Herbst: Wasted millions – Corruption flourishes as investigative journalism flounders

By Ed Herbst*

“The torch of crusading journalism carried by so many from Thomas Pringle to Percy Qoboza, Donald Woods, Max du Preez and Martin Welz, among others, has been dropped, with a few honourable exceptions, by the English press and picked up by Afrikaans newspapers.”

Rhoda Kadalie, Business Day 14/10/2004

Ed Herbst
Ed Herbst

We are indebted to the tenacity of Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier and the honesty and integrity of our Deputy Minister of Finance, Mcebisi Jonas. They forced the CEO of the Public Investment Corporation, Dr Daniel Matjila, to concede in May that there had been a political rather than an investment motive in the PIC’s decision to provide most of the funding which allowed Dr Iqbal Survé to acquire Independent News Media Pty Ltd, the largest group of English newspapers in the country.

Matjila said the goal had been to give black people a chance to create a second Naspers.

Investigative journalism

A singular criterion in determining the success of such a venture is investigative journalism – in short, how have the Indy titles compared with the Naspers newspapers in this regard since the Sekunjalo takeover three years ago?

In my subjective assessment the two outstanding examples of investigative journalism in the past year or so have been the role of Beeld’s Erika Gibson in breaking the story about the way in which the African National Congress corruptly and illegally facilitated the escape of Sudanese president Omar al- Bashir and how our courts were lied to in this regard and Rapport and Beeld’s exposure of pervasive corruption in the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).

After Janet Heard, head of the News 24’s parliamentary bureau, wrote about Gibson’s exclusive, I asked Gibson to give her own account of what happened in the al-Bashir escape saga and her response was subsequently posted on the Media Online website. This was investigative journalism at its best.

It would not be fair to say that on the Prasa story Pieter-Louis Myburgh (Rapport and, subsequently News 24) and Leanne George (Beeld) blew the Indy papers out of the water because the Independent titles were never in the water anyhow.

Zapiro_Iqbal_Surve_effect_newpapers_July_2016_Slider

Eviscerated of its finest talents by a vengeful purge, Dr Survé’s newspapers were at best listless hangers-on in covering this saga of corruption and mismanagement, doing damage control by occasionally publishing retrospective follow-up articles.

Pieter-Louis Myburgh

Here is how Anton Harber described Myburgh’s entry for the 10th Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism for 2015 – which Myburgh won:

  • After an anonymous tip-off, Myburgh spent four months verifying the claim that the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) had spent R600m on rolling stock which was too tall for our railway network. When the story, “SA R600-m train blunder”, ran, Prasa said it was “devoid of truth”. But Peter-Louis followed up with documentation that proved the case. Prasa later admitted the massive blunder and, as a result of this and other reports, the CEO Lucky Montana and the Chief Engineer, were fired. It was classic investigative work: careful, patient probing to find supporting evidence for an abuse of public moneys, backed up with solid documentation, and powerfully presented to ensure it had impact. And it certainly did.

I have prepared the following timeline to showcase not only the talents of these fine reporters and their newspapers but the extent to which pervasive corruption has been allowed to flourish on the watch of the ANC.

  • Pieter-Louis’s coverage of Prasa started with a report in Rapport on March 2015 detailing how a host of politically connected individuals positioned themselves to become beneficiaries of Prasa’s massive R51 billion tender for new passenger carriages awarded to Gibela, the local subsidiary of French manufacturing giant Alstom.
  • In May 2015 Myburgh reported on a dodgy property transaction that linked former Prasa CEO Lucky Montana to a company that had won contracts worth billions of rand to provide Prasa with security products and services.
  • Myburgh’s next article in Rapport, in June 2015, focused on yet another upmarket property, this time in Cape Town, which linked Montana to a businesswoman whose company had secured lucrative contracts to refurbish and service Prasa trains.
  • On 5 July 2015, Rapport/Pieter-Louis Myburgh broke the story of how Prasa had purchased locomotives, the Afro 4000’s, that were too tall for South Africa’s rail infrastructure. While the previous articles had revealed the murky background deals involved in the Prasa contracts, this article disclosed for the first time that there were fundamental engineering shortcomings in the hugely expensive trains that had been purchased.
  • The 5 July 2015 exposé by Myburgh on the Afro 4000 locomotives was met with fierce denials from Prasa – which was still being led by Montana at that stage. Rapport, however followed up with a second Myburgh article a week later on the locomotives, this time with documented evidence. This evidence included reports from Prasa’s own engineers, which clearly indicated that the Afro 4000’s were not compliant with South African rail specifications. The week thereafter the Prasa board told Montana that he no longer needed to see out the remainder of his tenure as CEO.
  • On 4 October 2015 Rapport readers learned that a lawyer representing Montana had paid R25 million in cash for two upmarket properties.
  • In January 2016 the newspaper revealed that an Angolan businesswoman, Maria da Cruz Gomes, who’d been visited by President Jacob Zuma at her home, as well as a lawyer with ties to Zuma’s family, had received payments totalling R80 million from Swifambo Rail Leasing, the local company who’d supplied the Spanish-built Afro 4000 locomotives to Prasa. No clear reasons have been provided as to why Swifambo had received invoices from these individuals or why they had been paid out in this regard.
  • On 14 August 2016 Myburgh broke another angle on the increasingly murky PRASA saga in an article headlined ‘Zuma friend’s R550m bonanza’.
  • On 21 August 2016 Myburgh revealed another seemingly dodgy PRASA-linked property transaction, this time a luxury Durban apartment bought as a “gratification” for a senior Prasa employee, Luvuyo Gantsho, who oversaw a multi-billion-rand security contract.

Leanne George

Picture: Twitter @Jadwong
Anton Harber

Here is how Anton Harber summed up the submission by Beeld’s Leanne George:

This is a story of hubris. Following from the previous Prasa story, Leanne George heard CEO Lucky Montana describe his head of engineering Daniel Mtimkulu as a “genius”. With admirable journalistic scepticism, she checked out his genius, only to find that he was not registered as an engineer and his claimed double-doctorate – including the one he claimed to have got when he was 15 – was a figment of his imagination. And this is not the quality one wants from someone who has to oversee a R600-m train carriage purchase. He lost his job, as did another fake doctor in Prasa and, eventually, the CEO himself.

  • On 8 July 2015, three days after her colleague broke the story about the newly-purchased Prasa locomotives not being suitable for our rail system, a front page lead in Beeld by Leanne George gave the first indication that the professional credentials of the company’s chief engineer, “Dr” Daniel Mtimkulu were suspect. Two days later another Beeld front page lead revealed that Mtimkulu’s claim in an SAFM radio interview that he had studied in Germany for his doctorate during the fall of the Berlin Wall could not be true. George had ascertained that Mtimkulu had been born in 1974 which meant that he was, if his claim was true, 15 years old when he commenced studying for his doctorate in Germany and that meant he must have matriculated at the age of eight years!
  • On 17 July 2015 George broke the story about Lucky Montana’s dismissal
  • On 24 July 2015, in another Beeld front page article, Leanne George broke the news that “Dr” Mtimkulu had no engineering qualifications whatsoever!

Responding to her enquiry, the Vaal University of Technology revealed that although Mtimkulu had registered there for a diploma in mechanical engineering, he had never completed the course!

  • On 31 July 2015, George and Myburgh filed an article revealing that Prasa could not account for a “missing” R17 million.
  • On 15 September 2015 George and Myburgh filed the most disturbing story of them all – not only are the Afro­4000 locomotives too tall for South African rail lines, their brakes could also pose a danger.
  • On 9 December 2015George and Myburgh broke the news that Swifambo Rail Leasing, the company that won the multi-billion rand contract to deliver the controversial Afro 4000 locomotives to Prasa, had pocketed an extra R335m.
  • On 14 December 2015 George and Myburgh reveal that the managing director of the company that won the contract to supply Prasa with its controversial Afro 4000 locomotives, spent R27 million in cash on a game farm and lodge in Limpopo five days after Prasa made its first payment to his company.

In fact, two years after Dr Iqbal Survé took over the Independent titles – which include the Cape Times, the Cape Argus, the Mercury, Pretoria News, the Daily News, The Star, the Sunday Tribune, the Sunday Independent, the Diamond Fields Advertiser and Isolezwe – and started his purge of some of the country’s best editors, journalists and subeditors, not one of his newspapers made the 2015 finalist list for the Taco Kuiper award.

In 2014 the Taco Kuiper award for investigative journalism also did not go to a newspaper owned by Dr Survé. It went to Sam Sole, Stefaans Brümmer, and Vinayak Bhardwaj of the Mail & Guardian’s amaBhungane team for ‘The Nkandla Files’ and an Indy newspaper did not even make the shortlist of six entries.

This indicates that Dr Dan Matjila’s goal of establishing a black Naspers was nothing but an ill-considered pipe dream which holds little comfort for the country’s civil servants whose pension fund financed this project.

The recent resignation of Karima Brown and the impending retrenchments – staff will learn whether they are still employed when they get their payslips on Thursday – must make fear the pervasive emotion in the Indy newsrooms and that is hardly the incentive needed for producing world-class investigative journalism.

Karima Brown. Photo: Twitter @SACP1921
Karima Brown

Given the PIC investment of hundreds of millions of rands to create a “black Naspers” it is interesting to reflect on the latest sales figures for daily newspapers published on Herman Manson’s Mark Lives website.

In the table for daily newspaper sales which Manson provides only one newspaper is highlighted in green which signifies an increase in sales and that is the Pretoria News, a newspaper owned by Dr Survé, which saw a radical improvement in the numbers of newspapers sold each day – 23 copies. If you subtract the 3606 which are effectively given away to schools and left at airports, then the number of people who actually buy the newspaper with their own money drops to little more than ten thousand.

Does that figure justify, after three years, an investment of more than a billion rand on behalf of the civil servants who expect a reasonable but safe return on their pensions by the people who are charged with that responsibility?

Does it justify the dearth of investigative reporting in the Indy newspapers if you use the Taco Kuiper awards as a determinant?

This was not a first. Snuki Zikala helped bankrupt the SABC with his equally ill-considered fantasy of establishing the “African Al Jazeera”. Hundreds of millions of rands were spent setting up 13 news bureaux in cities all over the world to produce news programmes which could be accessed by 0.5 % of South African households because the necessary decoder was not available locally – a brilliant business plan!

Thank goodness for the Afrikaans press.

  • Ed Herbst is a pensioner and former reporter who writes in his own capacity.
(Visited 44 times, 1 visits today)