Nkandla showdown

2014-03-19 00:00

LATER today, you will be reminded why it is important that South Africa has a free and vigorous press when Public Protector Thuli Madonsela releases her long-awaited report into the spending of over R200 million on President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead.

This issue would not be in the public eye or the scandal that it is without campaigning investigative reporting, mainly by The Witness’s sister newspaper City Press and the Mail and Guardian, which first broke the story.

These newspapers and their investigative reporters have been vilified in the course of their investigations, and this story sits at the centre of the critique by the ANC that the media has a deep-seated hostility towards the party and the government.

In my previous position as Media24 Investigations editor, the team I led was involved closely with many of these stories in City Press , but the heroes were then City Press assistant editor Adriaan Basson (recently appointed Beeld editor) and Paddy Harper, the paper’s Durban-based journalist.

The City Press effort produced some remarkable scoops and documentary evidence of the scale of the “Nkandlagate” spending, accelerated by the M&G’s amaBhungane investigative team who won an astounding access-to-information court battle. Their victory led to them getting access to and publishing thousands of official documents connected to the Nkandla transactions.

Week after week, the true picture of the scale of the Nkandla scandal emerged, thanks to tenacious reporting, leading directly to the public protector’s probe and the hints now of a Constitutional crisis, which could emerge when the report is made known.

If details of the provisional public protector’s Nkandla report hold true to her final version, today will be a watershed moment for accountability in public office in South Africa.

The Mail and Guardian reported last year that the provisional report would recommend that Parliament call Zuma to account for twice violating the executive ethics code: by failing to protect state resources and misleading Parliament about what his family and he had paid for at Nkandla.

The president has already said he will not resign. If Parliament fails to act on the expected recommendations of the public protector, serious questions will need to be asked about the efficacy of the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.

But let’s return to the role of the media.

Professor Jeanne Prinsloo, affiliated to the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, wrote an engaging piece for the Daily Maverick early last year, looking at this closely. She highlighted how the press and the ANC appear to be on different planets (my phrase, not hers) on the issue of Nkandla reporting. For the ANC, the fact that the reports were produced at all was unethical and irresponsible, while for the press its reporting is true to a traditional “quest for truth and accountability”.

Her conclusion bears repeating.

“As the ANC made clear in its discussion document, the party desires something they term ‘developmental media’ and they advocate for consensus, consistent with their particular interpretation of nation-building and patriotism. However, the Constitution is enabling of the genre of investigative journalism and it does not presume that all citizens agree or should be deferential to authority.

“If the ANC government rejects investigative journalism of this kind, then we need ask whether they are committed to the form of government encoded in our Constitution,” she wrote.

Today we will know what government the ruling party is committed to and imagines for the future. The attacking venom is moving away from the Fourth Estate to target the public protector, whose office is a creation of the Constitution, which our president and his Cabinet are sworn to respect and uphold.

But for the journalists, the Nkandla story is coming to an end. We have played our part in chipping away at the granite edifice of secrecy, lies and misdirection.

I think you owe the journalists who pursued this story a vote of thanks for their commitment to a tradition which I hope will never die.

Like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post in their hunt to expose Richard Nixon’s corrupting cancer in the White House, the Nkandla journalists kept going when the odds were stacked against them.

Like Seymour Hirsch’s exposure in 1969 of the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops, these reporters have offered us disturbing truths.

But journalists don’t convict the corrupt and we don’t change governments.

We simply tell stories that approximate the truth in as far as the available facts will allow. What happens after that is up to you, the citizens of a democratic state who hold the real power to call the powerful to account.

The hacks have played their role. Now it’s up to you.

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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