It was an ominous portent of what was later to transpire. On 27 January 2014, shortly after Dr Iqbal Survé gained control of the largest group of English newspapers in the country through an initially-clandestine, billion rand soft loan from the Public Investment Corporation, a clear warning was issued to those now employed by him.
It came in the form of an article headlined:
Opinion: Takeover is focused on transformation
It was written by Karima Brown, Survé’s newly-appointed group executive editor and Vukani Mde, group op-ed and analysis editor – who were later to attend an ANC rally wearing the party’s colours and regalia and its message was clear – those who did not agree with their brand of journalism were welcome to leave.
‘In the final analysis, no one is shackled to Independent or any of its titles. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to accept its new owner or its direction under him, must as a matter of principle leave, and give the rest of us space to build the company we want to work for.’
They then played the race card suggesting that this referred to white staff opposed to transformation:
‘A small but very privileged and racially definable minority still controls the tools of public discourse, including the bulk of private commercial media and virtually all the mainstream newspaper groups.
‘This group has resisted and fought against transformation of the media, be it in ownership, management, or in newsrooms. They’ve grown adept at paying lip service to the goals of transformation and media diversity, but in truth remain against them, as their joint and individual actions demonstrate.
Two and half years later, having been given ‘the space to build the company we want to work’ for, Brown was gone, to be followed shortly thereafter by Mde.
Fast forward to the 3rd of May 2018 – World Press Freedom Day – and the news breaks that no fewer than three editors have decided, like Brown and Mde before them, to sever their ties with Iqbal Survé. They all work in the same building: Newspaper House in Cape Town’s CBD, home to the Cape Times and the Cape Argus.
- Yunus Kemp, editor of Sunday Argus has joined a local public relations company
- Chiara Carter, editor of Saturday Argus has joined the Daily Dispatch in East London as deputy editor
- Gasant Abarder, Regional Executive Editor has joined the communications department at the University of the Western Cape.
Insiders says a catalyst was Survé forcing his editors - after his failure to list his Sagarmatha company on the JSE – to publish defamatory articles equating three of the country’s most distinguished journalists, Sam Sole, Ann Crotty and Tim Cohen, with the ‘Stratcom’ security force police unit during the P W Botha era.
The transformation of which Brown and Mde wrote in January 2014 has occurred, most specifically at the Cape Times.
I have been told that the last white news personnel working exclusively for this newspaper left in December 2016 after a massive retrenchment exercise and that, as a result of a de facto policy of not employing whites at the Cape Times, it has been ‘transformed’ into a media Orania in reverse.
First they came for the sub-editors - and the product has suffered in consequence.
On 28 April the Cape Times carried a Treknet cartoon under the Madam & Eve banner. This is an almost incomprehensible example of incompetence.
After watching the Fallists trash UCT with the constant encouragement of the Cape Times, its traditional readers, leafy suburb whites, cancelled their subscriptions en masse.
As a result, the circulation has declined incrementally year on year and in 2017 it dipped below 30 000 for the first time.
The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures for the first quarter of 2018 show that the core sales figures for the Cape Times and the Cape Argus after four years of Sekunjalo control are 26710 and 23 867 respectively and both papers carry minimal advertising. These newspapers are not profitable.
Furthermore, Survé’s IOL online news website, with four million hits a month, lags way behind the News 24 website of rival Naspers, which gets seven million hits a month.
Sekunjalo Independent Media is being propped up by PIC contributions which are coming under increasing scrutiny.
As Karima Brown, Vukani Mde, Gasant Abarder, Yunus Kemp, Chiara Carter and some 200 other former employees watch the downward spiral of the Indy titles, they must be cathartically relieved at their escape from a newspaper company where ethical journalism and investigative journalism no longer exist.
Ed Herbst is a veteran journalist based in Cape Town