Taco Kuiper: The best investigative journalism of 2021 - Anton Harber
Anton Harber |
12 April 2022
Convenor says this was a year with some highs and the Sithole Decuplets story being a real low
Judges remarks for the 16th Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism
Written by Anton Harber. Convenor, and delivered by Thabo Leshilo on behalf of the panel of judges
This was a year in which investigative journalism in this country had some real highs and some real lows. The highs are what we are here to celebrate and reward today, and certainly they show the range and depth of the work being done in this country and of which we can – as always - be proud. But we also have to face up to some horrible lows, I am sorry to say.
The standout low must, of course, be the story of the Sithole Decuplets, when rogue editors, journalists and newspapers sold us what promised to be a heartwarming story but which quickly fell apart. The journalists involved then set out to investigate what they said was a case of child trafficking and proceeded with the bizarre publication of what purported to be a serious investigation, though they provided no substantiation or evidence, only incredible speculation.
That a major newspaper group could sustain this, and that advertisers and others continue to support them, is very worrying. It might be tempting to dismiss this as nonsense and fantasy, but it is damaging to all journalism, undermining our attempts to fight disinformation and rebuild trust in journalism. It is a problem we – as journalists - need to face up to and deal with.
This is one element in the need for a more general alert. We are headed into what is likely to be a challenging time, perhaps a tipping point. As the consensus of 1994 cracks, we see an increasing challenge to the constitution, the rule of law and the rights enshrined in the constitution, as these are – falsely and dangerously - described as impediments to transformation.
In recent years, two of our pillars of democracy have withstood state capture and other attempts to batter them into submission: the judiciary and the independent media. We witness regular attacks on the independence and standing of the judiciary; attacks on critical, independent and particularly investigative journalism are not yet as frequent, but I suspect not far behind. As the governing party moves towards a marginal majority, we must expect a tough time for critical and independent voices.
At such a time, it becomes even more important to strengthen, support, defend, recognise and promote accountability reporting. At stake is not just our work, but the country’s democracy, its standards of governance and the fate of the less powerful. Investigative reporting is and is going to be more essential and important than ever.
As always, the 26 entries we received reflected the shifts in this country’s journalism. Whereas major print outlets dominated these awards just a few years ago, only seven of this year’s entries appeared first in print. Four were television entries, not a big showing, and none – absolutely and tragically none – came from radio.
However, there were three podcast series, indicating the growing presence and force of this medium around the world and increasingly at home as well. Fully half the entries, 13 of them, were online entries. Four of these had rich multimedia elements, and one was primarily a data and graphic visualisation package.
We continue to see a shift that we have noted in recent years, away from the big newspaper outlets and more investigative work from stand-alone, often non-profit, operations and freelancers. Having said that, there were at least two major mainstream outlets – Sunday Times and News24 – which put in multiple entries.
This year saw no book entries, unlike previous years, though the overall number of entries was up from the previous year.
Subject matter was quite diverse this year. Apart from state corruption and capture, as always, there were also the collapse of basic services, like the railways and small towns, land issues, fake Covid vaccine certificates, the July riots and looting, teachers grooming and preying on teenagers, mining, food prices and muti murders. There was a group of entries related to the violence of mob action, assassinations and police conduct –a growing focus on violence and lawlessness.
Our judges were of the view that we saw a higher general standard of entries this year than last year. There were some, however, that showed a worrying lack of understanding of what we mean by investigative journalism. There were a couple of entries which provided excellent feature stories, but not investigative in process or nature. These might deserve recognition, but not at these awards, where we favour original and enterprising public interest work that exposes something we would otherwise not know, digs for the story behind the story, serves the public interest and has impact.
A special thanks to the judges, who really put a lot of time and effort into the careful analysis of each entry, ensuring we were rigorous and exhaustive in our considerations. They take their task seriously and we thank them for that.
The first round of judging was done by Thabo Leshilo, an editor of many years’ experience, and myself. We took it down to a shortlist of 10.
These were then studied by the second panel, in which Thabo and myself were joined by former Appeal Court Judge Tom Cloete, CBS producer Sarah Carter, and a new judge this year, former editor Mahlatse Mahlase.
I think a special mention needs to be made of those editors who dedicated the resources to allow their journalists to spend sometimes months on these stories, allowing them to happen and supporting them when they took flak.
So let’s take a look at the shortlist of 10. After that, we will go straight to the winners.
In random order:
1. Sipho Masondo, Kyle Cowan and Azarrah Karrim of News24 for the Eskom Files.
This team were lucky to be handed a pile of Eskom internal documents which allowed them to put meat on the bone of the story of the plunder of the country’s biggest state-owned enterprise. Three journalists worked for two months to produce a total of more than 60 stories, of which they entered a selection of 16. They took the mass of documents apart and revealed, as they put it, “the scope, breadth and depth of corruption and thievery which permeated the organisation at every level”. Central to this was the Babinatlou slush fund, used by senior managers to launder their backhanders. The exposé has assisted the ongoing NPA investigation into Eskom, which has already led to the seizure of billions of rands in assets and a range of criminal charges against former managers.
2.Pieter-Louis Myburgh of Daily Maverick for Digital Vibes.
Pieter-Louis is a familiar face at these awards, this year for the series of stories that over several months built up a picture of corruption in the Health Ministry’s Covid-19 communication operation. Through dogged persistence and digging, he pieced together the sordid mess of ministerial friends and family members who benefited from over-priced communications contracts. The detail was meticulous and good graphics added a strong visual element. The exposé led to the cancellation of contracts, saving millions, and the axing of Health Minister and presidential contender Zweli Mkhize. Such brazen corruption during a pandemic caused genuine shock and horror, and hopefully will still lead to some trials and convictions.
3. Thanduxolo Jika of the Sunday Times for “Sold out for R40 000”
Thanduxolo, also a regular entrant, offered three entries this year, of which the one shortlisted was the story of a Chinese mining company that had duped poor community members to sell their mineral-rich land for R40 000 each and the failure of the Department of Minerals and Energy to protect them. They story began in a court dispute, and Jika dug deeper to tell us about the community that was affected and the improper use of the name of minister and ANC chair Gwede Mantashe by a fake black empowerment figure.
4.Daneel Knoetze of Viewfinder for “Above the Law: How SAPS protects killers within its ranks”.
This six-part series included text, videos, a TV broadcast and a data dashboard to provide a comprehensive picture of the loopholes police use to protect colleagues implicated in violent crimes, often enabling those individuals to reoffend. The broadcast was shown on Carte Blanche and the rest appeared in Daily Maverick and News24. It was the result of years of collecting and analysing masses of data, and giving the story a human face with powerful text and video storytelling. Daneel has done over 30 interviews about this story, presented at the annual lekgotla of the Police Inspectorate, it has led to a review of police disciplinary regulations and has been repeatedly cited in parliament – so the impact was strong.
5. Deon Wiggett, Alison Pope, Nokuthula Manyathi and Sesona Ngqakamba of News24 for the podcast series “My Only Story: Back to School”.
This six-part second season of the “My Only Story” audio series starts with the tragic suicide of a 16-year-old at St Andrew’s College and his association with the school’s water polo coach. It exposes a number of alleged predators at different schools in a quest for accountability. This is undoubtedly an important story which had major impact on the schools and their staff. Wiggett’s conversational and empathetic style takes one along the investigative path and gets many to open up to him.
6.Another News24 entry, “Blood Brothers” was done by Jeff Wicks, Chantz Schatz and, again, Nokuthula Manyathi.
This team delved into the killing of an Ekurhuleni metro policeman who turned out to be a freelance hitman in his spare time. The story starts in court, but leads into the murky world of the tobacco trade and a turf war between rival bosses with death squads at their disposal. It was a shocking story, very strikingly presented.
7. Jabulile Mbatha of eNCA for Zandspruit Mob Attack.
Jabulile, a junior producer, went to this informal settlement in the wake of a horrific mob attack on men accused of criminal activity. She quickly won enough trust for people to open up, give her dramatic cellphone footage and tell her what had happened. This was an important story exposed with courage and skill by an up-and-coming reporter.
8.Paul McNally of Volume for his podcast series “Too many enemies”.
This series was produced with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime and distributed by News24. Paul delves into the assassination of billionaire businessman Wandile Bozwana, using this case to look at a growing list of assassinations in this region. He keeps us on the edge of our chairs and finds links to two prominent political figures. This is undoubtedly a story of growing importance, well presented in this format.
9.Patrick Egwu for his “Fake and Fraudulent”.
Patrick, a freelancer who was doing an internship at Daily Maverick, went undercover in downtown Johannesburg to buy fake Covid vaccine certificates and show how easy it was to get these without going through a test. It was a brave piece of work and he had to lie low after running it, but it was a good example of a kind of journalism we do not often see in this country.
10. Susan Comrie and Dewald van Rensburg of our regular entrants, amaBhungane, for the UPL Chemical Disaster.
This pair of reporters were alerted by a tweet about the chemical fire at the UPL plant in Durban during the July riots and looting. They were spurred on to dig deeper – as is often the case – when the company refused to give basic information about the chemicals in its warehouse. As it unfolded, it became clear that the scale of the disaster was enormous as the toxic mess spread around the area and washed into the sea. When the reporters got their hands on the full and frightening list of chemicals and what harm they could cause, they chose to share it all in the public interest, giving the public full access to this valuable information. Their reporting raised important questions about how this material could be stored next to a school and whether the state had been negligent in dealing with it.
So that’s the shortlist. We are going to straight to the winners. Can I call on Judge Cloete to join me on stage to hand out the awards.
As you can see, we had some tough choices to make. Before I go further let me say this: we decided not to give a runner-up prize but to share the prize equally between two of these finalists. They will get R150 000 each.
The Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism during 2021 is shared by:
-Pieter-Louis Myburgh of Daily Maverick for Digital Vibes.
-Susan Comrie and Dewald van Rensburg amaBhungane, for the UPL Chemical Disaster.
All the entrants
The guest speaker, Sandrine Rigaud
The Valley Trust, our longstanding partner in this
The University, faculty and school for their support