A credibility crisis in South Africa’s independent media is unfolding this week, writes Patrick Bond.
There is a risk that fewer than a half-dozen managers will destroy the waning integrity – and at minimum, the ownership structure – of the country’s most popular tv news station, eNews, which had aspired to become Africa’s answer to Al-Jazeera.
Seven months ago, Marcel Golding, a former National Union of Mineworkers deputy general secretary who served under Cyril Ramaphosa 25 years ago, and until Monday ran eNews, received a string of emails from a behind-the-scenes fixer, Yunis Shaik. These astonishing emails were lodged in papers at the Cape Town Labour Court last Friday by Golding, in his failed last-gasp bid to save his eNews leadership.
The documents prove that six weeks before this year’s national election, Shaik told Golding and his wife, eNews executive Bronwyn Keene-Young, that their nightly national broadcast should give “lead story” coverage to President Jacob Zuma for the opening of the R3 billion De Hoop Dam in the country’s northeast, most minerals-rich region.
The intermediary between Zuma and Shaik was Minister of Economic Development Ebrahim Patel, former general secretary of the SA Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu). Within the eNews holding company, Shaik’s main protectors were the founding and current Sactwu general secretaries, Johnny Copelyn and Andre Kriel – all close pals of Golding until recently. Not anymore.
March 24 was a flashpoint moment, as Shaik wrote, “I got a call from Minister Patel today. He says President Zuma this day opened a new dam. The building of dams is a big issue and has big impact on our country for supply of water etc. He wants for us to cover it tonight.”
When after two days eNews had only mentioned the De Hoop Dam fleetingly on the morning show, Shaik emailed Keene-Young again, frustrated: “I received three sms[es] from Ebrahim and a phone call which gave rise to me sending an email to Marcel and yourself… after receiving another phone call from Ebrahim, and you and Marcel [are] still not available.”
Shaik then called and sms-ed eNews director Patrick Conroy, “alerting him of the news and suggested it gets some coverage. The fact that Ebrahim comes knocking on my door arises from the undertaking you and Marcel had given him with regard to coverage of the infrastructure programme.”
This deal was not trivial, for eNews’s 2.5 million nightly viewers are an audience 2.5 times greater than the SA Broadcasting Corporation’s English-language news show.
During eNews’s 2012 London launch, Conroy reportedly said it would “become the Al Jazeera of Africa.” But now, Patel’s “ham-fisted attempt at Stasi-style propaganda” – as the Sunday Business Times described the abuse of power at eNews – makes transparent “just how wafer-thin the line really is between powerful people seeking propaganda and the information dished out to the public.”
Golding’s main ally on the board of directors of eNews’ holding company was former Minister of State Enterprises Barbara Hogan. When she resigned on Sunday, she confirmed the interference: “I am mindful of the briefing that Yunis Shaik gave me when he claimed that Sactwu … had lost patience with the editorial practices of eTV, citing the failure to give prominent coverage to Minister Ebrahim Patel’s economic pronouncements, as an instance of such dissatisfaction.”
Shaik’s emails imply that the eNews commitment to Patel’s infrastructure projects followed a deal-sealing meeting at the Golding/Keene-Young home one Sunday: “the undertaking to give more attention to the news was also to the President and other Ministers as part of our lobbying for support on the STB programme.”
As South Africa prepares for digital tv migration, the Set-Top Box ‘STB programme’ was Golding’s attempt to garner state support for a combined, fee-based cable news and internet access system in which he was simultaneously investing just over R24 million, in order to ensure eNews had control over rapid STB retail installation. However the share price of the local electronics firm he favoured, Ellies, soon tanked, resulting in sufficiently large losses that Copelyn and Shaik allegedly had a pretense for dismissing Golding this month, for dereliction of duty, gross negligence, dishonesty, and breaches of fiduciary duties and ethics policy.
(Whether true or not, media activists insist the STBs – costing around R1000 – be provided by the state as a free universal lifeline service so as to enhance information access.)
Golding rebutted that in reality, the STB programme was trivial and the fall-out with other eNews owners occurred because of the Sactwu/Patel attempt to force the broadcaster to adopt a pro-ANC political agenda.
What kind of propaganda would Patel want dished out on national television? He certainly would not want eNews to mention the De Hoop Dam’s cost overruns (130 percent) or controversies surrounding its main beneficiaries, platinum mines, which get 60 percent of the new water supply. A year ago, such information catalyzed sell-out accusations against Zuma by the United Democratic Movement.
Other De Hoop Dam victims are downstream, in water-starved Mozambican communities and in the Kruger National Park. There, park officials joined by progressive environmentalists and water-sector NGOs firmly opposing De Hoop’s diversion of water to the mines.
Worst of all, though, would be a national news show providing rudimentary class analysis of infrastructure’s costs to ordinary people, judging from Patel’s diversionary arguments on SABC during the controversial passage of his fast-track infrastructure legislation earlier this year.
Early on, it was obvious that foreign mining houses will be the winners of Patel’s high-carbon, export-oriented Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission, and that poor people would lose through much higher electricity, water and transport prices.
In Parliament, no one I encountered in a hearing could rebut concerns about Patel’s excessive haste, especially after a recent round of infrastructure white-elephant breeding that included World Cup soccer stadiums, Johannesburg e-toll system, luxury airport spending, the Gautrain, and many others.
The intensity of the background debate about infrastructure winners and losers is why Keene-Young’s March 26 email rebuttal to Shaik makes such disturbing reading. In what was an admirably otherwise fractious reply, she assured, “undertakings made by Marcel and myself to Ebrahim Patel” to offer a series of eNews reports on infrastructure projects were indeed fulfilled. “The series has been produced and broadcast by our news team as agreed… We have delivered in every way on the agreement and the quality of the broadcasts has been outstanding…”.
Outstanding? The eNews team does have talented journalists, without question, and e.tv shows are often critical of government. But this particular series was sufficiently happy-faced that the broadcasts now feature prominently on Patel’s government website. The eNews overview report on infrastructure is one of the worst cases, celebrating two parastatal corporations’ most destructive mega-projects: Eskom’s two R120 billion coal-fired power plants and Transnet’s R350 billion rail, oil pipeline and shipping expansion.
Like Cyril Ramaphosa’s incriminating emails to Lonmin on 15 August 2012, Golding’s revelations and resignation force us into an awareness of just how closely the current ruling crew’s deracialised configuration of power across economy, politics and journalism resembles the elite’s pre-1994 structure.
And if so, then this media meltdown can only add fire to your belly, as you demand that the full crony-capitalist implications of the scandal be considered.
Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.
See also: Why I have resigned from the board of HCI.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.