/ 20 May 2021

Khaya Koko: The theatre that is our journalism

Iqbal Surve 0696
Spin doctor: Iqbal Survé’s African News Agency was contracted to the SSA to provide training, a spokesperson explained. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Tuesday. It is day 109. 

Not the number of days since the Covid-19 lockdown began in March 2020, as is the manner in which the real owner of this column, Paddy Harper, begins his missives. 

Rather — in my best efforts to when-in-Rome-do-as-Paddy-does — 109 refers to the number of days since the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector Including Organs of State, chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, heard of a R48-million State Security Agency (SSA) fund that was used to pay (read bribe) this country’s journalists. 

The fund was part of an “operation” known as Project Wave, the purpose of which, as explained in January by the witness code-named “Ms K”, who is an SSA investigator, was to counter negative reports at home and abroad about former president Jacob Zuma with favourable coverage.  

And, yet, 109 days later, at the time of making my guest column appearance, we are no closer to hearing who among the country’s scribes surreptitiously accepted proverbial brown envelopes stuffed with “stacks of racks” — to use millennial parlance — from SSA spooks. 

This should have jolted the media industry and sparked a probe to unveil the rogues among us; those who suddenly saw the need to sulley a noble profession by allegedly being bought in arguably the worst form of stomach journalism. 

Unfortunately, the clamour for rooting out the corrupt has been as dead as the air from the mooted Rhythm FM, which received almost R50-million seven years ago from the Industrial Development Corporation and the National Empowerment Fund to launch a commercial radio station in the Eastern Cape. 

Yes, we already know of claims that the African News Agency (ANA), which is owned by Nelson Mandela’s (alleged) erstwhile doctor, Iqbal Survé, supposedly scored R20-million from the loot for six months’ toil in 2016-17. 

To cover myself and the Mail & Guardian from a potential R500 000 lawsuit, which seems to be the en vogue figure for defamation these days, I need to immediately add that ANA’s chief executive, Vasantha Angamuthu, denied that the agency was a front for the SSA. 

Angamuthu said ANA was contracted “to provide multimedia training for SSA analysts and interns across Africa, and to use its platforms, in particular the African Independent newspaper, to carry positive stories about South Africa and the South African government”. 

Phew! Now that I’m secure in the knowledge that I will not have to sell my kidney on the organ open market to cover legal costs, I can saddle up on my high horse and continue to demand media accountability. 

Credit should go to Sunday World editor Wally Mbhele, who publicly announced last month that the publication’s assignments editor, Aubrey Mthombeni, had been dismissed “with immediate effect”. 

Mthombeni, Mbhele asserted, was found guilty of “bringing the paper into disrepute for attempting to solicit a bribe of R1-million from the officials of the Matjhabeng local municipality in the Free State”.

But the commendable action taken by the Sunday World seems to be a rarity. 

It is not a surprise, therefore, that temporarily suspended ANC secretary-general, Ace Magashule, who is facing a slew of corruption, fraud and money laundering charges, can pontificate on a podium about “paid journalists” in South Africa. 

“There are many good journalists, carry on doing your work. Those [journalists] who are bought to tell stories about us when you don’t even know us — besikhona emzabalazweni [we were there during the struggle],” charged Magashule, his ambivalence to the irony being conspicuous.  

He was speaking on Monday after the first-day trial appearance of Zuma, who is also facing a raft of corruption charges for alleged crimes committed more than a decade ago. 

What Magashule did not mention during his tirade was that he spent the better part of the first week of May calling reporters — serenading them with his raspy voice — to air his side of the story following his suspension from the party. 

Before Magashule addressed the hundreds of Zuma supporters that had gathered outside the Pietermaritzburg high court, his opening act was one Tony Yengeni, a convicted fraudster who also attacked “paid journalists”. Yes, the irony missed him as well. 

But until such time as journalists actively expose its own rogues, the industry will unfortunately continue to lack credibility with the public.