Lies, damned lies and Sekunjalo statistics: Ed Herbst pierces veil of deceit at Independent Media

There has been a question mark over the honesty of Sekunjalo Independent Media boss Iqbal Survé for as long as he has claimed to have been the medical doctor taking care of Nelson Mandela in the ANC leader’s years on Robben Island. Never able to prove his claims, or disprove his critics, Survé has been unable to shrug off the stench of deceit that hangs over him. Other strange claims, which have ranged from paranoid rantings about respected politicians to the details of how he managed to get the Public Investment Corporation heavyweights to fund his empire, have dogged the businessman. What the public really wants to know now is how Survé intends to repay billions he sucked out of the hands of civil servant pensioners, though anger about how he allowed the deterioration of newspapers that were part of the fabric of society in the cities they served continues to keep Survé top of the talk around the braai. Ed Herbst has been following the trail of money to Survé. – Jackie Cameron 

Pay back the money

Profit, debt and Sekunjalo

By Ed Herbst*

SIM did not service its debt and by the end of September 2018, after interest, owed the PIC R1.35bn, according to evidence provided at the Mpati inquiry into the PIC. It could be closer to R1.5bn, the inquiry heard. – Sasha Planting Daily Maverick  13/11/2019

“The Respondent continues to trade notwithstanding the fact that they remain indebted to the Applicant for payment of the outstanding loan amount. In the circumstances, I respectfully submit that the only conclusion to be drawn from the Respondents failure to pay the Applicant is the fact that the Respondent is commercially, if not factually insolvent and unable to pay its debts when they become due.” – PIC acting CEO, Vuyani Hako, in the court application to liquidate Sekunjalo Independent Media Fin 24  14/11/2019

Ed Herbst

The Audit Bureau of Circulation of South Africa has released newspaper-circulation statistics for the period July–September 2019 and sales continue to decline – dailies down 11.7% and weekend papers down 14%.

Here are the figures for some of the newspapers owned by Dr Iqbal Survé:

  • The Cape Times is down 5.43% from 28,642 to 27,086
  • The Cape Argus is down 5.21% from 27,260 to 25,840
  • The Star is down by 13.2% from 76,363 to 66,280
  • The Daily News is down 10.71% from 23,125 to 20,649
  • The Mercury has fallen 10.63% from 25,038 to 22,376
  • Isolezwe has decreased 15.93% from 78,180 to 65,728
  • The Diamond Fields Advertiser declined by 6.48% from 7,363 to 6,886.
  • The Sunday Tribune has dropped 9% from 50,432 to 45,961

What is evident from these figures is that Survé’s newspapers are not, through sales, generating the sort of return which will enable him to repay the hundreds of million rands that the Public Investment Corporation and the Government Employees Pension Fund say he owes.

Newspapers, however, generate greater profits from advertising than sales and, at the recent launch of Paper Tiger, Chris Whitfield said that, in his experience and judging from what he had seen of the Survé titles in the Western Cape, Gauteng and KZN, they are not carrying sufficient advertising to be profitable.

Clarity

However, according to Sekunjalo executives, they don’t owe the PIC a cent and, in an attempt to get clarity on this, I sent the following email to Deon Botha, Head: Corporate Affairs at the Public Investment Corporation:

Dear Mr Botha,

On 25 October 2018, Dr Dan Matjila, former CEO of the Public Investment Corporation wrote an open letter to South African citizens in which he said the following:

The only masters I serve are the 1,273,125 active members of the GEPF and the 450,322 pensioners and beneficiaries who, after a lifetime of toil, deserve a secure, prosperous and dignified retirement for the rest of their lives.

In this regard several recent media reports need clarity not only for civil servants and GEPF pensioners but for the general public as well:

The first was in a Business Day article by Linda Ensor on 12 November

‘Survé had signed personal surety for R500m in relation to the loan.’

In response to this, financial analyst Magda Wierzycka posted the following entry on her Twitter account.

Most NB sentence in the article reads: “Survé had signed personal surety for R500m in relation to the loan.” So personally on the hook for the PIC loan. Attaching 7 apartments at the V&A Silo would be a good start… Then watch Ayo accounts like a hawk.

I would be most grateful if you could provide me with a reference to where this news was first conveyed to the public either in a televised YouTube clip of evidence before the Mpati commission, or a deposition to the commission or a Department of Justice transcript of such proceedings or a PIC media release.

According to a 13 November article by Sasha Planting in Daily Maverick, both the chairman of Sekunjalo Investment Holdings, Iqbal Survé and SIM director Takudzwa Hove maintain there is no loan outstanding. They say the PIC’s former CEO Dan Matjila wrote the debt off by exchanging it for shares in Sagarmatha.


Both the chairman of Sekunjalo Investment Holdings, Iqbal Survé and SIM director Takudzwa Hove maintain there is no loan outstanding. They say the PIC’s former CEO Dan Matjila wrote the debt off by exchanging it for shares in Sagarmatha.

A letter to this effect was sent to the PIC’s attorneys on 30 September 2019, which explained that SIM is not indebted to the PIC for any sum. SIM has, to date, not received any response from the PIC in this regard, Hove says.

Quoting Takudzwa Hove, the spokesperson for Sekunjalo Independent Media, the same point is made in a 13 November article on the IOL website:

“By virtue of the PIC’s debt-for-shares swop into Sagarmatha Technologies Limited, the PIC no longer has any claim against SIM.”

In a November 14 Fin 24 article, amaBhungane’s Dewald van Rensburg seems to nullify this claim:

Whether or not Hove’s argument makes it into court papers, it seems incongruous because the set of transactions that were meant to take place between Sagarmatha and SIM were conditional on the listing, which never happened. 

Matjila’s testimony at the Mpati Commission confirmed this.

  “One of the suspensive conditions of the agreement was the successful listing of Sagarmatha which ultimately never happened and therefore the agreement never became operational and lapsed,” said Matjila. 

It surely behoves the Public Investment Corporation to issue a media release clarifying these two points:

  • Is Dr Iqbal Survé financially indebted to the Public Investment Corporation for half a billion rand because Dr Dan Matjila incorporated this laudable safeguard – getting Survé to stand surety for this amount – when the initial loan was made that enabled Sekunjalo to gain control of the largest group of English newspapers in the country which were previously owned by the Argus Group?
  • Did Dr Dan Matjila conclude a debt-for-shares swop into Sagarmatha Technologies – as suggested by Iqbal Survé and Takudzwa Hove?

Thanking you

Ed Herbst

Mr Botha did not provide the clarity I sought but referred me to a media release confirming the PIC litigation against Sekunjalo Independent Media.

There is nothing to stop Dr Dan Matjila from issuing a statement clarifying whether he did get Dr Iqbal Survé to stand surety for half a billion rand and whether he did expunge Sekunjalo’s debt to the PIC by buying Sagarmatha shares.

He is probably, however, waiting for the PIC subpoena.

Dark forces

In seeking scapegoats during this inexorable drift towards bankruptcy, Survé and his reporters have veered from ‘Stratcom’ to ‘Dark Forces’ and this then morphed into the ‘Third Force’.

The PIC’s move to liquidate Sekunjalo Independent Media in order to protect the pensions of our government employees has even been defined in the Sekunjalo Independent Media newspapers as a ‘crime against democracy’, a threat to media freedom, and a  racist witch-hunt.

This litigation it is claimed is also racially and politically motivated and a potential violation of constitutional rights. Furthermore, it is ‘frivolous’, a ‘fishing exercise for political gain’ as well as being ‘bizarre and ludicrous’.

Sharing these views are icons of political virtue such as Jesse Duarte and Tony Yengeni. Yet, as Dougie Oakes has pointed out, this coalition of the wounded does not carry a lot of parliamentary firepower – you’ve got the ATM with two seats, the PAC with one, and Themba Godi’s APC which is not represented in parliament at all. The Twitterati have indicated in response that if Survé does not need to repay his debts, then it makes a mockery of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent call for people to start paying for the electricity they use.

The views of the 1,273,125 active members of the GEPF and the 450,322 pensioners cited earlier by Dan Matjila have not been canvassed but there is no indication that they are, en masse, opposed to the PIC’s liquidation attempt.

The goal of the PIC’s reprehensible machinations, according to Sekunjalo, is to embarrass Survé and it is alleged that the evil mastermind  behind the conspirators is Pravin Gordhan who will – in due course, of course – be exposed by the ‘other Mandela doctor’ and business associate of the late Brett Kebble.

Attempted smear

Gordhan rejects the attempted smear as does the judge who Survé accused of being a co-conspirator.

The reporters writing these conspiracy articles are, according to the sworn Mpati commission testimony of former AYO executive Siphiwe Nodwele, simply implementing Survé’s orders. According to Ferial Haffajee, such edicts are communicated to the editorial staff through AYO CEO, Howard Plaatjes who has not reacted to her claim. Survé, however, denies this despite the fact that he and his family feature in glowing terms in his own newspapers at least once a week according to the authors of Paper Tiger.

The majority of our civil servants are black and Dr Survé has said that the way in which he champions the cause of all black South Africans through being a ‘brave transformation force’ has put his life at risk – so much so that he now surrounds himself with bodyguards in the cloistered confines of the ultra-exclusive Silo precinct for the ultra-wealthy in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront.

What, then, is one to make of the fact that he has chosen to service his loan to his Chinese funders but not the people whose monthly pension fund stop orders – imprudently  as it has transpired – part-financed his purchase of the former Argus Group newspapers in 2013?

At the weekend, the Sunday Times quoted an affidavit by the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) in which it is alleged that Survé is implicated in  illegal share price manipulation relating to AYO stock. This is an allegation which testimony at the Mpati commission seems to support. According to the Sunday Times article:

The alleged contravention, which centres on the over-inflation of the value of shares in AYO Technology Solutions – which is linked to Survé and his businesses – carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, a maximum fine of R50m or both.

In response an IOL article stated that:

While this unfolds, however, business goes on at Independent Media, including editorial, sales, circulation, production and so on. 

Notwithstanding this claim, no media company can haemorrhage key employees the way Independent has in the past 18 months and prosper.

Rudderless

Survé’s African News Agency is rudderless and will never be able to compete on this continent with wire service giants like Reuters and Bloomberg. Within the past month Grant Fredericks (CEO) and Lisa de Villiers (CFO) resigned and Lindiz van Zilla (editor), Chantal Presence (parliamentary reporter) and Catherine Rice (courts), along with other staff took retrenchment packages.

Our leading foreign affairs reporters are Leopold Scholtz for Naspers and Peter Fabricius who, until a year ago, was employed by Sekunjalo. He now writes for Daily Maverick.

Last year, the respected Lebogang Seale resigned as Sunday Independent editor to become Head of Strategic Communications at the University of Johannesburg.

Also last year, Newspaper House, home in Cape Town’s CBD to the once-respected Cape Times and the Cape Argus, lost three editor-level staffers – Chiara Carter, Gasant Abarder and Yunus Kemp – within a few weeks.

Two of the country’s leading environmental reporters, Melanie Gosling (Cape Times) and Tony Carnie (The Mercury) no longer work for Iqbal Survé’s newspapers.

In 2016, Survé retrenched 15% of the Independent staff complement and, according to page 19 of the Wits University State of the Newsroom survey for 2018, Sekunjalo has retrenched more newsroom employees than any other media organisation in the country. Among the first of more than a hundred personnel to leave were household names like Wendy Knowler and Ann Crotty. They were followed shortly thereafter by black editors like Philani Mgwaba and Moshoeshoe Monare who, in interviews with the authors of Paper Tiger,  condemned Iqbal Survé for what they saw as the manifestly unethical and self-aggrandising abuse of the Indy newspapers.

Sense of betrayal

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya, who recently resigned from the Pretoria News, has written a Daily Maverick article in which he expresses his sense of betrayal.

One of his complaints is startling and points to the exploitation of staff and the complete absence of a moral compass in the editorial approach of Sekunjalo Independent Media:

The other incident was the refusal to take responsibility when lawyers acting for the company sought to place on me as title editor at the time an article purporting to have been written by an investigative unit (that did not exist) and placed as an advertorial.

He is not alone among the black former Sekunjalo editors in expressing such sentiments.

Long gone are the Zuma-faction supporters – Karima Brown and Vukani Mde and Amy Musgrave – who were hired by Survé at the time of the Sekunjalo takeover in 2013.

What is also relevant is that as the accounts of abusive treatment of staff accumulate, so the chances of Sekunjalo Independent Media attracting the brightest and best in South African journalism diminish.

This is a developing story and, in the swirl of smoke and the flash of mirrors, it is difficult to know where the truth lies.

What we do know is that one former Independent reporter, Dougie Oakes, building on his own experience and the research of another former Independent reporter, Terry Bell, has said that a culture of lies is pervasive at Sekunjalo Independent Media and his narrative has not been challenged, let alone denied.

I asked Adamus Stemmet, spokesman for the Association for Monitoring and Advocacy for Government Pensions (AMAGP) what advice he would give to Dr Survé, given Sekunjalo’s current travails.

It was succinct.

Pay back the money.

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