President Jacob Zuma is expected to respond to the public protector’s damning report on Nkandla today. The media has been accused of playing no small role in the scandal by the president’s party and its supporters. Most recently, a trade union spokesman lambasted the “capital” owned media for daring to report on corruption within the ANC-led government. The Nehawu man said the Nkandla upgrades were a “necessary investment” and that there was “an agenda set by the media, owned by capital, to come down on the ANC”. Ed Herbst looks at how the media covered one of the biggest scandals ever in South African – and global – politics.
“Our unprecedented path-breaking coverage is unrivalled (sic) in its depth and breadth,” ANN7 editor in-chief Moegsien Williams said, announcing details of the network’s plan. “As historic as the elections,(sic) our coverage is a paradigm shift in South Africa.”
“The thing about corruption under the ANC is that it has become routine. The finance minister can talk until he is blue in the face about cutting down wasteful state expenditure, but this does not stop his colleagues from placing advertisements funded by taxpayers in virtually every issue of their favoured newspaper.” John Kane-Berman “ANC corruption is systemic, unlike Nats’ incidental version” Business Day 24/3/2014
Until 19 March, the day the public protector released her final report on the Nkandla excrescence, I had never watched the Gupta-owned ANN7 television news channel neither had I participated in the incredulous schadenfreude which greeted its blooper-filled launch.
If you have ever experienced the tension and fear of… “Crossing to you in five – four, three, two, one – you’re live” and your mind goes blank, your throat constricts and your heart thuds in your chest as you realise that you are making a fool of yourself in front of millions of people, then you derive no pleasure in watching others experience that psychic trauma. In theatre parlance it’s known as “corpsing” and while I have never had it happen to me – there but for the grace of God go I – I have seen it happen to colleagues at the SABC and I did not want to relive such moments.
On 19 March, purely for research purposes, I watched ANN7 and it was a profoundly depressing experience that I will not repeat.
It was a programme called ‘SA decides – your vote, your future’.
This was a panel discussion on the Nkandla report and it was top heavy with ANN7 senior executives all desperate to find and trumpet whatever mitigating circumstances could be found in the report to exculpate the political capo dei capi of their organisation.
The programme kept crossing live to an increasingly mournful reporter in Nkandla who with increasing resignation was required to continually repeat her hearsay mantra – that the people living there did not object to the hundreds of millions of rands the ANC-led government splurged on President Jacob Zuma’s firepool-equipped, bucolic country retreat. (The Nkandla residents interviewed by eNCA’s Karyn Maughan, including a priest, had not been given the same hymnbook but, whatever.)
The anchor, a woman, repeatedly emphasised that nowhere in the reports had the public protector used the word ‘corruption’ and one of the ANN7 executives on the panel, attempting to turn belligerent defence into belligerent attack, referred to the investigation into alleged corruption in the DA-controlled Midvaal municipality. This was extraordinarily disingenuous because the Special Investigation Unit allegedly started appraising alleged irregularities there three years ago and that alleged investigation has produced no tangible evidence of corruption.
Asked to wrap up at the conclusion of the programme Moegsien Williams’ triumphant summary was that Nkandla would not stop the ANC winning a significant majority in the coming election. He seemed unaware of the frightening irony of his statement.
This attitude was reflected in The New Age editorial the next day, an editorial which was utterly at odds with those in competing newspapers
It did not mention Zuma by name, rather focusing on the public works department and its minister, Thulas Nxesi, and placing the blame squarely on this department and the concomitant ANC private sector tenderpreneurs saying that it was “time to halt collusion”.
“Mistakes made by the department of public works must be examined…
“One must also call into question the roles of key staff in the presidency. Surely they are there to ensure that the integrity of the president is not compromised by under-performing ministries who seem to have no idea of what is happening in their own departments?
“Nkandla has presented us with a lens through which we can see a broader picture of what needs to fixed urgently,” the newspaper concluded.
I interviewed Williams for SABC TV news when he returned to Cape Town from Johannesburg as editor of the Cape Times in 1995. At the time the local news gathering and disseminating community was elated. We are elated no longer because he was a very different person then.
That much was revealed in a paragraph in Douglas Foster’s outstanding book ‘After Mandela – the struggle for freedom in post-apartheid South Africa’. (W W Norton, 2012)
“Like most of his colleagues, Williams was unashamedly pro-ANC and an ardent pro-Mbeki partisan. He considered Aids and Zimbabwe ‘blind spots’ of the president in an otherwise admirable record. Jacob Zuma, on the other hand, he thought of as a throwback and an embarrassment.” P82.
Williams has clearly had a Damascene conversion on Zuma which is just as well for him because today the grasping Guptas would consider such statements as seditious and he would be relieved of his well-remunerated job in a heartbeat if he were to repeat such sentiments about him. Now, he is presumably saying that just as Aids and Zimbabwe were Mbeki’s “blind spots”, the same criterion must be applied to President Jacob Zuma over Nkandla.
While one expects the oleaginous obeisance of someone like Williams, what one did not expect was the absence of a leader on Nkandla in the Cape Times on Thursday, 20 March, the day after the Madonsela media briefing.
An editorial is where a newspaper nails its colours to the mast. It is the Fourth Estate’s equivalent of Martin Luther nailing to the church door at Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 his 95 Theses accusing the Roman Catholic Church of corruption.
In times of sovereign danger or great political turmoil a newspaper publishes its editorial on the front page – it is the ultimate expression of concern.
On 20 March, Beeld placed its editorial on the front page to express the nation-wide distress over what Nkandla says about a political party revered by the international community when Nelson Mandela was president but which is now being referred to as a “rogue democracy”.
Two people who clearly agree with Beeld but would differ profoundly with Moegsien Williams’ sanguine dismissal of the Nkandla report and the Cape Times decision to not carry an editorial on Nkandla because Iqbal Survé, Karima Brown and Mde did not consider it to be of any import or moment are academic and former ANC cadre Professor Raymond Suttner…
“The Nkandla scandal is more than a huge fraud. It is a crisis of democracy and epitomises a wider series of crises, (including the question of violence and broader governance crises). What is the weight of our constitution if we cannot hold Zuma and the many other mini-Zumas, proto-Number ones accountable?”
…and Allister Sparks…
“Nkandlagate is about personal greed and moral shamelessness. It is about looting public money so that one man and his family can live in extravagant opulence for the rest of their lives — amid some of his people’s most abject poverty.”
If the Cape Times was right to not carry a leader on Nkandla on 20 March and if Williams was speaking from a position of moral rectitude when he airily dismissed the Nkandla report in what his sees as the bigger, more important and more desirable goal – returning the ANC to power with an overwhelming majority so that, inevitably, the looting can continue – then clearly Suttner and Sparks are deluded.
But they are not alone in their “delusion”
- Rhodes academic Richard Pithouse said Zuma’s name will go down in history as the name of the moment when it became clear that the ANC was rotten. “His name will go down in history with Marikana and Nkandla.”
- ANC stalwarts like former President Thabo Mbeki, Trevor Manuel, Ronnie Kasrils, Pallo Jordan, Tokyo Sexwale and Marion Sparg are all expressing concerns not only about Zuma ’s manifest corruption while the poor starve and go without access to clean water, adequate medicine and schooling but also about the damage he is doing, as Pithouse suggested, to Brand ANC and Brand Mandela.
But that somewhat narrow vision does not detract from the newsworthiness of the Nkandla report or for the damage to the Brand Fourth Estate when people like Brown and Mde seek to ameliorate the ANC’s wickedness by not carrying an editorial on the Nkandla report in a once honest and honourable newspaper.
We should have seen this coming – they trumpeted their allegiance to Zuma well before their obvious talents were recognised and they were head hunted by Survé. Their stirring panegyric in praise of Zuma’s inspired leadership – written at a time when the Nkandla scandal had been in the public arena for more than two years – deserves to be re-read.
They can dismiss the importance of Nkandla just as they exultantly welcomed the dismissal of Alide Dasnois because they know that Survé’s business model – as John Kane-Berman points out in the second quote which anchors this article – is immune to the loss of readers or advertisers because the ANC will make up for those losses using taxpayers’ money.
But, do not despair – in a sea of dross there are ever more fleeting but still bright moments.
As I started working on this article the news broke that Janet Heard, the Cape Times head of news had resigned and would be setting up a parliamentary team for a large media group. History, sadly but predictably, repeats itself. Her father, Tony, effectively terminated his career as the editor of the newspaper during the apartheid era when principle drove him to publish and important speech by Oliver Tambo when Tambo was a banned person. His daughter effectively terminated her career with the same newspaper in the Zuma era when she wrote an article defending – as if it needed defending – the Cape Times tribute to Nelson Mandela which Time magazine voted one of the best in the world.
She leaves with her head held high. In the eight years that she worked in Newspaper House – with a year’s intermission in America as a Nieman fellow – she served the newspaper and, in that context, the people of the province with distinction.
She is another triumphant scalp in the war being waged against a “small but very privileged and racially definable minority”, Brown and Mde’s coy euphemism for whites.
The whites who can leave do so – Chris Whitfield, Ann Crotty, and now Janet Heard. Others, like Donwald Pressly, are suspended or, like labour columnist Terry Bell have their services terminated and, in a triumphant coup for Luthuli House, he has been replaced by SACP ideologue Jeremy Cronin.
Snuki Zikalala and Christine Qunta, who never disguised their antipathy to whites, must be delighted at the way that the purge at Auckland Park and the Sea Point news office of the state broadcaster is now being replicated at the ‘Independent’ Group.
But is it not part of a bigger and darker picture as the ANC promulgates ever more repressive legislation to prevent the country’s racial and ethnic minorities, on the basis of race and ethnicity, from reaching the goals in life which they would otherwise have achieved on merit?
I leave the best for last. One of the finest of our post ’94 journalists, Moshoeshoe Monare, decided that he did not want to be part of the white-free team that – to the distress of Trevor Manuel but to the deafening applause of Wesley Douglas and the Media Mata Hari on her skyscraper red stilettos – Karima Brown and Vukani Mde are building at Independent Newspapers.
He joined the Mail & Guardian at the beginning of March.
There is thus hope – perhaps the dream of a racially inclusive South Africa that Nelson Mandela spent a lifetime trying to achieve has yet to be extinguished.