The Star editor’s open letter to Mzansi

The Star editor Sifiso Mahlangu. Picture: Supplied.

The Star editor Sifiso Mahlangu. Picture: Supplied.

Published Sep 11, 2023


Johannesburg - Dear Mzansi:

The media is an integral part of our democracy. In our job as media, we work to inform, educate and sometimes entertain the public. Independent Media has not fallen short of doing the same.

In the last few years, we have broken the barriers of reporting and brought South Africa the truth about our limping economy, challenging democracy and complex society.

We have not held back from holding politicians and those in power accountable. Imagine a world without that media. Imagine a world where journalists do not write. Imagine that you didn’t know about the Phala Phala scandal.

Imagine that you didn’t know of our energy crisis, of government waste, of theft, or of the state of our public systems. Imagine a world where you didn’t know what politicians, whom you pay with your taxes, were doing.

Imagine a world where you had no information at your disposal. That world can become a reality if we all let Standard Bank get away with murder.

Yes, it will be murder. If Standard Bank succeeds in closing Independent Media’s bank accounts, over 3 000 people will be left unemployed. Many will be rendered homeless, and some, including single parents, widows and breadwinners, will bear the brunt of a senseless power attack by a banking giant.

The victims will be mostly black women, and the final ambit for many will be death.

You see, many South Africans are two salaries from poverty.

Without jobs, there will be a higher dependency on the already overstretched state, and the results are not just going to be catastrophic for the media industry; the scourge will be felt throughout the economy.

As the bank intends to close the bank accounts by September 15, claiming reputational damage, the real reputational damage is felt by the journalists. The offshoot of Standard Bank’s unilateralism will contribute to deeper unemployment, increased crime, and economic and social instability.

A recent survey by the Institute of Race Relations found that about three people are affected when one person becomes unemployed.

At least 3 000 workers at Independent Media and its sister companies will lose their jobs if Standard Bank is allowed to close our company’s account. So even if one uses the IRR survey as a yardstick, 9 000 people will be directly affected.

As I see it, and as attested by numerous analysts, South African banks are a power unto themselves.

They are like gods who are allowed to act against any person or entity they deem unfit.

Under the all-encompassing and suspect excuse of “reputational damage”, our banks take life-and-death decisions against those they oppose.

Anyone who exposes or endangers the all-powerful banks can have their accounts closed arbitrarily.

Our banks act with total impunity; they owe no one an explanation.

And so we have seen rogue companies like Steinhoff continue to do business despite their unlawful financial dealings without the banks raising any concerns about “reputational damage”.

Yet they have no hesitation in closing the account of a company that employs thousands of workers, the majority of whom are journalists who are gatekeepers of our democracy, exposing the wrongdoing of individuals, government leaders and big business.

When I was a student, I was excited by a study called Natural Law. Natural law is a philosophical theory that states that humans have certain rights, moral values and responsibilities that are inherent in human nature. Natural law theory is based on the idea that natural laws are universal concepts and are not based on any culture or custom.

Natural law is the observation that all humanity has the same rights to exist and be happy.

Natural law would also oppose the David and Goliath battle that will play out at the Western Cape High Court when Independent Media’s attempt to keep its account open is heard.

Anything but a win for Independent Media will be an injustice. Justice must be done and must be seen to be done.

The court, as an arm of our state, must consider the impact that a closure of accounts will have on all of us. Justice is not simply the ruling of a murder case by the conviction of the perpetrator; it is also the protection of the “small kid” when attacked by a much bigger aggressor. The aggressor here is Standard Bank, and we are the small kids.

The reason I became a journalist was to fight injustices, as I have for all of my career.

Will Standard Bank chief executive Sim Shabalala sleep better at night when the biggest and most transformed media group shuts down? I hope not!

I am The Star’s youngest editor; I took office during the level 5 Covid lockdown. Just like during the Spanish flu of 1920, The Star continued to publish. I imagine that it would be a crying shame if we survived the Spanish flu, apartheid, and Covid-19 only to be forced down by Standard Bank.

While the Standard Bank tagline was previously “Moving Forward” but has now changed to “It Can Be”, it’s important for the bank to let journalism move forward and just let Independent Media be.

Mzansi, If you love this country stand up to injustice. Stand up to Standard Bank.

The Star

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