China-ANC alliance a threat to media freedom in SA

Paul Trewhela on the disturbing implications of the Sekunjalo consortium's takeover of the Independent newspaper group

The Communist Party of China - the ruling party of a totalitarian state in the second biggest economic power in the world - has taken a 20 percent stake in the second biggest press corporation in South Africa.

According to a statement of the Competition Commission on 16 August last year, a first acquiring firm is Sekunjalo Independent Media (Pty) Ltd, a private firm incorporated in South Africa. A second acquiring firm, Newco, is "a newly formed entity to be incorporated in the Republic of Mauritius." The announcement continues: "In the Shareholders Agreement entered between China International Television Corporation ("CITVC") and China Africa Development fund ("CADF"), it is indicated that Newco shall be called Interacom Investment Holdings Limited."

What the Competition Commission did not state - apparently this was of no concern to it - is that CITVC and CADF are wholly owned instruments of the Chinese state, which in turn is wholly controlled by a single political organisation, the Communist Party. No political parties are permitted in China, except the Communist Party, which exercises a one-party dictatorship over the media.

Sanctioned in October last year, the Chinese state carried through this deal in conjunction with the ANC government, which has taken 25 percent state ownership of the same company via the Public Investment Corporation. In the hands of an openly ANC-sympathetic company, Sekunjalo, this has facilitated ANC/Chinese state entry into most of the main morning newspapers published in English in the country.

Commenting on the deal, Professor Anton Harber, of the school of journalism at Wits University, said that "the ANC is working with their Chinese allies - ruling party to ruling party, in the way the Chinese government so often works - to increase their influence in our local media and counter what they view as a hostile media sector."

The press corporation now 45 percent owned by these two governments - the Chinese government responsible for the colonial occupation of Tibet, and the Zuma government responsible for the shooting of mineworkers at Marikana in August 2012 - is the former Argus Company, previously owned by the Anglo American Corporation, which it sold to the Independent News and Media Group, led by Sir Tony O'Reilly, in 1994. Cash-strapped, and having asset-stripped its South African acquisition, INM sold it to the consortium led by Sekunjalo, a Black Economic Empowerment company, last August.

With its 55 percent shareholding of the former O'Reilly press network in South Africa, Sekunjalo now controls 14 newspapers including the nationally circulated Sunday Independent; The Star and Pretoria News in Gauteng; the Cape Times, Cape Argus, Daily Voice and Weekend Argus in Cape Town; The Mercury, Post, Isolezwe, Daily News, Sunday Tribune and Independent on Saturday in Durban; as well as the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley.

The group's titles are reported to account for 28 percent of the total advertising spend in paid newspapers in South Africa, 22 percent of all newspapers sold in the country, and 63 percent of the English language market. This makes it a powerful presence in the most widely-read language medium of print journalism in the country.

Never before has the state acted so arrogantly in relation to the English-language press in South Africa; and never before has a foreign state - let alone a Communist state - been in such a position of influence over the press in South Africa. Never before has a Communist state had such influence over such a crucial section of English-language news media anywhere in the world.

The whole affair was masked in South Africa and internationally by a global wave of attention to the decline, death, and funeral of Nelson Mandela, as the pre-eminent icon of 21st century secular, global religious veneration, despite acknowledgement by the South African Communist Party on the day after his death that in the two years before he was arrested in August 1962 he had in fact been a member of SACP central committee.

No suggestion of this awkward fact was permitted to disturb the premiere of the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in London - announced from the podium at the close of the film, on the evening of his death - or his commemoration last week in Westminster Abbey, both events attended by royalty.

The same awkward fact was missed also in no less than five biographies of Mandela written since his release from prison in 1990, most notably by the British author and journalist Anthony Sampson in his "authorised" biography of 1999, though established conclusively in general histories published in South Africa in the three years preceding Mandela's death by British historian Stephen Ellis and Russian professor Irina Filatova, on the basis of interviews and research in the archives in South Africa, Moscow and Berlin.

Apart from a few perfunctory reports, and with no analysis, the immense implications of the transfer of the most important sector in English-language newspapers in South Africa to a company heavily backed by the Communist and ANC governments has received no attention in South Africa itself, and next to nothing elsewhere, apart from a well-grounded report in the Toronto Globe and Mail by Geoffrey York, writing from Nairobi on 12 October last year, headed "Why China is making a big play to control Africa's media."

Immediately following Mandela's death, a purge of editorial staff in South Africa's morning newspapers got under way, with shocking speed. Ms Alide Dasnois, exemplary editor of the venerable Cape Times - the first daily paper in southern Africa, founded in Cape Town in 1872 by Frederick York St Leger and modelled on The Times in London - was "relieved of her post" (as delicately phrased by her very experienced deputy, Tony Weaver, in a pained and appalled response) on the morning after Mandela died.

Recalling the massive effort of Cape Times staff on the night before she was sacked, Weaver described the newspaper's memorial "Madiba wraparound" - affectionately using Mandela's clan name - as "the best newspaper I have ever worked on." It was voted by Time Magazine one of the 14 best front pages in the world. "History called, the Cape Times answered," Weaver concluded. "Alide Dasnois was the editor. It was our last Madiba moment."

Not so for Dr Iqbal Survé, the chairman of Sekunjalo, now front man for China's news interests in the most developed economy in Africa, and media front man also for the regime of South Africa's president Jacob Zuma:

"It is my considered view, and that of the senior executive team", declared Dr Survé (in his previous career, Nelson Mandela's medical doctor), in an attempt to justify his sacking of Dasnois, "that the failure of the Cape Times to lead with such a momentous event was an affront to the dignity of Madiba and a disservice to our readers".

Well, no. More to the point, is Dr Survé's announcement that his China-and-ANC-backed media empire will in future report more "positive aspects" of the country.

A month after the sacking of Dasnois, Terry Bell - a former political detainee under the apartheid regime, former exile and veteran Business Report columnist in the Independent group titles - was abruptly told that his "Inside Labour" column had been placed on "indefinite hold" while a "recalibration process" is underway.

Three weeks earlier, in his column, Bell had queried an extraordinary instruction which had been received by the Cape Times. According to Bell, this instruction had come from one Andre Kriel, general secretary of the clothing and textile workers' union, Sactwu. Kriel, wrote Bell, claimed to have spoken to Iqbal Survé, who had agreed that Kriel should "facilitate" the matter of relations between the Cape Times and its new owners. (SACTWU has a share in the consortium.)

Bell reported that Kriel had also "launched attacks on the Cape Times, claiming that this newspaper 'has not ever carried one positive story about the great struggles that workers have waged'." Kriel clearly saw his role, continued Bell, "as one campaigning against 'neo-liberalism', something he apparently sees as epitomised by the Cape Times."

In addition to being a council member of the South Africa-US Business Forum, Survé is also chairman of the South Africa-Saudi Arabia Business Council. Sekunjalo lists his senior executive team as: Khalid Abdulla (chief executive officer), Salim Young (lead independent non-executive director), Vukile Mehana (independent non-executive director) and Aziza Begum Amod (non-executive director). Related people are listed as: Mohamed Yusaf Kajee (executive director for Sekunjalo Investments) and Ferhad Khan.

With such powerful joint state financial influence over the Independent group, this is potentially one of the most dangerous attacks on press freedom in South Africa since the founding of the Cape Times as the first daily newspaper in the country in 1872, and a breach of the spirit of the Constitution.

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