The best investigative journalism of 2010 - Anton Harber

Wits Journalism Professor's presentation of the Taco Kuiper award, April 15 2011

Presentation by Wits Professor of Journalism, Anton Harber, of the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism, Johannesburg, Friday April 15 2011:

It has been an important year for investigative reporting, its practitioners and its enemies. It was a year when one reporter, Mzilikazi wa Afrika was ostentatiously arrested two days after breaking a big story on official corruption.

It was a year in which we had to fight off -  are still fighting off - one of the biggest threats to investigative reporting, the Protection of Information Bill, which was an attempt by securocrats to reverse our constitutional commitment to openness and accountability by shrouding government in a thick veil of secrecy.

It was an attempt to stop the very kind of reporting that we are here today to honour and encourage: which reveals what those in authority do not want revealed. As we run through all our finalists today, I ask you to think over how many of these might be blocked if such legislation is passed.

It was also a year in which the ruling party pushed hard for the introduction of a Media Appeals Tribunal. This was dressed up as an attempt to prevent bad journalism, but we have good reason to believe it was actually aimed at the best of our journalism, the brave and well-executed exposes which embarrassed government or individual politicians.

Again, as we list our finalists, think about how they might fare under a regulatory tribunal set up and controlled by the politicians who are the subjects of many of these stories.

It is against that background that we announce the 5th annual Taco Kuiper Award for a distinguished example of investigative journalism. We are here to honour those who carry the torch for openness and accountability, those who expose wrongdoing in all its forms, whether it is the damaging of our environment, the abuse of public monies, or the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable.

We are here to encourage those who do this difficult work, who probe, and question, and push, and dig, and do it with courage and determination; to celebrate their work and their contribution to our democracy.

At a time in which the authorities have been so quick to find and complain about the weak points in our journalism, we identify the best of South African journalism, to remind ourselves and our fellow citizens of how valuable and important, indeed how excellent our excellent journalism can be.

This year, we had 45 entries from 20 outlets, including all media types: print, television, radio and online. We had two community media entries (one from a newspaper and another from a radio station); one for a book; and, for the first time, a photographic entry.

The quality of entries we received was testimony to the wide range of investigative reporting in this country. Of course, we only look at the best stories of the year, but that top range is this year better than ever, and competes with the best of the world.

While others are lamenting the decline of investigative reporting, we can celebrate the fact that South Africa has more investigative teams in more newsrooms than ever before, producing better and a wider range of work than ever.

All of this makes our work as judges very difficult and let me start by introducing those who did the hard work:

Our nominations panel spent many hours just making a shortlist of 10 entries. And for this, I must thank

Simphiwe Sesanti, Ed Linington and a new addition to our line-up, Pippa Green.

The panel of judges also had many hours of interesting and fascinating debate about the merits of different aspects of the stories presented to us. Allow me to introduce you to:

Judge Tom Cloete, of the Valley Trust and the Supreme Court of Appeal; Pippa Green, distinguished journalist, author and academic, convened the nominators, as I indicated, and brought their shortlist to the judging panel; Justice Malala, well-known writer, editor and publisher; Charlayne Hunter-Gault, our international representative who has a long and distinguished career in journalism; Margaret Renn, who holds our Taco Kuiper Chair in Investigative Journalism at Wits; and I served as convenor.

Before announcing the winners, allow me very briefly to share some of the judges' observations:

  • Environmental stories featured strongly this year, as did social issues, such as teenage pregnancies, the plight of children allegedly rented to beggars and the hidden cruelty of elder abuse. This indicated a healthy widening of the spread of subjects being tackled by investigative reporters.
  • Radio made a showing, unlike last year when we lamented the low number and quality of entries. In particular, the judges asked me to make special mention of the entry from the Voice of the Cape community radio station. Dorianne Arendse and Faatima Hendricks produced a commendable series of in-depth pieces on the housing battles of Hangberg in Hout Bay.
  • There was notable innovation, particularly in the use of database investigation, where journalists are harnessing computer power to analyse and find stories in masses of otherwise incomprehensible data. This is the frontline of journalism, and it is commendable that our reporters are there.
  • Presentation was, for the most, better than we had previously noticed, with some strong use of infographics. But one disappointment was the number of times we noted weak intros and angles, how reporters had failed to give the punchy intros which would do maximum justice to their stories.

I will move straight on to identifying the shortlist of 10, in no particular order:

  1. Matuma Letsola of the Mail&Guardian, "Mrs Vavi, the pension and the R40,000 bribe." Noluthando Vavi, the wife of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, was being paid R60,000 a month to hawk financial products to union members. Mrs Vavi subsequently resigned her position with the company. The paper is to be commended not just for the story, in which they pointed a finger at figures who often point fingers, but also for the way they handled an attempt by the company to bribe the reporter.
  2. Wendy Jasson da Costa, The Mercury: "Contract irregularities in the eThekwini municipality." This comprised a series of stories about the high number of eThikwini Municipality contracts awarded without a tender to politically connected potentates. It also explained, somewhat, the riddle of the millionaire local police commissioner. We were very pleased to see a local story make the list, particular one which was methodical, hard-hitting and brave in taking on powerful city fathers.
  3. Julian Rademeyer, Andrew Trench and Jacques Pauw, Media 24 Investigations: "ANC's mine grab".  This team accessed a massive data base of information on prospecting rights applications. To get at the story, they had to write their own software and use sophisticated computer analysis to extract a powerful and important story from what appeared to be bland spreadsheets.  What emerged was an important political story on the remarkably high numbers of rights granted to business people connected to Chancellor House, the ANC's investment arm. This was innovative, state-of-the-art journalism.
  4. Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter, Sunday Times: "The Police Commissioner and the SAPS lease". This was an extraordinary account of how the Police Commissioner had influenced a R500-million lease deal with businessman Roux Shabangu without a proper tender process. The series also detailed a similar lease agreement on the cards in Durban. Despite strong reactions from the authorities, the newspaper was vindicated by the Public Protector and, as we speak, the positions of the Police Commissioner and the Minister of Public Works are up for debate
  5. Julian Rademeyer, Beeld: "The Musina Mafia". A well-told tale about some of the more nefarious characters who may be behind the devastating spate of rhino poaching in the region. Rademeyer told a tale worthy of Wilbur Smith, based on great detective work. He tracked down the history of a poacher's gun and his cellphone records and gave us a rare insight into a serious problem.
  6. Stefaans Brummer and Sam Sole, Mail & Guardian: "Zuma Inc". In the wake of the controversial ArcelorMittal empowerment deal, which substantially benefited the President's son, this story pieces together the many forms in which the President's family and friends have benefitted from major business deals. We have little doubt that this is a story that will continue to run and have lasting impact.
  7. Cobus van Staden, Special Assignment, SABC: "The battle of Hangberg". This was a poignant and gripping piece of television detailing the underlying forces in both the Hangberg and wider community in Cape Town that exploded in violence when the authorities tried to demolish informal shacks. Scrupulously fair, it touches all sides of a story that is not easy to understand through the headlines. The camerawork is powerful.
  8. Sam Sole, Ilham Rawoot, Yolandi Groenewald, Mail&Guardian: "Aurora: The Mine Meltdown". A significant set of stories on the travesties of the financially struggling Aurora mine, whose directors include the nephew of Jacob Zuma and the grandson of Nelson Mandela. The stories raise the question not only of how such an apparently incompetent financial operation can continue, but it also notes the suffering of hundreds of mineworkers who have remained unpaid throughout this period.
  9. Sipho Masondo, The Times: "Mines and the Environment". A series of stories about the devastation to our water systems caused by the drainage of acid water from the mines. The reporter picked up on something said in a parliamentary committee and went in pursuit of the story with passion and commitment, commanding - unusually for an environmental story in a daily newspaper - the front page more than once. He used poignant pictures and individual stories to make the story real and garner attention on a growing and important problem.
  10. Rob Rose, Sunday Times: "Soccer City scam and related stories". A series taking a trenchant look at the legacy of the World Cup. Written amidst the euphoria that accompanied the event, Rose took a hard look at what taxpayers will pay for the infrastructure the country laid out, and how little, in the end, the country may regain in the way of revenue.

Let me take it step by step. The judges first reduced this to a short shortlist of five stories. And these were:

  1. Julian Rademeyer, Andrew Trench and Jacques Pauw, Media 24 Investigations: "ANC's mine grab". 
  2. Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter, Sunday Times: "The Police Commissioner and the SAPS lease"
  3. Julian Rademeyer, Beeld: "The Musina Mafia".
  4. Stefaans Brummer and Sam Sole, Mail&Guardian: "Zuma Inc".

5. Sipho Masondo, The Times: "Mines and the Environment".

The next step was to take it down to the two stories which would be winner and runner-up respectively, and this took a long debate, discussion and analysis.

First, I will announce the runner-up, who wins R100 000. It is:

Sipho Masondo, The Times: "Mines and the Environment".

Finally, the 5th Taco Kuiper Award for an outstanding example of investigative journalism - and the R200 000 that comes with it - goes to:

Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter, Sunday Times: "The Police Commissioner and the SAPS lease"

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