The Paper Tiger’s echo-chamber roar – Iqbal Survé laid bare

There’s a huge disjuncture between how Dr Iqbal Survé is portrayed by his newspapers as a struggle hero forging new frontiers for the previously disadvantaged – and most of the historically unprecedented number of staffers he’s laid off. It’s easy to say the burgeoning, hugely-negative counter-narrative to the glowing, repeated, narcissistic, self-directed spotlight, is driven by disaffected former Independent Newspaper staffers. But that wouldn’t gel with this alleged philanthropically-driven businessman taking R13.3m in director’s fees from Sekunjalo Independent Media in a year in which the company recorded a loss of R548m (2016). Or the scandals that have accompanied his rise to prominence and power, ably abetted by the Public Investment Corporation which he now owes billions – or the search and seizure raid by the Financial Sector Conduct Authority on his offices in Cape Town’s V &A Waterfront. One could go on. The point is that by reading the engrossing book Paper Tiger, about Survé and his media empire, reviewed here by veteran journo Ed Herbst, the calibre and career records of the journalists he forced out dispels the myth of disaffection. None of them ever stooped to the muck-raking levels their former boss has in his ideologically-inspired putsch of anyone counter to his propagandistic purpose. – Chris Bateman

Paper Tiger – what next?

By Ed Herbst*

‘Conducted in parallel with the extremely dangerous phenomenon of ‘state capture’, the process of consolidating our democracy is endangered by “media capture” and the incremental obliteration of critical voices.’ – Helen Zille in an open letter to Dr Iqbal Survé 18/1/2015

And so the story had come full circle. On 6 December 2013 Iqbal Survé had used the death of Nelson Mandela to launch his purge of journalists at Independent Newspapers. Four years and four months later, as his newspaper empire was crumbling, he was to use the death of Winnie Mandela to smear the journalists who had exposed his attempts to cover up his failure. And on 6 December 2018 the Cape Times marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela … with a wraparound. – Concluding paragraph in Paper Tiger – Iqbal Survé and the downfall of Independent Newspapers by Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield.

Ramaphoria has faded and an increasingly restive public – demanding the catharsis of jailed Zuptoid criminals – is beginning to doubt the commitment of our president to reform.

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

For me, and from a media perspective, such commitment was amply demonstrated when the ANC refused a donation of a million rand from Dr Iqbal ‘Sagarmatha’ Survé the confidante and business associate of the late Brett Kebble.

For documentary proof of why the decision to refuse the donation was justified, read Paper Tiger which has just been published by two of his former editors, Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield.

Its subtitle is Iqbal Survé and the downfall of Independent newspapers and they analyse what they call his war on journalistic integrity.

Online extracts from the book can be found on News 24 – which covers the purge of ethical journalists from the once-respected company (which began immediately Survé took control) and on Daily Maverick which covers the threat by him, unprecedented in South African media history, to sue his own reporting staff. 

This threat came about because of an article written by one of the country’s most senior and respected environmental journalists, Melanie Gosling. It was a concise summary of the condemnatory report by the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, on the R800 million contract to manage South Africa’s marine patrol vessels which was awarded under questionable circumstances to Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium.

Donwald Pressly who had done much of the investigative reporting into this tender prior to its withdrawal came under attack before the Sekunjalo takeover of the Independent Media newspapers and was dismissed shortly thereafter.

Abusive dismissal

Gosling’s summary of the Madonsela report also triggered the abusive dismissal of the Sorbonne-educated editor of the Cape Times, Alide Dasnois. 

It was late afternoon on the 27th of November 2014 and Tony Weaver paused and looked back at the Cape Times newsroom which he was leaving after having served as one of its most respected reporters and columnists for close on a quarter of century. Like so many others, he fell victim to the purge of senior staff that took place at the Cape Times.

He heard the ping of an incoming email on his computer and hesitated for a moment, then he turned back. Perhaps it was a message from a well-wisher.

He quickly realised that the email had been addressed by former Cape Times editor Gasant Abarder to the now-retired deputy executive chairman, Tony Howard.

In the email, Abarder discussed strategies for getting rid of Gosling who eventually resigned after being told that she was to face a disciplinary hearing for – wait for this – attending a conference for which she had registered as Cape Times reporter and which she had covered in previous years.

Paper Tiger is replete with accounts of such gratuitous cruelty and abusive treatment of staff by Survé and his imbongis and of unethical news manipulation by them. 

John Yeld, doyen of the country’s environmental reporters before he retired from the Cape Argus describes  as ‘appalling’ the callous dismissal of his wife, Martine Barker, by Survé  after a 30-year career which included stints as deputy editor of the Cape Argus and editor of Weekend Argus.

Volcanic ego

Paper Tiger is also replete with accounts of Survé’s volcanic ego and how some but not all of his newly-acquired employees were happy to stroke it for him.

Read this saccharine account and this headline  as evidence of that.

What is, in retrospect, very revealing is the way in which Survé introduced himself to staff first in Cape Town and then in Durban.

They gathered in a conference room on the ground floor of the building, where a group of violinists had been assembled to play some rousing tunes as Survé entered the darkened room. A spotlight shone on him as he took his place on the podium.

On 16 January 2014, Survé took his ‘national roadshow to the Durban office of Independent Newspapers. He was making his first appearance before the staff in the city and for the occasion chose to seat himself in a large, ornate chair that resembled a somewhat tacky throne. The effect was given extra resonance by the placement of six editors alongside him – three on each side – on smaller more modest benches.

On both occasions he regaled his captive and disbelieving audience with anecdotes about his allegedly close friendships with famous people – from Nelson Mandela to Michael Jackson – and how he had assisted international sports heroes such as Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev to improve their game. Subsequent enquiries by Terry Bell revealed however that the Indian cricket authorities had never heard of him. There is also no record of him ever having treated Mandela and the response on social media to Bell’s exposé was utter derision    

Publicly threaten and humiliate 

Paper Tiger reveals that, right from the start, Survé did not hesitate to publicly threaten and humiliate his staff – more often than not in the context of the dodgy and subsequently-terminated Sekunjalo patrol vessel contract in which the unspeakable Tina Joemat-Pettersson was involved. 

To safeguard themselves, journalists record what is relevant, particularly if they come under attack and are dismissed for trying to uphold ethical journalism standards. This was obvious in Foeta Krige’s book, The SABC8 and it is equally obvious in Paper Tiger.

Gosling kept meticulous notes of developments as they happened in the Cape Times newsroom in 2014 and 2015. They document a litany of apparent journalistic and ethical lapses and what seems to be a determined effort to empty the newsroom of anybody who was seen as an ally of Dasnois or not aligned to the news editor and his deputy.

Gosling writes: ‘It also seemed to me that Survé and his supportive editors did not want journalists who did what any journalist ought to do: stand up to power and hold it to account. Who are not cowed into submission by threats.’

As an example she cites the occasion when she wrote a 416-word article about Alide Dasnois winning the Nat Nakasa award for bravery in journalism – the occasion when Iqbal Survé departed the function in a rage claiming that the award was “bullshit” and “racism”.

In reducing the reference to Dasnois to 30 words, Gasant Abarder – who replaced Dasnois as editor – and  his deputy, Aneez Salie, managed to, in Gosling’s words, ‘introduce an error into their rejigged story’. Equally predictably they buried the now-tiny article on page 6 ‘next to a story about a pet cemetery.’ A more telling example of unethical journalism would be difficult to find.

The authors also touch on Survé’s capitulation to pressure from his Chinese funders which saw him terminate a column by Azad Essa after the Al Jazeera staffer wrote an article in which he described the cruel oppression of Uighur Muslims by China – see here and here and here  and here and here, oppression which has been called ‘cultural genocide’.

Survé’s censorship has been condemned by African journalists. Their condemnation effectively signals the death knell of Survé’s now-moribund African News Agency which, in the past few weeks has been eviscerated by the resignation of CEO, Grant Fredericks, CFO Lisa de Villiers, editor Lindiz van Zille, parliamentary reporter Chantall Presence and court reporter Catherine Rice among others.

Puff pieces

In an open letter to staff on 12/12/2013 Survé wrote:

“This means no journalist has to fear when writing a story if one or more of the companies in Sekunjalo Group is involved. I do not expect special favours or puff pieces to be written by any journalists. All our stories must adhere to the highest standards required.”

Thereafter one hagiographic puff piece  after another after another after another after another after another after another after another after another appeared in his newspapers. 

Paper Tiger provides an analysis of this sycophancy:

A quick count of mentions on the Independent Online website shows that over the next five years Survé was to appear, often with photographs, at least 350 times in his newspapers: an average of 70 times a year, or about once every five days. Events in which he was involved, from the World Economic Forum to BRICS to the ‘Saudi Arabia-South Africa Business Council’, made the news, often on the front page. Survé’s every step at the World Economic Forum was also faithfully recorded by his editors, who interviewed him time and time again on everything from the world economy to South Africa’s prospects to the successes of his various companies and the evil antics of his competitors. Sometimes the headlines seemed better suited to religious figures. Thus, on 13 February 2014, in a report co-authored by then Business Report editor Ellis Mnyandu, readers met ‘The man who wants to change the world’. Readers of the Cape Times photo supplement ‘Society’ were regularly regaled with pictures of Survé and various members of his family out and about in town. By late 2018, the proliferation of photographs of Survé prompted CapeTalk radio host Kieno Kammies to hold a mock ‘competition’ between the Cape Argus and the Cape Times to see which title could post the most pictures of the owner.

What is telling is that Iqbal Survé claimed that the use of a wraparound memorial tribute to Nelson Mandela was an insult to Madiba’s memory and a justification of his dismissal of Dasnois.  When, however, several of his newspapers subsequently used a wraparound tribute after the death of Ahmed Kathrada, the editors suffered no sanction.

Dasnois and Whitfield highlight this irony in the closing paragraph of their book when they recall that  the current editor of the Cape Times, Aneez Salie – who had mercilessly attacked the use of a wraparound by the Dasnois team when Mandela died – used a wraparound on the fifth anniversary of Madiba’s death last year. Again without sanction by the ‘other Mandela doctor’.

Excoriating articles

As far as can be ascertained there has been no response from Survé to the allegations in Paper Tiger,  just as there was no response to excoriating articles and social media posts by former Cape Times political reporter, Dougie Oakes..

Here’s the irony.

Go to Iqbal Survé’s IOL website and type the word GroundUp into the search bar.

Articles – brilliant journalism focusing on the travails of the poor and the adverse impact on their lives of an uncaring and corrupt State – appear. 

Dozens of them.

They are, by far, the best journalism to be featured in the once-respected Independent Media newspapers and they use them because, at the behest of the company owner, more than a hundred leading South African newsroom staff have been driven out of the organisation leaving it bereft even of basic spelling ability as the ‘Westerford devided (sic) headline on the Cape Times front page lead on 23 August revealed.

The associate editor of GroundUp is Alide Dasnois. Is it not ironic that Iqbal Survé’s newspapers now use material produced by someone he fired as incompetent?

Her riposte – Paper Tiger – captures for posterity what Helen Zille describes in one of the anchor quotes to this article as ‘media capture’.

Looking ahead, President Cyril Ramaphosa has extended the deadline for the Mpati commission final report until 15 December. This gives evidence leader, advocate Jannie Lubbe, the opportunity to append Paper Tiger to the commission record, should he so choose.

At the time of writing the book has been on sale for a week and what is telling is the silence from Iqbal Survé’s former supporters. They did not come to his defence when the Dougie Oakes article was posted on Daily Maverick more than a year ago and if you type Paper Tiger into the search bar on the IOL website only one article comes up.

The most significant point in the article is the last line:

Kondile is the former editor of I’solezwe lesiXhosa.

What comes next?

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According to page 30 of the 2017 Wits University State of the Newsroom report, Sekunjalo Independent Media employs more than six hundred staff and many will have read Paper Tiger.

They will have noted the search and seizure raid by the Financial Sector Conduct Authority on Surve’s offices in Cape Town’s V &A Waterfront and the subsequent events.

They will have followed the recent retrenchments at the African News Agency with a growing sense of disquiet about their own futures, particularly given the suggestion by chairman of the Public Investment Corporation, Reuel Khoza, that to protect the pensions of civil servants, the liquidation of Sekunjalo Holdings would be ‘logical’.

Paper Tiger would seem to be another brick in a tragic and rapidly-growing wall.

According to page 19 of the 2018 Wits University State of the Newsroom report, more retrenchments have occurred at Sekunjalo Independent Media than at any of the other newspaper companies in the country and what resonates in retrospect, is the irony of the 2012 article A Prosperous Mind.

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