Magda Wierzycka, in her recently published book, breaks the news that her defamation court case against Iqbal Survé for a racism allegation against her will be heard in October this year.

Survé routinely makes the evidence-free claim that those who disagree with him are either racists – see here and here –  or are opposed to transformation or ‘Stratcom’ apologists for or promoters of apartheid.

His claim, for example, that UCT is a racist institution is absurd. UCT students led the NUSAS protests in the 1970s against the apartheid education system and, in June 1972, they were attacked by police in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, something that made headlines around the world.  In 1994 Mamphele Ramphele was appointed vice chancellor at UCT. Was this the action of a racist institution? Is she a racist for having accepted the position?

No other owner of a South African media company behaves like this and Survé’s own commitment to ethnic reciprocity and building social cohesion became open to question during his evidence before the Mpati Commission.

Another example of these accusations of racism is telling. In 2015 James Myburgh of Politicsweb published a detailed article proving beyond doubt that Survé was not servicing the GIPF loan which enabled his consortium to buy the Independent titles. Typically, Survé’s response was the evidence-free accusation that Myburgh was a racist with a ‘right-wing agenda’. Myburgh was vindicated when Tito Mboweni informed parliament that Survé had not repaid the PIC loan which, with accrued interest now exceeds a billion rands. Sekunjalo Independent Media is now effectively insolvent so much so that, two years ago, the COO, Takudzwa Hove, publicly informed staff that salary cuts of up to 40% were being implemented and that there would be a 50% reduction for all post-retirement medical aid contributions for retired employees that are still receiving income from us.’  Detrimentally-affected staff and pensioners now learn that so cash-flush is Survé that he can contribute a quarter of a billion rand to rescue Ubank as a replacement for the banks such as Absa and FNB and Nedbank that no longer want to be associated with him and contribute a million rand towards babies which, if they exist, have never been photographed.

It was a racism smear that prompted Wierzycka to seek legal redress as she sets out on pages 208 – 209 of the book:

The moment my AYO article appeared, Survé launched a vicious print media attack on me, publishing opinion pieces which I believe were written by the chairwoman of AYO, calling me a ‘subliminal racist’ for daring to question the legitimacy of a black-owned company.

It is tragic that we live in a country where it is easy to shut down any criticism, however valid, by defaulting to racism. Unfortunately for Survé, words no longer hurt me, not after what I had experienced by then. They did, however, hurt Sygnia by association so I sued him and his newspapers for defamation, with those articles forming the basis of proceedings. Given the slow pace of the South African court system, the case will be heard in October 2022.

Defamation papers

At the time of writing Survé’s lawyers have served, so I am told and from what I have gleaned, defamation papers on some of the country’s most distinguished journalists – people like Ann Crotty and Dewald van Rensburg  and Tim Cohen and Styli Charalambous, and Chris Roper.

You might ask what these seasoned reporters  with decades of public  service in the finest traditions of their calling could have written about Survé that was not true, provable and in the public interest given that he and his media outlets are constantly embroiled in public controversy? (See here and here  and here and here and here and here – and the subject of a disturbing book – see here and here and here – and he has become a cartoon character  who is constantly exposed to public ridicule – see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.) And, furthermore, that Sasol and auditors BDO  and a major international company, the BT Group, have severed ties with him, and the Finnish government has replaced him as its consular representative in Cape Town with a Finnish national?

The more important question, however, is whether anything will come of these threatened defamation court cases and seven previous examples which are a matter of public record justify the question. In each of these cases the threatened litigation, proved to be a failed attempt to distract public attention from yet another scandal:

None of these threats ever resulted in court hearings because that, as I see it, was never their intention. They were typical SLAPP-litigation scare tactics designed to intimidate critics and persuade the public that their concerns lacked merit and substance. The intention, in my opinion, was a smoke and mirrors attempt to distract public attention from ongoing scandal and controversy and the fact that Sekunjalo Independent Media was unable to pay salaries and staff were moved onto the AYO payroll – see here and here – which led to a massive exodus of ANA reporters and management.

Then there is his unfulfilled promise of damning revelations against the  ‘Pravin Gordhan cabal’ and the autobiography that he assured Terry Bell would prove the denied claims of him treating Nelson Mandela ‘on and off the Island’ and of having played a singular and significant role as a sports psychologist in India winning the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

Legally ludicrous claims

These never-implemented threats are accompanied by the legally-ludicrous claims in articles by his sycophantic employees – see here and here – that all of the threatened  people and entities are going to be ‘sued for billions’ when our courts award damages of a few hundred thousand rand even in the most egregious of defamation cases.

The latest SLAPP-litigation attempts by Iqbal Survé to silence our leading and most trusted journalists, something no other newspaper owner in this country is doing, raises an important question in the context of media and business ethics: Does he ever act in good faith and is his name synonymous with ethical journalism? It is a question which has been raised on both sides of the political spectrum.

  • I raise the question in the context of an interview he gave to Mandy de Waal of Daily Maverick after taking control of the Independent Media titles in 2013: “If you know anything about me you know that I operate with incredible integrity. I have a standing rule in Sekunjalo: if you do one thing wrong you are out of this company. And never once has Sekunjalo been found guilty of anything improper ever, because my management knows that. I have a guideline, we have policies, we have charters and I personally don’t believe in that kind of nonsense.”
  • I raise the question in the context of his abusive dismissal of Alide Dasnois a respected editor of a once-respected newspaper;
  • I raise this question in the context of a venomous vendetta waged by him against the University of Cape Town and its vice-chancellor Max Price using the Cape Times  as a  proxy which ended tragically when the persecution by the Fees Must Fall students of revered cardiologist, Professor Bongani Mayosi, led to his suicide. Speaking as a reporter who has covered the UCT story since 1978, I see a causal link between Survé’s speech at the university on 7 April 2015 and Mayosi’s death. That perception is bolstered by the funeral oration by his widow and sister, by the university’s subsequent report, by the honours thesis of Ricky Stoch and by two books, As by Fire  by Jonathan Jansen and The Fall of the University of Cape Townby David Benatar.
  • I raise this in the context of Survé following the lead of the Guptas and withdrawing his newspapers from S A Press Council jurisdiction;
  • I raise the question in the context of his termination of the weekly column by respected Al Jazeera journalist, Azad Essa, when he wrote about the genocidal treatment of the Uighur Muslims by the government of China for which Sekunjalo Independent Media is a paid mouthpiece. For evidence of this, just type ‘100th anniversary of the CPC’ into the search bar on the IOL website;
  • I raise the question in the context of the dismissal of Sunday Independent editor Wally Mbehele when that newspaper published an entirely accurate and truthful article which offended Brian Molefe, someone Survé feels should be our minister of finance despite the damning findings  against him by the Zondo Commission;
  • I raise the question in the context of the unchallenged claim by former Cape Times political reporter Dougie Oakes, who in an article on his and the Daily Maverick websites, wrote: ‘I’ve never come across a group where lies have been peddled with such glib assurance’;
  • I raise the question in the context of the ‘Stratcom’ attacks on respected journalists, a smear which SANEF decried as ‘disgusting’. This, while at the same time, as proven in the Project Wave evidence before the Zondo Commission,  a company associated with Survé, ANA (the former SAPA) was shown to have accepted R20 million from a secret SSA fund organised by Arthur Fraser, to promote the Zuma faction of the ANC which supports Survé The similarity between this and the Info Scandal era of the National Party is obvious;
  • I raise this in the context of the editor of The Star, Sifiso Mahlangu, suffering no sanction despite defaming Maria Ramos, this in contradiction of a claim by Yogas Nair, Independent Media’s Internal Ombud, that ‘Accountability is sacrosanct’ at Sekunjalo Independent Media;
  • I raise this in the context of Piet Rampedi (Mr Putin) having suffered no sanction for his Tembisa Ten claims despite the findings by human rights lawyer Michael Donan and Yogas Nair, Independent Media’s Internal Ombud that he should be disciplined for this fake news money-raising endeavour. It goes without saying that these rulings by Donen and Nair have not been revealed in the Sekunjalo newspapers or on the IOL website which promises ‘News that connects South Africans’. This censorship by omission reveals yet again that ethical news coverage ceased to exist at Independent Media when Iqbal Survé took control of the company in 2013 and the exodus of editors and respected columnists began;  
  • I raise this in the context of Piet Rampedi not being dismissed after the finding by the Zondo Commission  that his fake news ‘SARS brothel reporting’ triggered the evisceration of the gatekeepers at SARS by Tom Moyane and the finding by Anton Harber, as revealed in his book, So, For the Record – Behind the Headlines in an Era of State Capture,that Rampedi was working hand in glove with Moyane as part of the Zuma faction’s state capture project which cost the country more than a billion rand;
  • I raise this in the context of the Sactwu litigation against him;
  • I raise this in the context of claims that Iqbal Survé had medically treated Nelson Mandela ‘on and off the Island’ – a claim that he did nothing to deny and which was disputed by Mandela’s doctors, his personal assistant for two decades Zelda La Grange and, most importantly of all, by Mandela himself.

What these examples decisively prove, I believe, is the veracity of the under-oath claim by former AYO executive Siphiwe Nodwele at the Mpati Commission who revealed how Survé dictates the news content of his newspapers and IOL website and how devoid of truth was his response  at that time – a claim that he does not ‘take sides’.

Devoid of truth

What this also shows, I believe, is that Survé’s contention in a letter to staff in 2013 that his editors would have autonomy was similarly devoid of truth:

I want to be clear and categorical. I want to assure all staff of my sincere commitment to the editorial independence of this group and the right of its journalist to do their work without fear or favour.

As executive chair, I will uphold these values and expect all of our journalists and editors to do the same regardless of which story it is they cover.

The record speaks for itself. All of the staff that he recruited in 2013, Gasant Abarder, Karima Brown, Vukani Mde and Amy Musgrave, subsequently resigned. As described in Paper Tiger, the Cape Times team that produced a Madiba obituary chosen by Time as one of the best in the world was purged. ANA’s Emsie Ferreira, the last member of an ace SAPA team which Survé acquired in 2015, joined the Mail & Guardian last year. She was joined there by Sheree Bega, one of the country’s most talented environmental reporters, who left The Star, alsolast year. No other local media company is losing experienced staff at this rate and the prediction by Stephen Grootes in late 2013 has proven to be entirely justified.

To avoid cross-examination under oath about his abusive treatment of his staff and about the fact that the once-respected Independent Media company was careening towards bankruptcy, Iqbal Survé reluctantly settled with Alide Dasnois in late 2016.

In October this year Magda Wierzycka will not give him that option and it prompts a trenchant question – why is no other South African newspaper owner being sued for defamation?

What led to the accusation of racism against Magda Werzycka was her concern about AYO Technologies which featured prominently in the evidence tendered before the Mpati Commission of Inquiry into malfeasance at the PIC – see here and here and here and here.

At the time of writing the AYO shares purchased by Dan Matjila on behalf of the civil servant pension fund for R43 each for a total of R4.3 billion are now sliding towards R2.50 a share on the JSE. The chances of this money being recovered is minimal – something which troubles two million government employees.  Their anxiety is understandable.

 And what of Sagarmatha, the promised $10 billion Supergalactic Highway, Fourth Industrial Revolution, blockchain-enabled, multi-sided digital platform Uber-crushing integrated business ecosystem African Unicorn constantly touted by Adri Senekal de Wet?

If you type Sagarmatha Technologies into the search bar on your computer you will find that it does not exist – not even as a website.

Wierzycka’s concerns, it seems, were justified and she says that damages awarded to her will be donated to charity. She has already indicated on her Twitter account that all the royalties from her new book will be donated to the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children.

Sekunjalo and AYO have indicated that a vigorous defence will be mounted in October, but what cannot be discounted is the court of public opinion and, in that regard, Sasol, BDO, the BT Group more than two dozen banks, the government of Finland and the Mpati Commission have already delivered their verdicts.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Ed Herbst is an author and veteran journalist.