Alleged Exploitation of Interns: Why is Cosatu Silent?

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I was appalled by the low levels of training offered to mainly black reporters.

Independent Media uses, and continues to use, interns to fill holes left by a shortage of experienced staff. But these youngsters (in my time at the company) were badly paid, with monthly stipends of less than R2500 a month, being the norm. Worse, there were occasions when some interns weren’t paid for months.

Dougie Oakes How to bungle a billion Rands – Independent Media’s journey to the bottom 8/12/2018

While the African National Congress proclaims itself to be the champion of the poor, the reality is very different.

In 2014 City Press revealed that agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister Senzeni Zokwana – whose annual salary is more than a million rand a year in addition to enviable perquisites – was paying his young cattle herder R26 a day for a seven-day week and housing him in a corrugated iron structure which offered little protection from the winter cold and the summer heat.

Fast forward to 2018 and Dougie Oakes, the recently-retired political editor of the Cape Times reveals in two articles that the highly experienced and highly regarded writers, sub-editors and photographers who have been driven out of the newspaper have been replaced by poorly-paid interns who are sometimes not paid for months on end. He also reveals what has long been obvious, that white staff are singled out for repressive treatment.

There has been no-right-of-reply public refutation of these claims by Oakes, still less has he been sued for defamation.

This makes Cosatu’s silence over this matter disturbing because in November 2015, Cosatu named the Gupta-owned ANN7 media company as the worst employer in the country.

Furthermore, Cosatu and two of its affiliates have a vested interest in Sekunjalo Independent Media because they were key members of the consortium which purchased the company in 2013.

Moreover, when Iqbal Survé started purging his newly-acquired newspaper company of those who did not display the required adulatory sycophancy and who would not subscribe to the blatantly corrupt news approach that would quickly come a characteristic of a once-respected company, one of his first victims was the doyen of South African labour reporters, Terry Bell.  At the time, this was instantly decried by Cosatu national spokesman, Patrick Craven who, without success, called for Bell’s re-instatement. His call was dismissed with contemptuous arrogance by Karima Brown who shortly afterwards chose, like more than a hundred other leading news people, to leave Surve’s employ rather than work for an insolvent company which has become indelibly tainted.

No autonomy

But it is not just the interns who are treated with contempt – Surve’s editors have no autonomy and can be dismissed the moment the ANC or one of his financial backers complains.

In a press release dated 9 December 2013 Survé states:

“In conclusion I want to state for the record that I together with the leadership of this group remain fully committed to the editorial independence of all our journalists and editors. To suggest otherwise is patently false and devoid of truth.”

Three days later, in an open letter to staff, Survé again broached this subject:

“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.

“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.”

Subsequent events proved that these statements were devoid of truth. As Dougie Oakes, former political editor at the Cape Times wrote in Daily Maverick of Iqbal Survé:

He loves being fawned over.

And thus it was that shortly after Survé’ assurances to staff, his editors were compelled to publish one  hagiographic puff piece  after another after another after another after another after another after another after another after another  which portrayed Survé as a financial visionary, an international business icon, one of Africa’s leading patriots, a courageous transformation warrior and one of the world’s most generous philanthropists – except, if Dougie Oakes is correct, when it comes to paying interns at the end of each month and when it comes to repaying loans which will affect the long-term futures of our civil servants.

Enforced praise

This enforced praise continues. As City Press pointed out, the Independent newspapers published a photograph of Iqbal Survé every day throughout the recent BRICS summit ending with probably the most obscenely obsequious headline in media history.

Another example of the lack of autonomy of the editors employed by Iqbal Survé came when they were forced to publish on the front pages of their newspapers, articles attacking some of the most esteemed journalists in the country as the equivalent of the alleged ‘Stratcom’ journalists who are said to have collaborated with the security police during the apartheid era. This smear was described as ‘a sad day for South African journalism’ by the SA National Editors Forum (SANEF) which decried the lack of editorial autonomy in Sekunjalo Independent Media:

“SANEF stands in solidarity with editors and journalists within the Independent Group who value editorial independence but are seemingly powerless to stop these stories.”

This seems to have triggered a second exodus of editors with the first – after Alide Dasnois was dismissed as Cape Times editor – leading to a memorable but ironic Zapiro cartoon. Ironic because ANC acolytes, Karima Brown and Vukani Mde, subsequently also terminated their employment with Iqbal Survé.

Two more examples of the way in which Survé’s staff have to bow to his whims or face the consequences are the dismissal of Sunday Independent editor, Wally Mbhele after the ANC complained  about a factual article  published in this newspaper and the termination of a column by Azad Essa after a complaint by Survé’s Chinese partners.

Iqbal Survé relentlessly attacks a rival newspaper company, Tiso Blackstar, which produces newspapers like the Sunday Times, Business Day and the Daily Dispatch, but there is no evidence that it abuses staff in the way that Dougie Oakes suggests that staff are treated at the Cape Times on the watch of editor Aneez Salie – as the following example illustrates.

In a dying industry, staff reductions are commonplace and news photographers are being retrenched throughout the world to the detriment of the newspapers where they once used to work.

Unchallenged account

Both Tiso Blackstar and Sekunjalo Independent Media have retrenched photographers in recent years but the difference in the way they treated these staff members is stark and speaks eloquently to the unchallenged account of Dougie Oakes about the alleged abuse and exploitation of staff at the Cape Times.

In a July 2014 article by Media Online news editor Glenda Nevill, she wrote that the Sunday Times and The Times retrenched photographers and quotes one of them:

“The photographers were given good payouts – more than the law requires – and told they could have their equipment if they didn’t challenge the retrenchments. Of course they took the equipment. They have to freelance now and they need it.”

Fast forward to November 2016 and the second of three rounds of retrenchments takes place at Sekunjalo Independent Media. The photographers involved ask if, like their counterparts at the Tiso Blackstar newspapers, they can keep their equipment which is antiquated, battle-scarred, has already been written off to tax and will gather dust after they leave. They are assured that this is in order. However, as one subsequently told me, on their last day they were told that this offer had been withdrawn. To me this seems to be tantamount to fraud but to them it indicated that Sekunjalo Independent Media is a company that has been bereft of a moral core ever since Iqbal Survé gained control via a hugely contentious billion rand PIC loan which he has not repaid to the detriment of 1.4 million Government Employee Pension Fund members.

There is further evidence in that article by Glenda Nevill which testifies to the treatment of staff in Iqbal Survé’s newspaper company as Dougie Oakes has subsequently confirmed. She quotes Allison Tilley of the Open Democracy Advice Centre on the violation of the rights of Alide Dasnois and the purge of veteran journalists with decades of loyal service to the company thereafter:

“Dasnois is not taking her dismissal lying down. She has started legal proceedings in the Labour Court. Tilley said Dasnois would allege Independent Newspapers displayed “discriminatory conduct and violation of her right to free speech and editorial independence”.

There has been a systemic purge of journalists and editors ever since that day, with the latest being Glen Bownes, long-serving chief sub editor of the Cape Times.

Veteran journalist and media trainer Raymond Joseph tweeted on Wednesday, “Fear & loathing stalk corridors of #IndySA: Glen Bownes, long serving @CapeTimesSA chief sub, was yesterday escorted out of the building.

Award-winning editor of The Star, Makhudu Sefara, resigned last week just shortly after The Mercury editor Philani Mgwaba left the group.”

It was claimed at the time that Natal Mercury editor Philani Mqwaba, like Glen Bownes, was also escorted off the premises after he resigned and this raises an obvious question in the context of cruelty to staff. Why is it necessary to publicly humiliate long- service and loyal staff members by treating them like common criminals in front of their colleagues?

Survé avoided being interrogated under oath about his abusive treatment of staff – while a press gallery filled with his former employees took notes for later publication – by settling with Alide Dasnois in her Labour Court case.

Technically insolvent

Unsurprisingly many, if not most of the few remaining staff members, are desperate to leave a company which is technically insolvent and notorious for its fake news and its lack of editorial autonomy.

I am told that, in addition to Dougie Oakes who reached retirement age recently, the Cape Times has also lost its news editor, Lynette Johns, who resigned.

Furthermore, I have also been told that that Carlo Petersen, a reporter notorious for his falsehoods in the Tiger Tiger Five reporting scandal and for withholding from Cape Times readers the finding of a judge that the Fallists had tried to burn down UCT, has not been seen at Newspaper House, home in Cape Town’s CBD of the Cape Times  and the Cape Argus, for some time and is assumed to no longer work there.

The most valuable asset of any business company is its staff and when Iqbal Survé took control of the Cape Times in late 2103, it possessed news personnel of formidable talent – so talented that with an almost impossibly tight deadline and antiquated IT equipment, it produced an obituary tribute to Madiba that Time magazine rated as one of the best in the world. What has become obvious in retrospect was that Iqbal Survé’s manifest business plan of driving out such people and replacing them with badly-trained and poorly-paid interns, has seen a catastrophic decline in standards at the Cape Times.

It has also seen the sales of the once-respected Cape Times drop below 30 000 a day for the first time in its modern history.

That loss of confidence is also mirrored in the following statement by Dougie Oakes in the undisputed article carried on Daily Maverick:

“When the Gupta Tapes story broke, Independent Media was left high and dry – out of the loop. We were told we had been ignored because it was felt we “could not be trusted”.”

It is hardly surprising that the biggest group of English newspapers in the country never became part of the Guptaleaks investigation because their owner, a confidante and business associate of the late Brett Kebble, held the Guptas in such high regard that he invited them to become partners in his newspaper company. Furthermore, he used his newspapers to promote the Zuma faction prior to the ANC’s Nasrec election.

In the light of the current proceedings before the Lex Mpati commission of inquiry into alleged improprieties at the PIC – most specifically in the bewildering R4.3 billion investment in Ayo Technologies –  cognisance should also be taken of an article by Sizwe Dlamini which was published in Business Report on 10 April last year and which was headlined Independent’s PIC debt in check.

Its opening paragraph read:

“Independent Media has said that it was well ahead of schedule with its repayment of its debt to the Public Investment Corporation (PIC).”

As we now know, Sekunjalo Independent Media has reneged on repaying that debt by the contractual date to the detriment of the 1.4 million civil servants and pensioners who are members of the GEPF and, very probably, of Cosatu. Does this not indicate that truth has become an alien concept at Independent Media since the Sekunjalo takeover in 2013?

For obvious reasons this fake news article about debt repayment has been removed from the IOL website but it can still be found on Press Reader via a Google search. For equally obvious reasons the fact that Sekunjalo Independent Media has reneged on repaying the PIC loan has not been revealed on the IOL website or in the company’s newspapers. The news manipulation is constant and what is significant, as Dougie Oakes has pointed out on Twitter, is that the details of the Ayo Technologies scandal are being withheld from the readers of Iqbal Survé’s newspapers. In fact, they have yet to be told that Sekunjalo Independent Media is refusing to pay back the GEPF loan!

As the list of scandals grows and the disturbing role of Dr Dan Matjila in the Ayo Technologies R4.3 billion PIC investment is exposed, Iqbal Survé is trying the tired Zuma tactic of threatened litigation. He tried it against Rhoda Kadalie and when she indicated via senior council that she would be happy to meet him in court, nothing further was heard. Kadalie was vindicated by the subsequent testimony of UCT Vice Chancellor, Dr Max Price in the book by Dr Jonathan Jansen and in the research of UCT honours student Ricky Stoch.

So why is Cosatu, once so vociferous about the staff abuse at the Gupta media companies and so distressed when the contract of Terry Bell was rescinded, now silent about the Cape Times staff exploitation claims by Dougie Oakes?

So why is Cosatu silent about the mounting evidence before the Lex Mpati Commission of the collusive relationship between Dan Matjila and Iqbal Survé and the lack of due diligence in the Ayo Technologies transaction?

Cosatu, considerably weakened by the rise of Amcu and the split with Numsa, is well aware that the ANC is desperate to regain control of the Western Cape  and fully aware of the almost manic  fake news campaign against the Democratic Alliance emanating from Newspaper House.

Furthermore, according to the evidence of former Bosasa COO Angelo Agrizzi before the Zondo Commission, Cosatu affiliates such as Popcru and Ceppawu are deeply involved in bribery and corruption.

The way in which Coastu has accordingly abandoned principle – ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ – for politically expedient silence about the staff situation at the Cape Times provides telling evidence about why it is a waning force in South African politics.

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Ed Herbst started his news career as a photographer with the Natal Witness in 1968 but quickly switched to reporting while retaining an interest in photography. He joined the SABC in its Pretoria news office as a camera reporter in 1977, one year after television was introduced in South Africa. In 1978 he was seconded to the SABC’s Windhoek office for six months to cover the run-up to the country’s UN-monitored election and was then posted to the SABC’s Sea Point news office. He asked for early retirement in 2005 because of pervasive SABC corruption, news censorship and unaddressed abusive treatment of staff. From 2007 to 2009 he was employed as a consultant in the media department of the Cape Town municipality but became a pensioner when personal circumstances forced him to retire. He now writes without remuneration for local websites about the interface between media and politics. He is writing a book on media capture after 1994.

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