near real time). The messages would be staggered to cover all the information, and could be repeated as required. All the creative had also been done as part of this.
    So not sure what was delivered for R190m….I saw the first SMS (in Sotho) about 6 month later.

  • THE BEE BILLIONAIRE certainly does not want a successful independent media. you are giving him more than a few headaches. He and the ANC much prefer an unsuccessful INDEPENDENT MEDIA courtesy of The Doctor.

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