The Predictable Implosion of the Cape Times – Part 1

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Naturally, when I saw an article in the Cape Times of 5 March titled “Foetal alcohol syndrome’s sad legacy”, and subtitled “Tragedy of Baby Thomas”, I was deeply concerned. It purported to be the tale of a baby boy born called Thomas, born to an alcoholic mother called Rose, near Wellington in the Western Cape. Rose was described in the article as “a product of the Western Cape farming community’s infamous dop system”.

Some very strange reporting from the Cape Times – Helen Zille Politicsweb

15/3/2015

One has to be reminded that others – notably Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent group – have gone completely rogue, opting out of all industry attempts to self-regulate and deal with these issues. The Sunday Times is at least capable of being shamefaced, whereas Survé has gone out to hire and promote the journalists who were responsible for some of the most shameful episodes of our journalism in recent years. His operation is now the Fox News of South Africa, deliberately spreading misinformation in pursuit of his political and business interests.

Anton Harber Daily Maverick  27/1/2021

It has taken just seven years for the daily circulation of the Cape Times under the aegis of Sekunjalo Independent Media owner Iqbal Survé and former editor Aneez Salie to plunge by 70%. This article examines the reasons behind this precipitous decline of a once-respected newspaper which no longer carries sufficient advertising to be financially viable.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) exists to provide accurate data about newspaper and magazine circulation figures to potential advertisers and investors.

Immediately prior to the initially-opaque takeover of the former Argus Group newspapers by Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent Media Company in mid-2013, the daily sales figure for the Cape Times according to the ABC figures was 34,627.

A year later Survé was interviewed by the SABC and at 24 seconds of the interview he says:

“The next time we speak I will predict that the real circulation of our titles will probably increase by at least between five and ten percent per title.”

By May 2018 the Cape Times was no longer one of the top ten bestselling South African dailies.

Fast forward to February this year and the marklives website posts ABC figures comparing the sales figures for the last quarter of 2020 with the equivalent figures for the same period in 2019.

The image below – widely circulated on social media – places in numerical order the decline in sales of the various newspapers during the above-mentioned period.

If you break this down into the newspapers which have recently suffered the biggest circulation losses, then it is clear that the Sekunjalo titles such as the Pretoria News, the Cape Argus, the Cape Times, the Star, the Mercury and the Daily News have lost sales to a greater extent than rival newspapers published by Naspers, Arena Holdings and CTP/Caxton.

The drop from the daily sales figure of the Cape Times of 34,627 prior to the Sekunjalo takeover in late 2013 and the current figure of less than ten thousand a day is staggering testimony to the irreparable harm that Iqbal Survé and those he appointed at the time have inflicted upon this once-respected newspaper.

To put that in perspective, the population of Cape Town is about 3.7 million. Pietermaritzburg, the home of the Witness has a population of less than a million yet the Witness, according to the latest ABC figures, sells about 1200 fewer copies a day than the Cape Times does in a city with more than three times the population.

The catastrophic implosion of the Cape Times which has lost more than two thirds of its daily sales was not just predictable but inevitable given the de facto policies and approach implemented by the company owner, Iqbal Survé and former Cape Times editor Aneez Salie which saw its finest talents purged and its century-old subscriber and advertiser base denigrated as innate racists.

The start of the rot

In March 2015 Helen Zille picked up that an article in the Cape Times which, under newly-appointed editor Aneez Salie, sought to demonise the Western Cape’s wine farmers as genocidal racists, was a pack of lies and that much of the article was plagiarized.

It purported to tell the story an alcoholic female farm worker, Rose, and her son ‘Baby Thomas’ who, because of the claimed pervasive and deliberate use by wine famers of the illegal dop system, was born with foetal alcohol syndrome.

It took me a few phone calls and an email to ascertain that neither ‘Rose’ nor ‘Baby Thomas’ existed and that the closest that the reporter concerned had got to anyone with foetal alcohol syndrome was a foetus in formalin in the medical museum of Tygerberg Hospital.

I already knew that the allegation that the dop system was still in use by Western Cape wine farmers was an infamous lie which would be harmful to the biggest employer in the province and its greatest source of income from abroad.

You can read my article on that slimy bit of Fake News here and it was a precursor to the positively evil, ethnically-divisive, politically-tainted and grotesquely incompetent news coverage that followed and which predictably plunged a once-revered Mother City institution into what could well be a death spiral.

In my opinion, the decline is also, in substantial measure, a result of the iron-fisted control of editorial policy by company owner Iqbal Survé,  – which he denies – his purge of ethical journalists, the Cape Times  vendetta against UCT  – see here and here – and its Vice Chancellor, Dr Max Price, the intemperate attacks on other news companies and their reporters, his grandiose claims  – see here and here and other scandals – see here and here and  here  and here and here  and here   and here and here and here and here and here and here – all of which will have alienated subscribers and advertisers.

Survé has repeatedly attacked Naspers but, significantly, the Reuters Institute rated its News 24 website as the most trusted news brand in South Africa and not IOL, the Sekunjalo online news portal.

Accused of being racists by the Cape Times although innocent of any crime

Evil: Read my article ‘The Tiger Tiger Five: Story of a Race Hoax’ and the impact that this deliberately-divisive, vile and vicious abuse of media power and reach had on the victims, innocent of any crime but which saw them jailed in one of the world’s most dangerous prisons, Pollsmoor, and you can decide for yourself whether my personal interpretation of this sordid campaign as evil is justified.

Ethnically divisive news coverage: There has, for good reason been no response to my two articles – here and here – in this context. Former employees at the Cape Times have told me that Aneez Salie’s overt animus towards white people is a consequence of the suffering experienced by himself and his former wife Shirley Gunn when, as MK operatives, they were arrested in the apartheid era by security police. To use the newspaper you edit, however, as a medium of communicating and promoting that animus – however righteous and justified – inevitably has an adverse impact on the profitability of the newspaper.

My sense is that he is hardly alone in this regard – see the remarks here and here and here of Iqbal Survé at the Mpati Commission which led to a confrontation with Gill Marcus

Purge of ethical journalists: The appalling way in which Alide Dasnois and Janet Heard and Tony Weaver and Melanie Gosling were driven out of the Cape Times despite their role in producing a Madiba obituary which Time magazine rated as one of the best in the world, has been comprehensively documented in the book Paper Tiger by Dasnois and Chris Whitfield – see  here and here and here.

The dismissal of Dasnois evoked international opprobrium.

Aneez Salie has not commented on the allegations in Paper Tiger nor on the excoriating accounts by former Cape Times political reporter, Dougie Oakes – see here and here and here – but the venomous way in which the intellectual heart was ripped out of this newspaper undoubtedly contributed to the decision by tens of thousands of previously loyal subscribers to seek other sources of news information.

The attack on esteemed journalists by Sekunjalo began even before the 2013 takeover as Donwald Pressly experienced in 2012. He was one of the first victims of the Sekunjalo purge, but took his case to the CCMA and won.

Politically-tainted coverage: Read my articles headlined ‘Problematic editorial and media, politics collide’ and ‘Cape Times political gymnastics knocks it off the balance beam’ for several examples of the political bias for which this newspaper in now notorious and for which it has had to apologise. There are other examples – see here and here.

Blatant lies: The conclusions reached by the Mpati Commission about Iqbal Survé and his financial facilitator, Dan Matjila, were damning –  see here and here and here  and here and here  – and from the Democratic Alliance.

Despite this, Survé’s newspaper headlines sought to create an entirely different impression  – ‘Leaked PIC report shows Dan Matjila, Dr Iqbal Survé did no wrong’ and ‘PIC inquiry report clears ex-CEO Dan Matjila, black-owned companies’ and  ‘Dan Matjila owed an apology by media and ‘Sekunjalo hits out at media allegations over PIC report’ and  ‘Ex-PIC chief Dan Matjila faced with ‘unmerited’ scrutiny’.

Such brazen falsehoods would have been obvious to the South African public and the two million government employees and current civil servant pensioners whose pension money was loaned to Survé-linked companies and which, in the case of INMSA, has not been repaid.

Vendetta against UCT: Furthermore, many of the former readers of  and advertisers in the Cape Times would be either alumnae of the University of Cape Town or they have children studying there. They would have watched with increasing concern as Iqbal Survé promised the destructive Fallist rabble his support  and the support of his newspapers – you can read the text of his speech here.

The Cape Times editor at the time, Aneez Salie, dutifully heeded the call – see here and here.

A typical Cape Times front page lead during the vendetta against UCT

The alumnae of UCT, who over the decades have contributed significantly and positively to the social fabric of Cape Town, would also have read Jonathan Jansen’s book As by Fire. In it, former UCT Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price talks of Survé’s abuse of his media power to run what he considered as a smear campaign against him and about how he became aware that Survé was funding the Cape High Court campaign by Chumani Maxwele against the university. They will also have read the honours thesis by Ricky Stoch in which she provides similar evidence.

Furthermore, as indicated in a subsequent UCT report and in the funeral testimony of his widow and sister,  Fallist persecution led to the death by his own hand of the beloved and internationally-esteemed cardiologist, Professor Bongani Myosi.

The Fallist’s destructive rampage started in Cape Town and, from the beginning, it received the support of the Cape Times. It was fuelled by ethnic hatred, saw a man die, another beaten to a bloody pulp and a third critically injured at UCT when a rock was dropped on his head from an upper floor of a building; it also saw an attempt to burn security guards to death; university staff and reporters assaulted; countrywide arson which resulted in the Sanlam Auditorium  and libraries  being set alight; computer laboratories floodedpervasive looting;  destruction of private property; bizarre theories promulgated which made South Africa an international laughing stock; the memories of those who died in battle desecrated and the studies of tens of thousands of students disrupted.

There was no attempt by the Cape Times to interview Max Price when his office was firebombed – an extraordinary renunciation by this newspaper and its editor at the time of the audi convention.

During this disruptive period the Cape Times gave the Fallists hagiographic daily front page coverage resulting in its enduring infamy among thousands of those who once subscribed to and advertised in it.

A typical Cape Times front page lead during the vendetta against UCT

The way in which Iqbal Survé has sided with the Zuma faction of the ANC and, more recently, the EFF, will also have been disturbing to many of those who, a decade ago, considered the Indy newspapers to be an integral and trusted part of their daily lives.

In Part 2 of this article I analyse three other factors which I believe have played a role in demise of the Cape Times ­– the destruction of its institutional knowledge by purging staff members trusted by its readership and advertising base, by the denigration of that audience as innate racists and by the justifiable perception, as set out in submissions to the SANEF inquiry, that the Indy newspapers have been and are being used to promote the business and political interests and animosities of its owner.

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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.