Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois has been removed from her post by her newspaper group's controlling shareholder.
It is understood that Dasnois was informed by Sekunjalo Consortium executive chairperson Iqbal Survé of her removal on Friday, and that some reporters for the Cape Times were moved to tears by the removal.
Sekunjalo Consortium is the controlling shareholder of Independent Newspapers, which owns the Cape Times among other newspapers in the country.
Dasnois was told on Friday not to return to work and Monday's edition of the newspaper will be edited by Chris Whitfield, the group editor in the Western Cape.
Dasnois was apparently offered redeployment in another capacity within the company.
She declined to comment on Sunday, except to say: "I am in the process of seeking legal advice."
It is not clear why Dasnois was fired.
Front page of Madonsela findings
However, her removal from office coincides with the newspaper publishing a front-page article on public protector Thuli Madonsela's finding that Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was guilty of maladministration, as well as improper and unethical conduct in the irregular awarding of an R800-million tender to a Sekunjalo subsidiary to manage the state's fishery vessels.
In a letter to Whitfield dated December 7, lawyers for Sekunjalo Investments referred specifically to the Cape Times article of the previous day.
"Our instructions are that you have reported extensively over the past two years on the allegations by the disappointed bidder SMIT Amandla [Marine] and Mr Pieter van Dalen of the Democratic Alliance regarding Sekunjalo's role in the award of the tender for management of the research and patrol vessels of the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries [DAFF]?.
"Our client has instructed us to record the following:
"1. It has been alleged that Sekunjalo Investments Ltd is guilty of corruption; that it had misled and/or defrauded DAFF; that it lacked the experience and expertise to undertake the management of the research and patrol vessels of DAFF; etc.
2. These allegations have been thoroughly debunked.
3. The report by the public protector clears Sekunjalo of all wrongdoing.
4. It would have been appropriate, after months and months of sustained attacks on the integrity of Sekunjalo, if the Cape Times had published on its front page the more accurate articles which were buried on page 18 of Business Report of December 6 2013, that Sekunjalo had been vindicated, and that the company demanded an apology."
Front-page apology demand
The lawyer's letter demanded a front-page apology on Monday December 9 2013 from the newspaper's editor and the journalist concerned, Melanie Gosling, "and that proper prominence be given by the newspaper of the findings of the public protector concerning Sekunjalo".
"It is only appropriate given the history of aspersions cast on the company," stated the letter. "If you fail to accede to this demand, Sekunjalo will issue summons on Tuesday against the individuals concerned in their personal capacity, as well as against the newspaper, for the recovery of damages suffered by the company.
"The company will also lodge a complaint with the press ombudsman for breaches of the press code if this demand is not met," the letter states.
While Whitfield was unavailable for comment, a Cape Times staffer told the Mail & Guardian a front page apology would probably not be published.
The M&G understands an agreement with various options has been reached and a statement clarifying the situation would be released soon. This includes the possible redeployment of Dasnois.
The staffer said Dasnois was not editing the paper on Thursday as she was in a meeting with some senior staff from the Western Cape and the rest of the country, and that assitant editor Tony Weaver was acting editor.
But according to South African law, the editor is still responsible for the publication, whether present or not.
On Friday, the Cape Times ran an editorial saying concerns were unfounded that Sekunjalo's ownership of Independent Newspapers would lead to the paper protecting the interests of the company.
In a statement on Thursday, Sekunjalo Investments chief executive Khalid Abdulla said the company was pleased that the public protector had not found, as alleged in some media reports, that Sekunjalo Marine Service Consortium lacked experience and expertise to perform the service.
"The suggestion, widely repeated in the media, that the award of the tender was obtained by fraud or corruption, has not been supported by any evidence before the public protector.
"The company welcomes its vindication, and will respond more fully once a copy of the final report is furnished to it by the public protector," said Abdulla.