South Africa: Book Review | So, for the Record

book review

Anton Harber's new book is an excoriating examination of the manipulation and collapse of the integrity of the Sunday Times newspaper during the later Jacob Zuma years.

So, For the Record reads more like a spy thriller by the great John le Carré than an academic tome. Author Anton Harber is not just a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, he was also the editor of the Weekly Mail when it was a courageous anti-apartheid newspaper and the voice of the Left. He brings experience and moral authority to the discussion of what went wrong with the media during the Jacob Zuma years.

The book is exceptionally well written, and makes quick and pithy character judgements that always ring true. Much of the book focuses on the Sunday Times newspaper and the series of wildly dishonest articles it was manipulated into publishing and later had to withdraw. This episode ruined a number of careers, did massive damage to the credibility of the Sunday Times, and generated a wider distrust in the media in general.

Harber provides a forensic investigation into how the Sunday Times came to be so badly exploited. Part of that account looks at bad practices within the newsroom and how its editorial integrity was compromised by deliberate attempts to produce sensational front-page stories. The other part of Harber's account of what went wrong at the Sunday Times looks at those in intelligence and criminal networks that actively worked to shape media narratives.

The book offers a lot of new information that was not previously in the public domain. The newspaper's conduct at the time does not come out well and it is clear that a number of its journalists have been irredeemably compromised. Some have retreated from public life but two of them, Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Piet Rampedi, now work for The Sunday Independent newspaper, where they continue to produce propaganda for the kleptocratic faction of the ANC.

But while many of the journalists that feature in the book seem to have been compromised in some way, there are those who emerge looking good. Songezo Zibi comes out as a person who could keep his cool in a stressful situation, who acted with consistent personal and professional integrity. This book shows that personal character really matters.

A damning indictment of inner workings

Harber does not just tell a story of individuals, though. He looks at the broader context in which individuals had to work. His description of the internal workings of the Sunday Times is damning. We are shown a newspaper in which the chase for sensational headlines and uncomplicated stories consistently overrode journalist ethics. The situation was compounded by the way that the paper's investigative team were treated as an untouchable elite, "ground zero of a curdled culture in the newsroom".

Harber's description of how the kleptocratic faction of the ANC, centred around Zuma when he was president, used criminal and intelligence networks to slander its enemies and attack the integrity and credibility of key institutions such as Sars is even more shocking. He describes this as "censorship by noise" in which constant disinformation muddied the waters. Harber tells how George "The Butcher" Darmanovic would hold court in a Johannesburg coffee shop with underworld figures, senior police officers, intelligence operatives and senior politicians that included Blade Nzimande, South Africa's current minister of higher education, science and technology. Darmanovic used these networks to operate as a "fixer" for hire.

For media-related work, Darmanovic used a man by the name of Chad Thomas, who had spent his youth in the intersection between gangsterism and apartheid intelligence. Thomas had hung out with the most corrupt and violent elements in the apartheid intelligence system, including Ferdi Barnard, who assassinated radical Wits academic David Webster on May Day in 1989.

Harber shows that Thomas, who received payments from the State Security Agency via Darmanovic, was open about how he had deliberately cultivated friendships with journalists and had detailed information on the inner workings of newspapers. He could, for a fee, work to shape media narratives.

Stories could be faked, muddied or altered. At the same time, "dossiers" generated from this intersection of gangsterism and state intelligence regularly appeared with the aim of slandering people or institutions, or at least creating uncertainty and confusion. Harber explains that the typical intelligence strategy is to mix in a few correct facts with malicious fabrication.

We all know the story of Bell Pottinger, the scurrilous British public relations firm that worked for the Chilean fascist leader Augusto Pinochet, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and a host of dictators before offering its services to Zuma and the Guptas. But for most readers Harber's relevation that criminal networks, state intelligence and former apartheid intelligence agents were working together to shape the media narrative will be new and shocking information

The Gupta Leaks

The story Harber tells comes to its narrative climax with the story of the Gupta Leaks. There is a lot of new and often fascinating information here. Again, not everyone is portrayed positively. Magda Wierzycka, a billionaire who initially offered to fund the leaked emails project, comes across as a reckless narcissist.

The Gupta Leaks were a hugely important and welcome development. But this part of Harber's story will make some readers uncomfortable. He cannot be accused of seeing state capture in racial terms. Bell Pottinger, white journalists at the Sunday Times such as the now disgraced Stephan Hofstatter, and corporates like accounting firm KPMG are all as firmly in his sights as Zuma and the Guptas. But while some names have been changed, it does seem that the project that developed to secure and report on the Gupta Leaks emails was a white project and a project of white people who, mostly, are very much in the mainstream. These are not people renowned for their political commitment to a genuinely radical transformation of society.

It goes without saying that the kleptocracy Zuma and the Guptas established had catastrophic consequences for our society, and that the already worst off were the worst affected. The leaking of the Gupta emails was clearly a positive development. But it is troubling that, at this point in our history, it was a group of white people, mostly men, who made such a decisive intervention into the public sphere.

When Zuma and his allies said they were under attack from the white media, they were not entirely wrong. To be clear, Zuma and the Guptas are scurrilous individuals who have wreaked havoc on our society. There can be no equivocation on this. But it is not unproblematic that certain media networks, projects and publications remain so overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Harber notes this, but does not fully explore it.

Intelligence slander

A number of other questions arise from So, For the Record. One is that the intersection between criminal and intelligence networks to slander critics of the state is a much wider phenomenon than the high-profile incidents discussed in the book. Grassroots activists, academics and trade unionists have all been subject to public slander that, as in the cases described, is often circulated by "dossiers", "reports" and the like that mix a few facts with fabrication. It would be useful if other writers could extend the rigour with which Harber investigates the investigative team at the Sunday Times to other cases of intelligence-driven slander.

It is also important to note that it is not only the Sunday Times that has been compromised. Many smaller and regional newspapers have also been exploited by being lobbied to publish fabricated information about critics of the state. The academy has been compromised too. It would be useful if Harber's excellent investigation into the Sunday Times were expanded to develop a wider understanding of how fabrication and personal slander were weaponised during the Zuma years.

Another question that arises is what could be a way forward to develop a credible media. It is clear that the model of print publications supported by advertising is dead. This model always had serious limitations, because it had to pander to advertisers and the audiences they wanted to reach. But it also produced great work, especially when papers were supported by subscriptions from readers, sometimes through organised support from members of trade unions and other popular organisations.

The desperate attempt by the Sunday Times to keep this model going ended in a disastrous collapse in the publication's credibility. But the donor-funded model also has limitations. Such media is often extremely interested in issues such as state corruption while implicitly holding conservative positions on questions like economics and remaining silent on matters such as state repression of grassroots activists or imperialism. The reader-supported model has an obvious limit insofar as it inexorably leads to publications focusing on pleasing an elite audience. A new model is urgently needed.

Harber has written a gripping and important book. It is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the often shocking ways in which a corrupt and authoritarian political class effectively manipulated the public sphere.

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