GroundUp (Cape Town)

11 December 2013

South Africa: Humbug Dr Survè

editorial

Iqbal Survè, whose company Sekunjalo now owns Independent Newspapers, is not merely a profoundly disingenuous man. He has shown that he's willing to use his newly acquired media empire to support his disingenuity.

A quick recap of recent events:

On Friday, the Cape Times reported the Public Protector's damning findings about an R800m tender won by a company in the Sekunjalo group. Shortly after, Alide Dasnois was removed from her position as Cape Times editor. The Mail & Guardian published text from a lawyer's letter sent to the Cape Times on Saturday demanding an apology for Friday's article. On Sunday evening GroundUp published an editorial criticising Survè's actions. The next day a petition was started calling for Dasnois to be reinstated. SANEF expressed shock and concern at Dasnois's removal from office. It also condemned Sekunjalo for laying criminal charges against the Sunday Times, its editor Phylicia Oppelt and journalist Bobby Jordan for reporting the Public Protector's findings. Sekunjalo has also threatened to lodge a complaint against the Cape Times with the Press Ombudsman.

How did Survè respond to all this? Predictably, with tall tales.

In an article published on Politicsweb, he wrote:

In a concerted public campaign of lies and distortions, some have stated it as fact - without a shred of proof offered in evidence - that Alide Dasnois's replacement was the result of the story published as the lead in the paper last Friday, regarding adverse findings by the Public Protector against a government minister in the award of a tender to one of the companies in the Sekunjalo Group.

Survè doesn't mention the lawyer's letter to the Cape Times nor the threatened press ombudsman complaint. Presumably these are just coincidences. Survè says that Dasnois was not fired, but removed as editor and offered various other positions in the company. Dasnois presumably was so pleased with these alternative options that she has said she is seeking legal advice.

Survè instead would like us to believe that Dasnois's removal is because of "the wholly unsatisfactory sales performance of that title over the last few years." He tells us "Between 2008 and 2012, the Cape Times' compounded loss of sales amounts to 28%. In 2012 alone, the last year for which consolidated records are available, sales declined 16.8%."

You have to believe in the tooth fairy to swallow this nonsense. Independent's broadsheet titles have bled in recent years. If Survè doesn't realise that this is a problem plaguing broadsheets across the world, then he's in the wrong business. The Cape Times, like other Independent titles, has soldiered on despite being starved of the funds it needs to hire more journalists and improve its online presence. Nevertheless, the paper's quality improved under Dasnois's leadership.

The way Dasnois was removed from her position is not the way you remove someone for under-performance. If that was the case, there would have been a handover period, lovely platitude-filled statements such as, "she did a wonderful job but we need someone to take forward our new vision bla bla", a golden handshake and a clearly identified editor to take her place. Instead we had chaos. First Chris Whitfield was to be editor. Then a day or so later it was Gasant Abarder, who is being accused by Primedia, his employer until Friday night, of absconding from his position there in order to take up the Cape Times editorship immediately. A brave letter by journalists at Independent Newspapers says they are concerned Sekunjalo is "attempting to compromise the editorial independence of the Cape Times."

This picture is simply not consistent with Survè's version of events.

But pretending we live in an alternate universe comes easy to Survè. Sekunjalo has said the Public Protector's report vindicates it. You would have to be the most hardened spin doctor to argue this with a straight face.

So what did the Public Protector find? That the tender awarded by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DASS) to Sekunjalo's subsidiary was "an act of maladministration" and "irregularly awarded". The award of the tender to Sekunjalo created a conflict of interest. It also found that the man who evaluated the tender, Joseph Sebola, scored Sekunjalo 5/5 and its competitor 1/5 for experience but that in actual fact Sekujanlo had little experience while its competitor had been in the business a decade. Sebola's conduct is described as "irrational, subjective and biased." Madonsela explains that the claim that Sekunjalo submitted four tenders on the same bid all by companies owned by Sekunjalo, was not denied. She has asked the Competition Commission to decide if this was collusion.

While these findings are against DASS, this is not a vindication of Sekunjalo; it's much closer to an indictment.

The Cape Times article by Melanie Gosling on the Public Protector's is a genuine effort to faithfully report what Thuli Madonsela wrote. Perhaps, though I can't spot any, it has errors. Nowhere does it explicitly accuse Sekunjalo or Survè of corruption, as alleged in Sekunjalo's lawyer's letter reported on by the Mail & Guardian.

Survè has risked the reputation of one of the country's largest media houses. As the Public Protector's report shows, his company's business practices, to put it euphemistically, are questionable. He's a menace to a free press and good governance.

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