Nkandla is much more than just a story about a very, very expensive house, according to investigative journalist Sam Sole, one of the members of the Mail & Guardian’s amaBhungane team.
Sole, Lionel Faull and Craig McKunne, three of the journalists who helped uncover and develop the “creation of a presidential palace” in 2012, spoke on Monday at the annual Power Reportingconference about their work on the story dating back to 2009.
Nkandla documents ‘repeated gumpf’
The team spent weeks compiling the data they had received, after months of filing and pushing for the promotion of access to information act (PAIA). After being turned down and appealing several times, they were eventually handed 42 lever arch files, containing 12 000 pages of documents, which they had to copy through a single scanner. The team, comprising of 8 people, split the workload and spent an entire weekend scanning.
Sole said that the team did not know how long they had to deal with the information provided. “We got an exclusive, but in a story that is embarrassing to government, they [the government] tend to make press statements and spoil the exclusive.”
Faull explained that a lot of the information was duplicated. “It was repeated ‘gumpf’, a tactic to slow us down and make it hard.”
The use of data journalism, combined with extensive probing and investigation revealed how much Zuma should have paid for the three private houses he started to build at the time of security upgrades (R19.5 million in total), as well as the fact that he would never have been able to afford it. It also allowed the team to create an “Nkandla phonebook”, which led them to useful contacts, some of whom were willing to speak.
The delegates who attended the session were from predominantly from other African countries and found the team’s investigation “impressive”, considering the amount of work it took to get the information.
There are very few investigative journalists around the continent, according to Panic Malawo Chifulya of the Zambia Daily Mail. “It is too risky,” she told Wits Vuvuzela. “We are all just all-rounders, covering a bit of everything.”
One of her colleagues, Rebecca Chileshe, explained that no editor would ever allow their journalists to conduct such an in-depth investigation, because they would “be the ones to lose their jobs”.
Chileshe spoke of a story she had done, which, if published, would embarrass the Zambian government. Her newspaper refused to publish the story and in the end, it was picked up by a smaller, private media house. According to her, this is one of many examples where stories have been swept under the carpet out of fear.
Margaret Samulela, of the same newspaper, also explained that such large legal costs would make it impossible to do the same type of story in Zambia and other such countries. “But this is happening in our country, it’s just that journalists aren’t able to investigate,” she said.
Last week the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), was kicked out of parliament after disrupting proceedings by insisting President Zuma answer questions about Nkandla. We asked Witsies if they thought the EFF has a place in parliament.
NKANDLA VOTES: Nkandla resident James Dlalala voted ANC at the Jan Hofmeyer community centre today. Photo: Luke Matthews
James Dlalala is from the town of Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal and today he cast his vote in Johannesburg as part of the national general elections.
Voting almost 500 kilometres away from the town that is the talk of the election period this year, Dlalala admits he was not persuaded to vote for any other party but the African National Congress (ANC) despite the negative publicity around Nkandla.
“We didn’t have gas and water before the ANC,” said healthcare worker Dlalala.
Despite the controversy surrounding the security upgrades to President Zuma’s homestead in Nkandla, Dlalala is adamant that the ANC “has helped South Africans more than it has damaged them,” citing the building of hospitals in rural KwaZulu-Natal as one of the developments that has been introduced to the area.
Dlalala, who is from the section of iPholela in Nkandla, insists the report released last month by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is not an accurate representation of President Jacob Zuma. “I don’t trust that this is the truth … Nkandla is a beautiful place”.
After casting his vote at the Jan Hofmeyer community centre in Vrededorp, Dlalala was not shy to say: “I don’t breathe in the DA – it is difficult to speak on the DA.”
The team’s investigations show the irregular escalation of costs related to security upgrades on the personal residence of President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla. The investigation is based on documents accessed through a PAIA application (Promotion of Access to Information Act).
[pullquote]“This was undoubtedly the story of the year, in fact of the last five years, and maybe the next five.”[/pullquote]
Professor Anton Harber, the convenor of the judging panel, and head of the Wits journalism department said: “This was undoubtedly the story of the year, in fact of the last five years, and maybe the next five. The presidential spokesperson said they were making a mountain out of a molehill, but in fact it was not them that were making a castle out of a kraal, or a palace out of a homestead, but they did reveal it. Few stories have had, and continue to have, such impact. It was work done by a formidable team.”
The runner-up spot was shared by teams from television show Carte Blanche and the Sunday Times for “Game of Geysers” (Joy Summer and Susan Comrie), and the “Dina Pule series” (Rob Rose, Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter).
Guest speaker, Brant Houston, a Knight Fellow in Investigative Journalism, addressed guests before the awards were handed out. On the future of journalism, Houston said that “We are entering the golden age of journalism.” He attributed this to technological advances, quick communication, collaboration and networking and journalists working together.“This helps us to preserve our work and cover our backs. It helps us do what we love, which is truth-telling.”
This was the eighth installation of the annual awards in honour of the late journalist, Taco Kuiper, and carries a cash prize of R200 000 for the winner.
THULI TALKS: Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and Wits VC Professor Adam Habib speak about the Nkandla report at Wits earlier today. Photo: Luke Matthews
Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela likened the current state of affairs in South Africa to the story of Animal Farm at a panel discussion at Wits earlier today.
“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” she said in reference to the Nkandla report, released yesterday.
[pullquote]“Public power should always be exercised within the confines of the law and the public interest.”[/pullquote]
George Orwell’s celebrated novel about a society of animals who are, after getting rid of the humans, left to their own devices is itself a piece of political commentary. The plot of the book was used by Madonsela to demonstrate corruption and an abuse of power in the South African government.
She went on to speak of the critical role of the South African Constitution particularly in the practices of political office bearers and public servants. “Public power should always be exercised within the confines of the law and the public interest.”
Asked by an audience member whether she felt threatened after the release of the report, Madonsela said, “I don’t feel threatened … the state as a state has not attacked me. Most of the time, people in government listen and want to do the right thing.”
A chicken run, an expensives cattle kraal, a fire pool and a two-storey house overlooking an amphitheatre labelled a ‘visitor’s centre,’ were just some of the “security needs” approved and built by Zuma’s architect, Minenhle Makhanya and a team assigned to the Nkandla estate.
WITS NKANDLA PANEL: Professor Steven Friedman, Wits vice chancellor Professor Adam Habib and Public Prosecutor Thuli Madonsela. Photo: Tendai Dube
When asked if she found ethical violations in her investigation, Madonsela responded by saying: “He [Zuma] did give parliament incorrect information, but explained this in a believable manner and so I made a finding in his favour.”
According to Madonsela, “everything (at Nkandla) was done cowboy-style. If the person upstairs wants it, then the law and budget doesn’t matter.”
Madonsela is a Wits graduate, earning her LLB degree from the institution in 1990.
Click here to view the Public Protector’s full report
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