Editor’s Note: ABB and the importance of investigation
CAPE TOWN – While the engine room of business continued to grind away, I found myself, in these past few months of isolation, distancing and remote working, reflecting on many things.
One of these is the gratitude I have for the enforced quiet time for a reality check.
Caught up on the treadmill of a fast-paced news and information world, it has not always been possible to stand still.
As executive editor of Independent Media: Business, Business Report (BR) and Personal Finance (PF), I acknowledge and publicly thank my team for their dedication and quality reporting.
Second, to look back at some of the achievements, as it is so easy to lose sight of the good we have accomplished when deep in the trenches.
The journey since taking over as editor of these prestigious titles has not always been easy. There was and still is, a lot going on in South Africa.
I have also faced my own share of criticism and derision from colleagues, corporates and readers.
Some of this had to do with breaking explosive news stories that at first beggared belief.
One that caused a furore, was being the first to publish an article stating that South Africa could have been milked of billions of rand in what appeared to then be a collusion between the infamous Gupta family and leading private and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). This is now called state capture.
In July 2017, I wrote: “Rights groups are pressing for those implicated in the Gupta scandal to be prosecuted both in South Africa and in their home countries, with calls for those found to have transgressed to return the ill-gotten loot to South Africa.”
Details still are emerging of the corrupt deals entered into by international companies and SOE’s in what have to be the worst-ever scandals in post-independent South Africa.
I published a special investigative report under the headline “International companies linked to corrupt deals.”
The first one was around Swiss industrial engineering company ABB's alleged involvement in a R1.5 billion corrupt transaction dating back to April 2015. The story of Eskom and the missing billion is now common knowledge.
I wrote that: “The ABB contract was valued at about $160 million (roughly R2.68 billion now), and it is understood that ABB essentially started the C&I works at Kusile from scratch. In addition to payment for work already completed, Eskom had to pay a cancellation fee of some R40 million to Alstom to achieve a consensual termination agreement on a 'co-operative walk-away basis'."
What happened afterwards became a living nightmare. ABB threatened me, Independent Media, and the title carriers of BR, and asked for the published articles to be removed.
An extract of correspondence I received at the time:
"Dear Ms Adri Senekal de Wet
"I am writing to you because ABB is concerned with the articles on ABB that have been published lately. In particular, I refer to the article entitled 'SA Milked of billions in corrupt deals' published on July 14, 2017, on the front page of the Business Report in the Cape Times, the Mercury, the Pretoria News, and The Star. We also have an issue with the way ABB is portrayed in an article last week, under your byline 'Restoring Ethics' (BR Corruption Buster, August 3, 2017)…
"ABB prides itself on being a responsible and pro-active corporate citizen who is committed to ethical business practices. We are not aware of any unlawful conduct on its part in relation to the Eskom control and instrumentation (C&I) contract for the Kusile power station. Please provide us all evidence, if any, in the possession of you, Independent Media, the Business Report, the Cape Times, the Mercury, the Pretoria News, and/or The Star that demonstrate any unlawful conduct on the part of our client in being awarded the C&I contract; and/or dealings with the Gupta family in relation to the C&I contract.
"We demand an unconditional and unreserved apology from the journalists who authored the articles together with retractions, stating that the allegations against ABB in the articles were made without merit… Thank you. Yours sincerely, Saswato Das, Head of External Communications: ABB."
I was never sued nor were the titles, for the simple reason – we were correct and had reported the truth. A follow-up article we published in October 2019 conveyed how ABB was being investigated for suspect payments related to work carried out by the Swiss industrial giant for embattled Eskom.
This is just one example of the stories we broke; others include EOH, McKinsey, SAP, and many more.
Lately, I have been faced with threats and legal action from the likes of Magda Wierzycka for publishing articles revealing an entirely different picture to that of the reality she has painted for herself and her followers.
But, as with other investigative reporting, time will no doubt show that once again, we were right.
There are two things of which I am certain. First is that there is much at stake in the world of the conjoined twins of corporate and political poker, where he (or she) who has the most to lose, bluffs the hardest.
Second, it is that as journalists, it is our job and our imperative, to dig deeper and find the truth, even if we are threatened or sued. As the old adage goes, "there’s no smoke without fire."