The year that was: What you read on the M&G Online

More than half of 2009’s most-read articles on the Mail & Guardian Online concerned President Jacob Zuma. This was the year he ascended to the presidency—on the way fighting off charges of corruption and graft.

Tearful Niehaus admits fraud”. These were the words that pulled in more than 30 000 readers to the article about how the former ANC spin doctor left a trail of “bad debt and broken promises”, in the words of journalist Pearlie Joubert. This was the M&G Online‘s most-read article of 2009 and it’s not hard to see why. While the story appeared to come out of nowhere, rumours had been circulating for months, even years, about Niehaus. When Joubert finally cornered him, revelations—and tears—came tumbling out. And besides, you can’t beat the news value of a public official having a good cry.

The fate of an article is often determined by its headline. “The spy who saved Zuma” is a case in point, and more than 29 000 readers clicked through to the article about how a top spy once linked to former president Thabo Mbeki saved ANC president Jacob Zuma’s political life. Journalists Pearlie Joubert and Adriaan Basson established that the Arthur Fraser was the man who leaked to Zuma’s lawyers the secret recordings that ultimately let him off the hook.

While the M&G Online is primarily concerned with hard news, investigative journalism and politics, every so often another kind of story appears—one that captures the imagination of the world.

Fly me to Mars. One way” was of this type—and 27 000 readers succumbed to the news from the Red Planet. Writer Paul Davies theorises that those on the one-way journey would be able to establish a “lifeboat” in the event of a catastrophe on Earth and apparently found no shortage of eager scientists, both young and old, willing to undertake the mission. They should probably get out a bit more.

MRC: Quarter of men in South Africa admit rape” drew almost 27 000 people who wanted to read more about this shocking statistic.

South Africa has one of the highest levels of rape in the world, and Professor Rachel Jewkes of the Medical Research Council (MRC), who carried out the research, said: “We have a very, very high prevalence of rape in South Africa. I think it is down to ideas about masculinity based on gender hierarchy and the sexual entitlement of men. It’s rooted in an African ideal of manhood.”

There was also plenty of interest about what President Zuma’s new administration would look like, and the story “Zuma’s Cabinet: Who’s in, who’s out”, was read more than 26 000 times.

What Zuma told the NPA” detailed how the ANC president’s legal team gave acting prosecutions boss Mokotedi Mpshe two reasons for dropping charges against Zuma, both involving fresh “evidence” of wrongdoing by former president Thabo Mbeki. The M&G ascertained that the two strands of evidence put before Mpshe concerned Mbeki’s role in the 1999 arms deal and claims that Mbeki influenced the Scorpions’ controversial “Special Browse Mole” report, which raised concerns about funding and support for Zuma from Libya and Angola.

While the Caster Semenya saga made world headlines, the fall-out and the fate of Leonard Chuene, president of Athletics South Africa, was followed particularly closely in South Africa.

More than 24 000 people read the “Semenya saga: Chuene’s trail of lies”, in which it was made crystal clear that Chuene knew Semenya was gender-tested ahead of the World Championships in Berlin, something he had denied.

In the wake of the Niehaus scandal came news of a plan to boost Zuma’s image within the party and the public.

Why did Zuma want Niehaus?” was read by just more than 20 000 people and showed how Niehaus’s ill-fated appointment in November 2008 appeared to stem from an attempt to create a “machinery” to serve Zuma in the face of his arms-deal travails.

Zuma tapes split NPA” told how the National Prosecuting Authority was left reeling after evidence came to light of collusion between its former officials and former president Thabo Mbeki in the prosecution of Jacob Zuma.

More than 60 000 people watched “What the SABC wouldn’t show you”, making it the most-watched video of the year. The show on political satire was leaked to the M&G after the public broadcaster decided it was not fit for the public’s consumption. The SABC then laid a charge of theft with the police, but by that time, the video was, as they say, all over the internet. Close to 20 000 people read the accompanying article, “The show SABC wouldn’t let you see”.

Top 10 most-read stories 2009
1. Tearful Niehaus admits fraud

2. The spy who saved Zuma

3. Fly me to Mars. One-way

4. MRC: Quarter of men in South Africa admit rape

5. Zuma’s Cabinet: Who’s in, who’s out

6. What Zuma told the NPA

7. Semenya saga: Chuene’s trail of lies

8. Why did Zuma want Niehaus?

9. Zuma tapes split NPA

10 The show the SABC wouldn’t let you see

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