Being hornswoggled is a perpetual danger faced by South African journalists. This is an analysis of the conflicting claims on media leaks in the SARS war. At the weekend, City Press revealed that co-operative governance minister Pravin Gordhan has been summoned to testify this week at the disciplinary hearing of suspended SARS deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay. The panel at the hearing is headed by former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo, so the story broken by the Sunday Times in October last year becomes hotter by the day. In this article, as a case study of leaks to newspapers, Ed Herbst examines the role they played in the Tony Yengeni fraud conviction in March 2003.
Are there any parallels between the leaks to the Sunday Times in the Yengeni case and the leaks in the current SARS case and the much-disputed ‘Cato Manor police death squad” series of articles? Time will tell whether the Sunday Times was spun as its critics aver or whether it will be vindicated.
At the interface between politics and media, James Myburgh’s Politicsweb has become an imperative battleground in the struggle to occupy the political moral high ground.
On 23 April, an incendiary letter from Adrian Lackay, former parliamentary reporter for Beeld and more recently spokesman for the South African Revenue Service (SARS), was posted on Politicsweb. He had written the letter to Yunus Carrim, chairperson of the standing committee on Intelligence and Cornelia September, chairperson of the joint standing committee on tntelligence.
It was headlined, ‘SARS: This is the inside story’.
From a media analysis point of view the most interesting aspect was his claim that a series of sensational stories broken by the Sunday Times in October last year and subsequently on the ‘rogue unit’ at SARS were all based on leaks that were devoid of truth. The two most striking headlines were ‘Taxman’s rogue unit ran brothel’ and ‘SARS bugged Zuma’.
Lackay says, “To my knowledge none of these allegations or reports are true. All these articles were attributed to ‘insiders’ i.e. either existing ‘SARS officials’ or ‘former SARS officials’ and in one case an ‘intelligence official’. Once again, the Sunday Times was exclusively given access to documents that could only have been in the hands of few SARS officials. In many cases the documents handed to the Sunday Times contained unproven and untested allegations and were in raw format. Very few people would have had access to such information. To my knowledge SARS did not investigate these leaks in any manner or form as would normally been the case.
Comments by Arms Deal critic Richard Young beneath that posting sum up, better than I could, what seems to be an increasing public perception that investigative journalism in this country is losing credibility.
“Jeepers, what a cesspit.
“And what a shameful disgrace that the Sunday Times, M&G and Carte Blanche swallow the lies they are fed, hook line and sinker. What happened to finding out the truth in investigative journalism? It is ironic that this government wants to muzzle the media but is equally happy to use the media as their pawn to advance their evil agendas when it suits them. The top brass in politics and the security cluster complain bitterly when the Sunday Times digs up dirt on them, but they are happy to feed lies to the papers and leak fake stories if it suits their corrupt agendas.”
The Lackay letter relates to SARS investigations into various tax-related matters such as a dispute over R41 million in customs duties on ANC election T shirts manufactured in China in the run up to the May 2014 elections
At its most basic, Lackay’s letter alleges that the Sunday Times published leaked information which was not true without taking the necessary time nor the necessary trouble to establish the veracity of that information – which would imply a significant dereliction of duty and departure from ethical norms of news gathering and dissemination.
Journalists who have worked with Lackay for years regard him as a person of integrity.
In section 131 of the Report, headlined ‘Interaction between Mr van Loggerenberg and members of the media’ we read that Johann van Loggerenberg had, apparently without telling Lackay, done his own leaking to reporters.
131 We were told by all those we interviewed that Adrian Lackay, as the spokesperson for SARS was the only person who was authorised to communicate on behalf of SARS with the media.
132 Although there is ample evidence to show that Mr. Van Loggerenberg had communicated extensively with members of the media, Mr. Van Loggerenberg, in his affidavit to this panel, says nothing of such communication or possible relationships with members of the media. It was clear to us from our interviews, that Mr. Van Loggerenberg has a collegial relationship with Mr. Lackay and has worked closely with him in addressing media issues pertaining to Mr. Van Loggerenberg’s area of operation in SARS.
133 It is, however, also now known that Mr. Van Loggerenberg did not inform Mr. Lackay about some of the interactions he had with members of the media. In fact, in our interviews with Mr. Van Loggerenberg, he indicated to us that he was authorised to speak directly to the media by both Mr. Ravele and Mr. Pillay. Neither of these individuals confirmed such authorisation when asked.
This story still has many twists, turns and surprises in store before it has played itself out but it illustrates once again the toxic but necessary role that leaks to the media play in a society bedeviled by pervasive corruption. On the one hand you have whistle blowers taking enormous risks to expose corruption and wrongdoing and on the other you have people who use leaks to the media to protect and perpetuate political hegemony and the access to power and patronage which it provides.
The tale of Tony
A classic case study of the latter – involving the Sunday Times – was the tale of Tony Yengeni and his ‘discount’ Mercedes. It was written by one of the newspaper’s leading investigative reporters, Mzilikazi waAfrika, author of the riveting book, ‘Nothing left to steal’.
It will be recalled that the Yengeni brazenly and blatantly lied to the nation ( as he later acknowledged in court proceedings) taking out full page advertisements in four Sunday newspapers claiming that his Mercedes ML320 luxury 4X4 which was pimped to the max had been legally acquired. He said allegations that he had acquired the vehicle corruptly were “McCarthyist” and “racist” and part of a smear campaign. Only the latter part of the advertisement was true if R W Johnson is correct and if he is correct then the obvious question is: Who was trying to smear Yengeni and why?
The advertisements were prompted by wa Afrika’s front page lead in the Sunday Times on 25 March 2001. It was headlined ‘Tony Yengeni, the 4X4 and the R43 billion arms probe’ with further reports taking up much of two inside pages.
The ANC ensured that Yengeni spent only four months of his subsequent four-year sentence for fraud behind bars and he was accorded special treatment throughout that time but something about this rather sordid part of our history – and the media leaks that were Yengeni’s undoing – has always troubled me.
Thirty three people, most with links to the ANC and none of them poor, benefited from the Mercedes discounted to them by one of the companies that benefited from the Arms Deal, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS).
In fact the first beneficiary was the then head of the SANDF, Siphiwe Nyanda and who, according to newspaper reports, got not one but two Mercs discounted at 17 and 15 percent.
Later, billionaire Tokyo Sexwale issued a statement acknowledging that he was also one of the recipients of these discounted vehicles.
Yengeni got his Merc which retailed at the time for R349 950 for R182 563 – a 50% discount – but why was he, then, the only one to be relentlessly investigated by the Scorpions, prosecuted and sent to jail?
Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren seem to provide a clue in their book, ‘The Devil in the Detail – How the Arms Deal Changed Everything’ (Jonathan Ball, 2011): ‘Going into prison, Yengeni had been escorted by numerous ANC grandees, all of whom had rallied round after he had nailed his colours to the mast in announcing his support for Jacob Zuma in the race for the Presidency of the ANC’. (P316).
Could it be that of the almost three dozen ANC-linked people who got discounted Mercs from EADS, only Yengeni was shafted – precisely because he had abandoned the Mbeki faction for the Zuma faction prior to what was to become a bitter internecine struggle that had its denouement at Polokwane in 2007? R W Johnson certainly seems to think so. On page 520 of his book, ‘South Africa’s Brave New World – The Beloved Country since the end of Apartheid’ he unequivocally accuses the Scorpions and the NPA of selective leaks to the media to damage the reputation of people who President Thabo Mbeki apparently considered disloyal or a threat to his political control. (We had a foretaste of that vindictive paranoia in the April 2001 allegations on SABC by Steve Tshwete that Matthews Phosa, Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale were plotting the physical harm and political overthrow of President Mbeki. The Zuma faction manifests a similar paranoia witness constant allegations that a range of individuals and institutions ranging from the Public Protector to the Mail & Guardian are on the CIA payroll.)
The kicker is in the last few sentences: “There was now a growing list of ANC worthies with a grievance against the Scorpions and the NPA. Matthews Phosa had been the first target. In March 2001 a torrent of information had been leaked to the media by the Scorpions implicating Phosa in corruption while he was premier although no charges ever followed and the Scorpions never published their findings. Similar tactics were employed against two of the most prominent UDF leaders, Terror Lekota and Popo Molefe whom Mbeki saw as a threat. Police raided Molefe, then premier of the North West, claiming that he had molested his own daughter. No evidence was found but the Scorpions leaked the police docket to the media and suggested that new evidence had been found; none was ever produced and no charges laid but Molefe’s name was blackened. Meanwhile a Scorpions investigation of Lekota found that he had various business interests that he had not disclosed to Parliament. This was leaked to the media. Lekota had to apologise to Parliament, his reputation permanently damaged. Tony Yengeni, an early Mbeki favourite had the same experience. Having lost Mbeki’s favour, he found that the Scorpions had leaked to the media details of his bank accounts and the deal whereby he had purchased a Mercedes SUV at a large discount while head of the defence committee. Disgrace followed with a conviction for perjury for failing to disclose his interests to Parliament.”
In ‘Nothing left to Steal’, waAfrika openly acknowledges how he and the Sunday Times benefited from leaks on the Yengeni story but he does not speculate on who was responsible for them:
A number of traffic department records with details of Yengeni’s car had already arrived anonymously at the Sunday Times offices. As suggested, the Sunday Times approached the traffic department to seek the truth. (My emphasis) P131.
In the meantime, our team succeeded in obtaining a full history of the vehicle from DaimlerChrysler’s own computer system which showed that DASA had ordered it as a ‘staff’ car. The documents were delivered anonymously to the Sunday Times. (My emphasis) P132.
Logic tells you that the Yengeni leaks to the Sunday Times could well have come from within the Mbeki faction as Johnson asserts and as subsequent events proved. Ask Willie Hofmeyr – he’ll tell you.
The Wikipedia quote which anchors this article provides another possible clue because, by making the now-expendable Yengeni a scapegoat the Mbeki faction of the ANC was providing at least some response, however paltry, to the escalating Arms Deal scandal and countering the damaging testimony of credible people like Andrew Feinstein.
Venomous turf wars
The SARS ‘rogue unit’ story still has to play itself out and, given the venomous turf wars between the various factions within the ANC and its deployed proxies in other government departments such as the SAPS, the NPA, the NIA and various dysfunctional parastatals such as SAA and Eskom, nothing would come as a surprise anymore.
The Lackay letter is the second Sunday Times chapter in what will be a continuing skirmish as the ANC seeks to gain control of all the “levers of power” to realise its dream of the National Democratic Revolution. The first was its reporting on the alleged ‘Cato Manor police death squad’ and the role played by its commander, KwaZulu-Natal Hawks head Major General Johan Booysen.
Further information on the role of leaks to the Sunday Times in that story will be provided if Booysen’s intention to sue the state for R10.5-million in damages is realised. Gill Moodie has done an outstanding job on her Grubstreet website in analysing this dispute. As regards the SARS dispute, more information on the leaks will be provided when former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo starts his investigation later this week.
The Sunday Times is arguably the most influential newspaper in the country and its investigative team is its biggest asset. Its exposés over the years have significantly damaged the ANC’s reputation and image. The Lackay letter and the Cato Manor ‘death squad’ leak disputes might or might not be counter salvos but what is important is that the team continues its work.
The brothel question
A closing thought: I remember reading the Sunday Times article about the ‘rogue unit’ at SARS running a brothel with a sense of disquiet, in part because it made no sense to me. Using such a business as a means of honey trap intelligence gathering would seem to offer little measurable benefit but the risk of exposure would be huge. That story was carried on 9 November last year and no proof has been provided of the bordello’s existence – what its address was, why it only operated in Durban and not in other cities, who worked there, how many worked there, who its patrons were, how the employees were recruited, what they charged, whether they were local women or had come from abroad, whether they were registered with SWEAT, how the brothel managed to escape police raids and avoid the complaints of neighbours and, above all, whether it was tax compliant.
Surely the Sunday Times followed up this obvious angle and can provide such information? It is obligated to do so because its article implies an unconscionable exploitation of women by a state organisation which answers to a political party that claims to promote and protect the rights of women – particularly those who are the most vulnerable.
* Opinions expressed in posts published on The Media Online are not necessarily those of Wag the Dog Publishers or the editor but contribute to the diversity of voices in South Africa.
Want to continue this conversation on The Media Online platforms? Comment on Twitter @MediaTMO or on our Facebook page. Send us your suggestions, comments, contributions or tip-offs via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.