The career of alleged “brown envelope” journalist Joe Aranes is experiencing a strange second life as controversy in the remote Northern Cape echoes the scandal he was caught up in at the Cape Argus.
Aranes is said to have pocketed money and benefited from Western Cape government tenders in return for favourable coverage of former premier Ebrahim Rasool. It now appears that he has moved from that alleged underworld to one in which the newspaper he is guiding is accused of dividing an impoverished community in the diamond-rich Richtersveld area for the alleged benefit of the paper’s publisher, Desmond Sampson.
This is according to Aranes’s former colleagues at the Northern Cape community newspaper Eland Nuus as well as locals who, despite winning one of the country’s largest land claims ever in 2007, are struggling to benefit from the R190-million-plus deal.
Some locals have accused the newspaper of dividing the Richtersveld Communal Property Association (CPA) and its elected committee, which, through a trust, controls the companies set up to benefit from the settlement.
The newspaper’s former editor and former deputy editor have claimed that they were fired last year because they refused to toe Sampson’s editorial line — usually anti-CPA — and their departures were hastened once Aranes joined the publisher in 2009.
Aranes is group editor of Uhuru Publications, a company that publishes the Eland Nuus, SAA inflight magazine Sawubona, the ANC Youth League’s Loocha magazine and the Government Communication and Information System’s Public Service Manager, among other titles.
According to Zenzile Khoisan, the former deputy editor, Sampson “wanted to engineer a political establishment in the Northern Cape that was amenable to his own political and business interests — Desmond is after a CPA that will do his bidding.”
In 2010 the Mail & Guardian reported that Uhuru had signed a memorandum of understanding with three companies connected to the Nama Council splinter group that gave Sampson’s company a 50-50 split in that community’s claim to agricultural, mining and environmental rehabilitation interests in the Richtersveld area. It also revealed that Sampson had interests in a diamond-trading company, Arsa, which was deregistered last year.
This week Sampson said Uhuru’s contracts with the Nama Council remained in force because he did not want “to assist them out of a psychology of hand-outs — they must be entrepreneurs — and that is the purpose of the memorandum of understanding”.
Khoisan said he had had run-ins with Sampson and Aranes because he refused to “stretch the story” to “suggest there was an evil axis of politicians and people in the judiciary in the Northern Cape”.
He said one such request came after a 2010 Northern Cape High Court judgment by Judge Steven Majiedt in which he dismissed an application funded by Sampson to have four directors of the Richtersveld Agricultural Holding Company (RAHC) removed and replaced by community members allegedly closer to the publisher.
“Deborah [Hendriks, the former Eland Nuus editor] and I were serious when politicians were not doing the work — we nailed them. When they did do their work, we availed the paper to show that. But the moment we did anything in a good light Desmond would be shouting ‘What the fuck are you doing?’,” said Khoisan.
In papers Hendriks lodged with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration in an appeal against a disciplinary hearing, she stated that she found the “specific charge of ‘misleading the group editor’ [Aranes] — completely ludicrous”. She said they had clashed over the prominent coverage the newspaper had given to the deaths of musician Robbie Jansen and struggle icon Johnny Issel, something both Aranes and Sampson apparently opposed.
Hendriks said that Aranes’s position or job description was never made clear to the Eland Nuus staff and that his presence was counterproductive “because, instead of helping, it added pressure and instability”.
“Aranes attended a few editorial meetings with the Eland team, but a few weeks later, after the publication on the front page of the Mail & Guardian of the brown envelope journalism scandal, he vanished from the office. No explanation for his absence was given,” Hendriks said.
According to her submissions, Aranes returned later, “when numerous reports relating to the scandal had blown over”.
This week Hendriks said that the paper was meant to be a vehicle for the cultural and political aspirations of the Khoisan, but it had been “dumbed down” and was now “littered with errors”. “Joe is definitely doing his bit there now to orchestrate the paper with Desmond — It is now a propaganda tool that has nothing to do with the Khoisan,” she said.
Community member Emily Smith said Sampson was “throwing money around because he wanted to replace the CPA committee with his people”. “The Eland Nuus is used to saying bad things about the CPA; it is one-sided and gives no opportunity to put the CPA side across,” she said.
In December 2010, following a complaint lodged by CPA chairperson Willem Diergaadt about a June 2010 story published in the Eland Nuus, the newspaper was criticised by the press ombudsman for not declaring that its publisher had funded the court application about which it had reported.
Sampson denied allegations that he and Aranes had been manipulating the news and said his former employees had “a vendetta against us” and that he had been “warning” Hendriks and Khoisan “not to run the newspaper the way they were doing” before their dismissals.
The Richtersveld community is struggling to benefit from their land settlement. Majiedt’s 2010 judgment noted that the RAHC, one of three companies set up by the community, “appears to be edging ever closer to the abyss of financial oblivion” despite receiving more than R50-million in development grants.
According to a highly placed independent source, the seven-member CPA committee has been “divided into an ‘Uhuru faction’ and a ‘community faction’ that has left it unable to decide or act on anything”.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there are times when there are justifiable reasons to put the committee under pressure, but at the moment the Uhuru faction appears to be just agitating to stop the committee from being effective,” the source said.
The department of rural development has appointed a mediator to help the committee sort out its problems.
When contacted for comment, Aranes said: “Same shit, different day. Bye.” He refused to speak to the M&G when subsequent attempts were made to reach him.
Judge releases damning report
Western Cape High Court Judge Bennie Griesel this week released the 2006 ANC internal interim report investigating allegations that former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool laundered provincial government money for favourable coverage from journalists.
The report was released following a Promotion of Access to Information Act application by the Cape Argus, whose then-political editor, Joe Aranes, and senior political reporter Ashley Smith had been implicated following a 2009 Mail & Guardian exposé.
After taking a “judicial peek”, Griesel attached the report to his judgment, handed down on Monday, which caused the ANC to state that the action denied it its constitutional and legal right to appeal against his judgment.
The report, compiled by Deputy Justice Minister Andries Nel, corroborated the M&G‘s report that Rasool had held “strategic meetings” with Smith and Aranes in 2005 at his official residence, Leeuwenhof, and attempted to launder payment of R100 000 to the journalists through Oryx Media, a company contracted to the premier’s office.
In March 2006 the Cape Argus published an editorial declaring that, because of allegations of impropriety, Smith had resigned and Aranes had been suspended.
In 2009 the M&G ran a story containing excerpts from a conversation between then Western Cape premier Lynne Brown (who had replaced Rasool because of the “brown envelope” allegations) and Vukile Pokwana, former accounts director of Hip Hop-Media Lounge, in which Pokwana alleged that journalists were being paid cash “in brown envelopes” to manipulate stories for political ends.
In 2010 Smith signed an affidavit outlining his and Aranes’s role in the “brown envelope” matter.
Last year the M&G reported that Inkwenkwezi, a company that listed Smith’s wife, Joy van der Heyde, as one of its directors, and Hip Hop Media Lounge, in which Aranes and Smith bought shares in 2006 with Zain Orrie, allegedly Rasool’s go-between, had benefited from provincial department contracts worth almost R53-million between 2004 and 2009. — Niren Tolsi