“We often think our legacy will be our achievements. But often our legacy will be whether we set a moral standard.” ~ CNN’s Jake Tapper speaking at the University of Massachusetts graduation ceremony 11/5/2018
Lies and falsehoods often have dire political consequences. Those who know the truth should have the courage to speak up. ~ Barney Mthombothi Sunday Times 13/5/2018
From May 2013 journalists started questioning the wisdom of the Public Investment Corporation investing a billion rand in civil servant pension fund money in a dying industry – the so-called ‘Print Apocalypse‘ – through its soft loan which allowed ANC-acolyte, Dr Iqbal Survé, to gain control of the largest group of English newspapers in the country.
Thereafter he alleged, without providing the slightest proof, that the CIA was funding the Mail & Guardian and went on to make the unsubstantiated claim that Alec Hogg’s Biznews website was the local equivalent of Bell Pottinger and controlled by Naspers.
Fast forward to April 2018 and Survé, with his penchant for hyperbole, has another description for Ann Crotty and Sam Sole and Tim Cohen who have had the temerity, the outright audacity, to raise questions about his attempt to list the ‘Sagarmatha Intergalactic Highway African Unicorn‘ on the JSE. Survé invoked Winnie Mandela to portray himself as a martyr and forced his newspaper editors to prominently carry articles defaming the three journalists as the modern-day equivalent of the ‘Stratcom’ impimpis. There is nothing unusual in such behaviour by him.
The ‘Stratcom’ journalists, it will be recalled, prostituted their profession and betrayed their colleagues by linking with apartheid-era security police.
SANEF described this attempt to smear Cohen, Crotty and Sole as a “sad day” for South African journalism:
The orchestrated way in which all the group’s newspapers published this defamatory piece today shows something else at play, which purpose cannot be to serve the public. SANEF will urgently engage our members at Independent Media to convey our deep concern about this unfair episode and gain a better understanding of the issues at play that are seemingly not serving journalism.
SANEF stands in solidarity with editors and journalists within the Independent Group who value editorial independence but are seemingly powerless to stop these stories.
The articles were published sans by-lines indicating that nobody wanted to take responsibility for their shameful content and no proof was provided of Cohen and Sole and Crotty liaising with the likes of Arthur Fraser and Richard Mdluli and Berning Ntlemeza to become the contemporary equivalents of the Stratcom journalists of yore.
To be sure there were journalists in the time of John Vorster and PW Botha who, for ideological reasons or monetary reward or both, were happy to pass on information to the police or the military.
It is somewhat different now with journalists being misled – as the Sunday Times proved with its falsehoods against SARS officials and General Johan Booysen – by leaks from people seeking to access power or to retain it.
Iqbal Survé’s disgraceful attempt to besmirch the reputations of some of the country’s finest journalists took me back to something I experienced almost half a century ago.
I joined the Natal Mercury office in Pietermaritzburg in 1972 as a court and crime reporter and I quickly made contact with the late Leon Mellet, the newspaper’s crime reporter at the head office in Durban. He was a handsome, swashbuckling man who was the hero in in one of the photographic comics which were popular at the time.
He was delighted to find that I spoke fluent Afrikaans, something that played out a few months after I joined the newspaper.
One day when I was alone in the office the secretary announced that there was someone to see me, a man dressed in the brown suit, bright orange shirt and Grasshopper shoes which was the ubiquitous uniform of plainclothes detectives at the time.
“Veiligheid polisie – Leon Mellet het my gestuur,” he said, flashing a card. (“Security Police – Leon Mellet sent me”.)
To say I got a fright was an understatement and I quickly suggested we go for a walk. In the street he told me that Mellet had recommended me to him because I was obviously “Goed gesind teenoor die volk” (Well disposed towards the Afrikaner). He asked if we could work together saying that, as a reporter, I had access to meetings where intelligence could be gathered about terrorist activities.
I asked for time to consider his offer and, overnight, came up with a counteroffer which I knew he was bound to refuse. I phoned the next day and said that should it become known that I was passing on information to the security police, the Natal Mercury would immediately dismiss me. As a safeguard I asked for a written guarantee that, should this occur, the police would offer me an equivalent position to the one I held at the newspaper with equivalent work and equivalent pay.
The counter-offer was duly declined but, ironically, I encountered him a week or so later while shopping in a local supermarket.
He did not greet me and scuttled away.
I was in a quandary and decided that my best option was to inform the editor, Jimmy McMillan, of what had happened. I did not mention the Mellet connection.
He laughed – but it was mirthless laugh – and he informed me that there was hardly a reporter in the Mercury newsroom that had not been approached by the security police.
I then phoned Mellet and bitterly berated him. It was a strained conversation and he said the security cop had ‘abused’ their friendship.
Mellet was later to feature in a lurid front page lead standing alongside a Mercury car which was full of bullet holes. According to article he had been following up a lead about terrorist safe houses in Swaziland when he was fired on. It later transpired that it was a concocted story and that he had fired the shots himself…
In due course he became law and order ministry spokesman with the rank of Brigadier. For much of this time he reported to Adriaan Vlok during whose tenure thousands of people were detained and more than a dozen anti-apartheid organisations were banned.
Abused their position
I joined the SABC in its Pretoria news office in 1977 and was interested to note in the book Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid, and Truth by Terry Bell and Dumisa Ntsebeza that they list two of my contemporaries at that time, the late Christo Kritzinger and Chris Olckers, as people who supported the National Party and used their position to promote it and cover up its abuses through censorship by omission.
Olckers does not deny his support for the National Party and subsequently, after a brief stint as SAPS spokesman, he was made head of one the country’s largest prisons – Baviaanspoort near Pretoria – with the rank of Brigadier. Not bad going for an ex-reporter with no previous career record in the organisation.
The account by Bell and Ntsebeza resonated with me because in his book Pale Native – Memories of a Renegade Reporter, Max du Preez provides what I regard as conclusive proof that Kritzinger, as head of SABC television news, liaised closely with National Party government departments:
I had met Kritzinger in 1977 at a press junket the SADF had organised to coincide with big military exercises they were conducting in the Northern Cape. Late that evening, bored with the macho talk that military correspondents and soldiers like to engage in over copious amounts of liquor, I wandered off. I wasn’t all that interested in military hardware, but a huge thing under canvas attract my attention. I lifted a corner of the canvas and saw a cannon the size of which I had never seen.
The next morning two military policemen took me by the arm and marched me to the commanding officer. Kritzinger had seen me looking at the new weapon and reported me to the commanding officer. I pretended to be a bit drunk, and said I had been looking for a place to pee. I saw nothing, I told the commander.
The weapon was one of the earliest models of South Africa’s G5 howitzer, developed secretly with the help of Israel after the SADF had struggled with the Russia-made artillery in Angola which had a much longer range. It was developed into a formidable weapon, and South Africa is still selling it on the international market today.
Kritzinger clearly knew all about the secret weapon and when he saw a fellow journalist, one whose loyalties were suspect peeking at it, he thought it a dangerous security breach. That’s what Kritzinger and many of his colleagues at the SABC were like – right in the heart on the National Party and its security forces.
There can be no justification in comparing Tim Cohen, Ann Crotty and Sam Sole to people like Leon Mellet and Christo Kritzinger and Survé is unable to present evidence of these three journalists collaborating with the government of the day or its security forces because none exists. In making the Stratcom journalist analogy, Survé was clearly seeking to distract attention from the manifest shortcomings in the Sagarmatha proposal.
Of course, government agents don’t rely solely on recruiting journalists to influence the national narrative or sway public opinion and carefully orchestrated leaks play a significant role in their propaganda campaigns – something which is now more common under the ANC than it was under the National Party – anything the Nats could do, the ANC can do better.
The Boesak story
One of the most significant dirty tricks leak campaigns of the National Party era involved the cleric, Alan Boesak, who was a thorn in apartheid’s side. The security police who were closely monitoring his movements quickly realised that he was breaking his marriage vows with his married secretary, Di Scott. Recording devices were placed in the hotel rooms where these trysts occurred and the salacious sound tracks were delivered to all major newspapers. It was patently obvious that this was a subversive campaign by the National Party’s spooks.
This sordid state attempt to misuse newspapers for political gain is covered in detail in Chris Steyn-Barlow’s book Publish and be Damned – Two Decades of Scandal.
Fast forward to October 2014 and the Sunday Times launches an incendiary war on the Pravin Gordhan faction within SARS with shrieking headlines such as ‘Taxman’s rogue unit ran brothel’ and ‘SARS bugged Zuma’.
All of these fictions were based on malevolent leaks designed to benefit Tom Moyane who was fulfilling his Zuptoid brief to rid the organisation of those who had the temerity to believe that Jacob Zuma should pay income tax on his ill-gotten gains.
Prior to that the Sunday Times did its best to demonise a top-ranking policeman with impeccable career credentials, General Johan Booysen, in several articles – also based on malevolent leaks – with its ‘Cato Manor Death Squad’ series of front page leads.
This was another fake news story based on blatant lies that the Sunday Times happily fed its readers and it led to the book Blood on their Hands by Jessica Pitchford.
As I pointed out in my ‘Leak Wars’ article on this website, leaks for political or financial gain have become common under the ANC.
The editor of the Sunday Times at the time, Phylicia Oppelt, found herself in a compromised position. She later resigned to take up a post at the University of the Western Cape and the only journalist to come out of the fray with her professional integrity unsullied was Pearlie Joubert.
Anton Harber, in a Daily Maverick article, quotes Jacques Pauw on the immense reputational damage suffered by the Fourth Estate in South Africa by the Sunday Times fake news campaigns:
“The Sunday Times journalists have contributed greatly to ending the careers of dedicated civil servants and ultimately enable Tom Moyane to break the tax collector.”
Lots of people have been damaged by these practices, including journalists.
The war now being waged by Iqbal Survé against Ann Crotty, Tim Cohen and Sam Sole will not damage them, it will evoke only derision and contempt. As I pointed out, in a Cape Messenger article, he has cried wolf once too often.
Survé’s Stratcom attack is replete with irony.
Terry Bell was banned by the National Party government and went into exile for almost three decades. One of the first things that Iqbal Survé did when he gained control of the Indy newspapers was to ape the National Party and ban Terry Bell during a frenzied campaign against the white journalists working for him. Wesley Douglas published an article on Politicsweb which was headlined ‘The fight against white media begins today’ and to ensure there was no misunderstanding about the new anti-white corporate ethos, Karima Brown and Vukani Mde published an article in which white staff were overtly threatened. Bell’s column was cancelled despite Cosatu’s protests which were treated with contempt by Karima Brown.
(As an aside, Ellis Mnyandu was editor of Business Report in which Bell’s terminated column on labour matters was published. He left Survé’s employ in 2016 and was replaced by a fervent Survé imbongi, Adri Senekal de Wet.)
The sustainability of any business depends on its ability to build corporate loyalty and retain skilled staff through a positive and enabling workplace culture and environment.
Sekunjalo’s Independent Media, being devoid of such an ethos, continues, at an ever-increasing tempo, to lose high level news executives as its editors flee the discredited company and its owner’s draconian control.
This has become particularly evident at Newspaper House, home in Cape Town’s CBD to the Cape Times and Cape Argus.
*Weekend Argus (Sunday) editor Yunus Kemp recently joined a Cape Town PR company. Weekend Argus (Saturday) editor Chiara Carter is also scheduled to leave and will be joining the Daily Dispatch in East London as deputy editor.
Gasant Abarder is working out his notice in his current position as executive editor: new media at ANA Publishing, a magazine division of Independent Media. He will then join the communications department at the University of the Western Cape.
That’s three editors leaving Newspaper House in the space of a few weeks.
In the months prior to that, three of Survé’s most senior news executives, Karima Brown, Vukani Mde and Amy Musgrave left almost simultaneously and, thereafter so did Sunday Independent editor Steve Motale and Kevin Ritchie, regional executive editor, Gauteng.
This level of attrition is without precedent in the company’s 137-year history prior to the Sekunjalo takeover and nothing remotely like this has occurred a kilometre away at Die Burger.
Independent Media has been eviscerated of talent and expertise, of corporate memory and institutional knowledge on an almost incomprehensible scale. So cash-strapped is the company that the IOL website contains this startling acknowledgement:
IOL does not have the budget to pay for freelance articles. But if it is for free you can mail firstname.lastname@example.org and we take a look.
It is estimated Survé slashed the Indy workforce by more than 25% and it is worth remembering that this media catastrophe started with Dr Dan Matjila, CEO of the Public Investment Corporation. He, along with the ANC, is now seeking to block an attempt by the Democratic Alliance to bring about greater transparency in the way civil servant pension money is disbursed.
For the past few Sundays, Dewald van Rensburg of City Press has documented increasing evidence of corruption by the PIC leadership. There is growing concern about this which seems to be justified because although the PIC has assets of more than two trillion rand, even its website was down the last time I looked.
[*Note: Story corrected on 22.05 as Carter was editor of Weekend Argus Saturday edition and Yunus Kemp the Sunday edition.]