How to dig up political dirt

By Ray Mahlaka and Dineo Bendile

INTIMIDATION, bribery and smear campaigns are the challenges faced by investigative journalists in South Africa, said Sunday Times journalists Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Rob Rose.

Wa Afrika and Rose are experts in this as they are the team who exposed the wasteful expenditure of state funds by former communications minister Dina Pule.

Earlier this year Pule was suspended from her position following an investigation into her improper conduct after she allegedly awarded her boyfriend, Phosane Mngqibisa, a tender for the organisation of the ICT Indaba in 2012.

The journalists’ interest was sparked by tip-offs and inside sources from the department of communications. They would later use records from a travel agency after Pule had all her own records of her holidays with her boyfriend destroyed.

Investigative journalism tips

The speakers were able to give delegates some tips based on their investigative experience.
According to the speakers, one of the fundamental aspects of investigative journalism was the importance of ensuring the accuracy of any information published. Their initial articles were met with denials, forcing them to get more information on Pule.

[pullquote align=”right”]“The more you deny, the more a journalist will dig. And the more they dig the more stuff will come out.”[/pullquote]

“We became unpopular… we were forced to get more damning evidence for people to believe us,” said wa Afrika. Rose and wa Afrika said they did not stop at getting documents but also sought out the authors of the documents.

“If you get any document, the best way to verify information is to find who is or are authors of this document,” wa Afrika said. “Any document is written by the source, try and trace which is the author and interrogate them on why they wrote the document.”

According to wa Afrika, after breaking the revelations of Pule he had several meetings with the former minister and some of her colleagues where they attempted to intimidate him and offer cash for his silence.

He urged journalists to meet sources in public places that they know well to avoid any possible attacks or being accused of accepting a bribe.

“Make sure that when you meet someone you meet them at a strategic place. Make sure you know the place you are meeting at and you know that there are cameras,” wa Afrika said.

Persistence is needed when uncovering the truth as an investigative journalist. While investigating Pule’s improprieties the team received a lot of backlash from politicians and Pule herself. However, this only encouraged them.

“The more you deny, the more a journalist will dig. And the more they dig the more stuff will come out,” wa Afrika said.

He told delegates that journalists are often intimidated by people with power to force them to back down from investigations.

“When you become an investigative journalist, one thing you open yourself up to is smear campaigns, slander, people trying to intimidate you. People will try to kill you, not because you are a bad person, but because you stepped on some toes,” wa Afrika said.

The Guardian newspaper journalist David Smith, who attended wa Afrika and Rose’s presentation, said he wanted to find out more about investigative journalism in South Africa.

“I wanted to know what stories are being covered and who’s covering them… there is a lot of good journalists doing good work, Mail & Guardian and Sunday Times are a few [such] publications. I think South Africa probably has the strongest investigative journalism in Africa,” he said.


Eyewitness News: Dina Pule fined and suspended. August 7, 2013

Investigative journalism is blood, sweat and tears

Celebrated investigative journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika speaks about the difficulties of his profession. Photo: Prelene

Celebrated investigative journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika speaks about the difficulties of his profession. Photo: Nolwazi Mjwara.

“One must have a thick skull, a heart of a lion and deaf ears,” said Mzilikazi wa Afrika as he began his presentation on the good, the bad and the ugly of investigative journalism.

Wa Afrika spoke about his own experience as being an investigative journalist for the Sunday Times. The seminar kicked off directly at the FNB building at Wits University as part of the Power Reporting conference.

“Investigative journalism is very, very tough and you need to be prepared to swim with the crocodiles in the river and dance with the lions in the jungle,” said wa Afrika.

The problem journalists face, especially investigative journalists is the problem of intimidation by government.

[pullquote align=”left”]We need to act now and show them[/pullquote]

Investigative journalists throughout the African continent are targeted and silenced. Wa Afrika said this is a big problem the continent is facing and it is also something South Africa is facing.

The notion Mandela had about a “critical, independent and investigative press being the lifeblood of any democracy” should have been said in front of all the African presidents, according to wa Afrika.

It should not be the case that the media become the opposition to the ANC, said wa Afrika. The work of an investigative journalist is very important in balancing a society and yet in other African countries “journalists are treated worse than hobo’s, media houses are forced to close down and journalists’ lives are in danger,” said wa Afrika.

“This is a job that needs to be done, you are [as a journalist] doing a favour for your country,” he said. Wa Afrika said investigative journalists report on stories which affect their people.

He related story of when he was detained at Libreville airport in Gabon for 15 hours because he was a journalist. “My colleague and I were detained with no food or water for 15 hours based on our occupation which we filled out on the forms.”

Both journalists spent the night in a cell with six other men and the next morning they were taken to Mpumalanga where they were interrogated further and only released once their host spoke with the police.

In 2013 a total of 17 journalists have been killed on duty in Syria, six in Egypt and five in Pakistan.

[pullquote]“I do this because I love my country”[/pullquote]

In response to these numbers wa Afrika says, “We need to act now and show them [the government] that they can’t push us around.”

The problem also lies in the lack of reporting on this issue. Over the past weekend journalists were killed in Somalia however “I am yet to read a story in print about this,” he said.

While investigative journalism is expensive and risky, authorities need to be held accountable for their actions. “I do this because I love my country,” he said.

Wa Afrika has eight cameras throughout his house and a neighbourhood watch in order to protect his family. He explained that he often gets death threats.

When Wits Vuvuzela asked wa Afrika if he had any advice for a young investigative journalist he said, investigative journalism is not glamorous, it is blood, sweat and tears. It’s different and you should always watch your back.

“The good is great, the bad is scary and the ugly is death,” said wa Afrika.


Eastern Cape’s Daily Dispatch snatches investigative journalism award


Some of the winners of the 2013 Taco Kuiper Awards, from L-R: Rob Rose, Msindisi Fengu, Mzilikazi wa Afrika, Yandisa Monakali and Greg Marinovich. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa.


Journalist Msindisi Fengu and photographer Yandisa Monakali from East London paper the Daily Dispatch were awarded the 7th Taco Kuiper award for investigative journalism yesterday at the Rand Club in Johannesburg.

Their story, Hostels of Shame, a two month investigation into the conditions of more than 70 rural school hostels in the Eastern Cape, culminated in what the judges called “powerful, original and relentless slog-work” that uncovered the appalling state of the hostels in the province.

What made the victory particularly sweet for the Eastern Cape journalists was the fact that, in Mfengu’s words, the story involved a large element of “luck”.

The luck Mfengu refers to is pure modesty on his part.

The idea for the story came when the small publication reported a local MEC’s statement, that prisoners were “far better” to live in than the hostels, as a signal for a much bigger story.

Without the resources of larger papers, and a subsequently small newsroom, the Dispatch’s approach to news was to identify “concept stories” and assign journalists to pursue these on a thorough and long term basis, according to the Dispatch’s editor Bongani Siqoko.

“It was Fengu’s insistence on visiting each and every hostel that made the difference,” added the visibly proud editor.

And he had plenty reason to be proud.

The pair walked away with the closely contested award and the generous R200 000 prize money, wrestling it from 2010 and 2011 winners  Sunday Times team Stephan Hofstatter, Rob Rose and Mzilikazi waAfrika, as well as  Greg Marinovich of the Daily Maverick, who were joint runners up.    

The team from the Sunday Times had three entries on the final shortlist of eight.

One the investigative report into deputy president Kgaleme Motlanthe’s partner’s dubious business dealings, the other, “It’s Not Just Ayoba”, a piece on the misuse of power Communications minister Dina Pule, as well their powerful report into the Cato Manor police death squads.

Photographer Marinovich’s breakthrough story into what really happened when 36 miners were killed by police in Marikana during wage protests in 2012 was a strong contender as well.

Paul Steiger, one of the founders of Pro Publica, who was the guest speaker at the awards, emphasized journalism that “strives to be honest and exercises care in reporting” as key criteria for the awards.

His remarks, and the fierce investigative journalism on display at the awards, reinforce Anton Harber’s sentiments that “South African investigative journalism is amongst the best in the world”.