Sylvia VollenhovenThis is a truly amazing story – involving billions of dollars.

It leaves one asking, why on earth the present South African government is so determined to protect apartheid era sanctions-busters?

The story goes something like this. During the apartheid years, several South African and foreign banks were involved in busting sanctions imposed by the international community.

Some – including the bank that is now called Absa – got into difficulties, and were bailed out by the Reserve Bank. So far so good.

In 1994 the ANC comes to power under Nelson Mandela and starts looking at the books, only to discover that this money is still outstanding.

It asks a British investigative firm to look into the matter. The firm – Ciex – discovers that squillions are still owed to the South African government.

In fact, according to the Cape Town based investigative magazine, Noseweek, these are the sums owed to the Reserve Bank:

  • R3.2bn from Absa
  • R3bn to R6bn from Sanlam and Rembrandt
  • Up to R5.5bn from Aerospatiale/Daimler-Chrysler

Yet – amazingly – rather than pursue the money, the investigation was shelved, even though Ciex offered to pursue the matter for just a percentage of the funds recovered.

In September 2010 Noseweek ran the story with this opening paragraph:

“The ANC government was told in a secret report how apartheid-era government operatives stole hundreds of billions from the State – and how vast sums could be recovered from those responsible and the European bankers who helped them hide the loot. But mysteriously, the Mbeki cabinet and the Reserve Bank decided to do nothing about it. Why?”

Weltz & Vollenhoven
Noseweek editor, Martin Welz and Sylvia Vollenhoven at the Franschoek festival

Fast forward to the present.

One of South Africa’s outstanding investigative journalists, Sylvia Vollenhoven, was commissioned by the state owned broadcaster, the SABC, to make a film about this strange story.

This was completed, the film shown to the SABC and a date for transmission was set.

Her film, entitled “Project Spear” was to have been the launch programme, scheduled for 23 September 2012 at 9pm, of an SABC2 series of six documentaries, ironically titled “Truth be Told”.

Then, at the last minute, the film was pulled. An SABC editorial compliance officer explained that the film constituted “unfair trial by the media.”

Vollenhoven says that in September 2012 she received an email from the SABC. “We got an email from Thando Shozi, acting head of ‘factual’ commissioning,  who said she had a few problems. One of the quotes from her email was that ‘The government is not going to take kindly to being asked, why are we walking away from recovering so much money?’”

SABC lawyer
SABC lawyer at the Franschoek festival, threatening to call a judge if the film is shown

When Sylvia Vollenhoven and Noseweek attempted to show the film at the Franschoek festival near Cape Town in May, the SABC had a judge on standby and a lawyer at the planned screening to prevent the showing going ahead.

Now, the SABC has gone further. It is taking Vollenhoven to court demanding that she hands over all of the raw footage, annotated scripts, and research material related to the film, as well as the master recordings.

Vollenhoven, initially thrown by these developments, is fighting back.

She is determined to re-make the film, with new footage.

And she has launched her own challenge in the courts. She has the support of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Freedom of Expression institute (FXI). And the Legal Resources Centre is fighting her case.

Sheniece Linderboom, the head of the FXI’s law clinic, said: “We definitely will be showing our support in any way we can. It’s an issue of freedom of expression.

“We are particularly concerned about the fact that Vollenhoven is not allowed to make an adaptation of the documentary. That is too extreme.

“The Copyright Act gives exemption when it comes to reporting on current events. That’s where public interest comes in.”

Meanwhile, the sums involved are now astronomical. It is estimated that R60 billion ($6 billion) is the current value of the funds siphoned off by the apartheid state.

Further coverage on this story from the Huffington post.