The Cape Times: From hero to zero

Ed Herbst writes on the rapid decline of a once great newspaper

‘But the days are long gone when readers have to tolerate the kind of attitude displayed by the editor of the Cape Times, Aneez Salie.’ - Helen Zille, SA Today newsletter, 22 March 2015


This opinion piece looks at the decline in stature and esteem, both locally and internationally, of the Independent News company’s newspapers since the takeover two years ago by Dr Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo company. It uses as a case study the Ducks Waiting Twitter blog which constantly exposes the sub-editing and proof-reading consequences of the Sekunjalo takeover - in particular the loss of corporate memory and institutional knowledge of dozens of staff with, collectively, centuries of experience who were either forced to leave or chose to leave after Survé took control.

Time magazine and The Economist are two of the most influential magazines in the world, required reading for political leaders, icons of the international business world and opinion shapers on every continent.

It is interesting to see how these two magazines rated the Cape Times prior to and after the purge of leading editorial staff and columnists that was unleashed after December 2013 by the Sekunjalo takeover.

6 December 2013 – Time magazine heralds the achievement of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois, Janet Heard, Tony Weaver, Chris Whitfield, A'Eysha Kassiem and others who with limited resources, few staff and an incredibly tight deadline, managed to produce a Madiba tribute which compared with the 15 best tributes that some of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines - all better resourced than the local newspaper - could produce.

This prestigious accolade enhanced the status of South African newspaper journalism and contradicts the claim at the time by Dr Iqbal Survé that the Cape Times wraparound was an insult to Mandela and justified the subsequent dismissal of Dasnois.

The other morning newspaper in Cape Town, Die Burger, faced by the same time constraints, also used a wraparound (baadjie) despite the fact that its deadline was an hour later than that of the Cape Times.

Nobody has suggested that Die Burger wraparound was an insult to Mandela’s memory and there was no purge of senior news personnel at Die Burger as a result of its decision to convey the news of Mandela’s death this way.

The pervasive belief within Cape Town’s media community is that the real reason why Dasnois was dismissed was because that issue contained a summary of the Public Protector’s Report on the controversial Sekunjalo fisheries tender.

Ironically, Die Burger not only carried an article on this matter on 6 December 2013 but also covered the controversy on several previous days. In fact, the front page of its December 6 issue (inside the baadjie) contained a ‘kicker’ reference to a substantial article on the Sekunjalo tender controversy on an inside page – the third in as many days.

The reporters concerned, Hanlie Gouws and Philda Essop, were not dismissed, neither did they receive a threatening letter from Naspers’s lawyers. In stark contrast, senior Newspaper House staffers involved in publishing the Public Protector’s findings on the Sekunjalo fisheries tender in the Cape Times were threatened with legal action by the company’s lawyers, something unprecedented in the history of South Africa’s newspapers.

All the above-mentioned people, Whitfield, Dasnois, Heard, Weaver and Kassiem have either effectively been purged or have left INM because they felt they had no future in the company after the Sekunjalo takeover. Another factor was that, for them, life at INM had simply became untenable.

Harshly critical

Fast forward to 27 June 2015 - 20 months later and The Economist carries an article about the ANC and how it has gained control of a substantial segment of South Africa’s media landscape.

This article’s harshly critical reference to the Independent titles contrasts starkly with the positive reference to the Cape Times Madiba wraparound previously expressed by Time magazine before the Sekunjalo purge.

The article is headlined: ‘Happy, patriotic news - Freedom of the press is being chipped away under an embattled ANC’.

The kicker is in the last two paragraphs and in particular the last two sentences in the article:

‘Similar moves are already afoot under the auspices of other government departments. One enthusiastic investor in media assets is the government’s pension fund. Two years ago it helped finance the purchase of Independent Newspapers, one of South Africa’s main newspaper groups, by a company led by Iqbal Surve, a businessman with strong ties to the ANC and a former doctor to Nelson Mandela.

‘Since the takeover readers of the Independent’s once-feisty titles, which include the Cape Times and the Star, have seen a distinct change in coverage. Besides displaying an odd predilection for puff pieces about Dr Surve it has become markedly less critical of the government. Dozens of senior journalists and editors have left or been sacked. The group’s executive editor, Karima Brown, was recently pictured at an ANC anniversary rally dressed in an ANC hat. With editors and owners like these, who needs censorship?’

Drop in standards

One of the most profound consequences of the Sekunjalo takeover of Independent Media has been a significant drop in editorial standards with constant criticism being expressed by readers about biased reporting, censorship by omission, ‘sinister’ manipulative editing, a betrayal of the trust which used to exist between the newspaper and its readers and a complete negation of the Audi principle; all of which combine to erode a fundamental and constitutional right - the right to know.

This is similar to what happened when the Mbeki faction of the ANC took control of the SABC after the resignation of Zwelakhe Sisulu and appointed acolytes such as Christine Qunta to the SABC board and Snuki Zikalala as head of news.

One indication of the drop in standards at Newspaper House in Cape Town - home to the Cape Times and the Argus - relates to copy editing and proof reading. Nowhere is institutional knowledge and corporate memory more important than in the sub-editing department.

The daily postings on the ‘Ducks Waiting’ Twitter feed suggest that even the most basic understanding of English grammar and punctuation is now substantially lacking in the subbing department at Newspaper House.

The title of the account is derived from an article in Business Report which transcribed a verbal reference to the ‘weighting in the DAX’ in Frankfurt as ‘waiting in the ducks’.

‘Ducks Waiting’ makes an astonishing read, documenting as it does the embarrassing errors being made on a daily basis in the Cape Times and Cape Argus.

To cite a recent example: in a recent Cape Times editorial (21 September) criticising Springbok coach Heynecke Meyer, we read that ‘He has been widely criticised for picking a team with two (sic) few blacks and young talent, opting instead for old warhorses, blunt on innovation.’

Two few young talent?

Then, as an encore, this sentence: ‘“We let out (sic) country down said a seemingly shell-shocked Meyer”.

And in the letters page on 24 September there is a reference to the fact that Rhia Phiyega, ‘bares (sic) ultimate responsibility’ for the Marikana massacre.

Frequent mistakes like these did not happen prior to ‘the Purge.’ And how do you explain how the same cartoon came to be run on successive days?

I’ll provide some dots and you can decide whether they connect sufficiently to provide a valid explanation of why there has been such a calamitous drop in standards at the Cape Times and the Argus.

First your senior news executives, Karima Brown and Vukani Mde write an article, headlined Opinion: Takeover is focused on transformation which contains this sentence:

‘A small but very privileged and racially definable minority still controls the tools of public discourse, including the bulk of private commercial media and virtually all the mainstream newspaper groups.’

This, rightly or wrongly, is interpreted by Indy staffers to mean that whites are no longer welcome in the company.

To make sure they get the message you end the article with this paragraph:

‘In the final analysis, no one is shackled to Independent or any of its titles. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to accept its new owner or its direction under him, must as a matter of principle leave, and give the rest of us space to build the company we want to work for.’

National demographic ratio

Thereafter follows the predictable purge of people with institutional knowledge and journalistic expertise. As then editor of the Cape Times (and current editor of the Cape Argus), Gasant Abader, pointed out in a letter to Business Day, it could not be “right” for “70% of our columnists” to be white males “when the demographics of this country lie in stark contrast”

This apparently justified getting rid of columnists like Allister Sparks and the much loved John Scott, whose column was terminated by Abarder in a curt, two-line email – despite his 48 years’ service with the newspaper. It was subsequently snapped up by a grateful Bun Booyens, editor of Die Burger.

Sekunjalo then pays those who don’t want to leave quietly. Tony Weaver negotiated a settlement which included the right to also take his award-winning ‘Man Friday’ column to Die Burger. While this does not make business sense it clearly makes ideological sense to those who now control the Indy newspapers.

In the absence of highly-competent and respected editors, news editors and subeditors, people like Chris Whitfield, Alide Dasnois, Janet Heard, A’eysha Kassiem, Tony Weaver, Martine Barker, Sybrand Mostert, Glen Bownes et al, you create the perfect environment for the gosling which grows into ‘Waiting Ducks’.

Matters reached a new low on 18 September when the Cape Times ran a street poster containing the word ‘befok’. What, one wonders with trepidation, is the encore to this going to be?

Racist city

Under Salie’s editorship the Cape Times now relentlessly seeks to portray South Africa’s white community as racist and Cape Town as a racist city – an approach which echoes a pervasive ANC narrative but which is the antithesis of the racial reconciliation to which Nelson Mandela devoted his life and so avidly promoted.

In the process the newspaper has also been caught out publishing articles which have failed to ultimately stand up to serious scrutiny. It has apologised for the now-notorious ‘Baby Thomas’ foetal alcohol syndrome story –criticised by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille as both plagiarised and fabricated – which falsely sought to anathematise the white farming community in the Western Cape. (It did not, however, place that apology on the IOL website.)

The newspaper also gave huge play to the ‘Tiger Tiger’ case in which three named white youths were accused of brutally assaulting a cleaner outside the Cape Town nightclub in an alleged racially motivated attack. The Cape Times was subsequently ordered to apologise by the Press Ombudsman for its slanted reporting on the dropping of charges against, and effective exoneration of, the accused.


On 12 December 2013 Iqbal Survé wrote a letter to staff in which he set out his editorial vision for the Independent Media company newspapers which he now owned:

 ‘All our stories must adhere to the highest standards required.

‘This means they have to be balanced, fair and accurate. What they can't be is one sided, inaccurate and prejudicial. I have always valued the principles of transparency, fairness and independence. More importantly, in our quest for fairness, we should give everyone an opportunity of the right of reply.’

‘"As executive chair, I will uphold these values and expect all of our journalists and editors to do the same regardless of which story it is they cover.’

A year-and-a-half on Max du Preez provided the following verdict on the Cape Times' reporting in a post on his Facebook page (24 June 2015):

‘Reading the Cape Times every morning the last few months was like watching a huge train smash in slow motion. I have never in my long career in journalism seen such a deliberate attempt at destroying a newspaper. My suspicion is that the new owners are using the paper to fight the ANC's battles for the 2016 local elections for them, and afterwards it will be closed down and incorporated into the Cape Argus. The last few weeks the newspaper's main theme, dominating the front page, has been the middle-aged poo-chucking UCT student Chumani Maxwele's fight with the UCT administration. This morning's banner headline was again: 'Apartheid-style UCT lashed'. On several occasions the reporting on the matter completely twisted the UCT management's statements. The reporting is generally poor and the decisions on what to cover and what not and what to give prominence to are bizarre. What a tragedy to see such a once proud newspaper being killed off.’

As it stands the newspaper is now devoid of grace and contradicts what Dr Iqbal Survé defined as his editorial ethos almost two years ago.

In an open letter to Dr Survé in January, Helen Zille wrote:

“Conducted in parallel with the extremely dangerous phenomenon of ‘state capture’, the process of consolidating our democracy is endangered by ‘media capture’ and the incremental obliteration of critical voices.”

It was, as the subsequent Facebook post by Max du Preez indicates, a prescient warning.

Ed Herbst is a retired reporter who ‘writes in his own capacity’.