When someone like Ferial Haffajee, who is not unintelligent, makes absurd demands and claims, one must consider the real possibility that she is being played and manipulated, says the writer. File picture: African News Agency/ANA

Cape Town - In 2013, when black-owned Sekunjalo Independent Media (SIM) –  a special purpose vehicle created to ensure community groupings could benefit in the new media space –   successfully acquired Independent Media from its Irish owners, attention was drawn to the make-up of the media in South Africa, and who funds it. 

Similarly, when other black-owned players entered the field, they also found themselves the focus of unwarranted attention, even hounded by some of our peers in the media, who demanded to see who backed them. 

Others, such as Piet Rampedi of the African Times, were even accused of being funded by the infamous Gupta family, which was an outright falsehood. Even though  Rampedi repeatedly spoke out and confirmed his funders were local black businessmen who had acquired equity stakes, he was endlessly asked the same question, more often than not, by a specific clique of journalists making use of social media to drive their agenda. 

Human casualties are an inevitable consequence of war, and let us be clear, there is a war happening in the media space in South Africa. However, it need not be so as there is space for everyone to have a share of the voice, especially in a vibrant democracy like ours.  

The lengths to which competitors and those wishing to control the narrative in South Africa’s media space go, however, can be extreme.  

Take Rampedi for instance, who is currently the assistant editor of the Sunday Independent, SA’s leading Sunday read, whose media company, Mahlakomothala Media, which owned the African Times, was apparently dealt a deadly blow by the South African Revenue Service (SARS), when, according to him, it reneged on a pre-existing tax repayment agreement.  

Apparently, a hidden hand interfered in his business affairs, resulting in the company becoming non-compliant without a tax clearance certificate. 

The African Times, according to Rampedi, carried a number of government contracts at the time, and the net result was government departments failing or being unable to pay for services already rendered, and being prevented from doing further business with a non-compliant entity.

Even today, the paper is still owed hundreds of thousands of rand by various departments, according to Rampedi.

For those who do not know, Rampedi is a critically acclaimed journalist in South Africa who exposed the shenanigans of a secret surveillance unit that operated within SARS.

This rogue unit is alleged to have spied on prominent political figures, and despite claims that Rampedi and his colleagues concocted the entire story, an investigation by the public protector is currently underway. 

The blocking of his tax clearance certificate effectively closed down Rampedi’s business. It was a sad time for a publication that was producing high quality political, investigative and business content. Perhaps that was the very reason it was targeted.

For the record, I speak with some authority on this, as I was the business editor of the publication at the time. 

All of this led me to consider the real possibility of a hidden hand pulling various puppets’ strings, such as a ghost media mogul with ties to SARS and the government, with the singular purpose of driving an anti-black, anti-transformation narrative. 

I remain convinced of this. 

Over the years, some members of the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) have attempted to elicit details as to who was funding the likes of Sekunjalo and co. 

In 2013, for example, attempts by Nick Dawes and Sanef were made to stop the Independent Media transaction when it was known that Sekunjalo was in the mix.  Dawes, head of Sanef at the time, approached the Competition Commission. Calls were made for Sekunjalo to open its books about its funders. Interestingly, they never made the same demands when Tiso Blackstar bought the then Times Media Group (owners of the Sunday Times, Sowetan, Business Day).  

The situation was further intensified when a consortium, which currently owns the Mail & Guardian – The Media Diversity Investment Fund –  attempted to blackmail Sekunjalo during the Independent Media transaction back in 2013, trying to force them to sell flagship titles such as The Mercury, Pretoria News and Cape Times, stipulating that they would not oppose the Competition Commission action if they did. 

So much focus and attention, which continues, but fast-forward to 2019, and now the question that is hot on the lips of those in media circles is: who funds the likes of the Daily Maverick and Amabhungane?  

Some well-informed and well-placed sources I have spoken to claim that these organisations may well have received hundreds of millions of rand worth of funding from various corporate entities, and certain political camps within the ANC, the DA and, some say, even the FF Plus.  

Several contributors on these platforms have demanded that political parties declare where they obtain their funding from – it has made headlines in recent months. Others have defended political campaigns where billions were raised to pay provincial delegates in conferences. 

The Daily Maverick (DM) is happy to point fingers at others, yet remains steadfastly obstinate in declaring its own.  But, if it is in the public’s best interest to know where money that supports political campaigns and media houses comes from, then surely it is in all our interests to know who is financially supporting the DM too? 

When questions were sent to the Daily Maverick’s editor-in-chief, Branko Brkic, he refused to discuss the organisation’s finances, declaring that donations do not impact on editorial direction. 

Be that as it may, I find it at variance to what we actually witness from the DM which, for example, is light on coverage pertaining to any white-owned organisation that benefited from the PIC’s largesse and that has subsequently lost billions of rand. Could it be that it is these same organisations that have contributed to the DM? 

Additionally, rumour has it that the Daily Maverick receives millions of rand of funding from organisations linked to wealthy families and some have suggested that this could include the likes of the Oppenheimers – one of South Africa’s former first families – who, reliable sources inform, have invested R20 million in the online news website that purports to offer a public service with the publishing of ‘news’ being the various investigations it undertakes. 

These are the same organisations that the likes of former City Press editor, and now associate editor of the Daily Maverick, Ferial Haffajee, are now beneficiaries of. Haffajee is a self-proclaimed torch bearer of ethical journalism. However, as we have seen in this five-part series, she is far from that. 

Just last week, Haffajee hounded our reporters at the Sunday Independent, who had exposed how Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan had imposed his will in the appointment of a CEO at one of the subsidiaries at SAA. 

In follow-up articles, Independent Media reporters Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Karabo Ngoepe recounted how the airline had also hired unqualified technicians, which has had devastating consequences on the airline. 

Haffajee, supposedly a journalist who understands the necessity for protecting sources, demanded to know who our journalists’ informants were, and then subsequently published an article about a “disinformation campaign” around SAA. Why would anyone need to deliberately concoct a disinformation campaign when the airline has self-sabotaged through a succession of disastrous appointments and an ongoing series of publicly recorded self-orchestrated transgressions? Get real. 

To my mind, there is a far greater danger at work here. When someone like Ferial Haffajee, who is not unintelligent, makes absurd demands and claims, one must consider the real possibility that she is being played and manipulated. The possibility of a shadowy spectre becomes more real especially if one considers it might have something to do with the Department of Public Enterprises, under whose auspices the likes of the bankrupt SAA, Eskom etc. sit – coincidence or not, you be the judge.