By Ed Herbst

I wrote about Chinese oppression in a South African paper. Hours later, they cancelled my column.

Asad Essa China is Buying African Media’s Silence  14/9/2018

Media outlets such as Daily Maverick, funded by the Oppenheimers and other well-placed businessmen and families; so-called media investigative units like amaBhungane, are funded primarily by overseas backers who themselves have certain political interests.

These “donors” have specific agendas, as far as South Africa goes, and are apparently hostile to all progressive post-liberation political parties.

Iqbal Survé SA media in the post-Mandela era 13/2/2020

When Harry Oppenheimer died in August 2000, Nelson Mandela honoured his memory and praised his legacy and that is reflected on Iqbal Survés IOL website:

“His support for democratic and philanthropic causes was in my experience always without hesitation and reserve. His contribution to building partnership between big business and the new democratic government in that first period of democratic rule can never be appreciated too much.

“The preamble to our finding constitution speaks of honouring those who suffered for justice and freedom in our country and respecting those who have worked to build and develop our country. Chief among the latter must stand Harry Oppenheimer and his family.”

In an article, invoking the Mandela name and published in his newspapers on 13 February, Iqbal Survé saw fit to question the alleged funding by the Oppenheimer family of the Daily Maverick website but somehow forgot to mention his testimony before the Mpati commission on 3 April last year when he acknowledged that Sekunjalo Independent Media had been making interest payments to his Chinese funders but not to the Public Investment Corporation.

He also forgot to mention in that article how Al Jazeera journalist, Asad Essa, had his weekly column terminated  after he wrote about China’s oppression of Uighur Muslims in giant concentration camps, a violation of their rights which has been condemned in the United Nations and throughout the free world as ‘the largest incarceration of a minority since the Holocaust’, an incarceration involving constant death and fear for those so imprisoned.

Living in China or its territories involves constant surveillance by the state. There is no freedom of expression or media freedom in China and whistle blowers are ruthlessly suppressed. The  Chinese nation is in revolt about the way in which Dr Li Wenliang – the doctor who tried to sound a warning about the Coronavirus was silenced – and who has subsequently died.

Only South African

By the same token, China rewards those who are complicit in covering up that suppression.  After  Essa’s column was abruptly cancelled  – something condemned by African journalists but not mentioned in his own newspapers – Iqbal Survé became the only South African to be invited to serve on the First Council of the Belt and Road News Network, a key component in the country’s foreign affairs initiatives.

I started reading newspapers in the 1950s and worked for one of Harry Oppenheimer’s newspapers, the Natal Mercury, in the early 1970s.  I can confirm that he never featured in his newspapers.

In contrast, as Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield point out in Paper Tiger, Survé, his family and his business associates have appeared in Sekunjalo newspapers at least once a week for the past six years in a never-ending parade of articles lauding him  – see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here – and the headlines are nauseatingly obsequious.

Survé has lost an unprecedented number of editors in the past few years and those that remain are clearly under pressure to maintain this publicity stream to ensure that Sekunjalo maintains its well-deserved reputation as a self-licking lollipop.

This adulatory frenzy was most recently manifest with five imbongi articles in a fortnight – some on successive days:

17/11/2019Sekunjalo Independent Media liquidation move a witch-hunt

21/11/2019Moral Leadership – Dr Iqbal Survé leading where Ferial Haffajee should follow

22/11/2019Ferial Haffajee, all Iqbal Survé did was stop white privilege

23/11/2019Alide Dasnois: The only editor who did not lead with Mandela’s death

24/11/2019Independent Media here for the long haul, we’re here to tell the truth

1/12/2019Ferial Haffajee, Daily Maverick, lies and a ghost media mogul….

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

In a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,  two decades ago the then editor of the Weekend Argus, Jon Hobday, strongly refuted any suggestion that the Oppenheimers sought to dictate editorial coverage when, at the time, they owned the Argus Group newspapers – now known as Sekunjalo Independent Media:

There was a definite hands-off approach. Management was management and editorial was editorial, and the twain did not meet. It was a clear line. If management did feel constrained to contribute, it would be done in the most circumspect civil, non-aggressive way. The concept and perception that Oppenheimer phoned up and told editors what to write is absolute b…t. That is the last thing in the world he would have done. He never did it. I am not aware of any manager who ever delivered that kind of dictum, not at all, ever.

How stark the contrast, then, between the hands-off approach by Harry Oppenheimer and the chokehold of Iqbal Survé on the editorial process at Sekunjalo Independent Media as described in the televised and under-oath testimony before the Mpati Commission by former AYO executive, Siphiwe Nodwele. You can read this evidence on page 23 of the transcript of his testimony on 8 April 2019:

… the editorial independence of Independent Media does not exist, it sits in the hands of Dr Iqbal Survé. Anything he says he wants to publish will be published and again we‘ve been victims of that given our stance and inability to play ball as they would like us to.

 MR EMMANUEL LEDIGA: But, I mean, don‘t you have professional journalists there and the editors and all those professionals?

MR SIPHIWE NODWELE: Mr Chairperson, without going into detail of the staff profile of the Independent Media Group, because I‘m not familiar with it, I‘m sure there are good men and women in there, the same as there are good men and women at Ayo but the factual reality is, all power sits with one person and even though you have good people in there I‘m pretty sure for their jobs and livelihoods they will toe the line as per Dr Surve‘s wishes.

There are multiple other witnesses to Survé’s constant interference in the editorial processes of his newspapers – something he denied under oath at the Mpati commission.

This led to the resignation of editors like Philani Mgwaba who, in his interview with the Paper Tiger authors, said:

‘My private concerns turned to alarm when, soon after Iqbal Survé took control, editors began to receive instructions from Iqbal’s underlings and acolytes to publish opinion pieces that shamelessly flattered and promoted him and/or defended him from legitimate questions that were being raised about his curious business interests.’  P142

Similar points about the lack of editorial autonomy have been made by former Sekunjalo Independent Media employees Dougie Oakes and Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

If the Oppenheimers are financially supporting Daily Maverick then they clearly do so out of concern for the wellbeing of the Fourth Estate and because they are patriots.

Guptaleaks investigation

I say that because Daily Maverick’s Scorpio investigative unit, along with amaBhungane (also attacked in the afore-mentioned article by Iqbal Survé) and News 24 have played a vital role in the Guptaleaks investigation into State Capture.

So what role did Sekunjalo Independent Media play in the Guptaleaks investigation?

Dougie Oakes provides the answer:

When the Gupta Tapes story broke, Independent Media was left high and dry – out of the loop. We were told we had been ignored because it was felt we ‘could not be trusted’.

And I think our sources were correct in this respect.

I care about the profession and I am distressed when it is brought into disrepute.

Hiring and Firing

Above all, I care about its practitioners and what I like about Daily Maverick’s Branko Brkic is that he is hiring while Iqbal Survé is firing.

Two of the earliest victims of the campaign to drive ethical journalists out of Sekunjalo Independent Media were Janet Heard and Tony Weaver – both now work for Daily Maverick.

Other former employees of Iqbal Survé who now work for Branko Brkic are Peter Fabricius, the doyen of South African foreign affairs reporters and Marianne Merten who I consider the best parliamentary correspondent in the country.

In stark contrast to this, page 19 of the 2018 Wits University State of the Newsroom report reveals that more retrenchments have occurred at Sekunjalo Independent Media than at any of the other newspaper companies in the country.

Iqbal Survé’s article carried in all his newspapers on 13 February referred, as he so often does, to Nelson Mandela in the headline and the article was also topped by a photo of himself with Mandela.

He obviously considers this to be appropriate given his claim to have treated Mandela medically, ‘on and off’ the Island.

In the same article, he would have you believe that Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer’s descendants are up to no good.

Someone who does not buy that is Xolela Mangcu, director of African studies and professor of sociology and history at Washington University in Washington DC and a visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape.

Nelson Mandela biography

In the Sunday Times of 16 February Mangcu writes that his forthcoming biography of Nelson Mandela would not have been possible without the assistance of the Oppenheimers:

Perhaps the greatest irony is that it has taken the Oppenheimers to enable me to write and finish my own biography of Mandela. In 2015 I entered the most competitive academic fellowship in the country, and won with my proposal for a new contextualised biography.

How ironic.

Survé invokes the name of Nelson Mandela to scapegoat the Oppenheimers and it turns out that it is them that we have to thank for the publication of a new Madiba biography.

There are, furthermore, singular and important differences in the annals of a once-respected newspaper company between the corporate culture during the Oppenheimer and the Survé eras:

  • As Jon Hobday pointed out in his TRC submission and as I personally experienced, Harry Oppenheimer did not dictate editorial coverage, so readers at that time were not subjected to the current and never-ending stream of self-aggrandising articles;
  • When Oppenheimer was at the helm, the company was profitable and able to meet its financial obligations;
  • During the Oppenheimer era the Argus company newspapers did not experience the  swingeing retrenchments which now regularly befall Sekunjalo Independent Media employees;
  • During the Oppenheimer era the Argus Cadet School provided an ideal training ground for aspirant journalists which benefited the profession as a whole, but the school was closed when Iqbal Survé took control;
  • The cruelty and verbal abuse and the unjustified disciplinary hearings experienced by Sekunjalo Independent Media staff after the 2013 takeover are constantly mentioned in Paper Tiger, something which did not happen in the Oppenheimer era. As Jon Hobday pointed out in his TRC submission: If management did feel constrained to contribute, it would be done in the most circumspect civil, non-aggressive way;

Oppenheimer, for instance, never instructed lawyers to send threatening letters to his editorial staff . Furthermore, he would never have behaved in the uncouth way that Iqbal Survé did at a SANEF function in June 2014 because, as Thabo Mbeki said, Oppenheimer was “ever the gentleman and a man of deep conviction and compassion”.

The Oppenheimers, however, are hardly the first people to experience the Sekunjalo treatment – ask Helen Zille and Max du Preez and the Tiger Tiger Five and Gill Moodie and Alide Dasnois  and UCT and Max Price and Sam Sole and Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya and Ferial Haffajee and Donwald Pressly and Siphiwe Nodwele and Kevin Hardy and Professor David Benatar and Rhoda Kadalie and Terry Bell  and the Democratic Alliance and Cyril Ramaphosa and our food providers and Pravin Gordhan who is receiving extra attention at the moment – they’ll tell you.

But perhaps Survé and his acquiescent editors will have noticed the following sentence in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA speech on the same day that his ‘SA Media in the Post Mandela era’  article was published:

I have received a detailed and voluminous report on the (Mpati) Commission of Inquiry into the Public Investment Corporation.

I will make it available to the public together with a plan on taking the findings and recommendations forward in a few days.

In contravention of Amil Cabral’s dictum – ‘Claim no easy victories’ – Survé’s newspapers have (quoting unnamed sources) already carried a front page article proclaiming the complete exoneration by the Mpati commission of himself and Dr Dan Matjila – this despite testimony under oath which would seem to prove otherwise and the reaction by the commissioners to that testimony.

Whatever the outcome, one has to ask where this going to end because the future does not look promising for Survé’s companies:

The prediction by Dirk de Vos in 2014 that investing millions in a dying industry would not generate an adequate return was obvious then and has since proved prescient.