/ 8 February 2013

Distorted story has raised doubts about a reputable forum

Distorted Story Has Raised Doubts About A Reputable Forum

The Mail & Guardian's stories over two weeks concerning the Forum for Public Dialogue and its chairperson, Moeletsi Mbeki, contain both unfounded allegations and muddled analysis.

There are two separate issues here: allegations about a "dirty" black economic empowerment deal involving Mbeki, who happens to be the chairperson of the forum, and a survey of the attitudes of Cosatu shop stewards that the forum commissioned the highly reputable Community Agency for Social Enquiry (Case) to conduct.

The M&G chose to conflate the two issues on an extraordinarily tenuous basis, relying on the word of a former employee who has a record of distorted reporting and a perhaps partial audio record of a single meeting or briefing at the forum.

As the board noted last week in a statement you chose not to publish, the business dealings of Mbeki or any other members of the forum board are their own affairs and, unless they affect the work or image of the forum, remain so. So far, there has been no evidence advanced of any impropriety on the part of Mbeki, and the board remains supportive of him as chairperson.

Given the circumstances and the evident murk surrounding this situation, it called for careful investigation – something the M&G prides itself on. Instead, the newspaper rushed into print without consulting the Case researchers or any board members except Mbeki. It went on to state as fact, on a website video, that the results of the shop-steward survey had been "suppressed for political reasons". The print edition said that "Mbeki offered Cosatu a blank cheque to decide if and when the survey results would be made public".

It is clear, however, that Cosatu has no say in this matter and Mbeki, though chairperson, is only one member of the forum board that commissioned Case. Your reporter did not bother to contact either Case or any board member other than Mbeki and thus impugned the integrity of both the Case researchers and the forum board, none of whom, I am sure, would tolerate any interference with the results or the timing of the release of the survey.

In the process, your initial report further distorted the existing distortions about the preliminary findings of the survey.

The initial distortions arose when an unauthorised press release was issued on December 10 under the name of the former forum chef executive, Prince Mashele, just four hours before Cosatu was to be briefed on the preliminary survey findings by Case. Mashele's release announced a media briefing and stated that Cosatu shop stewards "have no confidence in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and want Cosatu to form a labour party". Even more critically, given the proximity of the ANC elective conference at Mangaung, the statement maintained that "the majority of shop stewards do not support Jacob Zuma's re-election for the position of president of the ANC" and "are divided between Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe".

Understandably, the briefing was cancelled and the board demanded an explanation from Mashele. This was never given and he resigned, including in his resignation letter, passed on to the M&G, allegations about "dirty" deals involving Mbeki and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

Then, in the M&G, the initial distortion about the ANC presidential contest became this: "shop stewards surveyed did not support Jacob Zuma's re-election as ANC president, preferring instead his former deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe". This statement is entirely contrary to the data to date, so it is imperative to reveal that in the preliminary results of the study, as provided to the board and to Cosatu, the shop stewards, given an open-ended choice of who should lead the ANC, listed a range of preferences, headed by Zuma and followed by Motlanthe.

For the record, the preliminary results show that Zuma got the most votes for ANC president. They also show that the SACP seems to have considerably more potential electoral support than its relatively modest membership among shop stewards might indicate, and that the ANC appears to have held on to its strong support since the last such survey in 1991. The appreciable majority in favour of nationalisation was also exceeded by a somewhat larger majority in favour of state regulation.

But the important and nuanced survey did not interest the M&G. Rather, without any apparent evidence, it focused on the allegation that Mbeki and/or Cosatu were able somehow to suppress the results of an incomplete study, not only for "political reasons" but to further Mbeki's business interests.

This allegation, quite apart from anything else, reveals a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between shopfloor workers, shop stewards and union investment companies. Singling out Numsa shop stewards, a minority among more than 2000 in the Case survey, can only be seen as innuendo.

On the basis of the available evidence, so far as it concerns the survey and the forum, it appears that the M&G has been used to further personal or political agendas.

The effect has been to raise doubts about an extremely important piece of social research, to impugn the integrity of Case researchers and the forum board, and to cause funders to retreat, so jeopardising the future existence of the forum. This is both sad and worrying.

Terry Bell, a Forum for Public Dialogue board member, writes on behalf of the board