Was it right to publish the Ramaphosa emails?

No editor worth their salt likes to sit on juicy information. The basic (and correct) instinct of a journalist is to publish and be damned, never to hide something from one’s audience and always allow them make their own informed judgements.

But was is right for the Sunday Independent to publish Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s private emails? And did they do it in an appropriate way?

Editor Steve Motale

The Press Council and broadcasting codes of conduct enjoin us to “exercise care and consideration in matters involving private lives” but adds that this right to privacy might be overridden by the public interest.

So is it in the public interest to know whether a presidential candidate is faithful to his wife? Does it show hypocrisy or dishonesty? Or does it just cheapen our public debate, and shift our attention from more pressing issues in the leadership contest?

There is conflicting international practice. The French allow for their public figures’ lives to remain largely private, and their media have often known about presidential peccadilloes without feeling an obligation to publish it.

The more prurient Americans, however, have moved from largely ignoring it in the time of President John Kennedy, to rushing to print more recently when they could argue that it shows hypocrisy or dishonesty.

The British tabloids have been driven to publish whatever they can by populism and sales, rather than any ethical principle.

In South Africa, there has been a mixed history. The most un-Calvinist partying of apartheid foreign minister Pik Botha was well known to journalists, but there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” to stay away from it. (Like most such agreements, there were no gentlemen involved.)

On the other hand, the security police taped and leaked explicit recordings of political and religious leader Allan Boesak having an affair with a colleague. Many newspapers stayed away from a story tainted by its source, but The Star published it while making clear that it was part of a police dirty tricks campaign. They argued that the public should know when a religious leader was breaking the rules, and when the police were getting up to dirty tricks.

At the time, police had Stratcom, a unit dedicated to creating and spreading information – true and false – to undermine government opponents and critics. One has to wonder if there are elements doing this again.

In other ways, times have changed. Now information often spreads first on social media without the filter of editorial decision-making, and the traditional media is playing catch-up. Many editors would argue that they would be foolish to ignore what is already out in the open.

In the Ramaphosa case, editor Steve Motale says he had the information for some months before putting questions about it to Ramaphosa. These questions were leaked on social media and he came under “enormous pressure” to show that he could back his allegations.

Interestingly, in his defensive piece explaining his actions, “Here is the truth”, Motale does not argue the ethical case for publishing, but implies that he was forced to act because of the social media leak, dodging responsibility for his own decisions.

Since he has acknowledged working closely with the shady characters Kenny Kunene and Gayton McKenzie, it is likely that they, or others they were working with, leaked it to force Motale’s hand at a critical time in the presidential campaign.

Kunene is responsible for Weekly Xposé, one of the most notorious of the fake news sites which have emerged in recent months. It features headlines such as “My ten years of hell with Ramaphosa” and “How Ramaphosa Turned a Young Mother into a Personal Porn Star”.

This points to another factor at play here. Motale is closely identified with the camp of President Jacob Zuma and seems content to ally himself with that campaign and some of the shadiest figures around it. Motale was ousted from his previous post as editor of the Citizen after publishing an apology for criticising Zuma and a series of dubious stories that were being peddled by the Zuma camp.

It is not unusual for newspapers to adopt a viewpoint and for this to shape their coverage, but there is an increasing tendency to bend the rules of fair and accurate journalism in the interests of a political campaign.

South African media are increasingly in the hands of those who use it for such political ends, and the space is shrinking for independent, critical journalism which would place a higher premium on principles such as accuracy and balance.

Motale wrote his report with a heavy hand, with little attempt to disguise his views. “Ramaphosa, whose presidential campaign is modeled on moral and ethical leadership, appears not to practise what he preaches,” was his introduction, more opinion than fact.

From “documents linking him to at least eight women, many of whom he maintains financially”, he deduced that Ramaphosa “is allegedly using his wealth to prey on multiple women”.

Ramaphosa says he and his wife support these women’s university studies. Motale accuses him of being a “sugar daddy” or “blesser”. Hostile interpretation is layered upon the facts.

Most signifiant, though, is that Motale does not deal with how he acquired these emails. He may be obliged to protect individuals, but if they are elements of state security who have been abusing their office to influence the leadership battles – as Ramaphosa suggests – then Motale is not telling the whole story, and leaving out what may be the most important parts.

Sources for stories such as these are almost always tainted, but this does not necessarily invalidate the story that arises out of them. But if Motale knows that they come from the president’s office or from state security quarters, then he should feel obliged to tackle this – much bigger – story as well.

This is where the real significance of the story may lie: demonstrating how far some are prepared to go in this leadership battle. It does not auger well for the ANC’s December conference, but suggest that it is going to be dirtier and more destructive and divisive than ever.

It could take down the ANC. Let’s hope they don’t take down the media with it.

*First published on News24, September 13, 2017

How do we deal with fake news?

Are these leaked accusations about deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s marital infidelities true? Is this real or is it fake news? How does one even know who to believe?

Sifting fact from fiction is one of the biggest challenges facing society today.

Of course, fake news is not new. You may remember US President Richard Nixon saying: “I am not a crook”; President Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman”; and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s detailed evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. At home, the apartheid government’s Stratcom spread stories claiming Joe Slovo — rather than Pretoria’s own agents — killed his wife, Ruth First.

They were all spreading disinformation to mislead citizens for their own political purposes. Today, we call it “fake news”.

So what changed? Why did the Oxford Dictionary name “post-truth” its new word of the year last year?

A search of new books on Amazon reveals six titles about the subject, three of which have the word “bullshit” in the title. In one of them, Evan Davis tells us we are at “peak bullshit” — but this is the optimistic view: from a peak, we can only go down.

The phenomenon has spawned neologisms, such as bot (a robot that floods social media with messages), cyborg (the combination of a human brain and a bot to manipulate social media) and weaponising (turning social media into a political tool).

But if it’s been around for years, why is there such great concern about it now?

Well, for a start, US President Donald Trump has taken contempt for truth to a new level. For example, he claimed he had attracted the largest inauguration crowd, when the evidence showed the opposite. During his campaign, he also said US unemployment was about 40%, when it was closer to 5%.

When challenged on the size of the inaugural crowd, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said: “Don’t be so overly dramatic” — these were just “alternative facts”.

It’s not just spin — it’s paying no heed to truth at all.

In SA, we have recently seen a proliferation of fake news polluting the political atmosphere.

One false e-mail, accusing an insurance company of being racist, went viral — but it turned out it was just the work of a disgruntled customer.

Elsewhere, we’ve seen false claims against journalists — such as Huffington Post’s Ferial Haffajee and Tiso Blackstar group editor at large Peter Bruce — from a systematic, well-resourced and extensive campaign to discredit them.

While dirty tricks have long existed, the Internet and social media have made them far more powerful.

On the Internet, the absence of gatekeepers — the editors, subeditors and fact-checkers who filter and verify claims before they air in traditional media — allows for great freedom of speech. But the flip-side is that this includes the freedom to spread malicious, fraudulent and dangerous material.

A few decades ago, if there were an allegation that Ramaphosa had beaten his wife, it would not have gone out without the media calling the claim into question.

But social media enables instant dissemination without anyone checking the information.

A professional journalist who did this would be blackballed by his or her peers. But for social media trolls, there are seldom adverse consequences. Here, anonymity is critical: culprits hide their identities, safe in the knowledge that they can’t be held accountable.

Sometimes fake news is spread as a joke. An image of a shark on a Houston freeway during last week’s US floods turned out to be a manipulated photograph. But it was cited with horror on Talk Radio 702 and a US television station before they realised they were being conned.

But on other occasions, the consequences are worse. Nobody knows the extent to which fake news influenced Hillary Clinton’s denouement in the US election or the result of the Brexit referendum — but the fact that the (false) Brexit claim that the UK sends £350m/week to Europe is still being repeated is revealing.

However, the critical moment comes when the story reaches the mainstream media, with its supposed gatekeepers.

Sometimes, the media refutes the story and puts the record straight (as happened with the insurance company). But with Ramaphosa, one newspaper gave the story authenticity, even as most others treated it with scepticism and framed it as part of a dirty tricks smear campaign.

Of course, there are many other cases of traditional media giving credibility to manipulated information. Three years ago, for example, the Sunday Times carried stories of how a “rogue unit” in the SA Revenue Service ran a brothel and bugged the presidency. The paper later recanted, but it seems it had been taken in by one faction of a vicious internal dispute.

Today, there are two other dynamics at play.

First, elements of our traditional media have become highly partisan, actively supporting not just political parties but factions within them. This isn’t new: newspapers have often taken a political standpoint that shapes coverage. But the difference lies in the increased willingness of some to bend the rules of journalism: balance, fair play and accuracy.

For example, The New Age newspaper and its sister ANN7 television channel were created to serve the Gupta family. They have been relentless in propagating spurious allegations against the family’s opponents.

Second, the space for independent, critical journalism that cares more about accuracy, verification, balance and ethical practices is shrinking under financial and political pressure.

All SA’s newsrooms are less than half the size they were a decade ago. This means fewer filters and less fact-checking. The upshot is that at the very time that social media demands greater vigilance, most newsrooms have fewer resources to sift the real from the fake.

During the US campaign, when it looked as though Trump couldn’t win, he began talking about the election being rigged. “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said (using a stock phrase of those about to be dishonest), adding that he was hearing “more and more” about evidence of rigging.

On the other side of the country, according to the New York Times, a college student named Cameron Harris, newly graduated and in need of cash, sat down at his kitchen table with his laptop, and wrote a headline: “Breaking story: Tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse”.

Harris Photoshopped the label “Ballot boxes” onto a picture he’d found on the Internet (from another time and place), and posted them on his website, which was cynically named “Christian Times Newspaper” for his conservative mid-Western target audience.

He added the journalistic touches that made it feel authentic: the word “Breaking” in the headline; quotation marks to indicate it was a claim; and his last line promised that “this story is still developing and CTN will bring you more when we have it”.

Six million people saw it.

Why? For money. The traffic to the site earned him pay-per-click advertising revenue of up to $100,000 for this and other stories.

There’s another enlightening example from Veles, a small town of just 45,000 people in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

During the US election campaign, 140 websites were set up in Veles to publish aggressive pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives in the US. They sounded authentic: WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com and DonaldTrumpNews.co.

But when US website BuzzFeed investigated, it turned out they were all bogus.

The young Macedonians who ran these sites didn’t care about Trump. They were responding to straightforward economic incentives: an American Facebook user is more valuable than any other. Every time someone clicked on their site they earned money.

One such site, Ending the Fed, which didn’t list an owner, was responsible for four of the top 10 false election stories. It included fake stories on how Pope Francis endorsed Trump and how Clinton sold weapons to terror group Islamic State.

In SA, most fake news sites are not financially motivated. Rather, they appear to be part of a well-resourced campaign to shift the news agenda away from the #GuptaLeaks and to influence the ANC presidential race.

British firm Bell Pottinger, hired by the Guptas, was at the centre of this use of the “dark arts” of public relations to “weaponise” social media. But this week, the company was booted out of the UK’s Public Relations & Communications Association for “bringing the industry into disrepute”.

In SA, of course, we have something of a unique twist, as our fake news sometimes takes the form of dubious “intelligence reports”.

It was just such a report that President Jacob Zuma cited when he controversially fired finance minister Pravin Gordhan in March. The intelligence services distanced themselves from the document, but it raised questions about the role of rogue elements in disrupting our politics.

More recently, newspapers ran reports on “Project Wonder”, saying police minister Fikile Mbalula was the target of an intra-police life-and-death battle. Though the reports carried all the red flags of political manipulation, the origin or authenticity of that report is still unclear.

The real question is: what can be done? Bell Pottinger has been called to account by its peers and clients, but is this enough? After all, it does not deal with the youths of Veles, or the individual in his kitchen weaponising his laptop.

Fact-checking operations, which are springing up all over, are useful. Among these is Africa Check, which verifies claims made in the public arena.

Though some critics will use the “fake news” issue to call for government regulation of the Internet, this will meet resistance from those who (rightly) fear giving government a role in overseeing content.

An alternative would be for government to regulate only so far as to limit anonymity, or to put the onus on Internet service providers to maintain controls. However, this would only stretch as far as our borders, leaving those beyond government’s reach untouched.

But at this stage it is unclear whether it is enough to rely on individuals to be sceptical about what they read until it is verified, or to rely on the shrinking traditional media to fact-check claims.

Would it be a good idea to break up Naspers? Not so fast …

When Ton Vosloo tapped Koos Bekker to take over as CEO of the Naspers in 1996, Bekker said he would take no salary, no benefits, and a contract that would allow him to be dismissed without a golden handshake if he did not deliver.

But he wanted to be paid in shares.

Vosloo was generous in response, giving Bekker a big bundle of shares. Exactly how many is not known for the first five-year contract, because it was not then a JSE requirement to divulge it. But in his second five-year contract he received 11,6-million shares, about 3% of the company. If he sold this second lot as they were released, Bekker would have profited at as much as R1-billion per year. At today’s value, that 3% would be worth over R30-billion, and he had three five-year contracts as CEO before he became chair, each coming with a bundle of shares.

In a country where CEOs of major companies ogten, Bekker is in a league of his own.

No doubt, when he chose his successor, he needed to show some generosity. Bob van Dijk earned R63-m this year – nothing like what Bekker earned but still breathtakingly high. And at last week’s AMG, shareholders were questioning it.

The logic of Bekker’s pay deal was, of course, was that he was prepared to bet on the company and share the risk – getting nothing if he did not deliver as CEO. Bekker could do this because he had made a personal fortune already on the MTN launch.

Indeed, things looked bleak when the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, and the Naspers share dropped from just over R100 to R12 – well below its listing price of R19 seven years earlier. Bekker would have been out of pocket for his first five years of service if he took up and sold his shares then. In fact, he was lucky to keep his job. But nobody could have predicted that Bekker would take Naspers from that low point to where it is today, topping R3 000 per share last week. That’s a 250-fold growth, and a 50% growth in the share price in the last year alone.

The reason for this extraordinary boom has something to do with good management, a fair amount to do with Bekker’s willingness to take calculated risk, , but most of all it is the result of astounding good fortune.

After the 2001 crash, Naspers decided to pull out of most of its Chinese and other international interests, and wrote off many hundreds of millions in investment . As they were leaving Beijing, Bekker was approached by two young men who had started an internet operation called Tencent , which was already signing up users at a remarkable pace. Against the decision to withdraw, Bekker took a gamble on 49% of their company for R266-m.

Tencent today is worth $390-bn (over R5-trillion) and growing fast. Naspers has diluted to 33% of the company, but Tencent is still the major factor in the extraordinary growth of Naspers and how well it has done for its shareholders, especially Bekker.

Which is why shareholders are upset. They can’t complain that they haven’t made pots of money, more than they would have on any comparable investment over this period of time. But their shares still appear undervalued.

Their investment alone in Tencent is worth substantially more than the current Naspers market capitalisation of R1,3-trillion. This means that the Tencent share is undervalued, and the market is ascribing negative value to its many other, very substantial assets – like Media24, which is the giant of South Africa’s media industry, the huge cash-producing Multichoice/DSTV, Mail.RU in Russia, eMAG and dozens of others in 120 countries.

This makes Naspers a natural target for an asset-stripping break-up, which could release huge value. Just releasing the Tencent shares to Naspers shareholders would get them an additional $31-bn, and that is before you ascribe value to the other assets. Shareholders are restless.

Why should Van Dijk earn so much when all the value comes from Tencent, an investment which he does not even run, they argue? Why should he do so well when he is failing to get the value out of the other assets where he has greater control? If you strip out Tencent, then the balance of assets made a trading loss of over $200-mllion.

Van Dijk is the easy target for shareholders who are looking to realise what they see as the hidden value in the company. It is not that they are unhappy with his performance, but some are seeing a potential for more quick profits.

Greedy, you might, say, considering they have done so well from the company already.

It is also unrealistic, as Bekker has an iron grip on the company through an N-share structure, an anachronistic hold-over from the days when such control mechanisms were still allowed by the JSE.
The company’s N-shares have 1 000 votes each, as against one vote for ordinary shares. So the majority may have voted last week against the remuneration policy, but the policy will stand.

Since the days of apartheid, when Naspers was very much part of the Afrikaner nationalist project, National Party cabinet ministers sat on its board and its political editors attended closed National Party executive meetings, these shares were held by Sanlam, to keep them in the political family.
Seeing the value, another giant Afrikaner company, PSG, in 2008 quietly offered Sanlam a huge premium for the small number of controlling shares. Bekker and his close friend and long-term colleague Cobus Stofberg took fright at the prospect of a silent takeover, sold a bunch of their ordinary shares and bid even higher to take control. These shares hold 68% of the votes and how they are held is a dark secret.

Bekker argued that this was necessary to preserve the independence of a media operation which had shifted from being a friend of the apartheid government to a more independent critic of the democratic government. Also, the Chinese government – which keeps an iron grip on its media, and a cast iron grip on foreign investors – might not allow a foreign company to hold such a large chunk of a media operation unless control was clear and stable and to their liking.

Indeed, the prosperity of Naspers is dependent on its relationship with the Chinese government, not unlike its earlier relationship with the apartheid government. This might explain why when the previous Chinese premier visited South Africa, Bekker draped a massive banner welcoming him over Nasper’s prominent Cape Town building.

Should this relationship go sour, the company would fall apart.

Tight control, Bekker has argued, is a necessity. So is size in the global internet market and a steady, long-term view. It is their size that allows them to spend a over $1-billion (R13-billion) this year on development, up 8% from last year.

They list six companies in their portfolio as 3-5 years away from reaching their full potential, with five as “high-growth opportunities” and a couple that will take five or more years, indicating that they see significant value coming in time from a number of their other assets. Shareholders might get a quick profit if they broke up the company now, but then what?

That is why he dismissed the agitators so firmly and abruptly at last week’s AGM.

Interestingly, Nasper’s apartheid past (when it was known as Nasional Pers) is also coming back to haunt it. Vosloo has always portrayed himself and Naspers as key drivers of reform in the National Party and early supporters of negotiations in the 1980s. He refused to go before the Truth Commission to account for Nasper’s role in apartheid, and was livid when a large group of his staff did so and expressed regret for the role the group had played in failing properly to report on the horrors of that period.

How embarrasing then when details recently emerged of company donations to the National Party through the 1980s, including warm letters of appreciation from Vosloo to Presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk. These were published recently in Daily Maverick and Hennnie van Vuuren’s book, Apartheid Guns and Money.
As late as August 1989, Vosloo was writing to the National Party leadership promising a substantial donation, pledging Nasper’s wholesale support and describing their newspaper Beeld as “your ally” which would help the party “wipe out” the opposition.

This is particularly relevant as there has long been speculation over the deal that gave Naspers control of MNet (now Multichoice and DSTV) during that period. Faced with over 100 applicants for the pay-TV licence in 1982, the government handed it to a consortium of newspaper companies led by Naspers. That pay-back saved a struggling Naspers and put it on its path of extraordinary growth since then. It was a mutually beneficial deal: the government gave Naspers control of the pay-TV monopoly and in return got the group’s political support at a critical time when it was shoring itself up against local and international pressure.

The real surprise was that this monopoly was preserved into the democratic era, giving Media24, the local media operation, the foundation to become the giant of the South African media sector, with the lion’s share of the newspaper, magazine, book and internet industries.

Would it be a good thing for shareholders to break up this operation and realise the full value in it? This might allow for greater diversity and the transformation of our media industry which many are agitating for. But, at a time when the sector is under dire financial pressure (Media24 had a 3% drop in revenue last year and a 34% drop in trading profit) , it would remove the protection the international group offers to its local operation. Would their newspapers, which have been shedding readership and revenue along with all the others, survive long without this big brother? Does this cover allow it to see through the difficult period until the shift to the internet starts to work, and new business models revive the news operation?

Ironically, some of Media24’s operations have become important carriers of critical, independent journalism, publishing and broadcasting – so breaking up the giant might have short-term, quick-profit benefits for shareholders, but uncertain results for the country and its media industry.

*Harber holds a small number of Naspers shares (which might tell you which way he thinks the wind is blowing). This article first appeared in Business Day.

When Cyril met Harry: two men, two intertwined lives, two very different times

Business Day last week used a photograph from its archives of Cyril Ramaphosa and Harry oppenheimer deep in conversation in 1986. Behind this picture, lies an unexpected story …

The two men are sitting close together, their eyes meeting, both smiling openly, their hands almost touching. You might think that warmth and friendship flows between these two giants of South African history in this picture of their first face-to-face encounter in June, 1986.

You could not be further from the truth. If there ever was evidence that a genuine, un-Photoshopped picture can tell a lie, this is it. The story behind it, though, is a complicated one that tells a great deal about these two men, and their role in how this country has unfolded in the 30 years since then.


On the left is an ageing white man, Harry Oppenheimer, the epitome of mining capital in the apartheid era in which this photograph was taken, and head of a sprawling family dynasty which at its height owned over 60% of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange assets. He is impeccably dressed, as always, balding, hair slicked back, in a suit and tie, a dignified 76-year-old elder statesman of liberal capital.

On his right, in a casual jacket, open-necked shirt and corduroy trousers is a 36-year-old Cyril Ramaphosa, with shaggy beard looking every bit the fiery young revolutionary. He was the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers and a rising voice in the trade union and resistance movement.

They had come together for the first anniversary celebration of The Weekly Mail newspaper (now the Mail & Guardian). So surprised were we that this penniless, “alternative” newspaper had survived one of the most conflict-ridden years of that period – with an uprising in most of the townships, state of emergencies with serious media restrictions and near-warfare on the factory floors – that a major celebration was in order.

We wanted to do something rare and constructive: show that two very different men in the middle of the toughest political battles of the time could share a platform and show appreciation for the role of the media, even a noisy upstart like The Weekly Mail. This was long before the ANC met a business delegation; it was a time when the business-trade union relationship was deeply hostile.

Oppenheimer had been one of many individuals who had made a modest contribution of R5 000 when we started the newspaper. Our purpose as an “alternative” newspaper was to give the kind of coverage to the likes of Ramaphosa and his union that much of the mainstream media did not, which meant that we had a good working relationship with him. You could say that the paper might not have existed or survived if it was not for these two men and what they represented.

But it was not easy to get the two to agree to speak from the same platform. It was a tough year on the mines, marked by repeated strikes, conflict and death. In January strikes on mines had led to the deaths of at least two policemen and 16 mineworkers; in November/ December as many as 47 were to die in a number of mine clashes. At the time of our meeting, NUM was demanding a 30% increase, the Chamber of Mines was offering 12% and strike ballots were being called. That same week, clashes between NUM and a rival union left 11 dead. It was the year of the Kinross mine disaster, claiming 177 lives and leading to one of the biggest ever stayaways. Workers were also to strike because of the detention of NUM leaders. Could they put all of this aside for the evening?

The two men were on opposite sides of a brutal war for control of the mines, but their lives were interlocked, as were their futures. Oppenheimer had been a pioneer in accepting trade unionism in his compounds and entering negotiations, while Ramaphosa had used this opening to forge a socialist trade union that was making its mark on the country’s biggest private sector employer after only four years. Both anticipated political change, but they were poles apart in how that would be achieved and what kind of society would emerge.

Oppenheimer was a liberal of the distinctly South African kind. He supported a free market and opposed apartheid, was a great philanthropist and supporter of the white parliamentary opposition, but operated a business that benefited fundamentally from cheap migrant labour and lived a life of extraordinary racial and class privilege. He sought change, but opposed the sanctions, boycotts and armed struggle of the liberation movement.

Ramaphosa was a fiercely outspoken activist at the head of a militant union that was confronting the most powerful state and corporate interests. He lived on the edge, risking his freedom and safety every day, to ensure the downfall of everything that Oppenheimer represented and its replacement with a socialist order.

Before this night, they had never met each other.

Ramaphosa was the first to accept our invitation, sensing an opportunity. It took many complicated conversations with Oppenheimer’s executive assistant, Patrick Esnouf, to secure his attendance. For Oppenheimer, the risk was greater, and it would take a bold heart to do it. Fortunately, Esnouf liked the idea and assured us he was working hard to make it happen.

They arrived at the Market Theatre at roughly the same time and I introduced them to each other on the steps leading up to the main theatre. They sat down on plastic seats in front of an unexpectedly large crowd, and Oppenheimer turned to talk to his counterpart. This was when the picture was taken.

We had asked each of them to say a few words about freedom of the media in those difficult times. But the ever-shrewd Ramaphosa had other ideas. His speech was a fierce and rousing denunciation of the mining bosses, the conditions of mineworkers and the political situation, delivered in the Marxist language and with the rhetorical flourishes of the trade union movement.

In the audience was a phallanx of mineworkers and union officials, who cheered, sang anti-capitalist songs and took charge of the floor.

I was in the chair and very worried about how we would contain this confrontation and protect our guests. Oppenheimer looked increasingly uncomfortable. When he got to his feet, he had to deal with aggressive chanting, singing and dancing – until Ramaphosa signalled to his followers to let Oppenheimer speak.

The message was clear: Oppenheimer might have unparalleled corporate, social and economic power, but Ramaphosa commanded a mass following that was ready to demand power. The tide was turning, and a new generation with a different language, dress, attitude and ideology was seizing the stage.

Oppenheimer, a veteran of 10 years of raucous debate in parliament, where he had sat on the opposition benches, responded with applomb. “We have just listened to a long and impassioned speech from Mr Ramaphosa, made more impassioned by the absence of fact,” he said.

He apologised that he had not expected to have to deal with the topics raised, but said strong words about the situation in the country, the states of emergency and media freedom.

Ramaphosa, having made his point, led his men home. Oppenheimer withdrew more quietly. What we had seen were two men who had the graciousness and charm to engage with each other (as shown by the picture); the leadership to confront each other (not shown); and – above all – a smart pragmatism.

At midnight that night the government declared a new national state of emergency. A number of activists evaded arrest because they were still at the party.

Footnote: Oppenheimer’s assistant, Esnouf, was packed off to South America soon afterwards. I was told exile was his reward for talking his boss into taking part in the event, but he says that although he feared losing his job, Oppenheimer “was his usual gracious self and very forgiving”. Since Esnouf rose to be chair of Anglo American in South America, he recovered.
Before he died in 2000, Oppenheimer oversaw the sale of a significant chunk of his industrial empire to a black empowerment consortium, in which Ramaphosa played a leading part.
Ramaphosa, of course, used the charm and pragmatism we saw that night to lead the constitutional negotiations, enter and succeed in business and then return to politics.

*This article first appeared in Business Day

A golden era for investigative journalism? Or a last hoorah?

Hennie Serfontein died last week isolated and forgotten.

That a leading investigative journalist of the 1960s-1980s should end his life this way was a reminder of the vulnerability and lack of recognition of our bravest muckrakers.

Serfontein took over the expose of the Afrikaner Broederbond after the journalist who broke the story in the Sunday Times, Charles Bloomberg, fled the country in 1963. Bloomberg died a few years ago, also unrecognised and in near-poverty.

Week after week for over a decade, these two produced front page coverage of one of the most important stories of the day: the role the secretive Broederbond was playing in the apartheid government and how key appointments and decisions were being made by this covert organisation. Interestingly, their work was based on masses of documents which originated from a whistleblower, whose motivation and credibility was questioned in the same way that the source of the current #Guptaleaks documents is being doubted by those who don’t like what we are learning from the leaks. It emerged later that the Broederbond documents originated with Beyers Naude, now considered a national hero.

Serfontein’s exposes were stopped when Tertius Myburgh took over the Sunday Times editorship, leaving Serfontein frustrated and embittered. But his work
continued for many years. He was the first person to report in the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) in 1989 that the government had been in secret discussion with Nelson Mandela while he was in Pollsmoor Prison for more than two years. It is worth remembering that Thabo Mbeki stood up in New York and, with a straight face, denied the story and denounced the newspaper for falling for “government propaganda”.

Now we are in a new era in which our investigative reporters are again at the fore of exposing corruption and state capture – and are being targetted both politically and physically. And it comes at a time of decreasing space and resources for this kind of expensive and time-consuming work.

A few years ago, handing out the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Reporting, I commented that we had received a large pool of world-class entries and it was notable that there were at least four top-class investigative teams at our major media outlets. They had been responsible for exposing the Nkandla story, ousting two successive commissioners of police, one of whom went to jail, and jailing a prominent MP, Tony Yengeni, to cite just a few of their triumphs. It was something of a golden era for muckraking.

Within a few years, though, with the newspapers facing collapsing circulating and revenue, most of these teams had been dismantled or dispersed, and the prospects for this kind of reporting looked bleak. We began to see more factional, tendentious reporting based largely on different elements of the state and ruling party leaking dubious material about their intra-party rivals. This peaked with the dubious SARS rogue unit story, which the Sunday Times later retracted and apologised for.

#Guptaleaks have revived the field of investigative reporting and highlighted what a critical role it plays in our democracy. At a time when many of our institutions of accountability – the Hawks, the NPA, the Public Protector’s Office, the SABC – have been rendered ineffectual and others – such as Parliament and the Judiciary – are under pressure to fall in line, our private sector media institutions are more important than ever in sustaining a democracy under attack.

It is significant that the #Guptaleaks hard drive, containing some 200 000 of the most revealing emails, came first to the small, somewhat fringe, but feisty, online operation, Daily Maverick (DM).

DM didn’t have the staff to deal with it, so they pulled in Amabhungane, the independent investigative journalism unit that originated in, and a few years ago broke away from, the Mail & Guardian. The formidable team of AmaB, as they are known, were working on the material, raising money to move their team and the source to safety out of the country, when someone became impatient with the two-month delay and took it to the Sunday Times on the eve of the ANC’s crucial NEC meeting. Some say AmaB/DM were too slow, but they say there were doing what journalists have to do: verify and secure the source.

The Times group (which has just changed their name to Tiso Blackstar) has now put together a war-room to tap the full potential of the document dump, and DM/AmaB have teamed up – unusually for the cutthroat competitive world of journalism – with mainstream outlet News24, leading to a regular flow of powerful stories. The Mail & Guardian, long the bastion of such reporting, sits on the sidelines, as does the Gupta media (New Age and ANN7) and the Independent group, both compromised by their owners’ closeness to the Zuma government. The SABC should be the medium that takes this story to a mass audience, but, financial and politically bankrupt and without effective leadership, it is struggling to find its voice again.

Fortunately, the existence of the internet and an independent body such as AmaB ensures that no editor can kill the story completely, the way Myburgh did with Serfontein’s story.

But can this new surge of investigative reporting be sustained? What future is there when the media is under such financial and political pressure, and when ruling party allies have a tightening hold on a growing number of media institutions?

AmaB gives its material for free to partner publications, and is sustained by philanthropic grants of about R8-m per year. Without the likes of the Open Society, Bertha, Claude Leon and Raith foundations, and the Millenium Trust, this work would not be done. They and DM’s new unit, Scorpio, make constant appeals for crowdsourced funding. It is reminiscent of the 1980s when alternative papers that were prepared to confront and expose the apartheid government relied on international funding. When that funding dried up in the early 1990s, the only one to survive was the M&G.

This investigative work is costly and risky and those who support it have to face the risk of being sued and physically attacked, as we saw with the violent disruption of an AmaB town hall meeting last week. It requires a serious financial commitment and a long-term journalistic vision to keep it going.

Do our media owners have that? With much of this work increasingly dependant on philanthropy, are the private sector and civil society looking for ways to ensure that this work can continue?

Our democracy may depend on it.

*This article first appeared in Business Day

For the record

My letter to Business Day this week, correcting a piece of misreporting.

Dear Editor,

Paul Pereira’s interesting piece on the Oppenheimer legacy in corporate social activity (Corporate charity as political intervention, August 22) stated that the Weekly Mail newspaper had been saved when his Anglo-American Corporation paid its print bill. This is not true.

Many people invested in the launch of the newspaper in 1985; Harry Oppenheimer’s R5 000 was among the more modest contributions. When the paper was threatened with closure in 1989, he was one of eight business leaders who wrote to PW Botha to say that such an action would fuel the sanctions campaign. When the paper could not pay its print bill around 1991, we negotiated a settlement with the printer, Caxtons, giving us time to pay our debts. The paper was in fact rescued in subsequent years by the Guardian of London, which is when it became the Mail & Guardian.

I hope this makes it clear that the paper’s relationship with white monopoly capital is more complicated than its critics would have it.

Anton Harber
Co-Founder, Weekly Mail/Mail& Guardian
Johannesburg

Manyi wrapped up and left on the shore

Faleste was an ancient French form of capital punishment in which the person was tied up and left on the shore to be carried out by the tide. I suspect this is what the Guptas have done with Mzwanele Manyi.

The Gupta family have sold Manyi their media company, which houses the newspaper The New Age and the television news channel ANN7. On the face of it, this is a deal that should increase media diversity and introduce new black ownership. But when it comes to the Guptas, nothing is ever quite what it seems, especially when it is wrapped in the Bell Pottinger rhetoric of “radical economic transformation”.

The deal is vendor-financed, which means the sellers have lent the money to the buyer to do the deal — they paid Manyi to take it away. He now owes them R450m, and it is not clear how he intends to pay this from an unprofitable operation.

Of course, the Guptas never ventured into the media to make money. They did it to cultivate friends and favours in the state, who would repay them with other, more lucrative, deals.

I expect Manyi is not doing this for the money either. He is doing it for the reasons many egocentric publicity seekers get involved in the media: they expect it will bring them prominence, power and influence.

What has he bought? A newspaper, The New Age, that either gives away most of its copies or sells them in bulk to parastatals who feel it is their duty to support a friendly newspaper with public resources. Either way, its circulation is so murky that the figures are not even audited by the newspaper industry’s Audit Bureau of Circulation. Without those numbers, there is no basis on which to advertise, so those in the government and parastatals who have done so were probably in breach of the Public Finance Management Act for abuse of public funds.

ANN7 has fluctuated between 6% and about 12% of the pay television news market, dwarfed by the SABC with about 20% and eNCA, which has more than 50%. Such a small audience cannot cover the cost of 24/7 television, even when it is done on the cheap.

What these outlets have achieved as they relentlessly pursued their owners’ agenda of cultivating friendship with President Jacob Zuma and his faction of the ANC, is to lower the barriers of entry into journalism. They were relentless in pursuing the Gupta campaign against the likes of Pravin Gordhan and in supporting Zuma, his allies and his chosen successor and former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. They have led the calls for the ANC to act against those ANC MPs who voted in favour of the no-confidence parliamentary vote. They have done so with little concern for balance or fact.

All of our media have a point of view, but only a few are prepared to throw out journalistic principle and professionalism in pursuit of such views. ANN7 and The New Age are the Fox News of SA, opting for alliances and favours over journalism and truth. One of their strongest on-air voices was discredited former ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus. Another was Manyi, who has been relentless in his advocacy of the Gupta-Zuma nexus and their “white monopoly capital” rhetoric.

Now Manyi owns these two outlets, which means there is little real change in the media landscape. No one would describe Manyi as a guardian of journalistic balance, ethics or editorial independence. These were direct Gupta outlets, and now they are becoming indirect outlets. It is one of those cases where the more those involved proclaim transformation, the more things stay the same.

There are those who have circulated a petition calling for DStv to throw ANN7 off its platform. This is a questionable approach as monopoly pay-television owners should not decide what news choices we have. They should carry them all — though it would help if they held the likes of ANN7 to some basic journalistic principles and standards.

With the launch of the Gupta outlets a few years ago, we were promised media that would support the ANC and challenge the narrative of a critical private media. What we got was an intra-ANC factionalism, because they did not so much support the ANC as support Zuma and play on internal disputes within the party to cultivate their relationship with the president. Manyi will use these outlets in his own highly factional campaigning.

So, there he is on the Saxonwold shore, hands tied by a R450m loan, waiting to see which way the tide will flow. It is going out.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, August 23, 2017. Note that Harber is a former editor-in-chief of eNCA.

The triumph of transactional politics in the ANC

Call it transactional politics.

It is the root of the ANC’s malaise. It explains the rise of the Gupta family, and the ANC’s incapacity to deal with them or President Jacob Zuma, even though they know this will cost them at the polls. It is crucial to understanding the presidential race. And it tells you what kind of ANC we will likely have in the foreseeable future.

It is summed up in this quote from a person close to Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidential campaign: “Nobody donates money to the ANC for philanthropic reasons, or because they love the party or what it stands for. It is all about what you can get back if you contribute to the party or back a winning candidate. Every rand we get comes with a payback expectation.”

The party needs a lot of money, as does each presidential candidate to campaign and buy votes. The winner gets to control a huge pile of patronage – the capacity to influence appointments, tenders and opportunities in and around government. And the first people to gain from the patronage will be those who helped the winner get there, knocking on the Luthuli House door to demand payback.

So every element of campaigning is a transaction: what will you give me if I support your campaign for office?

And these transactions cascade downwards. The president will have control over the top level of appointments, whether it is to the Cabinet, SOE boards or key government positions. Those appointees will have control over the next level, and they in turn will have influence at the next …

At each level, people want to get noticed and put up for positions, and to do so they have to offer their support to those who might give them those positions, or at least influence the choice. If it is not a position they want, it might be a tender.

Either way it is a transaction, and this style of politics now runs from the top to the bottom of the organisation.

This is why the ANC campaign is conducted largely behind closed doors, where deals can be struck, rather than in the American style of getting out, shaking hands and kissing babies to win favour with citizens.

In the US presidential election, it is the voter who in the end will choose the candidates and the president. Hillary Clinton had her party and the establishment behind her, and she had done every deal to line them up. She lost because she did not connect with voters. Donald Trump, on the other hand, did not have the party machinery behind him but won anyway because he connected with a certain class of voter.

To win the ANC presidency, and become presumptive national president, you don’t need popular support. You only need the vote of a majority of the roughly 4 000 branch delegates at the quinquennial elective conference. Endorsements will help, but more important is the capacity to deliver delegates, who will arrive at the December conference not bound by the mandates of their branches.

You can strike a deal with these 4 000 in two ways: you can buy their individual support, or you can buy those who control or influence those delegates by making promises to them about the rewards of such support. Most likely you need a combination of different transactions at these two different levels.

This is why slate politics is so important: you get the first level of support from key controllers of votes, such as provincial leaders, by offering them positions alongside you in the party’s top six. You back me, and I will back you. And that person then goes down to the regions in his province and offers the same: back me and I will look after you.

It is why slate politics and the buying of votes, however strongly condemned by everyone, does not disappear. It is why the voices of the elders, and those who plea for the return of values and principles, are not being heard: they are not transacting.

It was significant that Numsa members were recently concerned to hear that their general secretary had met quietly with one of the presidential candidates. They know what happens in those closed meetings.

It was summed up also when secretary general Gwede Mantashe said of ANC MPs who were considering breaking ranks in next week’s no-confidence vote: “If they had a conscience, they should have discovered that before they allowed their names on the ANC list.” The last thing you want is an MP with a conscience which may override the deal that gets them their jobs.

I don’t want to suggest that transactional politics is unique to the ANC. That would not be true at all. Jonathan Rauch of The Atlantic argues that it is not only “an inescapable reality in a functioning constitutional republic”, but it is desirable because it “means give-and-take, bargaining within the process, reciprocal back-scratching to achieve compromises”. It is, he is saying, the oil in the democratic machinery.

What is notable is that it has become the over-riding, crudely-executed culture within the ANC at all levels, submerging questions of values, ideology, public interest and the common good.

The Gupta family are not the only ones practising this kind of politics, just the most effective. The few who stand by conscience, principle and tradition are standing on the sidelines.

This from a party that was built on a set of values, and purports to speak on behalf of “the people”.

There is also a difference between making broad promises to interest groups (which is what electioneering is all about) and promising opportunities to individuals as rewards (which may cross a legal or ethical line). It is the latter which has taken hold of the ANC.

That is why the coverage of this year’s election contest is all about who is backing who, rather than any substantive discussion of policy and its implementation. Policy is just the rhetoric thrown about to hide the sordidness of the deal-making.

This kind of politics is divisive, which is why the ANC is so ridden with factionalism, and it is not transformational. Transactional politics precludes a transformational politics. It is all about cutting up the cake and sharing it around, not changing the recipe.

The pervasiveness of this mode of operation in the ANC means that all the presidential candidates have to play that game if they want a decent run at the highest office, like it or not.

To get key provinces behind you, you have to transact with provincial leaders who are corrupt, perhaps even implicated in political killings in their areas.

To raise money, you have to offer the promise of post-election patronage to those who bring delegates, rather than those best suited to those posts or tenders.

To manage the process, you have to look after those responsible for auditing branches, accrediting delegates and managing the ballot.

In other words, even if you are clean, you have to go through a dirty process. And you come out at the end carrying a massive bag of bespoke patronage.

*First published News24, August 3, 2017

Four trends to watch if you want to get behind the ANC horse-race

We follow the ANC leadership campaign like a horse race, setting the odds on every candidate, working out who is wearing blinkers and who carries a handicap. We get excited when one pulls ahead, worried when the other catches up and keep a wary eye on the outsiders gathering pace from behind.
But like most horse races, this one may be decided by things that happen out of sight.

Here are four megatrends that you should be watching — and worrying about — if you want to understand what could shape or distort the outcome of the presidential race at the ANC’s elective conference in December.

• Chatting recently to a campaigner in one camp, I asked jokingly if they had enough money to buy the ANC branches. There are about 4,000 of them, each sending two delegates to the elective conference and in a competitive race, it would get costly.

I got a serious answer: “We have worked out that it needs R500m. Fifty thousand rand for a Diepsloot branch vote, up to R2m to R3m for Sandton.”

I don’t know why I was shocked at this casual admission of how deep the rot is, as the buying of ANC branches has been common knowledge for some time, along with the creation of fake members and branches.

The ANC’s own organisational reports reflect this, such as this one from October 2015: “Membership trends are a worrying factor. This is more so in relation to the prevalence of gatekeeping in branches and bulk buying of membership that creates branches … tendencies such as the use of money in order to manipulate the outcomes of electoral process in the organisation are totally unacceptable.”

The Mail & Guardian reported that membership fraud is already being investigated in four provinces and that as many as 200,000 memberships in the biggest province, KwaZulu-Natal, are under close scrutiny.

The surprise lies in the sharp rise in the price. Previous talk had been about an average of R20,000 for a delegate’s vote. Measures have been put in place to try and contain this. Cellphones have been banned from voting booths, as they were being used to prove how one voted in order to claim one’s payment.The central auditing of branches has been tightened to try and pick up anomalies. But a call to have members, rather than delegates, vote — because there would be too many to buy — has been postponed for future discussion. And it is common cause that the auditing of branches under ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe is so chaotic that it remains open to dispute.

This trend is significant because it indicates what candidates have to do to win, or what their supporters have to do on their behalf. It means that whoever wins may be as compromised as the incumbent. The deals they will have to make to get there will shape their leadership, as they will have deep debts and large favours to return.

It also opens up another scenario: that the conference gets bogged down in disputes over fake delegates and bought votes. Whoever loses could dispute the result, as has happened with the KwaZulu-Natal provincial structure. This would mean competing claims to legitimacy and victory, with the courts left to sort out the matter — a long, messy and complex business.

• A University of Cape Town-based research project has recorded 255 political assassinations since 2000, part of a general pattern of targeted killing on the rise. In 2016, assassinations that could be identified as politically motivated hit a peak of 27 (one every fortnight) and taxi killings hit 56.

The taxi killings are relevant because they have created an industry of killers for hire, which means it is relatively easy and inexpensive to hire a hitman.

Most of the political deaths have been related to local disputes, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, but with so much at stake in December and so much depending on the control of branches, this trend is likely to grow.

This is one of the most underreported and neglected aspects of our politics, probably because most of these killings have happened in small towns without much media attention.

Already, we have reports of death threats being made against ANC members who have spoken out against President Jacob Zuma. When protesters wanted to march on Luthuli House recently, we saw so-called party veterans mobilising — with jackboots and camouflage clothing — in a way designed to threaten and intimidate.

It is clear that things are getting ugly in the run-up to the December conference. The only question is just how ugly.
• In recent years, we have watched as the institutions fundamental to our democracy come under threat, with many losing their credibility, independence or capacity to function effectively.

It has happened at the National Prosecuting Authority, the Special Investigation Unit, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks), the South African Revenue Service, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the parliamentary speaker’s office and the public protector. These are all institutions of accountability that would be expected to put a brake on the abuse of public office.

The judiciary has remained standing, though a mysterious break-in that led to the theft of judges’ personal details have raised fears that even they are vulnerable to attack.

Can the same happen to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC), which has been the bastion of credible elections in our country since the arrival of democracy?

Will Zuma and his supporters move in much the same way they have moved at other institutions to ensure that they have pliable leadership in the IEC before the next election, when they face for the first time the prospect of not winning a majority? There is no sign yet of the IEC being compromised, but why, we have to ask, do we believe it can remain immune from the pattern we have seen at so many other state institutions?

• Fake news is not a new thing — politicians and others have long used various levels of “dirty tricks” and disinformation to try to influence their fortunes and manipulate voters.
What is different now is that social media has massively boosted the capacity to do this as information can be spread on a mass scale without gatekeepers, verification or ethical consideration, at great speed.

It played a major role in Donald Trump’s election as US president, as well as the Brexit vote for the UK to leave Europe. There were attempts to interfere in the French election.

In SA, we have seen that one faction has made use of British public relations firm Bell Pottinger to try and distort our political discussion and infuse it with racial bile. It is no coincidence that we have had a sudden flood of fake news websites, paid Twitter campaigners and rent-a-protesters aiming their vitriol at critics of Zuma and his allies.

In the US, this is accompanied by attacks on conventional news media, designed to undermine their credibility. We are seeing a rise in the harassment of journalists to such an extent that last week, the South African National Editors’ Forum applied for and won an interdict to try to stop such threats. In the run-up to the December conference, we can expect the scale and temperature of this to rise drastically. We have seen in the US and UK the extent to which it can distort national politics.

Taken together, these trends present a bleak picture of what can go wrong in the next few months. On the other hand, we have seen a resurgence of independence at the SABC and civil society institutions fighting back against the undermining of state institutions, so the fight is not over. These trends present a warning of what we have to watch out for and might miss if we are focused solely on which individual has their nose ahead in the race.

*This first appeared in Business Day, July 12, 2017.

What it means when a non-financial journo wins Financial Journo of the Year

It was of some significance that the Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year Award was won not by someone who writes about markets, industries or monetary policy, but a hard-nosed muckraker specialising in exposing state shenanigans.

Susan Comrie is not a conventional financial reporter of the type that has dominated the 42 years of these awards. She works for amaBhungane, the independent investigative unit which has taken a lead in the #statecapture and #guptaleaks exposés.

Ama-B, as they are commonly known, have barely featured in these awards before – but this year Comrie won the Business and Companies category and the Print category (for her work in City Press) as well as the overall award. And Ama-B reporter Craig McKune also won the Online Financial Journalist of the Year category.

This highlights where the action is, and where the interest of the business and business journalism community are focussed: on investigative financial reporting as a bulwark against corruption. Investigative reporters have put themselves at the forefront of holding our government to account at a time when many of the institutions of accountability – such as the National Prosecuting Authority and the Public Prosecutor – show themselves to be compromised and ineffectual.

The tone of remarks at the awards event reflected this: the fate of businesses like Sanlam is dependant on the country’s prosperity; that prosperity is at risk; so they are looking for ways to reduce that risk. And that does – or should – means support for the muckrakers they would normally keep at a cautious arm’s length.

“At a time when South Africa faces a myriad of challenges, the role of financial journalists, in particular, is important in supporting the country in the efforts to build the sustainable and inclusive growth which we must all strive for, Sanlam Group CEO Ian Kirk said. “There have been many occasions when the media has proven its commitment to this role, but in recent times, particularly since that fateful early evening of 9 December 2015, this could not be more relevant and evident …

“While the country is currently consumed with the revelations that have surfaced from the leaked emails which seem to connect the dots, when all of it is done, we are dependent on financial journalists to report on the implications for the country’s economy and the impact on all of us. That is why Sanlam has continued to support these Awards and other initiatives aimed at contributing to the advancement of journalism, either through training or recognition,” Kirk said.

I hope this means that business will think about how they need to support our journalism, particularly of this hard-nosed investigative sort, and ensure that bodies like Ama-B survive the financial and political challenges they face.

It was also noteworthy who did not feature in the awards – and what this says about the shrinking range of financial journalism. Independent Newspaper’s Business Report got barely a mention, and that was true too of another long-time contender, Media24’s FinWeek. The rejuvenated Financial Mail won two categories (Claire Bisseker for economics, and editor Rob Rose for financial markets) and others went to MNet/Carte Blance, Moneyweb and Forbes magazine.

* The Lifetime Achievement Award went to another fiercely independent, hard-nosed muckraker, Anne Crotty – and it was much deserved.

Lessons from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

FANS of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will remember the Black Knight, who would not allow King Arthur to pass. When Arthur chops off his arm, he dismisses it as, “Just a scratch … I’ve had worse”. When he chops off his other arm, “It is just a flesh wound”. He uses his legs to kick the king’s butt, until one is hacked off. “The Black Knight always triumphs,” he cries as Arthur takes off his last limb. “All right,” Arthur says as he rides past him, “we’ll call it a draw.”

Journalists, faced by President Jacob Zuma’s resuscitation of the tired threat of a media appeals tribunal and the Protection of State Information Bill are feeling like the Black Knight. We fight to protect our media freedom, we lose a limb, we dismiss it as “just a flesh wound” and the king rides on. Both these threats to rein in the government’s media critics have been promised for years, but we have never seen so much as a concept document for the tribunal and the bill has been sitting unsigned on Zuma’s desk for almost two years.

This is not to say that these are not real threats that need to be fought by those who value media freedom, but they do have the dual effect of leaving a sword hanging perpetually over our heads and distracting from the substantive issues facing the media.

There is a lot wrong with our news media. Newsrooms are shrinking and there is less of the basic reportage needed to keep citizens abreast of what is going on and less of the editing that brings quality control. One major daily newspaper has just six reporters, which is wholly inadequate to do the basic job.

There is a homogeneity to the voices and images we see and hear that does not reflect the diversity of this country. Investigative journalism may be strong and important, but it has a narrow range, focused primarily on stories of corruption. None of these problems are attended to in any way by what government has put on the table.

Meanwhile, government is increasingly using its power and resources to promote journalistic sycophants and sideline its critics.

It has seized more direct control of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and ensured the public broadcaster is not as critical as it was in the 1990s. It put together a deal involving Chinese allies, Public Investment Corporation money and a friendly front-man to take control of one of the country’s biggest newspaper groups and bring it closer to the governing party.

The government is using parastatals and provincial governments to pull advertising revenue from critical newspapers and put them into more friendly ones. It has the SABC sponsoring the New Age newspaper and South African Airways taking out mass subscriptions at a time that these institutions need taxpayer bail-outs.

And it is quietly creating a new range of state-owned government mouthpieces to serve its purposes. Departments have been instructed to move their job adverts from papers such as the Sunday Times to the government’s Vuk’uzenzele, even if this will not reach the target market.

The draft policy on support for community media, which has drawn little attention, signals the same patterns. It proposes to sideline the agency set up to support community media, the Media Development and Diversity Agency, probably because it works at arm’s length from the state, and to set up an office in the Department of Communications to take over this role.

It proposes a new model of provincial, community TV, funded by the provinces, which probably means more government media and less funding for independent media.

All of this collectively has the effect of shrinking the space for independent, critical media — the lifeblood of our democracy.

And yet the government wants us to focus on the tribunal. As the king rides past us, he tells us, “We’ll call it a draw.”

*This column first appeared in Business Day, 22 October 2015

Why the Independent Media panel on reader commentary disappointed

The panel advising Independent Media on its handling of hate and other objectionable online reader commentary has recommended that these newspapers start pre-editing all online reader commentary or close it down.

This is worrying. It will cost significant money to pre-edit all this material, so management will be tempted in these tough times to shut it down – which would be a retrogressive step.

Besides, pre-editing worries me, as it closes down the space for conversation and debate rather than targeting the seriously problematic material.

The panel was set up by company chair Dr Iqbal Survé who was concerned about the amount of hate speech and other offensive material in the readers’ comments on the company’s news sites. It seemed somewhat over-the-top to have a six-person team to go through such an elaborate process to set policy on a standard media issue. But this might have been because Dr Survé wants to take firm action without evoking even more of the hostility he has faced in the media world.

And it seemed strange to put together a team without anyone with much frontline experience in handling this problem. Just two weeks ago, there were two international experts in town discussing how they have grappled with this issue in England and Germany – James Lamont, managing editor of the Financial Times, and Anita Zielina, formerly of Stern – both of whom had fascinating and important ideas on this front. It seems that the panel did not hear what was being said by some of those on the cutting edge of this global debate. A pity.

In short, the panel recommended that the company:
– adopts a narrow definition of unacceptable speech which takes into account local conditions
– appoints internal moderators to vet all reader comment prior to publication (rather than cleaning it up afterwards)
– that all commentators be required to register to ensure that are accountable for their views and do not abuse anonymity
– that if this proved unaffordable, it would be preferable to close down commentary than allow it to continue uncontrolled. The report indicates that this was a majority, and not a unanimous view of the panel.

I am with them on the narrow definition of what should be considered unacceptable. There needs to be great care to avoid the temptation to remove what is merely controversial or even offensive.

And I can (reluctantly) accept the requirement for commentators to register. Anonymity does sometimes allow difficult things to be said which need to be said, but it also makes it too easy to dish up hate speech or defamation.

I believe it would be in the interests of open debate and discussion to avoid pre-editing, but rather have moderators who can move quickly to remove material which crosses the line and even blacklist repeat offenders. Readers’ help can be solicited to make this fast and efficient, as can technology.

But if the pre-publication moderators have a light touch, focusing only on the truly problematic material, then the temptation to be too controlling can be avoided.

I am worried that the panel has opened the door to Independent – under pressure like all newspaper groups to cut costs – just closing down commentary, or closing most of it down, as this is contrary to the spirit of open and free exchanges of views on the internet.

But what concerns me the most is that they have proposed only a defensive policy, rather than a positive one which would embrace the value of user participation in online discussion and debate. Perhaps this is because they were asked to come up with a strategy to deal with hate speech, rather than what would have been a more progressive attempt to encourage and enable good, valuable and rich reader engagement.

There is both a moral and a business case for a more positive approach. The moral case is that we want South Africans to be active, participative citizens and this involves engaging in public debate, even if we don’t like some views.

The business case is that every site needs to work on its “stickiness”, its capacity to keep its audience involved so that they stay with the site. And participation is crucial to this.

A site without reader commentary would be a step back towards old media rather than embracing the interactive, participatory power of new media.

Lamont told of times when the FT had simply closed down comment sections when they were abused. But he also spoke of the value of the online conversation and the need to find ways to highlight the good, intelligent, informed and useful commentary, and isolate the rubbish. And Zielina spoke of ways of embracing readers as moderators and recognizing and encouraging those who offered worthwhile commentary – and not just homing in on the negative.

Ode to a big dreamer: Lesley Perkes

We all have dreams, but some of us have huge dreams. Lesley Perkes was one of those who didn’t mess around with the small stuff. She was an endless source of ideas and passion for huge public art projects that could change our city and the lives of those in it. Decorating massive towers, putting huge paintings on huge buildings, mobilising dozens of artists to speak out about political and social issues … These were the things always on her mind.

And she was one of the few people who actually pursued their big dreams. She had endless energy and persistence in trying to convince the city or corporate South Africa to do bold and different things. Many of those who worked in the city’s cultural bureaucracy will tell you how she hounded and pursued them with ideas and plans, refusing to let anyone equivocate.

Lesley cared about people, about art, culture, public space, public discussion, about her country and city – not as a place or a site, but a space occupied by real people.

She had little time for cant. At her funeral, one of her friends told me that whenever he saw her she would say, “Haven’t you made enough money yet? Isn’t it time you did something useful?” And she had a bunch of suggestions, I expect, for what this person could do.

The attendance at her funeral was a tribute. It was one of the biggest I have been to in a long time, and the crowd was all kinds: young and old, businessmen, bureaucrats and bums, artists and con artists, musicians and mavericks. Mostly mavericks, come to pay tribute to a marvellous, big-hearted maverick.

*This tribute fist appeared in City Press Online, February 2015