The news that Dr Iqbal Survé, the man behind JSE-listed Sekunjalo Investments, had bought Independent News and Media South Africa (INMSA) from its Irish owners for R2 billion was greeted with delight. Independent Newspapers has come home! Indie is back in South African hands!
But of course, this being the media world, it wasn’t long before questions were asked. Just who is Survé and what exactly does he know about newspapers? And isn’t he aligned with the ruling African National Congress? That must mean he’ll interfere editorially. Will he invest in the venerable group? The rumour mill chewed on every piece of information that came to light, true or not.
Survé is a businessman who was previously a medical doctor. He has three medical and two business degrees. “I’m a scientist,” he says in an interview with The Media. “I look at the facts; I look at the data. They tell me that overall the Independent Group does well. It is highly profitable. It had its challenges with the Irish (previous owners, the O’Reilly family), but is still strong.”
Survé famously doesn’t like paying dividends to shareholders. He prefers to put profits back into the companies he owns. “I’m the largest shareholder, so I would benefit the most,” he says, pointing out that it is a “known fact” that he invests in businesses to grow them. It’s not his style to strip a business of its assets (not that there are too many physical properties left after the Irish sold off many of INMSA’s assets, such as its printing presses and even Newspaper House in Cape Town).
What he does have is a group of 18 highly respected newspapers, from the Pretoria News and The Star, to the Cape Argus and the Cape Times. He has the fast-growing Isolezwe and the Cape tabloid the Daily Voice. Then there are the Saturday and Sunday Independents, and the Sunday Tribune, and a whole bunch of community newspapers too. All titles he calls “iconic” and in need of some TLC after the years under Irish rule.
“I acquire businesses to keep,” Survé says. “I seldom sell. That’s the difference between myself and the Irish.”
He’s a “technology junkie”, which means he understands convergence and the space where print and digital connect. “Of course technology requires investment,” he says. And points out that Independent is a private, not public, company. “I will be putting all surplus investment into technology,” Survé says.
On the fact that the newspaper environment is new to him, Survé laughs. “That’s what’s nice about my involvement in Independent. I’m not tainted by traditional thinking. I’m fresh. Looking from the outside in. That gives me a different perspective.” The subtext, of course, is that the print media industry needs change. Survé doesn’t mince his words. “We need to do things differently or kill the business. Necessity is the mother of invention.”
His analogy is to compare a child learning to walk with newspapers embracing the digital world. “It’s time to stop crawling and to walk tall,” he says, adding that he aims to “build a bridge for staff” to navigate the new terrain. “We must give new skills space to grow,” he says.
The journalist of the future, he believes, is one who is multi-faceted. One who can mine data, take photographs and write analytically for digital and print. “Technology is the game-changer,” Survé says. “Twitter gets the news first. But newspapers remain important. Why else would people like Warren Buffet and the Koch brothers invest in them?”
He says he reads breaking news on Twitter, but goes home to relax in his lounge and read the paper in a quiet space where he can “reflect on life”. That paper should be of high quality, should analyse the news and should be thoughtful and thought provoking.
Survé believes newspapers in the vernacular are a growth area. “Look at the success of Independent’s KwaZulu-Natal papers,” he says, citing the Isolezwe titles. And he’s convinced hyper-local newspapers will be very important in the near future. He says language is key, but not in a narrow cultural context. As levels of literacy rise, and income with it, newspapers and their digital counterparts will play an increasing role in South Africa.
With the controversial ‘secrecy bill’ being passed by the national assembly, and en route to President Jacob Zuma to sign into law, where does Survé stand on the Protection of State Information Bill? “I’m relaxed because it’s not an issue,” he says. “If you believe you can suppress information in the this technological age, then you are living with Alice in Wonderland.”
Survé says the world has changed, and that technology has empowered citizens. “As a newspaper proprietor, you’re given a lot of power. But look at Rupert Murdoch and what happened when he abused power. News can no longer be contained in one channel. Like democracy, social media is good for South Africa. Contending views, like flowers, must be left to bloom.”
On that subject, does he believe the ANC is under attack by the media? Survé has often been linked to the ruling party, not least because he was known as the “struggle doctor” for his medical work with victims of apartheid and former Robben Island prisoners.
“News must objective and fair, and that objectivity and fairness must be applied consistently,” he says, adding that this applies also to the economic status of citizens, be they billionaires or workers.
Survé says there is a perception that the ANC and the media should be hostile to one another, but that is an “archaic” way of looking at media relations. He does believe in “nation-building” though, and that newspapers should play a role in that ideal. “We should be growing our country, creating a better society. What’s wrong with using my connections to do that?”
Survé is a firm believer in dreaming big, not just on a personal level, but also for the country. “Dreams are good. They help achieve reality. I dream of a future South Africa where we’ve achieved our goals. I want Independent to be part of that dream.”
To make his dream a reality, Survé needed the go-ahead of the Competition Commission, and of course, the Irish, who, at an Extraordinary General Meeting of INMA, passed a motion to sell its South African arm to the Sekunjalo Independent Media consortium for R2 billion.
Survé kept his promise to reveal the funders in his consortium on 20 June, ending months of speculation in the media. Everyone knew the Sekunjalo Independent Media (SIM) consortium has 75% and the Government Employees Pension Fund, acting through the Public Investment Corporation, has 25%.
But who comprises the SIM? Well, they aren’t foreigners. Independent is back in South African hands with a major 63% share being held by trade union investment companies, including the Congress of South African Trade Union’s Kopano Ke Matlaka; the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union investment group; and the Food & Allied Workers Union represented by Basebenzi Investments. Another 10% of the shares were set aside for Independent employees.
Glenda Daniels, a senior lecturer at Wits Journalism, heading the State of the Newsroom Project, says it “all looks rather innocuous”, with a wide variety of shareholders. She welcomed the presence of unions in SIM, and the 10% staff stake. “I guess the hoohah occurred because media commentators are either just suspicious by nature, or jealously guard media freedom. And perhaps some of Survé’s comments raised eyebrows, such as what he said about the development and nation building role of the media. The media can do this, but it has to keep its eye on the main ball, the watchdog role, and not be sidetracked by the tangents. I hope the drama will die down and we celebrate local ownership,” she says.
The remaining 37% is made up of a number of “broad-based value adding partners”, including women’s business community organisations, the Black Business Chamber in the Western Cape, the Mvezo Development Trust represented by Nelson Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela and the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Association. Survé has also included Sekunjalo Digital Media, which will drive the digital and mobile growth strategy, and Western Cape Development Trust that will give bursaries to journalists from black communities.
Finally, some “prominent entrepreneurs and business people” such as Sandile Zungu, and media and advertising personalities Tim Modise and Groovin Nchabeleng from Blue Print Group have a share too.
Daniels warns, “Local ownership isn’t necessarily better than foreign ownership. Having said that, this particular Irish foreign ownership meant nothing positive for us (except there was no political and editorial interference). On the contrary it used profits made here to boost its failing UK publications. So now, with caution, we should celebrate local ownership but the proof will be with time. Give SIM the benefit of the doubt.”