The rise of fake news under the ANC government – Ed Herbst

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

CAPE TOWN — Fast becoming one of the country’s best fake news sleuths, Ed Herbst takes a leap back nine years to scrutinise one of the forerunners of today’s sophisticated digital or print deceptions in the ANC-captured or ruling party-favouring media. He does so by spotting a glittering gem amongst the slew of recently-published excellent political books, one from former KwaZulu Natal MK command leader and ex-government intelligence chief, Ronnie Kasrils, no less. It begs – and by implication answers – the question of why The Star published a fake news article in a lavish 2008 Zuma-punting supplement, lauding him as “one of the ANC’s rising stars”. Zuma was at the time headed for the presidency, Moegsien Williams was the Star’s editor and Tony O’Reilly the owner of its mothership, Independent Newspapers. Kasrils contends that the 2008 so-called republication of a 45-year-old Star story about Zuma’s trial and imprisonment is a complete fabrication and goes on to say exactly why. It’s the very antithesis of what good journalism, as personified by the late George Palmer, former editor of the Financial Mail, is all about. Breathtakingly so. – Chris Bateman

By Ed Herbst*

Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention.

Fake news often employs eye-catching headlines or entirely fabricated news stories to increase readership, online sharing and Internet click revenue. – Wikipedia

The moment I saw The Star in 2008 I smelt a rat.

If Zuma was indeed regarded in Durban as ‘One of the ANC’s rising stars’, The Star would have been hard pressed to uncover such a view, for the ANC was deep underground and there was no reference in the Natal press. – Ronnie Kasrils A Simple Man – Kasrils and the Zuma Enigma (Jacana, 2017)

Political pundits and media junkies were rewarded late last year when two ANC stalwarts of long and honourable standing gave their insider accounts of the evolution of the African National Congress as a criminal enterprise and South Africa’s concomitant decline into a junk status dysfunctional state.

I covered both books – by Crispian Olver and Ronnie Kasrils – in my summary of the best political books 2017.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Kasrils book and while it focuses on the avarice, venality and treachery of Jacob Zuma and people of like mind in the ANC, it also has two fascinating chapters on the media.

President Jacob Zuma looks on during the 54th national conference of the ANC in Johannesburg on December 17, 2017. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

The one sees Kasrils and his wife, Amina Frense – an esteemed former colleague at the SABC – absolutely wallowing in entirely justified schadenfreude as they drive around the streets of Johannesburg on 29 March 2015 admiring the Sunday Times poster which proclaims Spy Tapes: We apologise to Kasrils but it is the other chapter, Fake News that I found even more intriguing.

I reproduce it here with the kind permission of Jacana, but first some background.

Two paragraphs

This chapter concerns two paragraphs on page 12 of Jeremy Gordin’s 2008 book Zuma – A  Biography 

A reproduction of the alleged original 1963 article was also carried in a supplement about Jacob Zuma which was published in The Star in 2008. Kasrils, in the chapter below, says that the 1963 article alleging Zuma’s prominence within the ANC never existed – in short that it was circa 2008 Fake News to promote the newly elected Jacob Zuma and distract attention from his dismal ethical record. He does not know how the article originated and ended up in the supplement but one gets the impression that he suspects that Gordin had possibly played a role.

Now read on:

CHAPTER 22

Fake News

The Johannesburg Star,

12 August 1963 and 2008

As the 2009 national elections approached, the prospect of Jacob Zuma becoming the next president of the country became more and more certain. People began to queue up to ingratiate themselves, and where possible to provide favourable publicity. An edition of the Johannesburg Star in August 2008 carried a mock-up claiming to be a replica of the newspaper’s edition forty-five years previously, in which it had supposedly reported on I2 August I963 that the 2I-year-old Jacob Zuma, ‘one of the ANC’s rising stars’ had been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. In Jeremy Gordin’s biography of Zuma, he writes: ‘He was apparently better known than either he or recent history has acknowledged. The headlines on page 6 of the City Late edition of The Star [I2 August I963] read: “JACOB ZUMA JAILED”.

Jacob Zuma, a prominent member of the banned African National Congress and activist in the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe has been sentenced to an effective ten years’ imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the government. He was arrested with a group of 45 recruits near Zeerust in the Western Transvaal. The 21-year-old Zuma, son of a policeman from Nkandla in Natal, became involved in politics at a very early age and joined the ANC in I959 when he was a mere I7. Zuma was one of the ANC’s rising stars when the political party was banned by the government.

The moment I saw The Star in 2008 I smelt a rat. As part of the MK Regional Command in Natal, l knew he was anonymous to the public and media when we sent him for training abroad in I963. What was more, none of the many political trials at the time, other than when the big fish like Mandela or Billy Nair were in the dock, had warranted more than a couple of column centimetres to report that a group of Africans had been sentenced under security legislation. If Zuma was indeed regarded in Durban as ‘One of the ANC’s rising stars’, The Star would have been hard pressed to uncover such a view, for the ANC was deep underground and there was no reference in the Natal press. Another error is the reference to the ANC as a ‘political party’, which it was not. Neither the ANC nor anybody else regarded the organisation as a party until the I994 elections.

Amina Frense and David Niddrie, journalists of long standing, accompanied me on a search for The Star report at the Johannesburg Library, which keeps an archive of South African and international newspapers. The I2 August I963 City Late edition has a dramatic front-page story featuring the escape from Marshall Square police headquarters of Abdulhay Jassat, Arthur Goldreich, Harold Wolpe and Mosie Moola. Page 6 has no mention of the Jacob Zuma story at all. We searched for any mention of Zuma in all editions from 1 June through to the end of August I963, but nothing came to light. We also checked copies of the Rand Daily Mail and the Natal Mercury, Zuma’s home town morning newspaper, which one would think would more likely than most carry news of the ‘rising star,’ but to no avail. We found nothing in our search for the entire month of August 2008.

The I4 June I963 edition of The Star did have a story that simply mentioned forty-five Africans had been arrested near Zeerust on their way out of the country. They were being held under the 90-day detention law, allowing suspects to be detained in solitary confinement with no access to lawyers for up to ninety days at a time.

No names were provided, and no other information was given about the people’s identities other than that two lndians and an African woman were among the group. Whoever unearthed that information from whatever the source must have thought that the story, given a good deal of spin, would make for good publicity for the forthcoming president. It was apparent that his image could well do with a facelift. Both Lorna and I had without a shadow of a doubt seen the extract Jeremy Gordin featured in his book on Zuma, but that was in August 2008. A strange account indeed.

Why this chapter intrigued me is that it could be the first example of post-1994 Fake News – i.e. a deliberately concocted and publicised lie for political or personal gain which conforms to the Wiki definition in one of the anchor quotes to this article.

I accordingly asked Jeremy for his assessment of what had happened.

Gordin, who expressed reservations about the Kasrils book in a Politicsweb review, said he was mildly distressed that Kasrils … ‘who lives near me and has broken bread in my house’ had not contacted him in this regard.

In 2008 he was Group Assistant Editor on the Sunday Independent, Sunday Tribune and Weekend Argus and, while researching his subsequent book on Jacob Zuma, he came across the above-mentioned article on the internet. He duly brought it to the attention of the team assembling The Star supplement on Zuma shortly after the Polokwane putsch. He also made reference to it in his book.

Gordin says that he was uneasy about the provenance of the alleged 1963 article and its presence on the internet and so he approached the late Patrick Laurence, the only person still around who had worked on The Star in 1963: “He did not seem concerned. He said (in 2007) ‘Well, maybe someone did know stuff about Zuma in those days, I don’t really know …’”

Noncommittal reply

Gordin told me that during his interviews with Zuma in preparation for his book, he also asked him about this internet article but got a noncommittal reply.

Jacques Pauw’s book “The President’s Keepers”

His account is corroborated by a paragraph on page 65 of the Jacques Pauw book:

Little is known about Zuma’s years in exile, but there are enough hints and evidence of a darker past that should have undermined his rise to the top. He doesn’t talk about the 15 years he spent with the ANC in exile. He didn’t even take his biographer, Jeremy Gordin, into his confidence. He is quoted as saying that details of the “operational events of those days” were the property of the ANC, not his to disclose.

If Jeremy Gordin was hornswoggled by the internet article on Zuma – which can no longer be found online and could not be located by Kasrils, Niddrie and Frense – he would hardly be the first one.

What is interesting in the context of the Kasrils exposé of this 2008 Fake News article, is what has happened subsequently. Fast forward a decade and the production of ANC-initiated Fake News increases exponentially before elections.

Before the 2014 national elections we had the farcical ANC ‘Black ops’ initiative with a script which seems to have been jointly written by John Cleese and Mr Bean while living high in the mountains where the grass is greener.

Move to the ANC’s December 2017 Nasrec elections and Adrian Basson and Pieter Joubert point to a seminal moment in another Fake News initiative in their book Enemy of the People – How Jacob Zuma stole South Africa and how the people fought back (Jonathan Ball, 2017)

Motale, surrounded by bodyguards, was hugged by Kenny Kunene, a socialite and convicted criminal, and mobbed by a team from the Gupta’s ANN7. The Sunday Independent got the go-ahead to run the story and on Sunday morning, 3 September 2017, South Africa awoke to the headline ‘Ramaphosa “the Player”: Cyril in bid to gag paper, womanising email shock.’

The death race to December had kicked into overdrive.

Fake News Cycle. More of Zapiro’s magic available at www.zapiro.com.
NDZ campaign

The background to this was that Dr Iqbal Survé, very publicly threw his weight behind the NDZ campaign, just as he did with the immensely destructive Fallist campaign.

  • He hosted the launch of a book outlining the role played in the African Union by Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and was lavish in his praise of her.
  • He fired Sunday Independent editor Wally Mbhele for having the temerity to publish an article critical of the way in which the ANC manipulated the appointment to parliament of Zupta ally Brian Molefe.
  • He replaced Mbhele with Steve Motale who had proved his pro-Zuma mettle by publishing an imbongi article condemning media coverage of uBaba kaDuduzane.  (Is there any significance in the fact that, although this article was originally published in the Citizen, it has now been reproduced on Survé’s IOL website?)
  • In collaboration with ‘New Gupta’, Kenny Kunene, Motale then sought to undermine the CR17 campaign by publishing their shock/horror Sunday Independent lead – a failed attempt to anathematise  Ramaphosa by portraying him as rapacious and serial sexual predator who has for years exploited a harem of financially-vulnerable women students who are allegedly constantly on call to sate his blesser pleasure. This attempt was stillborn, not least because one of the women identified as one of the alleged friends with benefits and recipients of Ramaphosa’s supposed licentious largesse, could prove that she had never met him.

This Motale/Kunene ‘scoop’ was widely perceived as Fake News and the Nasrec delegates weren’t buying its anti-Ramaphosa line. Having previously rejected the discredited Bell Pottinger anti-white hymn of hate, they elected him as their leader and, on their votes for the National Executive Committee, the proponent of the WMC line straggled in a distant ninth.

It could be that Survé, concerned about the lack of advertising coming the way of the Indy newspapers from the ANC – something his former henchwoman Karima ( Disruptor) Brown complained about in the context of ‘transformation’ – gambled that if he ingratiated himself with NDZ and she won, that situation would change to his benefit. If so, it was a gamble that failed because I can’t see the new regime of the ANC paying much attention to Survé’s advertising concerns now.

qnRonnie Kasrils has raised an interesting angle in the chapter which seems to throw new light on the early origins of our post-1994 ANC Fake News onslaught. We are now faced with a technologically-advanced and automated bot war aimed at influencing social media users and intensifying ethnic hatred against South Africa’s white citizens who Jacob Zuma  – evoking the Rwandan genocide – has equated with snakes and blamed for every affliction that assails us.

Furthermore, it is now common cause based on abundant evidence and numerous rulings by the SA Press Council that ethical journalism perished at Newspaper House in Cape Town’s CBD – headquarters of the Cape Times and the Cape Argus – once Iqbal Survé, a confidante of the late Brett Kebble, gained control through an initially clandestine PIC loan of R1.4 bn which seemed a dubious investment from the start.

Fake News emanating from what is now known among Cape Town’s small media community as ‘Bullshit House’ has become commonplace.

There has been one example after another, after another, after another, after another, after another, after another,  after another, after another  after another and so on and so on and so on and so on and so on and so on and so on.

Then as the Gupta empire crumbled thanks in part to the sterling investigative work of non-INMSA journalists like Jacques Pauw, Pieter-Louis Myburgh, Adriaan Basson and Pieter Joubert, the Guptas, with a sideways shimmy, shifted their media interests to Jimmy Manyi in what was widely perceived as a schlenter – and the New Age/ANN7 deluge of Fake News continues apace.

The latest and extremely disturbing Fake News allegation is contained in a Sunday Times op-ed article by political analyst Molifi Tshabalala on 7 January. It is headlined Beware, the snake might be dead but those who share its secrets can still bite and this, from an ethical news reporting perspective, is the paragraph that troubles me:

It would emerge during the inquiry who has hacked Ramaphosa’s e-mail accounts and leaked his e-mails on extramarital affairs to Weekly Xposé, a fake news site owned by McKenzie’s friends, Kenny Kunene and Sunday Independent editor Steve Motale.

Fake news has been in the, um, news lately. More of Jeremy’s brilliant work available at jerm.co.za.

Is it true that Steve Motale is a co-owner of Weekly Xposé which Tshabalala justifiably describes as a fake news site and, if so, what does Iqbal Survé have to say about this and, if he had done his due diligence before hiring Motale, how could he not have been aware of this?

Given the PIC loan of more than a billion rand to Survé, this is a matter of profound public interest and all South Africans have a constitutional right to information in this regard.

Media scholars will read the Fake News chapter in the Kasrils book with abiding interest. If you are interested in how we got here and where we might be headed, then his book, along with the other political books published late last year, provide valuable insights.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.
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