Personalities linked to the media bribery scandal involving Ebrahim Rasool have resurfaced in a campaign to support Iqbal Survé.
The controversy surrounding the axing of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois has stirred up a potent brew of politics, intrigue and spin that harks back to the so-called "brown envelope scandal" that engulfed former ANC Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool.
Indeed, a number of the same personalities and networks have surfaced in the campaign to support the decision to remove Dasnois.
The decision was taken by Iqbal Survé, the new and politically connected executive chair of the Sekunjalo Independent Media consortium, which owns the Cape Times.
In 2010, Rasool was posted to Washington as ambassador after the extent of his involvement in the scandal was disclosed.
He was accused of paying journalists to report negatively on a rival faction within the Western Cape ANC.
Former Cape Argus journalist Ashley Smith revealed how a media company, Inkwenkwezi Communications, was set up with the assistance of a businessman close to Rasool, Zain Orrie and then-Argus political editor Joe Aranes.
In a 2010 affidavit, Smith said it became clear that the main purpose of the enterprise was to use working journalists to support Rasool, then engaged in a battle for political survival against the Democratic Alliance, but more acutely against a rival ANC faction under Mcebisi Skwatsha.
Smith wrote of late-night meetings at which Rasool "referred to us, the Inkwenkwezi trio, as his 'air force', meaning his front line of attack against the Skwatsha camp or his other political rivals".
Now, in the heady atmosphere of a highly contested Western Cape election, it appears as if a new "air force" has been deployed – again under the broad mantle of a resurgent ANC faction led by Rasool's ally and political heir, Marius Fransman.
The outlines of this network and some of its players emerge from the sequence of events that led to the chaotic "counterprotest" aimed at swamping a placard demonstration by Cape Town journalists and activists on December 17 last year. The demonstration was held to express concern about Dasnois's ousting.
The counterprotest was the work of the recently formed Media Transformation Movement of South Africa.
The movement is led by Wesley Douglas, who has admitted to giving the provincial ANC media advice, though he distanced himself from claims on an electronic CV posted by the Africa-China People's Friendship Association – of which he is an executive member – that he is charged with "overseeing the social media unit for the Western Cape ANC" and also "serves on the ANC communications management committee".
Also in the movement's interim executive is Kashif Wicomb, the deputy president of the Progressive Professionals Forum, one of the organisations that forms part of the Media Transformation Movement.
Wicomb was a shareholder in Hip Hop Media – another company associated with Smith, Orrie and dubious payments by the Rasool administration.
But the echoes of the "air force" go deeper. Apparent at the demonstration by the Media Transformation Movement were professionally printed posters, suggesting a well-organised and well-funded campaign.
Investigations by amaBhungane have revealed that the transformation movement posters were printed by former Sunday Times journalist Henry Ludski, whose printing company shares a property with a satellite ANC office in Observatory in Cape Town that appears to serve as the command centre of the new "air force".
Ludski, who does both general printing and printing on material – including banners and T-shirts –does extensive work for the Western Cape ANC and, in the run-up to this year's general election, is set to cash in. Ludski this week declined to comment, saying: "Who I do business with is no one's business."
In addition, Aranes appears to have played a role in the Media Transformation Movement event, with one well-placed source alleging that he had authorised the posters.
Aranes denied this: "I never signed off on the posters. [The transformation movement] asked me about printing and I just referred them to Henry Ludski."
But Aranes confirmed he had sent out a group text message to alert people to the Media Transformation Movement's press conference and said he had done so "as a favour for the ANC" after "they asked me to do it".
Aranes also stated that "[the transformation movement] is an ANC organisation", something both entities have denied.
Aranes, who was given a final warning by Independent and later resigned in the wake of the "brown envelope" revelations, now works for Uhuru Media, which has the Western Cape ANC as one of its clients.
"Uhuru does strategic communications for the ANC and I am on that account," Aranes confirmed this week.
Aranes is also said to be a regular visitor at the Observatory premises where the Fransman faction of the party has its headquarters – apparently in parallel to the ramshackle provincial office at the Gupta family-owned Sahara House in town.
Orrie and another person seen as Fransman's gopher, ex-Cope defector Phillip Dexter, are also said to be regulars at the office.
Orrie, Douglas and Dexter, who seems to have been something of a mentor to Douglas, also share a history as members of the somewhat mysterious Africa-China People's Friendship Association.
Another feature of the Media Transformation Movement protest raises questions.
One poster featured a seemingly high-quality composite of the front pages of nine South African newspapers owned by the Independent group. It highlighted the issue that led to Survé's blow-up with Dasnois: the fact that the Cape Times chose to record Nelson Mandela's death using an exterior wraparound, while keeping the original front page lead on the public protector's highly critical report on a department of fisheries contract with another company in Survé's Sekunjalo fold.
The high-resolution files needed to print that poster "could only have come out of Indy's Prestige [electronic] PDF library", a source at Independent claimed.
The same front pages – in the same layout as the posters – were tweeted on December 13 by a woman employed by Sekunjalo, four days before they appeared at the demonstration.
Redirection of media message
The transformation movement initiative appears to run separately from but parallel to moves at Independent to control – or at least redirect – the media message.
Following the announced early retirement of Independent veteran Chris Whitfield – prompted in part by the Dasnois debacle – the newspaper group has also suspended veteran journalist Terry Bell's labour column of 18 years, pending a review of whether it should continue.
Bell has been outspokenly critical about Dasnois's departure.
It is also understood that Business Report Cape Town bureau chief Donwald Pressly has been suspended, though the reason could not be established.
By contrast, Karima Brown, Independent's new group executive editor, has commissioned the South African Communist Party deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin to write a regular column and Independent has also approached foreign policy analyst Shannon Ebrahim to take up a position. She is married to deputy foreign affairs minister Ebrahim Ebrahim and was open about the approach, but said Independent has not yet clarified her proposed role.
Coincidently, her husband shares the foreign affairs deputy minister portfolio with Fransman.
Brown had not responded to emailed questions about the front pages and staff issues at the time of writing.
Dasnois's challenge to her alleged unfair removal is scheduled to begin at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration on January 24 with a conciliation meeting.
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.