How Zuma played the press

Jeremy Gordin writes on the Golden Age of Investigative Journalism that wasn’t


Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph. - 2 Samuel 1:20.

The majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.


When he was deputy-editor of the Sunday Independent, my late friend Andrew Walker was wont to groan audibly at Tuesday morning diary conference if someone suggested a story on journalism and journalists. “The readers, our audience, don’t care about journalists. You are not the story. This is supposed to be a newspaper,” he’d say.

This being the case, I assume that readers have been paying closer attention to the details of, for example, “VBS Mutual Bank: The Great Bank Heist” than to the brouhaha that has lately enveloped the Johannesburg Sunday Times (ST).

However, I want to suggest that if we examine the ST saga by taking a few steps backwards, disentangling ourselves from the minutiae, the reams of finger-pointing, self-righteousness and calls for commissions of enquiry, we might just find that we have witnessed a heist – or, at any rate, a giant scam – comparable to the VBS one.

To recap briefly. The ST, flagship of one of our major media houses, the Tiso Blackstar Group, is experiencing some very bad days. The reason for this is that “they” have decided to own up to – and to have incumbent ST Editor, Bongani Siqoko, apologize for – running destructive, false news in two sets of stories: alleged police killings in Cato Manor and alleged illegal deportations (renditions) of Zimbabweans to their deaths. This apology followed an earlier admission and apology by poor Siqoko that the ST had also messed up and done enormous damage by publishing its set of stories about the SARS “rogue unit”.


Before continuing, just one point.  I wrote above: “The reason for this is that ‘they’ have decided to own up to...etc.” Why have I phrased it thus? ... Because if anyone thinks that these apologies were initiated solely by Siqoko, and/or by Siqoko and a brave band of journalists who’d had a vision on the road to Damascus (or Braamfontein), he or she is sadly misguided.

In media groups, it’s the proprietor(s) and his/her/their board, aided and abetted by senior executives and various flunkeys, who call the shots, full stop. This is particularly the case at Tiso Blackstar. And proprietors obviously (and understandably) don’t like to upset advertisers.

In short – although it’s journalistic tradition that an Editor does the public talking on behalf of his/her publication and although Siqoko is nominally the boss at the ST – do not believe for one minute that the apologies and admissions were the fruit, or largely the fruit, of a sudden appreciation at the ST and Tiso Blackstar of the importance of accuracy, truth, ethical behaviour, the role of the fourth estate in a so-called democracy, the damage done to the lives of various folk, and all that schmaltzy stuff.

Follow the money, as the man said. What was the reason for the admissions and apologies? ... I don’t know fully. But I would suggest that Paul O’Sullivan’s threats to initiate an advertising boycott might have had Tiso Blackstar’s owners and managers poeping in their expensive pants (remember the mighty Bell Pottinger?). This issue is not one that the more voluble members of the Commentariat (Peter Bruce, Max du Preez, Jacques Pauw and Anton Harber) have seen fit to touch on.


To get back. As a result of the ST admissions and apologies, there has been a great gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts among the journalistic fraternity and sorority. The imminent implosion of the fourth estate has been mooted; the question “Is an apology enough?” has been asked plaintively by various alleged pundits; the journalists and Editors responsible for the stories have been named and shamed; and, as I noted, there have been calls for some sort of commission of enquiry (we Seffricans like those) at which the responsible journalists will be asked to commit the cardinal sin of any journalist (reveal your sources). Additionally, Siqoko, who by the way wasn’t even around when these sets of stories were published, has stated that the ST will return the gongs and money received as awards for those stories – a point to which I’ll return.


Now then, let us cast our mind back to the reign of Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki appointed loyalists to key positions and then expected them to defend his interests, and be ever ready to “put their hand in the fire for him”, if he so instructed. In turn Mbeki maintained and protected them, for as long as they acted accordingly. Hence the protection he extended - no matter how loudly the DA, or civil society, or the media, jumped up and down complaining - to scandal-plagued individuals like Manto Tshabalala-Msimang or Jackie Selebi. The “fatal” exception to this being of course Jacob Zuma.

Then along came the Zuma presidency. What was Jacob’s approach? In those halcyon days, just post-2009, it appeared refreshingly different. A scandal would break against, say, Police Chief Bheki Cele, or Minister Dina Pule, or the Hawks (Cato Manor, the Zimbabwean renditions), and there would be an outcry with the usual suspects clamouring for accountability, and, amazingly, Zuma would often then act (or let trusted minions do so).

A “golden age” of “investigative journalism” was re-born. Viva! Not only was the ST breaking major scandals but the newspaper was apparently forcing government to act against the culprits!

Thing is though: it now seems “we” were being played. 

Let me explain.

It has always been Zuma’s modus operandi to collect dirt on people, but not necessarily to act on this information. He files it away, so to speak, for when the time is right. Second: with very, very few exceptions, everybody in the government, ANC, police and prosecuting authority has done something he or she would prefer kept in the cupboard. (This applies to all of us, if you think about it. Mr and Ms Clean don’t exist any more than Santa Claus does.) Third: there exist what we can term “various tiers” of baddies: there are the very corrupt baddies, there are the less corrupt baddies, there are mostly good people who have done some things they shouldn't have, and so on.

So what Zuma would do – and by “Zuma” I obviously don’t mean just the man himself, I mean his closest coterie as well (including the very corrupt baddies) – what he would do if he needed, say, to get a particular Minister or institution to stop being a problem for him? Well, he’d make sure that the media got fed (by the very corrupt baddies) with just enough dirt to launch an expose of those they wanted to get rid of. If there was a lot of useable dirt then all the better, and if only a little, then that would just have to do. To be sure, a number of loyal servants of the state paid a high price: Gen. Johan Booysen, Anwa Dramat, etc. But if they were getting in the way of more loot for Zuma and the main tier of baddies, they had to go. Toodles.

Why didn’t many of those removed in this manner fight back more vigorously than they did – bring urgent applications and sue the ST straight up the wazoo? I refer you back to the preceding two paragraphs: almost everybody has smallnyana skeletons and some folk have bignyana ones. Let me put it another way. The Hawks under Booysen and Dramat et al have now effectively been declared white as the driven snow by the ST (and Pauw). It’s possible. But I suspect that if the whole truth ever emerges, and if I live long enough to see that day, I might one day read that there existed some elements of “truth” in the ST investigations.

Meanwhile, let’s go back to the Press, which was celebrating its new Golden Age and think about all those gongs the ST writers received. According to the learned Gareth van Onselen, writing in 2012, there are roughly 22 African but preponderantly South African “bodies” that hand out journalism awards. These include: The Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism, The Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards, and The Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards. They too, with a great deal of fanfare, back-slapping and self-congratulation, embraced the new Golden Age. (As far as I know, so far only Harber, convenor of judges of Taco Kuiper, has “apologized” for one of the Taco Kuiper awards to the ST.)

So all the grand panjandrums got taken in as well. But, as I said, it turns out we were being played. This being the case, maybe this is not the time for pointing fingers at individuals, being self-righteous or hauling people in front of a commission.

I guess Zuma would say: heh-heh.

(Disclaimers: a) I have about 11 gongs, including the 2007 Mondi Shanduka, now Standard Bank Sikuvile, SA Journalist of the Year Award. I’d be indignant if I had to return them. b) On the day in 2005 that the ST correctly wrote that Fezekile Kuzwayo (Khwezi) had laid a rape charge against Jacob Zuma, I wrote in the Sunday Independent that she had not. I did so because that is what she told me and I opted to trust what she said, though I knew a Zuma aide-de-camp was at her side. I was well and truly played. c) I know, to a greater or lesser extent, almost all the journalists, newspaper managers and nogshleppers mentioned above or connected with this story. d) I am an old white man.)

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