Leisurenet Revisited?

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Our payroll bill is one of our highest expenditures. Unfortunately, we are left with no alternative but to take the extreme measure of applying a salary reduction. This will come into effect from this month of April until such a time as the situation has normalised.

Takudzwa Hove letter to Sekunjalo Independent Media staff 3/4/2020

Listed technology investor Naspers said on Wednesday it has sufficient liquidity to navigate the changing environment and seek out new opportunities during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on global markets.

Naspers in strong financial position to face Covid-19 Business Day 9/4/2019

Twenty years ago a personal friend, a homemaker in her forties, suffered a double tragedy. Her husband, a senior executive with Volkswagen, had died suddenly and, acting upon the advice of a broker she trusted, she invested all the money he had left her in Leisurenet. She, like so many others – many of them pensioners – lost everything.

As a reporter for SABC TV news in Cape Town, I covered the trial of Peter Gardener and Rod Mitchell, former joint chief executives of Leisurenet who were subsequently jailed and I also interviewed pensioners – Leisurenet investors – who were living in penury.

In 2003 I read about the concerns Gardener had about Iqbal Survé, whose Sekunjalo company was the major shareholder in Leisurenet.

In 2016 I read a Daily Maverick article in which Peter Flack expressed concerns that Survé might have been involved in insider trading during the Leisurenet liquidation process.

Personal bank account

At the time, Brett Kebble was a business associate of Survé and, in 2006 and subsequent to Kebble’s death, Survé acknowledged at a 2006 insolvency inquiry that he had used his personal bank account as a conduit to funnel the proceeds of Brett Kebble’s fraud and theft into the bank accounts of prominent ANC politicians as a means of buying political influence and their protection.

Survé then  formed an association with Dr Dan Matjila, CEO of the Public Investment Corporation which was harshly criticised by the Mpati commission and is now the subject of both litigation and criminal investigation.

In 2013 when the news broke that the PIC was investing supposedly sacrosanct civil servant pension fund money in a dying industry by assisting Survé to acquire the largest group of English newspapers in the country, there was widespread and subsequently vindicated bewilderment.

Initially, Survé refused to provide details about how the deal was funded and so, too, did Matjila who used the defence of business confidentiality.

When he was forced to do so in 2016 by parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance, Matjila said he had done so because he wanted to give black people a chance to create a ‘second Naspers’.

Fast forward to April 2020 and the staff of the ‘second Naspers’ receive letters notifying them of financially-crippling salary cuts as a result of a Covid-19-influenced decline in advertising revenue.

What is particularly callous is this sentence in the letter to staff from Takudzwa Hove, Sekunjalo’s CEO – a reference to pensioners who had provided decades of loyal service to the company prior to the Sekunjalo takeover in 2013:

  • 50% reduction for all post-retirement medical aid contributions for retired employees that are still receiving income from us;

Surely it is unbecoming of Finland’s Honorary Consul in Cape Town and a BEE partner  of major international companies like Siemens and SAAB to financially handicap a handful of former employees now in their late seventies and, given the risk of increasing reputational damage, has the time not come for them to review such association?

Survé is someone who can afford to spend R140 million on apartments in Cape Towns’ V&A waterfront and surround himself with bodyguards so will reducing post-retirement medical aid contributions to a few pensioners adversely impact on his affluent lifestyle and the bottom line of his companies which recently received R4.3 billion thanks to the intervention of Dr Dan Matjila?

If these pensioners played no role in Sekunjalo Independent Media’s current and parlous financial situation, why are they now being so callously punished when many of them are frail and in poor health?

Is this not just another example of the gratuitous cruelty to staff which Ferial Haffajee mentions in her review of Paper Tiger by former Survé employees Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield?

The last managing editor of the Cape Times, Martine Barker, was hounded out in what she calls a “brutal” period of her life. Brutality defines Survé’s modus operandi in the book.

 He divides and rules like a warrior gone rogue, taking out anybody who will not bow to the sycophancy he demands. The Cape Times news head, Janet Heard, suffered manoeuvres both cruel and transparently evil. The legendary environmental writer, John Yeld, was treated like a string of disposable kelp.

As a ‘Prosperous Mind’  and a ‘Doctor Tech Billionaire’  could Survé not show some mercy to a few elderly people who devoted much of their adult lives to building a once-respected newspaper company and who are now struggling to make ends meet?

In striking contrast, the original Naspers (which was founded with its own money and without financial loss to pensioners) has announced that its staff and pensioners will experience no financial reductions as a consequence of the pandemic.

Constant scandal

Unlike Naspers, Sekunjalo is in dire straits financially and, after constant scandal, companies like Sasol and BDO and Webber Wetzel have severed ties with Survé-linked companies.

Furthermore, Iqbal Survé has recently been rebuked by two judges – see here and here – something without precedent in the history of South African newspapers and  he is also being investigated by the Financial Sector Conduct Authority for alleged share price manipulation.

If proven, this would a contravention of the Financial Management Act which potentially carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, a maximum fine of R50 million or both.

In the past seven years, almost two dozen editor-level personnel have left Survé’s employ because of his abusive behaviour towards staff, ethnically divisive and unethical journalism – see here and here and here and here – the way in which he has brought the profession into disrepute and because they no longer regard his discredited media companies as financially-viable.

The contrast between Sekunjalo and Naspers and their differing responses to the coronavirus pandemic is emphasised by a quote from a speech Iqbal Survé made in 2016:

Lashing out at Naspers, he said: “It will go to great depths to demonise black business leaders, artists, judges and black academics, but remain silent on the incompetencies and corruption of their brethren. They will investigate black people until they are blue in the face, but they will not investigate their white brethren who are still responsible for the destruction and consequences of apartheid today – 22 years into democracy.”

Moreover, during his appearance at the Mpati commission he testified under oath in April last year that he holds white-owned companies in contempt and described rival media companies such as Naspers as barbarians in this convoluted and badly-articulated paragraph:

In 2012 I considered it necessary for a different narrative to reflect balance of South Africa as a country and as a developing nation and I want to say at this point African and South Africans are presented by predominantly the white media that have not changed until then. It is owned by the same people who owned it during apartheid. As barbarians, as corrupt, they do not give account to intellectuals and others, in any event.

Survé has repeatedly accused the ‘barbarians’ of being anti-transformation. At 52 seconds of this SABC interview he says:

It’s all anti-transformation. It is all designed to prevent this country from becoming truly liberated.

However, when President Cyril Ramaphosa recently appealed for donations to the Covid-19 emergency relief fund, it was  the people that Survé openly despises and who are constantly denigrated in his newspapers  – Johann Rupert and the Oppenheimers and that ‘barbaric’ company Naspers – who were among the first to show their patriotism and empathy when they jointly donated R4.5 billion rand.

So how much has the man who wants to ‘change the world’ and to ‘reposition Africa in the eyes of the financial world’ while creating a media legacy and taking Sekunjalo Independent Media into the realms of the ‘global best’ contributed to President Ramaphosa’s Covid-19 emergency relief fund?

Not a cent

Well, as one of the ‘top minds shaping global policies’ and a renowned philanthropist who regards white-owned institutions as anathema he has, to date and unlike them, contributed nothing – not a cent.

Survé’s failure to give monetary assistance to those most affected by the pandemic is disturbing given what Sekunjalo Investment Holdings stated in an April 2018 media release:

We will continue to lead the way and provide hope for the millions denied access to the market economy by their color, their history and their lack of resources, a direct consequence of apartheid era policies and strategies.

The hypocrisy of that statement is further emphasised by a recent attack against the Oppenheimers by Survé himself which his editors were compelled, according to former AYO executive Siphiwe Nodwele, to publish:

Media outlets such as Daily Maverick, funded by the Oppenheimers and other well-placed businessmen and families; so-called media investigative units like amaBhungane, are funded primarily by overseas backers who themselves have certain political interests.

Nowhere in this article does Survé mention his termination of Azad Essa’s column at the insistence of his Chinese ‘overseas backers’ whose ‘political interests’ don’t include freedom of expression – as the experience of Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang, illustrates. (Type the name Lee Wenliang into the IOL website search bar and the result is negative – nothing detrimental to China’s image is allowed on this website – censorship by omission being the hallmark of the propagandist.)

Survé’s attack on the Oppenheimers simply echoes the attacks which the family experienced from H F Verwoerd in 1962. The ANC perception of the Oppenheimers differs radically from that of Verwoerd and Survé.

Bizarre attack

Cyril Ramaphosa has come under relentless, indeed bizarre, attack from the EFF-aligned Sekunjalo newspapers recently.  Ramaphosa has now announced that he and his government will cut their salaries by a third and that the money so saved will be channelled to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund.

Ramaphosa’s decision on an executive salary cut means that the Solidarity Fund will get R2 million a month for the next three months but, so far, there has been no indication that Iqbal Survé intends to follow this example.

In the letters from Iqbal Survé and Takudzwa Hove to their staff warning them of swingeing salary cuts to come, there is no specific reference to them setting the example, leading from the front and cutting their own salaries.

A little more than month ago, the beaming visage of  Wallace Mgoqi was featured in a  AYO media release heralding  a R200 million fund to support African start-ups, so when can we expect an announcement that Iqbal Survé is going to make a patriotic  and empathetic multi-billion rand contribution to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund?

And the ‘anti- transformation’ ‘barbarians’?

With Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa heading the Naspers operations in South Africa it will continue to be the most profitable company on the JSE and, at the end of this month, its staff and pensioners will not be facing financially-crippling deductions.

Nobody cares what Sekunjalo Independent Media thinks about the Oppenheimers, the Ruperts and Naspers, least of all the beneficiaries of their Covid-19 Solidarity Fund donations.

The ancient Arabian reference to canines and caravans comes to mind.

Disturbing echoes

For the Sekunjalo pensioners, some of whom will have been involved in the coverage by the former Argus Group newspapers of the Leisurenet liquidation, their own financial plight and the threatened liquidation of Sekunjalo will have disturbing echoes of what happened 20 years ago.

They are not the only pensioners who are concerned.

In an October 2018 open letter to all South Africans, Daniel Matjila wrote:

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.

Until Iqbal Survé repays the approximately R1.5 billion he owes the Government Employees Pension Fund through the PIC, they will receive no return whatsoever on Matjila’s politically-motivated investment in Sekunjalo Independent Media.

When the news broke in Dublin during February 2013 that a consortium led by Iqbal Survé had bought the Independent News Media newspapers from the Irish parent company, Mandy de Waal interviewed him for Daily Maverick.

As a closing remark in the interview Survé said to her:

“If you know anything about me you know that I operate with incredible integrity.”

The Sekunjalo pensioners and the civil service pensioners expect Iqbal Survé as a much-publicised philanthropist who faithfully observes business protocols, to live up to that promise.

They look forward to his announcement that he will donate far more than Naspers, the Ruperts and the Oppenheimers to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund,that the donation will include his own massive salary cut, that he will repay the money he owes the state pension fund and recompense his own staff and pensioners for any current salary deductions.

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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.