OPINION: StratCom, come out for business's sake
I write this for all our readers, in print and online, and for my children and the future of our children’s children because what I have seen can never be allowed to happen again.
These past two weeks have been a very sad time for South Africa because of the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Her death has attracted two opposite polar responses. The first has been overwhelmingly from South Africans who adored her - as can be seen on social media and at her funeral.
The opposite response was largely from other South Africans on Twitter who saw Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in a very negative light largely due to misinformation about the murder of Stompie Seipei.
What has emerged, ironically after her death, is that Vic McPherson, who was responsible for StratCom, has confirmed that Madikizela-Mandela was a target of the StratCom campaign.
None other than commissioner George Fivaz, who was the national police commissioner during the apartheid years, has also confirmed that the police knew all along that Madikizela-Mandela did not murder Stompie - in fact the person who murdered him was Jerry Richardson, a senior security branch employee.
How did the narrative that “Winnie Madikizela-Mandela murdered Stompi Seipei” become entrenched in the minds of South Africans?
That narrative has to be understood in the same way as what has happened to Independent Media, its chairperson Dr Iqbal Survé, and Sagarmatha Technologies, in the past two weeks.
What is StratCom?
StratCom, in its most basic form, involved journalists employed by the apartheid government to target certain individuals and organisations to discredit them so that they did not have any credibility to be able to influence the outcomes. StratCom was one component of the media influence over society.
There were journalists who also worked in other branches of the state, which included journalists in the security branch, in military and police intelligence. There were also journalists who were embedded in organisations that were not part of the state who were paid to include the narrative at the time. While StratCom involved 40 journalists, according to its director, McPherson, the truth is that there were probably more than 200 journalists who were directly in the employ of the state in various sections.
Of course, the question has to be asked: Where are those journalists today? Are they still in media houses or are they in other organisations, or have they moved on?
Only a Truth & Reconciliation Commission kind of inquiry can establish the facts. It is time that the media subjects itself to that over its role during apartheid and its possible role today in destabilising the country.
There were of course journalists employed directly by the apartheid state, but there were also media houses that did not need to have the journalists employed by the apartheid government since they were acting in close collusion with the apartheid government at the time - predominantly Afrikaans media houses, which had a mutually beneficial relationship with the partner state.
Hennie van Vuuren in his book has set out how there was a close relationship between Naspers chairman Ton Vosloo and PW Botha - it is a fact that some publications were funded by Eschel Rhoodie and Infogate.
All of this points to a media that was partisan and was honed in the school of dirty tricks. Of course, compromised journalists are not just there to target individuals acting for vested interests, be these interests commercial. They are also there to target organisations that have a political objective. In this regard, we are no longer living in a unipolar world dominated by the US. It is increasingly clear that we are living in a multipolar world with strong influence from the south-east.
In this case, for example with the Brics, we have strong influence from Brazil, Russia, India and China, along with South Africa, which makes up a quarter of the global population and 25 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).
We must therefore see attacks, not just in a pure economic way but also to understand them in the context of geopolitics.
We then have to ask who the funders of institutions such as amaBhungane and Daily Maverick are. The reality is that Vic McPherson has identified journalists working for the state as having principally being linked to Weekly Mail people, who ended up at the Mail & Guardian (M&G) and amaBhungane.
M&G is 85 percent owned by the Media Diversity Fund, a New York-based investment fund that originally received its funding from the national endowment fund, a Washington-based fund that was set up by George Bush. This fund was set up to influence and fund right-wing media organisations globally to serve the right-wing agenda of the US government. It is not surprising that today the M&G is 85 percent owned by the Media Diversity Fund after the fund pulled the rug out from under its Zimbabwean owner, Trevor Ncube. It is a matter of note that editors of the M&G in the past had to go to Washington and New York with the front pages of the M&G and sit in front of a room of members and inform them about the editorial direction of the fund. We know this because the Media Diversity Fund also invested in other South African media businesses in various provinces and in smaller businesses and used the same modus operandi for this.
It is clear that the editorial direction of these publications was heavily influenced and determined by these funders. We cannot say for certain that today this practice still exists - but it happened as recently as a year ago.
In so far as amaBhungane is concerned, it is well known that the Open Society Foundation is now headed by the former US ambassador to South Africa - Patrick Gaspard - and that amaBhungane funding is primarily driven by US-driven institutions.
There is, of course, the contentious issue as to whether some of the amaBhungane people have a history either in StratCom or the intelligence services of the apartheid state. It is up to amaBhungane individuals to confirm or refute these allegations and rumours that are circulating widely about some of these individuals in the partnering structures at the time.
Well, in the past two weeks we have seen an apartheid-era dirty tricks campaign launched against the chairperson of Independent Media, including investments of Sagarmatha Technologies which includes African Equity Empowerment Investments (AEEI), Ayo - some of it also directed towards me. During this entire time the chairperson of our group has requested that we exercise restraint and that we do not respond to clear attempts to destabilise the group. However, the dirty tricks campaign has all the hallmarks and patterns of StratCom.
Essentially it is a mixture of truth with lies - as Mama Winnie said, 70 percent truth and 30 percent lies. It works that the narrative is presented repeatedly on different platforms such as print and online - the objective is to create the impression that there is a strong view in support of the narrative aimed at discrediting the individual or organisation. The narrative is presented completely out of context and builds on the perceived credibility of media houses and specialised websites.
This pattern of propaganda by these media houses is not new to Sagarmatha. As an example, when it became known that Sagarmatha was acquiring Independent Media, the same group of journalists put out disinformation that the company was guilty of improper tender processes with the fishing fleet tender. After exhaustive investigations it was none other than then public protector Thuli Madonsela who came out with a final report to say that Sekunjalo had done nothing wrong and cleared the company of all wrongdoing. None of these media houses published her final report. Instead in the months leading up to the acquisition of Independent Media, they published a so-called interim report in contravention of the act and made it seem that that interim report, which did not have Sekunjalo input, was the final one.
These dirty tricks campaigns continue today. When Sagarmatha acquired Independent Media the competitors peddled the lie that the acquisition was funded by Saudi Arabian money. They went further and threatened Sekunjalo in written documentation to sell off the Cape Times, The Mercury and the Pretoria News to a consortium backed by the US media diversity investment fund. They threatened Sekunjalo that should it not do this, they would scupper these attempts to buy Independent Media from the Irish at the competitions commission. The person that led this attack was former M&G editor Nick Dawes, who belatedly had to apologise to his Sanef colleagues at the time when he released a Sanef statement opposing the Independent Media transaction.
When this did not work, these journalists launched the campaign to create the impression that the PIC had invested R2.4billion to bankroll the Independent Media transaction. They peddled this lie for years and created the impression that Independent Media was funded fully by the Public Investment Corporation (PIC). This is a lie that continues to be flaunted today. And now, they deliberately misrepresent the financials of Independent Media to make it seem that the PIC has invested badly.
No regard was given to the fact that Independent Media was acquired at a significant discount of what the Irish had initially priced it at, which was R3.2bn, and that there were five competitors vying to acquire Independent Media - who were prepared to pay between R2.2bn and R2.8bn. Among the failed bids for Independent Media was a ridiculous blackmailing attempt by Ann Crotty who tried to put undue pressure on Independent Media through a legal firm with a trust that was not established and claiming that she represented employees when in fact the only beneficiary at the time were two individuals and the trustees were herself and two others.
Crotty herself tried to get the PIC to fund her participation in Independent Media. We have written correspondence to that effect. She worked with Bruce Cameron and the then chief executive to force the PIC to invest in her consortium at an inflated price and force the PIC to accept her trust as a shareholder. She and her cohorts were unsuccessful and when M&G/amaBhugane were unsuccessful in these attempts to buy Independent Media or its publications they launched the disinformation campaign.
These are the facts. There is written correspondence to prove these facts.
What was then called Avusa/Times Media Group (TMG) had also put their hat into the ring to purchase Independent Media but were advised that they would not succeed due to competition commission issues.
The last opportunity that these journalists and their funders have to acquire Independent Media is to approach the PIC in August 2018 when part of the shareholder loans, which the PIC has invested in Independent Media are due. The idea was that the PIC would be forced to do this if for any reason Independent does not settle the PIC loan. Hence the StratCom strategy was to put as much pressure on the PIC through various entities and on Sekunjalo to eventually give up its investment in Independent Media in order to protect its business interests.
This strategy was disrupted when Sekunjalo announced that its investment in Sagarmatha Technologies would list. Sagarmatha’s raising of R7.5bn in its pre-listing statement shocked these journalists and their handlers/funders into action, causing them to disrupt the Sagarmatha listing at all costs. It was clear that should Independent Media form part of Sagarmatha it would have resources to grow and work with its shareholders in settling in outstanding shareholder loans.
The concerted and desperate campaign were all designed with three objectives:
1. To stop the listing - unethical and undue pressure was placed on the JSE in this regard;
2. To disrupt the capital raising - undue pressure was placed on the PIC and international investors in Sagarmatha;
3. To disrupt the Sagarmatha listing in perpetuity and put undue pressure on the auditors, corporate finance advisers and sponsors directly by bombarding them with questions and/or negative media reports about them and threatening them in writing with outcomes reminiscent of corporate thuggery.
To go to regulators such as the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC), Financial Services Board (FSB) and Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors (Irba) to find a loophole to prevent Sagarmatha from listing or put pressure on the advisers.
As a South African I accept that there will always be commercial competition. Businesses compete for market share. Companies will list on the JSE and other exchanges based on their business plan and the market will ultimately determine the value of a company.
In all my years as journalist and media strategist, I have never encountered what I have described above - that vested commercial interests use journalists to achieve their commercial outcome; that the political bias of these journalists continues to undermine a corporate entity that has acted responsibly and has been through the most stringent of regulator processes. As a white South African I am ashamed that we are denying a business access to the capital markets and that people can do so using what can be described as Gestapo-type tactics, intimidation of the company and regulators. It is a sad day when this happens.
I call upon the government to institute a commission of inquiry into the conduct of Tiso Blackstar, amaBhugane and other specialised media sites, plus the regulators, plus active participants who have damaged investment in South Africa and the opportunity for South Africans and Africans to form part of a platform technology company.
Dirty tricks have no place in a young democracy and must be rooted out at the core. I urge those journalists who form part of StratCom and aim to stop alternative narratives to come clean. Say who you are. And reveal the damage that you’ve done to people.
I say again: Dr Survé is an outstanding global businessman, an asset to South Africa and a fighter for the rights of the people of this country, black and white. This is a tragedy that must be corrected. Failing which, the country would have failed itself.
- BUSINESS REPORT