OVER THE past few weeks, a flurry of articles has flooded the media ecosystem whose sole bent seems to be to impugn the dignity and damage the reputation of Dr Iqbal Survé and the Sekunjalo Group.
Crafted with dedication and conveyed via Independent Media’s rival media chorus, the articles smack of McCarthyism, the term that has become synonymous with defamation of character and/or reputation through the widespread dissemination of indiscriminate allegations based on unsubstantiated charges. In other words, lies without proof or evidence are told often enough to become a version of the truth.
McCarthyism came about in the US in the late 1940s and 1950s and is attributed to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who carried out a witch-hunt during this time, under the auspices of looking for supposed communist infiltration of the US.
McCarthyism also uses fear as one of its cornerstones of persecution and is ultimately about control.
For the record, McCarthy failed to make a plausible case against anyone, but he did succeed in driving “some persons out of their jobs and brought popular condemnation to others” (Britannica).
In much the same way as McCarthy and his cohort set about assassinating the character of innumerable people, the same tactic is being deployed today in South Africa, and its targets are Sekunjalo Investment Holdings and its chairperson, Dr Survé.
To simplify, there are four steps to McCarthyism. The first step is to use the media. The second is to establish commissions to legalise the media’s propaganda. The third is to use law enforcement agencies and/or regulatory institutions, and the fourth is to use banking and other institutions. Isn’t that exactly what has happened here?
Although I have touched on this subject before, I believe there is an urgent requirement to elaborate, because who knows how many other people in this country will be subjected to the same treatment? For this reason, this editorial opinion piece will be done in two parts.
Part 1 will examine McCarthyism and how it is being implemented against Dr Survé and the Sekunjalo Group. Part 2 will examine why this is happening and its similarity with Stratcom (strategic communications), which happened during the dark days of apartheid.
Briefly, Dr Survé is one of the pre-eminent businessmen and black economic empowerment pioneers of post-democratic South Africa. The Sekunjalo Group, which he founded in 1997, is invested across all sectors of the economy, employing thousands of people, investing millions of rand into creating jobs, and paying the fiscus billions of rand in its more than 20-year history.
The group has very strong values and an anti-corruption focus, as I would know, having been with the group for almost two decades.
It was after Sekunjalo invested in Independent Media, along with the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), and brought the ownership of Independent Media back to South Africa’s shores, that the McCarthyism-style campaign began.
It is common knowledge, that certain employees of Independent Media were disappointed in their thwarted attempt to effect a management buy-out or have a stake in the newly South African-headquartered business. As is their right under our Constitution, they are free to voice their opinion – which they duly did.
The problem arises when that opinion is misled and then transmuted for fact. This has been the case here.
The fact of the matter is that Independent Media is one of the most transformed companies in South Africa, wins numerous international awards for its work, and remains one of the few companies not to have retrenched employees during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet, Dr Survé, and by association, Sekunjalo Investment Holdings (which is not an investor in Independent Media), are subjected to the same scorn and derision as they were in 2013 when Dr Survé first stepped into the business.
Independent Media has also not toed the party line during this time – a thorn in the side of many a politician or corporate funder.
A more recent example is how in early 2018, with a change in leadership in the ANC and the government, it is fair to say that all the other media houses, as well as NGOs such as the South African National Editors’ Forum, could see nothing wrong in what President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet was doing.
After the preceding decade, much of the media appeared to take its foot off the pedal and negate its role as watchdogs of the government. Independent Media, however, remained vigilant, with Dr Survé giving his editors carte blanche to expose any corruption or wrongdoing.
This has resulted in exposing scandals such as those related to Personal Protective Equipment fraud and the like, as well as looking into the situation at state-owned enterprises such as Eskom and the minerals and energy sector.
Importantly, a vicious and intense campaign is under way within the ruling party about who will be the next president at the ANC’s presidential election, due next year. This has seen the South African media take sides and has resulted in powerful individuals and entities, who support the various factions, being exposed by Independent Media.
This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and further reasons for the McCarthyism campaign will follow in part two.
McCarthyism is always accompanied by psychological warfare, which involves not only the use of media, such as photographs and cartoons, but also of intimidatory tactics. Together, they are used to shape the public narrative so that the target is perceived to be corrupt or a person who cannot be trusted.
STEP ONE – THE MEDIA
The media intentionally started and has perpetuated inaccurate propaganda against Dr Survé, Sekunjalo and many of its subsidiaries. The “stories” paint the group as corrupt, to get the buy-in of the public and their help in perpetuating the narrative and, ultimately, the rejection of the group.
If you want to kill a snake, you must hit its head. That is why, every time they report about a Sekunjalo subsidiary, they use Dr Survé’s picture, insert him in the story and place it on the front page – no matter that he has nothing to do with the contents of the article.
It is because the target is not that particular subsidiary, but the entire Sekunjalo Group.
More than 3 000 articles have been written against Dr Survé’s and Sekunjalo’s cynics. The articles have been accompanied by cartoons and photographs, all of which have depicted Dr Survé as a beast or an animal and are designed to invoke anger from the reader.
This online and print strategy is augmented by a series of social media bots, as was recently exposed in an article.
As I write this piece, the Daily Maverick, in an article authored by Tim Cohen about AYO Technology’s dividend, put Dr Surve’s picture as the focus of the article – even though there is no reference to Dr Survé in the article and even though he does not serve as a board member and is an indirect shareholder of AYO only through Sekunjalo’s holding in African Equity Empowerment Investments (AEEI).
Other media have also deliberately perpetuated the myth that AYO is Sekunjalo’s (almost plaything), and whenever there is any negative news about AYO, it is referred to as “Iqbal Surve’s AYO”. It is not.
In the past few days, there have been several very clear examples of this. Reference British Telecom’s decision to exercise a call option with AEEI, in which the media used Dr Surve’s picture and said, “BT dumps Sekunjalo”. The fact they also got the main body of the story wrong in referencing BT’s non-existent relationship with AYO (it does not have one) caused them to retract and correct and begrudgingly write badly worded apologies. The point here is that they have bought into their own bad rhetoric and neither do they fact check one another before copying and pasting their pieces.
A similar instance occurred when Maria Ramos won the defamation case against Independent Media, because of an editorial by The Star’s editor relating to her tenure at Absa. Once again, even though an editor wrote the opinion piece, the media deliberately positioned this as a fight between Dr Survé and Independent Media, on one side, and Ramos on the other.
The ultimate irony here is that the Ramos judgment was about the media ascribing blame to a chief executive who had said that she was not involved in rand fixing.
Ramos was successfully able to argue that even though she was the chief executive of Absa, she was not to blame for the rand-fixing debacle. Yet in almost all instances, anything to do with investments that the Sekunjalo Group has made in any entity is directly linked to Dr Survé, especially if there is negative news.
If there is any positive news, it is simply ignored.
The theme is that the media links Dr Survé to AYO and its investment by the PIC, despite the fact this has nothing to do with Dr Survé and Sekunjalo Investment Holdings other than they are an indirect investor through AEEI.
The media propaganda perpetrated here also formalises Goebbels’s strategy of “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”, and this is the aim even though there has not been a single adverse or court finding against Dr Survé and or the Sekunjalo Group.
STEP TWO – ESTABLISH A COMMISSION TO LEGALISE THE MEDIA PROPAGANDA
Using the media alone will not result in anything tangible, and if media reports are referred to law enforcement, the media propaganda will more than likely be crushed, because there’s no evidence. Therefore, there is a need to ratify the agenda, so it’s time to set up a commission of inquiry, because although it does not investigate, it’s a public display of people smearing others without legal consequences, but it’s findings will be referred to law enforcement agencies and regulatory authorities for investigation and possibly prosecution.
This step has been implemented with pinpoint accuracy.
When Ramaphosa appointed the Mpati Commission, he specifically said that companies that have transacted with the PIC and that have been in the media in the past two years must be included in the commission’s terms of reference.
This ensured that four of the entities included as companies to be investigated by the commission were associated to the Sekunjalo Group. No other investment group in the country was included, and the companies in which the PIC had lost tens of billions – such as Steinhoff, Tongaat Hulett and EOH – were bizarrely excluded from the inquiry of the commission.
If ever there was an indication of selection bias, this was it.
Additionally, the evidence leader, according to witnesses who appeared at the commission, also asked specific questions about the Sekunjalo Group. Why? The commission was there to investigate governance at the PIC, not at any of the companies into which the PIC had invested. Watching the proceedings, you would have been forgiven for thinking otherwise, though.
The Mpati Commission provided the perfect staging ground for witnesses to make wild allegations or those who had scores to settle with Sekunjalo – disgruntled former employees were given prominence without any validation or facts, for example.
The media took what was said at the commission as gospel, deliberately blowing out of all proportion, whatever was said about Sekunjalo. By way of example, a journalist from a prominent business daily headlined an article by saying that Dr Survé “calls whites barbarians”. This was not what he had said.
In fact, Dr Survé, who had volunteered to go to the commission before he was asked to attend, remarked how black people were often presented as uncivilised and barbarians in the media during apartheid, and that since his acquisition of Independent Media, his aim was to show that black people were professionals, businesspeople, academics and more, to counter this narrative of black people being barbarians. Despite the reporter from the business daily being contacted to correct his misrepresentation, the article had gone viral and Dr Survé was labelled a racist – based only on this disastrously wrong article.
There were countless other examples of misrepresentation during this commission, much of which is, sadly, reverberating. I know this, since I was present at the commission of inquiry and have been shocked at what was reported on television, or online, or in print versus what was said at the commission, especially what was said by Sekunjalo.
As I have already mentioned, the Sekunjalo entities were the focus of the PIC Commission of Inquiry. Also, those who came to testify were asked about Dr Survé’s involvement in the transaction of AYO’s R4.3 billion. They even had secret recordings of Dr Survé in meetings admitted as evidence. But Dr Survé is Sekunjalo, not AYO. Nor does the PIC have any interest in Sekunjalo.
It’s because Sekunjalo as a whole is the target here, not just the subsidiaries.
The irony of the Mpati Commission is its admission, based on its own evidence, that Sekunjalo was not corrupt, and that no PIC director or employee benefited from a relationship (if any) with Sekunjalo.
This admission also came after an extensive forensic and lifestyle audit into all the PIC board members, directors and executives. The PIC Commission of Inquiry’s proceedings were essentially used to legitimise and weaponise propaganda against Sekunjalo.
The same strategy has also been used by interlinking the JSE and the media to investigate Sekunjalo companies listed on the JSE.
The PIC Commission of Inquiry did not make adverse findings against the Sekunjalo Group. Nevertheless, aspects of the Mpati Report have been referred to law enforcement and regulatory bodies for investigation.
STEP THREE – LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES
The third step is the use of regulatory authorities and law enforcement agencies. This is done to convince the public that the targeted entity has done something wrong. Commissions usually recommend that the law enforcement agencies investigate the corruption, because they themselves do not have the powers to investigate.
The PIC Commission of Inquiry recommended that PIC transactions with the Sekunjalo Group should be referred to regulatory authorities and law enforcement entities to see whether any wrongdoing could be discovered. This is despite the fact the commission had found no evidence of any wrongdoing by Sekunjalo or its subsidiaries.
To truly underline that it is the Sekunjalo Group as a whole that is the real target in this campaign, you need to know that the PIC has absolutely zero interests in Sekunjalo Investment Holdings itself.
And this is where it gets really interesting. One of the commission’s recommendations is for the PIC to obtain all the company registration numbers of every entity in the Sekunjalo Group so they can conduct a forensic investigation of the flow of monies in and out of the group.
Armed with permission granted them by the Commission of Inquiry into the PIC, the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) raided Sekunjalo’s offices under the pretext of looking for information regarding AYO – even though they never raided AYO’s own offices.
Next, the PIC lodged an application to liquidate Sekunjalo Independent Media (SIM). The Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) issued a compliance notice to the PIC demanding they recoup the R4.3bn the PIC invested in AYO, together with interest for six months and so on. A court ruled that the CIPC had no standing in the matter.
STEP FOUR – BANKS (THE FINAL NAIL IN THE COFFIN)
The fourth and final step in McCarthyism is to use institutions to destroy the individual and/or the company. Despite extensive investigations by the Mpati Commission, forensic investigation by the JSE and others, repeated audits and FSCA and Financial Intelligence Centre investigations, not a single shred of evidence has been produced that the Sekunjalo Group, or its entities, have in any way committed a crime or participated in corruption.
However, the combination of steps one, two and three and the more than 3 000 articles written against Sekunjalo resulted in both Absa and First National Bank closing AYO’s and other Sekunjalo subsidiaries’ bank accounts. Their reason for doing so? A bad reputation from the media and the PIC Commission of Inquiry.
Given there have been no illegalities committed by AYO and other Sekunjalo subsidiaries, their only fall back is to claim that their own reputations would be tarnished. That’s rich considering just who some of their customers are… more on that another day.
To recap, McCarthyism has been used to demonise, castigate and defame a solid business group that is committed to South Africa’s and Africa’s future like no other – there can be no question about that. As to the reasons, well, dear reader, that’s for part two.
Adri Senekal de Wet is the executive editor of Business Report