'As journalists, we have a duty to tell people this story' - Eskom Files investigative team

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The team behind the Eskom Files: Investigative journalists Kyle Cowan, Sipho Masondo and Azarrah Karrim.
The team behind the Eskom Files: Investigative journalists Kyle Cowan, Sipho Masondo and Azarrah Karrim.
  • The investigative team that exposed the Eskom Files says the evidence of corruption is overwhelming.
  • The team has spent months reading through thousands of documents to connect the dots of corruption at Eskom.
  • Between the three journalists, they have 36 years' experience in journalism.

If you ever saw the 1976 movie All the President's Men about how The Washington Post broke the news of the Watergate scandal, you probably associate investigative journalism with secret meetings in underground car parks with sources only known by names like Deep Throat.

In reality, investigative reporters spend long hours alone doing research, combing through evidence and cultivating sources to get to the truth.

For the past few months, this is exactly what the investigative team behind the Eskom Files has been doing before they published the first stories from the leaked trove of documents on 3 May. 

THE ESKOM FILES | Exposing the criminal network responsible for SA's power crisis

"There is some of that," said News24 investigative journalist Kyle Cowan of the secret meetings and anonymous sources. "But most of the time, it's reading, reading and more reading - a hard slog."

Together with his colleagues, Sipho Masondo and Azarrah Karrim, Cowan has been writing one bombshell story after another, exposing corrupt activities at Eskom valued at an estimated R178 billion - enough money to vaccinate the entire country against Covid-19 20 times over.

Between the three of them, they have a combined 36 years' experience in journalism and have worked on some of the biggest news stories to come out of South Africa, including the Bosasagate story that earned Cowan a Taco Kuiper Award in 2018 and an exposé of then-minister of water affairs Nomvula Mokonyane's mismanagement of her department by allowing her "Ben10" to call the shots.

Masondo was given the Nat Nakasa Award in 2017 for courageous reporting on this story after refusing bribes of millions of rand.

"I've worked on many big stories, including the Guptaleaks, but in terms of the scale of the money involved, this is definitely the biggest story I've worked on," said Masondo - who was born in Swaziland, but grew up in Soweto - about The Eskom Files.

"When I started journalism many years ago, I remember when someone stole a million or R5 million it used to be very big news. Now we're talking about hundreds of billions."

Cowan, who started his career at the Newcastle Advertiser, agreed. He went into journalism with the aim of becoming a photographer and motorbike reporter. Instead, he has spent the last five years reporting mostly on corruption. 

He says:

With Eskom, you always have to add a zero to the amount stolen. You read these things and realise these people never cared about the long-term impact. There is no culture of integrity or an interest in looking after the country's interests.

So how did the team go about tackling a story of this scale?

After the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) and News24 obtained access to the documents, they divvied up the files and each with their own folder, spent weeks reading through thousands of bank statements, spreadsheets, forensic reports, invoices, emails and more. 

The enormity of what they found was immediately evident.

eskom files

Where the team would normally all sit together in their private office in News24's Auckland Park newsroom in Johannesburg, due to Covid-19, it all had to be done online and required constant communication.

When they got together to discuss what they had read, they started to see overlaps in the evidence and identified where they would need to collaborate.

Identifying the stories was easy, said Karrim, because they were everywhere.

"There's just so much of corruption and really lovely evidence to go with it. Finding the stories wasn't too hard, it was understanding everything and making the connections that was the biggest task," she added. 

Karrim comes from a political family. Her father worked for Parliament and at the SA Revenue Service (SARS) and her mother was an HIV activist. This inevitably influenced her decision to become a journalist.

She says:

In the last few years, South Africa has witnessed the inner workings of corruption, government incompetence and state capture coming to the fore. Growing up, I witnessed the role that investigative journalists had and continue to play in exposing this and knew I wanted to be part of the effort to hold those responsible accountable and try to prevent further wrongdoing.

After spending two years working for the Wits Justice Project, she joined News24, where in 2020 she spent most of the year working to uncover corruption at the KwaSizabantu Mission in KwaZulu-Natal. 

"At their core, investigative journalists cannot stand injustice," Karrim said. "You don't always have to be rigid and impassive; we are mostly compassionate and empathetic. It's why we do what we do."

Having published more than 10 exposés on the Eskom Files, the team is nowhere close to being done and continues to work on more stories, exposing corruption and malfeasance at the power utility.

It is painstaking, often lonely work and requires paying close attention to details.

"All good investigators, from Allan Pinkerton to Piet Byleveld, had a knack for fine details," said Masondo. "A small piece of trivial detail could unravel quite a complex story. 

"This is probably the single most critical skill for all investigative journalists."

And then there comes a time when you just have to switch off; read a book that is not about corruption, or watch a show about Elvis Presley. 

"As journalists, we have a duty to tell people this story, but you can't get emotionally attached. You have to create distance. The only way to do that is to understand that your responsibility ends by telling the country about it," he added.

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