How much for your integrity?

Corruption is a heavy thing. Literally. The fat white envelope handed to Mail & Guardian reporter Matuma Letsoalo last Saturday by Veon Bock and an associate seemed have more heft than the two bundles of R100 notes inside could possibly account for.

Perhaps it was the weight of wrongness. R40 000 wrapped in rubber bands doesn’t look like much, spread out for counting, but lying on a table in our newsroom it made distressingly solid the venality, graft and criminality that we so often write about at a remove.

There was no source testimony here, between the M&G and the corrupt act, no leaked forensic report, or police docket; the experience was direct and deeply unsettling.

Veon Bock, CEO of financial-services company SA Quantum, offered Mail & Guardian reporter Matuma Letsoalo R120 000 to suppress his story about regular payments to Noluthando Vavi. We caught him on camera as an associate handed over R40 000

When Bock offered Letsoalo R120 000 to suppress his story about regular payments by his financial services company, SA Quantum, to Noluthando Vavi, two easy choices presented themselves. The first was to accept what would have been, for someone on a journalist’s salary, a life-changing sum of money. Enough to pay a deposit on house.

The second was simply to refuse the bribe and plough ahead with the story.

After consulting senior members of our investigative team and me, Letsoalo chose a third, much harder route: exposing the bribery attempt and securing incontrovertible evidence in the form of cash and hidden-camera video footage.

It was a decision that we made quickly, in the hours immediately following the meeting at which the cash was offered, but not easily.

At the most basic level, there were concerns for the safety of the reporter. Meeting people whom you do not know well and who have every incentive to shut you up is intimidating enough. Meeting them in deserted parking lots covertly to film them handing over substantial sums of cash is downright frightening.

Little choice
There were also questions of law and journalistic practice. Conducting stings of this nature is not a strong part of the South African print media tradition.

But we felt that we had little choice. Very public allegations of corruption have been levelled at journalists by the ANC Youth League and there is growing national anxiety about the damage graft is doing to our democratic institutions and our economy.

Equally important, simply to report the payments to Noluthando Vavi and to ignore the bribe attempt would be to misrepresent the facts. Clearly, if Bock feels a payoff of R120 000 is warranted to suppress the story, he believes that the conduct the story exposes is so seriously improper that its exposure would be enormously damaging.

It is important that readers be made aware of that.

But we needed to make sure that we handled the process rigorously and ethically.

Letsoalo was accompanied to the meeting where the bribe was first offered, by a colleague, Lucky Sindane, so he had a witness. He informed me and other senior colleagues immediately afterwards.

He then drafted an affidavit outlining the circumstances of the offer. That statement was signed and commissioned at the Rosebank police station and emailed to our attorneys before the cash was handed over.

Bock was nervous about discussing the story on the telephone, but he is clearly captured on video leading Letsoalo to a car where an associate is waiting with the envelope. The video has all the drab ordinariness of routine immorality. Cellphone records will show his calls to Letsoalo, setting up the meeting.

I was waiting a block away, and on leaving the meeting Letsoalo immediately met me beside the road, where he handed over the cash and the hidden camera to me. I watched the video to ensure that it was clear and arranged for the cash to be photographed before delivering it to our attorneys.

It is in now in their safe – the weighty evidence of the soft bundles of cash in the blank envelope.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Nic Dawes Author
Guest Author

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