The Game Changer

Branko had been personally processing every piece of copy uploaded on to the site for seven years, and he realised that the time had come where he finally needed, and could afford, some help.

He put an advertisement out for a managing editor “to save the editor’s life”. Jillian Green, who had cut her teeth at The Star and The Times, answered his call. She says, “I had always read Daily Maverick and marvelled at the work the team was able to do, and it seemed the advert was written for me. A coffee at Branko’s Woolies in Hyde Park and here we are today. Branko is still alive, albeit with a few grey hairs.”

Life Esidimeni

In the Life Esidimeni scandal, Greg closely followed one of the greatest human-rights violations since apartheid. “After tears, it’s time for accountability. According to reports, up to 80 people might have died as a result of the Gauteng health department’s decision to relocate acutely mentally ill patients,” he wrote. “The patients are society’s most vulnerable and the MEC ignored all the warnings. Now, she might lose her job based on the findings of an inquiry into the issue.”

It was only the tip of what should have been Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu’s shame. It would ultimately emerge that more than 140 patients had died of starvation and neglect on the MEC’s watch at psychiatric institutions in Gauteng.

For Greg, covering this story was emotionally taxing. “I’d have to deal with families who were distraught, and a government which seemed irrationally and obscenely callous in how they treated vulnerable people,” he remembers. “The worst things that stuck out was just how heartbroken and betrayed the families felt; I went to one of the worst NGOs when it was still open and it was just obvious patients had largely been abandoned; and then the denials and lack of accountability from department of health officials at the arbitration felt just so insulting.”

As was the case with Marikana, the journalists on these kinds of stories feel more than just despair at what they’re reporting on. Greg says: “There’s a sort of pain that you take on in dealing with victims, and there’s also the weight of responsibility not to fuck it up.”

Chaps, this is goodbye

“Having dedicated his life to South Africa, Uncle Kathy had one last moment of political activism up his sleeve: a personal request that Jacob Zuma should not attend his funeral.”

On 28 March, much-loved ANC veteran Ahmed Kathrada passed away at the age of 87 after battling a short illness. Having dedicated his life to South Africa, Uncle Kathy had one last moment of political activism up his sleeve: a personal request that Jacob Zuma should not attend his funeral.

Ranjeni’s “Chaps, this is goodbye”, considered the implications of what Kathrada’s final request meant for the sitting president. She wrote: “South Africa needed a tipping point and Kathrada’s passing provided that. He was an activist from the age of 12 and a revolutionary even in his grave. He has pricked the consciences of many people, including those who continue to prop up Zuma’s sham presidency.”

Just one day before Kathrada died, President Zuma had recalled his finance minister Pravin Gordhan and deputy Mcebisi Jonas from an investor roadshow in the UK. He was gearing up to fire them at the behest of the Guptas.

At Kathrada’s funeral, director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Neeshan Balton recalled that when Gordhan was due to appear in court the previous year on trumped-up charges, Kathrada had said that he would be “the first one there to accompany him to court”. Ranjeni recounted how Balton asked an emotional Gordhan to stand up at the funeral. The mourners erupted in applause as Balton addressed him: “Irrespective of whether you are a minister or not in days and weeks to come, you remain true to the values and principles that Ahmed Kathrada would be proud of.”

Zuma’s exclusion from Uncle Kathy’s funeral was monumental not just in capturing a wider sentiment towards the president, but also in revealing the disgust of many ANC veterans towards the Zuma presidency. It prompted an editorial which, typically, came to Branko in the shower. Written by Marianne Thamm, this editorial would end up being one of Daily Maverick’s most read stories of all time, shared across almost every imaginable social platform. It read:

Editorial: How does it feel, President Zuma?

By Daily Maverick • 29 March 2017

So, Mr President, first citizen, protector of the Constitution, freedom, democracy and the legacy of the ANC, how does it feel?

How does it feel, stripped of the chimera of those paid to protect, support and sing your praises, to find yourself naked and exposed in your absence?

How does it feel to witness the still burning embers of the soul of the movement you currently lead flicker more brightly away from your toxic presence?

Uncle Kathy spoke from beyond the grave on Wednesday when former President Kgalema Motlanthe read out his plea for you to step down. Will you heed the ancestor? Will you do the honourable thing?

How does it feel, President Jacob Zuma, to find yourself outside of the tent, literally and metaphorically, of the broad church that was and is the ANC, a party that produced leaders like Ahmed Kathrada and those who came before him?

How does it feel to be politely requested by an honourable man, through his family, for you to stay away from his final farewell to a nation he served so selflessly and for which he endured so many sacrifices?

How does it feel, President Zuma, to find that the absence of your presence triggers, once again, great dreams of possibility and hope? How does it feel to listen to those who do not hide behind slogans but whose lives, honourably led, provide leadership and an example of the principles – unity, sacrifice, democracy, justice, non-racialism and non-sexism – embedded at the heart of the ANC?

How does it feel to witness the solidarity, respect and humanity of those who are not up for sale, whose dedication and pride drives their ethic of service and commitment to the majority of South Africans, who patiently wait while some in your leadership line up to feed at the trough of nepotism, patronage, cronyism, greed and corruption?

How does it feel to be found wanting by a towering moral icon like Kathrada, to see those who you seek to marginalise, divide and excommunicate gathered as one in the understanding that leaders are not bigger than the organisation?

How does it feel to be asked by a man of unquestionable ethics and moral character to step down?

Your absence on Wednesday at the fitting send-off of a national hero and icon brought lightness and hope in a week of chaos and darkness caused by your self-serving, destructive, divisive and disrespectful leadership.

Your shadow mercifully, and thanks to Uncle Kathy, did not darken the door or the path of collective freedom and democracy we could all glimpse from inside that marquee at Kathrada’s graveside. Gathered there, South Africans in all our diversity and glory were united.

Without you we could, for a moment, feel again the surge of immense potential, the wellspring of a common vision and human solidarity that ANC leaders like Kathrada wove into the DNA of the movement.

You did not, President Zuma, respond to Uncle Kathy’s pained letter he wrote after the damning Constitutional Court judgement with regard to your brazen use of public money to renovate your private home at Nkandla. Perhaps you did not read it.

Read it now:

“I did not speak out against Nkandla although I thought it wrong to have spent public money for any president’s private comfort. I did not speak out though I felt it grossly insulting when my President is called a ‘thief’ or a ‘rapist’; or when he is accused of being ‘under the influence of the Guptas’.

“I believed that the NEC would have dealt with this as the collective leadership of the ANC.

“When I learnt of the dismissal of Minister (Nhlanhla) Nene and the speculated reasons for this, I became very worried. I’m fully aware, it is accepted practice that the appointment and dismissal of Ministers is the prerogative of the President.

“This might be technically correct but in my view it is against the best traditions of our movement.

“My concern was amplified when it emerged that the Deputy Finance Minister reported that he was offered the Finance Minister post by members of the Gupta family.

“The people’s interest must at all times remain supreme.

“In this instance it was clearly not the case. The resultant crisis that the country was plunged into was clearly an indication that the removal of the Minister was not about the interests of the people.

“The unanimous ruling of the Constitutional Court on the Nkandla matter has placed me in an introspective mode and I had to ask myself some very serious and difficult questions.

“Now that the court has found that the President failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law, how should I relate to my President? If we are to continue to be guided by growing public opinion and the need to do the right thing, would he not seriously consider stepping down?

“I am not a political analyst, but I am now driven to ask: Dear Comrade President, don’t you think your continued stay as President will only serve to deepen the crisis of confidence in the government of the country?

“And bluntly, if not arrogantly; in the face of such persistently widespread criticism, condemnation and demand, is it asking too much to express the hope that you will choose the correct way that is gaining momentum, to consider stepping down?”

Will you, President Zuma?

Of course, he wouldn’t; not at that time. Just a few days later, in one of his infamous late-night Cabinet reshuffles, Zuma fired Gordhan and Jonas – replacing the finance minister with ever-malleable Gupta footsoldier Malusi Gigaba.

Feeling the pressure that the Gupta grip had on the country, Zapiro revived one of his most controversial cartoons, dating back to 2008: that of Lady Justice being raped. In its original carnation, Lady Justice was being held down for Zuma, insinuating that he was about to rape her. Zapiro had drawn the cartoon ahead of the decision on whether the NPA’s corruption case against Zuma could proceed – and he had been subjected to continuous threats of legal action from Zuma after its publication in the Sunday Times. The cartoon had also caused enormous controversy within the public.

Zapiro says: “Even though there were multiple interpretations of it, and some who were highly critical, including feminists whose opinions I respected and who I would like to engage with, I felt like I had the opportunity to engage… There were radio programmes with [gender researcher] Lisa Vetten, who understood what I was trying to do but was still critical.” There’s no doubt that it was an uncomfortable image to see, but Zapiro argued that it did not – as some suggested – minimise rape. Instead, it highlighted the degree to which Zuma was violently stripping the country of justice.

“I was very concerned about how women would receive that cartoon,” Zapiro acknowledges. “On these radio programmes, after I made my point and [Vetten] had made her point, there were calls from the public. More of the calls were supportive than were critical. More of the men were criticising me. I’ll never forget that first a rape survivor and then a gang rape survivor phoned in. They said they were also very shocked when they saw the cartoon – who wouldn’t be – but that they quickly felt: ‘Wait a minute, that was actually my experience’.”

Such women understood, Zapiro believes, that the image was drawn “to elicit empathy for the allegorical woman in that cartoon and not to express any salaciousness or support for the men in the cartoon”. But despite being able to defend his cartoon on public platforms, there was little Zapiro could do when he tuned in to the post-judgment rally in September 2008 after the corruption charges against Zuma were dropped.

“At that rally after the judgment, there were about 5,000 people there and it was televised to many hundreds of thousands or millions that may have been watching. They really picked me out as the major target. It was pretty scary. I was sitting in Cape Town watching Baleka Mbete, Blade Nzimande, even Vavi; they really ripped into me. Blade Nzimande said: ‘Who’s the rapist now? Zapiro’s the rapist.’ It was hectic.”

Despite the controversy of the previous cartoon, Zapiro reimagined it for the Gupta era and for Daily Maverick in 2017, replacing Lady Justice with Lady South Africa and introducing various Zuptas as Zuma’s co‑rapists.

It was a bold move. Nando’s had recently come on board to sponsor Zapiro’s Daily Maverick newsletter. They had even wanted him to release a statement on the synergy between the three brands. Zapiro says: “I sent a message back saying, ‘I’m sorry I can’t. I’ve no problem if you want to put a statement out saying we’re a good fit but it cannot come from me. That idea of ever being beholden to any corporate is a real problem for me, I’ve never done it before and I can’t do it.’ They said they understood and then they put out their announcement [of the sponsorship].”

In the months after the Lady South Africa cartoon was published, Nando’s decided not to renew their sponsorship contract. And with that, the only brand brave enough to sponsor South Africa’s foremost cartoonist was gone. Zapiro says, “I was somewhat worried for my sake but also for Daily Maverick, I knew they had to find that money but Branko said, ‘No, it stays the same, we’ll find the money.’”

The power of Zapiro’s Lady South Africa cartoon was not in its ability to shock, but how he captured the sense that the country was being well and truly violated by Zuma, the Guptas and their enablers. What nobody yet knew was that two unlikely superheroes were hovering just off-stage, about to swoop in to save the day – at enormous personal risk.

Not all heroes wear capes

South Africans may never know the real names of Stan and John, the two men who would entirely alter the country’s political landscape. What they do, where they come from, and how they came to know what they know: all this, too, might never be publicly disclosed.

What is known is how much they are owed for the magnitude of their sacrifice. Stan and John’s courageous decision to share a trove of information laying bare the inner workings of the Gupta empire would set in motion a chain of events that would see the Guptas flee South Africa and Jacob Zuma forced from power. But it was also a choice that would cost the two men almost everything: their homes, their identities and their safety.

Because of the very real danger they remain in to this day, all that can yet be revealed is the genesis story of what is now known as the #GuptaLeaks. How Stan and John managed to get more than 200,000 emails into the hands of Daily Maverick and amaBhungane, and from there in front of the eyes of the public. And how it very nearly all went very wrong, due to the recklessness of one role-player who thrust Stan, John and their families into serious danger.

“Who do I go to? Where do I take it?”

“John and I had been very, very cautious,” says Stan. It’s 2019, and he is sharing more detailed information about the #GuptaLeaks origins than has ever been made public before.

“Obviously nobody knew what we had. We hadn’t spoken to anybody. No one, until I met Daily Maverick and amaBhungane, had ever received any file or any piece of information. I was very, very protective of that so it remained within our space. I had this information for a period of months, looking at it, before I decided that it really needed to get out into the public domain. It just had to get out to the people of South Africa.”

But if the argument for releasing the information seemed straightforward, the question of how to do so safely was far from clear. “It was a continuous internal persuasion. Do I? Don’t I? Do I? Don’t I? What are the ups, what are the downs? What do I do with this stuff? Who do I go to? Where do I take it? What was absolutely crucial was that we needed to know that we were doing the right thing legally. I didn’t want to break the law.”

“The information that Stan and John were sitting on for months proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the tentacles of State Capture extended further and deeper than anyone knew.”

The information that Stan and John were sitting on for months proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the tentacles of State Capture extended further and deeper than anyone knew. The email trove showed just how compromised many of the country’s most powerful people in politics and business were. These were not folk to mess with lightly. At the same time, it was quite clear that the police, the NPA and the State Security Agency had also been infiltrated. Stan and John’s options were severely limited.

“I am someone who has lived a simple philosophy since I was 16: that I don’t want to have regrets,” Stan says. “That was a fundamental basis for doing what I did. I knew if I left it for five years it would be too late, it would have no impact and I would have serious regrets. I did not want to have regrets, and that’s why I was quite anxious to get it done. There was a fine balance [to navigate] between security, is it right, is it wrong, do you do it, don’t you do it.”

But amid all this internal wrangling, Stan kept coming back to one certainty: “If you leave it too long, you will have regrets.” In the meantime, he did what anyone in his position would do when faced with such explosive data. He got stuck in – trying to make sense of Pandora’s Box.

“Every second or third night when I had free time, I would search for things, following the trails of a particular name. I didn’t know 90% of the people, I had never heard of their names, but I had an ability to search through the emails and I couldn’t believe what I was picking up. I started saving things. There must have been at least 80-90 files. Many I searched but didn’t save. There was just so much.”

Stan quickly picked up two threads which he knew immediately had to be significant. One was an email trail culminating in the appointment of controversial mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane.

“From the original CV that was typed by this person, the originator’s name is in the meta, in the file. Now that email was sent and went shew-shew-shew-shew and ended up with Duduzane Zuma. Five or six weeks later, Zwane got appointed as minister. That just told me, Mr President: You are the master of the game.”

The other thread related to communications minister Faith Muthambi, who the emails found to have pushed through regulations to benefit MultiChoice, and who passed confidential information to the Guptas to assist with the establishment of their TV news station, ANN7.

“There was the Faith Muthambi emails, and attachments that she was sending to these people. I thought, how on earth can the minister be sending this to a private company? What for? Why? Then I started building my own picture of the SABC and MultiChoice, all these people and events around it, and I made a very clear picture in my own mind.”

Put yourself in Stan’s shoes for a second. He had in his possession what would later become known as the #GuptaLeaks. He had dipped into the files and seen enough to know that he was sitting on something very important. Consider the agony of knowing what he and John knew and not being able to talk about it freely or share it. Think about how painful it was to watch the State Capture project continue to play out – and to have moments when you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the principal actors are lying through their teeth, because you have actually seen their emails.

Stan remembers: “We had a bit of fun from time to time with this information. You watch TV, you watch these committees in Parliament, these debates. The one was the SABC inquiry, and they were wondering about this new contract – where this person, I presume it was [Gupta company CEO] Nazeem Howa, was going up in a lift to the top floor to see the minister. John and I laughed, because I shouted at the TV and I said, ‘I’ve got that document! Just ask me, I can give it to you!’”

But more often, Stan’s response was one of extreme frustration. “The thing that got to me was the lying. When I read what these people were saying, how they were threatening the journalists. The one that came to mind was the fellow from Bloomberg, I forget his name. I read the documents that he emailed and he seemed to be such a nice person, and Nazeem Howa was so caustic and so disgustingly threatening to this man. I thought, ‘Bloomberg, stand up and fight these guys!’ But it seemed to me like they were just succumbing to this mass of court actions, legal actions and threats and I thought no, this is not fair. I believe in fairness and conscience, right and wrong. I can help you guys. But how do I do it?”

Like the terrible force of the ring Bilbo Baggins found in Lord of the Rings, being in possession of the #GuptaLeaks brought with it a sense of enormous power and a crushing weight of danger and fear. Offloading them had to be done with extreme caution. One only had to look at the internecine assassinations over ANC ward councillor positions in a single province like KwaZulu-Natal to comprehend what would rain down on Stan and John if they were revealed as an overt threat to the entire latticework of the State Capture patronage system.

The whistle blowers knew that if the #GuptaLeaks found their way into the wrong hands – or even if word got out that Stan and John had them – the data dump could, quite literally, be the end of them.

The whistle blowers knew that if the #GuptaLeaks found their way into the wrong hands – or even if word got out that Stan and John had them – the data dump could, quite literally, be the end of them. Yet once they had decided to act, despite all the caution they exercised every step of the way, Stan’s attempts to feed the media the scoop of a lifetime played out like a comedy of errors.

Attempt #1: The Mail & Guardian

Stan says: “I decided the Mail & Guardian are pretty good – so let’s go there. That was my very first port of call. I had this little piece of paper that was the Zwane appointment email trail. I don’t know what happened, but it didn’t print nicely. But that’s all that I had. I was going to show them this and hopefully they would be persuaded to see that ‘Wow! This is the real deal.’ I planned the whole thing out like a stupid movie.”

On a Saturday morning in late 2016, Stan duly drove to the Mail & Guardian offices. “I parked about 300m away, planning to walk around the building from the south side, and then I was going to walk around and exit out the north side and come all the way back and get in my vehicle. This whole plan came to naught because the front door was locked. There was no one there. I actually didn’t think of going back on a Monday. Bad luck. Pick again!”

Attempt #2: The DA

Stan says: “A week later I thought, well, maybe I should approach a political party, not being politically orientated in any form or shape. I called [the DA] up and I told them that I had explosive information that I wanted to share with them. I’ll never forget, I spoke to a DA MP who said, ‘Let’s meet at this little cafe at 9.30 on a Tuesday morning.’ At 9.15 I was there. I had told the person what colour shirt and cap I would be wearing. I hung around, walked around, stood around, but by 9.45 no one had pitched. I knew I was at the right place, but no one arrived, so I abandoned that plan. They never called to say ‘Sorry we missed you, we couldn’t make it.’ I never heard from them again.”

Attempt #3: The friend

Undeterred by being foiled by the M&G’s opening hours and stood up by the DA, Stan tried a different route.

“I was still determined and I had enough information to believe this was a real, proper story. I wracked my brains, thinking, who do I contact? I’d heard of Daily Maverick and I had heard of amaBhungane, but I didn’t know anybody. An acquaintance I had told about the information said he would take it to the Sunday Times. He’s quite an elderly man, highly educated. He realised the danger and he basically said, ‘I am quite prepared to take it to them.’ In the back of my mind, I always knew the Sunday Times was not the place that I was going to go to, because it was more of a Sun-type newspaper, so I just knew that was never going to happen. In the end I never shared the information with him. But that was an offer that I had as an option, also at the end of 2016.”

Attempt #4: The Media Man, the lawyer and the activist

Stan’s next move was to get in touch with someone he describes as “connected to the media, but not newspaper or publication-related in any shape”. Stan arranged to meet him at his office.

“Again, I had this little piece of paper with the Zwane trail on me. I had a fair idea of what an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] was, so I spoke about that, but I did not take one with me. I am old-fashioned. I still believe in trusting people, which has proven not to be such a good plan. I sat down with Mr Media Man in his boardroom, showed him my piece of paper and I said, ‘I need to make it very clear that I cannot do any of this any other way than a risk/reward basis.’”

It might seem like semantics, but Stan’s use of the word “reward” resulted in a misunderstanding that almost shut down their negotiations entirely. What Stan meant was that he needed an assurance that if he and John were going to share the information, they and their families would have to be looked after and kept safe, because they were risking everything.

Stan clarifies: “By ‘reward’ I did not necessarily mean money, but a reassurance that we were going to be protected, that we were going to be okay. ‘Reward’ is probably a bad word, but that’s the way I put it. I said I can’t do this without protection, a safe house, safe everything. We knew that much at that time. Mr Media Man’s response was that the industry does not pay for information. That was his interpretation of my risk/reward basis. I said, ‘Well then, that’s it. It’s over, I am not doing it.’ I shook his hand and said goodbye.”

That might have been the end of it – except what Stan had shown him must have piqued Mr Media Man’s interest enough to give it some serious thought. The next day he called Stan, wanting to meet again. This time, he would introduce Stan to Brian Currin.

A veteran lawyer who was not only involved in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but also the peace processes of Northern Ireland, the Basque Country and Colombia, when it came to the high-stakes confluence of law, politics and human rights, few people were as suited to navigating Stan and John’s situation as Currin.

The introduction to Currin was a significant piece of luck for Stan and John, because Currin was to play a crucial role in getting the #GuptaLeaks from Stan to social justice activist Mark Heywood of Section 27, who in turn would bring in Daily Maverick. Of equal importance, Currin arranged for them to submit their affidavits, which were sealed by them and taken to a safe location, so that these affidavits could be used under strict conditions in the future, and only with their authority.

“He said there are two scenarios; one, they kill you to prevent you from putting out the information. The other one is they kill you for revenge.”

“I remember Brian explained what he had been through with the third force and all these apartheid people in his garden with automatic weapons,” Stan says. “He said there are two scenarios; one, they kill you to prevent you from putting out the information. The other one is they kill you for revenge. Those are the two main scenarios, and he said the revenge thing normally fades away after two years.”

Still, when they met, Currin was initially circumspect about what Stan claimed to have in his possession. During that first meeting, Stan recalls: “He said, ‘This is not new, what you are telling us is out there in the public domain.’ He had the Zwane paper, that’s all I took, and I also gave him verbal confirmation of things that I had seen. I was very cautious not to give him anything in the beginning, other than this single thing. He just said no, he’d checked it with his friends and it was pretty ordinary stuff.”

Stan and Currin met for a second time. “I told him more and still he kind of fobbed me off. Bear in mind that Brian is pretty skilled at what he does, and I am a novice in that world. Subsequently, I think it was very tactical. Then he said: ‘Why don’t you put all of this onto some media and show us what it is.’ I think he was challenging me to prove what I had. Perhaps he wanted a lot more. So I produced a CD of the snippets I had been extracting and recording, including the trails of what I thought was interesting and important. I made two CDs.”

While Currin was trying to ascertain if Stan was for real, Stan himself was doing the same with regards to the lawyer. He had no real idea if Currin could be trusted with this. He still had no firm assurances of witness protection. The risk remained, as ever, that if any of the many powerful people soon to be implicated in State Capture found out what he was up to, they would send thugs after both him and John. It was Stan’s move to make. He had to take a chance – and trust Currin.

Cue a scene where Stan goes into superspy mode, copying a large sample of the information onto CDs. Making absolutely sure not to leave fingerprints or DNA anywhere, he picked up each CD from the middle of a spindle stack. Using a pair of tweezers, he slid them into his computer, wrote them, pulled them out, and slipped them into envelopes using another clamp so there were absolutely no fingerprints on the CDs or the envelopes. It was agreed that Mr Media Man would collect the CDs from Stan and then give these to Currin. Stan gave him the forensically spotless CD envelopes and walked off into the distance (in slow motion, of course).

Currin, meanwhile, had been in touch with Section 27’s Mark Heywood: a longtime collaborator and friend of Branko and Daily Maverick. Once Currin and Mark confirmed the contents of Stan’s CDs, Mark got in touch with Branko and they met. For Branko, the fact that Mark came to him and Daily Maverick was in itself an incredibly proud career moment.

“We did not get #GuptaLeaks out of thin air,” Branko says. “We got it after seven-and-a-half years of freakishly hard work, where we built the connections, built the network. Mark called me. He was the man with whom I worked so closely all these years and then he got the #GuptaLeaks. You get that after working hard and proving yourself to others.”

Mark’s decision to bring it to Branko was not taken lightly. Mark says: “I had known Branko through Daily Maverick, through writing for Daily Maverick. And so to me, it seemed like an obvious choice to approach him. Not to tell him in the first instance exactly what we were sitting with. But to have an exploratory meeting and to assess his approach to it, assess how seriously he would take it, and how he would handle it.”

The men duly met. “I think from that meeting, it was clear, first of all, that he understood how important it was. Secondly, that he would go to extreme lengths to make sure this information was properly analysed, carefully analysed, that there would be no sensationalism, that there wouldn’t be any breaches that would threaten the safety of the people involved. And on that basis, we kind of reached an agreement. It was as simple as that. Except that it wasn’t that simple. Because after that, of course, we had to take time to show Branko – or for Branko to assure himself that this stuff was genuine, he had to find that out. And then make plans to analyse it.”

As the full realisation of what was about to land in his lap sank in, Branko immediately got in touch with the two people he trusted most with this information. The first was Styli, his brother-from-another-mother at Daily Maverick. The second was his confidant Stefaans Brümmer, the highly respected co-leader of amaBhungane. Branko’s message to Styli consisted of just five words – yet those five words encapsulated just how forcefully and suddenly the winds of fate had changed tack.

Styli says: “When I got the message saying, ‘We have a game changer’, Branko – who was in Johannesburg – phoned me and said, ‘I can’t talk about it now, but I will when I come back to Cape Town.’ My next message in the thread read: ‘The server is about to go down and we’re fucked’, because at the time we could only afford a single physical server to run the entire website. So my response to what would turn out to be his massive news was: ‘Okay, yes and by the way… We need to keep this ship going so we can make the game changer happen’. That was Wednesday 5 April.”

For Branko to share the news with Stefaans, there was some delayed gratification. “Branko first told me there was something before we even had this thing,” Stefaans remembers. “I think he called me on a Wednesday and said, ‘We must meet’. I could not meet then and I think by the time we did, it was Friday. The thing is we always met for coffee, but at that stage, with that news, I wasn’t having coffee. I had to do something to celebrate – so I had my now-famous shot of tequila when Branko told me what it was that we were getting. But he didn’t have the sample yet. The first time he met Mark, it was a case of being told this is what’s happening, only later did Mark hand over the sample.”

The plans kick into gear

Currin, Mark, Branko, Styli and Stefaans immediately got moving with approaching donors for funding to ensure the whistle-blowers’ safety. Exile, anonymity, travel, accommodation and security are expensive, and Daily Maverick didn’t have the funds. The money would have to come from donors.

Meanwhile, Stan and Currin almost fell out with each other, because although the initial assurances of protection had been reassuring, Stan felt that there was not enough progress and that side of the bargain was not being kept. With so much at stake, it was a justifiable concern. Feeling let down, for a short while he actually cut off communication with Brian.

Stan explains: “I needed to know what they were doing, what was happening, I needed to plan! Weeks had gone by and there was nothing, no guarantees, no progress. So I told Brian, ‘That’s it, leave me alone, goodbye.’ The protection wasn’t forthcoming. I had an obligation to people close to me. How could I go and negotiate something, and I am sitting carrying the can all by myself? So I told him I was not prepared to proceed with him. I cut him off, blocked him, everything. Within an hour Mr Media Man, who wasn’t blocked, called and said we had to meet. I met him the next day and he said, ‘You have got to stick with Brian, because he is a really honourable man, who is really going to do good.’ I agreed, and we made up after our divorce and carried on again. I was determined, for the people of the country, for this to come out.”

A week after his celebratory tequila with Branko, Stefaans was at Ladismith in the Little Karoo. He was waiting for Branko to arrive with a USB containing what he hoped would be the first canapé of an all-you-can-eat #GuptaLeaks buffet that amaBhungane and Daily Maverick would gorge on in the months to come. Branko, en route to Knysna, arrived in Ladismith after midnight, and while his family slept in the car, he and Stefaans conferred briefly and Branko handed over the USB, which contained around 600 emails from the trove. While Branko carried on to the coast, Stefaans would work through the night to confirm the veracity of the files. They agreed on a simple signal if Stefaans believed that what they had was legit.

“I went to see him in Ladismith, gave him the stuff and told him, ‘You look at it and just send me a smiley face or not.’ Stefaans had such a solid understanding of the background, he would be able to tell if the emails were fake or not,” says Branko. “In the morning, I woke up and there was a smiley face from him. They were real. Without Stefaans and amaBhungane, the #GuptaLeaks would have never happened. Two years later, we love and respect them more than ever. We work so well together.”

Stan, now reconciled with Currin, was asked to attend another meeting with Branko and Stefaans at the Johannesburg offices of someone who shall, for now, be referred to as Lady Macbeth. A successful businesswoman, she had indicated that she was willing to help with funding the whistle-blowers’ safety after being approached by Branko.

Stan says: “The meeting was at a building or an office run by some woman. I did not know what I was doing! I had no clue who I was going to meet. I did a bit of googling and thought, ‘I have no idea what that’s got to do with me.’ But what I did know by then was what my name was. That was the first time that ‘Stan Hudson’ appeared on the scene.”

When Stan arrived at the office, he was greeted by Currin and then walked in to meet Stefaans and Branko for the first time. “I’m a very ordinary kind of guy: I feel important in myself, but not in the world. These two guys get up and they both say, ‘Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!’ What do I say to these guys? I say: ‘Thank you for what you are going to do!’ because by that time I knew that they were respected journalists. By now I had done a bit of googling and figured out that amaBhungane and Daily Maverick are the cream of the crop.”

Stan had never previously heard the term “investigative journalists”, and had no real sense of what such people did. “I did not have an idea of what would happen and where it would go to, but I did know that when these guys went into the accounting information, which I didn’t do, I felt that they would find everything they would want to find,” Stan says. “It was a very pleasant meeting. Then the two of them had a bit of a disagreement about how big the story was. Branko, typically, said, ‘This story is bigger than Nelson Mandela!’ I thought: it’s nowhere near that. Stefaans said, ‘No, second to Nelson Mandela.’ We chatted and I was quite happy, because ‘the project’, as my friend John and I called it, was beginning to take fruition.”

Treachery is afoot

Even investigative journalists, social justice activists and whistle-blowers with the fate of a nation at stake struggle with tech issues from time to time. When Branko and Stefaans returned triumphantly to Cape Town after their meeting with Stan, they could not access the information on the hard drive they’d been given, as the password did not work. The drive was returned to Johannesburg, where Currin called Stan in for what was meant to be a quick tech-support meeting to sort out the decryption code at Lady Macbeth’s office.

Stan says, “There was an issue: they could not access the information, so I went there and got led to an office where there was a guy frantically trying to enter the key. I told him, ‘You’re not doing it properly, do it like this.’ I pointed out to him that he was still getting it wrong and that it needed to be all lowercase. As the decryption worked, he was quite surprised to see the stuff coming off. Lady Macbeth – she just walked past the window, and obviously knew that he was decrypting the files. My work done, I left.”

But the following day, Stan received a call from Currin informing him that Lady Macbeth wished to meet with him again. “Stupidly, off I go. 11am. I get ushered into this glass cube boardroom. A bit later one other guy joined us, some financial wizard from America or somewhere in the world. Let’s call him Luke. Before Luke walked in, Lady Macbeth was chatting away, but she seemed a bit touchy to me, touching my arm. It’s a kind of power game apparently. Men do it to women quite a lot, but she did it once or twice. Anyway, I did not pull away. Before this I had never met her and did not even know the name of her company. I had googled her, saw what her profile was like, and I kind of thought that she might be the funding part of the project.”

To Stan, Lady Macbeth seemed a “very genuine and very real” person. He says: “She seems like quite a dynamic kind of person. She blurted out a few things that she is very proud of – how big she is and what she can do. Then, as Luke walked in, she started telling me how my life is going to pan out, what she is going to do for me and how I just have to hang around for her team of advocates who will come in at 2pm that afternoon and they will start recording and taking affidavits.”

“Lady Macbeth was going off-script. Not only was she trying to hijack the process by bringing in a team of lawyers, she was also endangering Stan by expanding the pool of people who knew his real identity.”

This was not part of the plan. Lady Macbeth was going off-script. Not only was she trying to hijack the process by bringing in a team of lawyers, she was also endangering Stan by expanding the pool of people who knew his real identity.

Stan is not a man who enjoys surprises, especially when there’s already a plan in place designed to put his safety first. Self‑preservatory instincts kicked in.

“I’m the kind of person who doesn’t go to Plan B unless Plan A doesn’t work,” he says. “At this point in time, Plan A with Brian was on track. What I did not realise was that Lady Macbeth and Brian had knocked heads. I only realised that a bit later. When she brought up her idea of involving her advocates I said, ‘Whoa! Hold on a minute. I have to chat to Brian about this, I can’t just do what you want me to do.’ Her response was, ‘Meet my advocates, do an affidavit. Get out, go!’”

Lady Macbeth then made a statement which Stan describes as “seriously political”. He didn’t like that either. “I said, ‘Please, I don’t want to hear any of this, do not tell me any more about who you are, what you are, what you do. I don’t want to hear any of that. I have enough shit in my life, I don’t need this crap. I don’t want to go down this path with you. It’s not a world I want to enter at all.’ After that I think she was a bit peeved that I had not agreed to meet with her advocates and do things her way. The meeting ended. I never saw her again.”

For Daily Maverick and amaBhungane, Lady Macbeth’s behaviour came as a complete shock. It now seemed that she had other plans all along.

Styli reflects: “The thing is, up until then, there was no reason not to believe that her intentions were anything other than what she said they were. How were we to know she was planning on activating God mode?”

It was at this stage, around the second half of April 2017, that all the cogs of Stan and John’s “project” started to spin with bewildering speed. Lady Macbeth had clearly gone rogue. Having obtained the information she wanted, and having thought that Stan would serve as her pawn, she then decided she would no longer act as a funder for the whistle-blowers. She was no longer willing to provide a single cent to protect the individuals who were putting their lives at risk to save South Africa.

“Things happened pretty quickly,” Stefaans says. “After the Ladismith meeting, Branko and I got to meet Stan, shortly after that we asked Lady Macbeth to sort out the encryption issue. Lady Macbeth changed as soon as she got what she wanted. Where this had been given to journalists to do a journalistic task on, now suddenly with advocates and affidavits, basically Lady Macbeth had decided that she was going to take over the process. It was no longer going to be a journalistic process.”

Within a week, everything fell apart. “There was one meeting where Branko and I met with her and she had brought Luke, the same Luke character that Stan met. We tried to pacify things and talk things through, but a couple of days later she sent this message. It was bad, a ‘fuck you’. I had one more meeting with her to explain the whole thing about witness protection and to spell out the consequences should she not handle this thing sensitively. I asked her: ‘Do you have a copy?’ She said that whatever she had, had been ‘military-grade deleted’.”

The remaining members of the team could not waste any more time or energy on worrying about whether Lady Macbeth was being honest about her intentions. They simply had to trust that she had deleted the files as she said she had. From digging into the information and starting the investigative work, to bringing more journalists on board and securing the funding for everything from the whistle-blowers’ future to flight costs and the rental of safe houses, Branko, Styli, Stefaans, Brian, Mark, Stan and John had much more pressing matters to attend to.

Styli says: “The funding was being arranged for Stan and John and their families. We then had to try and raise funding for ourselves to be able to pool the entire team, allocate the resources that we wanted to and hire the new people. Who knew what we were going to need to get them out the country, flights and all that kind of stuff.”

The heat rises

The faster things moved, the greater the pressure became on everyone involved. While those in the inner circle had been exceptionally careful with the information – from not talking about it on the phone to clandestine drop-offs in the Karoo in the middle of the night – some strange things started to happen nonetheless.

Branko’s perfectly normal car malfunctioned and flipped one afternoon on the M3 in Cape Town, leaving him shaken but uninjured. The wheel had come completely off the car – yet the tyre was still completely intact.

Branko’s perfectly normal car malfunctioned and flipped one afternoon on the M3 in Cape Town, leaving him shaken but uninjured. The wheel had come completely off the car – yet the tyre was still completely intact. Shortly after the #GuptaLeaks trove made it to the Daily Maverick offices in Cape Town, Stefaans was attacked outside the office front door, putting everyone on high alert. The incident later turned out to be your garden-variety Cape Town bag-snatcher. Still, tensions were high.

Branko says, “It was 5 May, Lady Macbeth just pulled out, leaving us with no money for the whistle-blowers, and I had just rolled for 50 metres on what was then known as De Waal Drive – Philip Kgosana today. We got some money for the actual investigation from donors. I told them, ‘I have something that is so dangerous, I cannot even tell you what it is, but it is going to change the country.’”

Branko left the country shortly after his car accident. “I went to Britain to talk to Lionel Faull, the former amaBhungane guy, to get him to come join us. Then we had to start a new search for money for the whistle-blowers. I went to Belgrade to see my parents before I disappeared. Who knew for how long this thing would play out? The idea was that I would be outside the country and I would rent a property somewhere. We decided on Ireland, because South Africans did not need a visa. We devised a way to get a big chunk of the Daily Maverick and amaBhungane teams out of the country. I had just hired Pauli van Wyk for that purpose.”

Pauli says: “We were sitting in the Hyde Park Woolworths coffee shop, aka Branko’s head office in Johannesburg. Branko conspiratorially leaned forward and softly said: ‘I have a cache of leaked emails that show how the Gupta family captured government. It is all there. We are going to blow this thing open and we will change this country.’”

This clandestine discussion had been preceded by “Branko getting me to agree to work for Daily Maverick solely on the basis of him having a massive secret that I would want to be part of but wasn’t allowed to know about until I said ‘yes’,” Pauli says. “The secret came to be known as the #GuptaLeaks. My heart sank just about there, thinking I agreed to work for a mad man. ‘It is fake news,’ I said. ‘They’re trying to trick you.’ Branko just smiled. ‘We’ve checked,’ he said.”

Poplak was on the receiving end of a similar cloak-and-dagger chat with Daily Maverick’s editor. “Branko had been threatening for a few months that I needed to be ready to leave South Africa within seconds at some undefined date during the winter of 2017. I had no idea why. But I was first told about the leaks in a coffee shop, while Branko barked directives regarding the precise temperature of his latte, and the cup it was to be delivered in. Our phones were switched off and confined in adamantium envelopes because secrecy was obviously at a premium, which is not to say that anyone listening would have been able to decipher Branko’s Serbian-tinged whispering, very much including myself,” Poplak says. “When I did figure out what he was saying, I was of course circumspect – there is no journalist worth the title that wouldn’t be. Then he explained who we were partnering with, and I got the sense that this was going to be the ride of a lifetime.”

Upping the dramatic setting a bit, Marianne remembers how Branko first told her the news. As always, there was coffee involved. She says: “There was a huge rally in St George’s Cathedral in support of Pravin Gordhan, one of those rallies in the aftermath of the Save South Africa campaigns where people were rising up to say Jacob Zuma should resign. I was sitting up in this space where I knew I could get to because of the protests in the 1980s. When it was full, you could always sneak up around the corner and find a seat there. And I’d told Branko about this secret place where you could always find a seat. He snuck in, handed me a cappuccino, leaned over in my ear and said, ‘We have an atom bomb.’”

The fact that South Africans don’t need a visa to visit Ireland was crucial to the plan to headquarter the journalistic team there. After all, having some of the country’s most respected investigative journalists applying for visas, all at the same time, could have set off one or two alarm bells at Home Affairs.

Branko says: “All of them would go to different places and then reassemble in Ireland. I found a place in Ireland, but when I pressed the ‘Rent’ button online it cancelled my card because the amount was too much for my card’s daily limit. So, I needed to organise things with the bank, which I could only do on the next Monday.”

For once, being cash-strapped worked in Daily Maverick’s favour. Styli says: “Branko was supposed to have rented the safe house a week earlier, but, thankfully, he is so averse to admin that it’s always lastminute.com with him. The card didn’t work because there were limits on it. At the same time we were speaking to other people to help fund us because we didn’t have resources to do the job ourselves. Branko was out of the country, getting ready to go to Ireland after visiting his parents in Serbia.”

Styli remembers the date well: it was a Saturday night, 27 May. He was idly scrolling through Twitter that evening, when something caught his eye. It was a tweet from the Sunday Times, advertising the cover of the next day’s edition. And from what Styli could tell, the lead story was based on information taken straight from the #GuptaLeaks. Somehow, it looked as if they’d been scooped.


Styli sent the Sunday Times tweet to Branko, who sent it to Stefaans. “Then there was a collective meltdown,” Styli says. “What the fuck was going on?”

Branko describes it as one of the worst moments of his publishing life. “The tweets started coming through from the Sunday Times: ‘Tomorrow, we are revealing X, Y and Z, Stefaans and I are scrambling, asking ‘What the fuck is going on?’”

There was real confusion within the team. Styli says: “We weren’t sure what had happened, whether the Sunday Times had the USB stick or the rest of the files, or how it got into their possession. Had Stan given it to them? And why would that make sense if he was still in the country? Was he double-dipping? But then, why would he? It was just mayhem. We did not know what was going on.”

As fate would have it, at exactly the same time that Branko, Stefaans and Styli’s faces were melting off their skulls having seen the Sunday Times’ tweets, Stan and Mrs Stan were lying in bed, looking at their phones. They simultaneously stumbled upon the same web page reporting on the Sunday Times cover story for the next day.

Stan says: “It was uncanny. Mrs Stan has her cellphone and I have my cellphone. She says, ‘can you see this?’ I was on exactly the same web page, completely independently, looking at the Sunday Times front page for the next day. Then a few minutes later the phone rings, it’s Brian. He has obviously seen the same thing, all at the same time, around quarter to 11 at night. I did not think about who had done it, where it came from or anything. I just thought: ‘Oh my God.’”

It soon became clear what had happened – and who was behind it. Lady Macbeth had struck again.

“We more or less found out quickly,” Branko says. “It was given to Sunday Times because Lady Macbeth wanted to affect the ANC’s National Executive Council meeting that weekend. In her deranged mind, she thought that the good people from the ANC were going to take a deep breath and go: ‘How horrible! You’re out, Zuma’. So, what that did was first and foremost was put the whistle-blowers in danger.”

It also threatened to jeopardise all the work done to raise money for the whistle-blowers’ protection. Branko says: “The first message I received was from the donor who I had just organised the money for the whistle-blowers with, who said, ‘Is this the same information? Are your whistle-blowers fucking you around?’ Fair question. They had not, but it was an absolute disaster. I couldn’t get a flight on Sunday. On Monday I flew back via Qatar, arrived on Tuesday, went straight from the airport to a meeting with Stefaans and Sam Sole of amaBhungane so we could decide on a course of action. By that time Stefaans wrote a brilliant editorial, which we co-signed. That was Tuesday. Wednesday afternoon, we announced the launch of our investigative unit, Scorpio. It was supposed to take us a month but we had to move. On Thursday morning, we published the first five stories.”

The scramble begins

While the Sunday Times may have broken the #GuptaLeaks story first thanks to Lady Macbeth’s treachery, Daily Maverick and amaBhungane took control of it thereafter, starting with an editorial that explained why they had sat with the #GuptaLeaks and what they had been working on to protect their sources, Stan and John, the whistle-blowers. It was heavily critical of “misguided” people “whom we had trusted and let into the process”, but who had leaked the leaks for “short-term political gain”.

“One does not publish before taking all reasonable steps to secure sources who may be in harm’s way. Full stop. Those who caused the sample to be leaked to the two newspapers appear to have put expediency above the whistle-blowers’ safety.”

The editorial made it clear exactly what was at stake: “One does not publish before taking all reasonable steps to secure sources who may be in harm’s way. Full stop. Those who caused the sample to be leaked to the two newspapers appear to have put expediency above the whistle-blowers’ safety.”

It had followed another editorial, published the day before, announcing a new era in Daily Maverick’s evolution. “Today, Daily Maverick is proud to announce the official formation of our investigative unit, Scorpio,” the editorial stated. “While we’ve pursued many investigative stories in the past, from Marikana to the manufactured narrative of the SARS Rogue Unit, we are only now able to commit the necessary funds and people to a dedicated unit.”

It continued: “Real investigations are tough and time-consuming efforts, with Thank You cards usually delivered in the form of legal letters and SMS-ed death threats. Leaks are one thing, but to do the work of connecting the dots, analysing the impact and delivering an investigation in a way that makes for a gripping read is a true craft. And this is what Scorpio promises to do: shine a light into the dark corners of corruption, be that in the public or private sector…

“Scorpio is a new chapter in a Daily Maverick book already teeming with exciting stories, challenges and adventures. We don’t take entering into this space lightly; given the country’s medium-term future, people’s freedom and lives could be affected by our work. But it’s not only something we want to do – it’s something we must do.”

With the existence of the #GuptaLeaks out in the open, there were many of unknowns about who knew what – and how much danger the whistle‑blowers were in. Stefaans and Branko were insistent that Stan and John and their families needed to get out of the country immediately.

Stan says: “I’m not sure if we slept that night or if we didn’t sleep, but by that time we were semi-zombies. By the end of June, we were total zombies, because without the Sunday Times we were already seriously stressed. Now all of a sudden we were in shit. We were on a two-month plan to get the hell out of the country. At the end of June, we were gone. It was way too soon. We had no idea who we were. If I am on a path of doing something, I don’t move off that path very easily. I stick it through – jobs, projects… I was nowhere near finished preparing the house for somebody else to occupy. I had to fix the gutters at my property.”

Branko reflects: “What was the effect of Lady Macbeth’s actions and the Sunday Times jumping the gun? Not even the Sunday Times understood what they had. City Press also published something but they were concentrating on some salacious details, like WhatsApps between Duduzane and his wife. We published the first four or five stories along with an editorial announcing that we had 200,000 emails and, basically, that ‘You guys, the Guptas, are fucked.’ That was it. We pressed publish at five in the morning.”

By 6am, it was already a national talking point. Says Branko: “On eNCA with Annika Larsen, she was talking about how amaBhungane and Daily Maverick are the guys who are very careful about what we publish, so there must be something there.”

As amaBhungane and Scorpio worked non-stop sifting through the #GuptaLeaks and publishing story after story, Daily Maverick’s website went into overdrive. News24 editor Adriaan Basson called Stefaans asking to work with Daily Maverick. Stefaans, Sam, Branko and Styli agreed.

Branko says, “We thought okay, let’s work with them. Get more resources to work on the trove and get the work out to a wider audience. Our reader numbers throughout the #GuptaLeaks saga actually dropped because we were co-publishing with News24, but that was okay. It was always about the bigger picture.”

He says that the “amaScorp24” team, as they dubbed yet another WhatsApp group, initially became embroiled in a “complete shoot-out” with the Sunday Times, “because we did not know what they knew. Only after a couple of weeks did we realise their cupboards are bare and that by now we own the story. The difference: amaBhungane spent years investigating the Guptas. You can’t get that kind of understanding and experience overnight. Calling Stefaans immediately after my first meeting with Brian Currin and Mark Heywood was probably the best thing I have ever done. Stefaans and Sam’s team were the nuclear power behind the #GuptaLeaks reactor.”

With teams from Daily Maverick’s Scorpio, amaBhungane and News24 now all assembled at the Daily Maverick’s Cape Town offices, the journal­ists were each given a new computer and a copy of the #GuptaLeaks. Their instruction was never to go online with these computers. Security was paramount. A genuine fear was that the office would be raided.

Marianne says that it takes a lot for her to be intimidated, but the high stakes of this particular situation gave even this battle-axe occasional pause for thought.

She says: “The only time I was slightly nervous was when we got this WhatsApp from the group saying, ‘Here are the names of lawyers, if your house gets raided.’ And then I worried about my children, and I worried about what it would mean for them to have the house raided. I grew up in apartheid South Africa, and those guys would have raided my house within five minutes if they’d known we had all those documents. I thought it was unlikely, but I made sure that the files weren’t in my house. I took them somewhere safe, just so that it wasn’t there. We had instructions to throw it out the window, or stand on it, which I would have done.”

In Rebecca’s recollection, “There was a real sense of danger; a sense that we were dealing with really combustible material. There was a real sense that we had to watch our backs a little bit. I was also personally a bit concerned because the security guard we now had stationed outside the Daily Maverick offices was quite small and old. No disrespect to him – he could have been a killing machine in time of need, I’m sure. But he didn’t seem a terribly intimidating presence to me.”

Reckoning with the #GuptaLeaks

Looking back, Branko still struggles with regrets over how the #GuptaLeaks saga played out. “If Lady Macbeth and the Sunday Times had not jumped the gun, we would have started publishing a month later, at the end of June,” he says. “We would have gone to Ireland. With the release of the stories, the idea was to have two or three weeks’ buffer, releasing a story every two days so people could digest the story, then the analysis of the story – the full package. I am sorry the Sunday Times thing happened, because the level of understanding the country would have gained if we were able to pace it would have been much greater. People would have had time to digest and talk about it, discuss on radio, TV and social networks. Also, the Sunday Times made some terrifying mistakes. It is still my greatest sorrow that they did what they did.”

Branko continues: “We were here to serve the country and the truth. We were not about making a big name for ourselves, trumpeting ourselves or some big, crazy exclusive, or making money by putting it behind a paywall or in print. None of our stories even had bylines. That’s what I think made #GuptaLeaks so big. It was about just us, telling South Africa about the guys running the country like their own private business.”

He admits that he is still angry about the way the story first reached the public. “We did the best job we could under the circumstances, but the circumstances could have been much more reasonable. That will haunt me until I die. If we had the chance to do it properly, these guys would stand no chance. This way they kept fighting and they are still fighting now.”

There was one unforeseen positive, however, that came with being scooped by the Sunday Times. It automatically made the job of publishing the #GuptaLeaks marginally less dangerous.

Says Styli: “There were all these restrictions and challenges going on because of the leak to the Sunday Times, but I think in the end it all worked out for the best. We were lucky it did not have a massively negative consequence, like a death or continued Zuma residence. But the positive spin is that it meant the target on our heads was reduced, because the risk was spread across at least one other media house.”

What was indisputable almost immediately was the impact that reporting on the #GuptaLeaks, regardless of which publication carried it, was going to have on South Africa as a whole.

“There is no propaganda machinery in the world that can construct 200,000 emails that all click together.”

“Before #GuptaLeaks, we had a good idea about the depths to which the corruption in government went,” says Branko. “The problem is, before #GuptaLeaks they had plausible deniability. They could always just ignore us. Everything that was uncovered, especially by amaBhungane, they could just ignore because there was no enforcement mechanism within the legal system. What we were missing was the undeniable moment where the plausible deniability got blasted into smithereens. That was the #GuptaLeaks. There is no propaganda machinery in the world that can construct 200,000 emails that all click together. Together with Sunday Times and Business Day, it was just a bloodbath, a torrent of evidence. They couldn’t stop it any more. They could not ignore us all.”

What the publication of the #GuptaLeaks stories meant, says Mark, was “the beginning of the great unravelling of the State Capture project. Because up to that point, there had been lots of speculation about what was going on, about who was involved. But this was hard evidence of communication between certain people, of the movement of documents between people. It allowed a colouring-in, if you like, of the State Capture project.”

To this day, Mark points out, there has been no convincing attempt to deny the veracity of the #GuptaLeaks information. “It was a treasure trove of documents. One day, you know, the full truth will emerge about how that information came about. But it came about properly, and it came about lawfully. I think that all the people involved, from the beginning to the end, were very, very brave. And in handling this stuff, both the journalists and the initial people put the public interest first. Because they understood just what was being done to our country, and what the impact would be of shining a light on it, so that people could actually see that it could move beyond the realm of speculation into the domain of fact.”

You know the rest of the story. The #GuptaLeaks A-bomb exploded in Zuma’s bunker, encouraging the resistance within the ANC to grow a backbone and emerge from their foxholes. The parliamentary votes of no confidence finally went to a secret ballot.

Anti-Zuma support amplified in both scale and intensity. The Guptas fled the country – and their Zupta lackeys soon discovered that, without protection, they were no longer untouchable. In December 2017, Zuma was forced by the Public Protector to appoint the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.

It would all end with a whimper rather than a bang. In February 2018, just under eight months after the publication of the first #GuptaLeaks stories, President Jacob Zuma was given 48 hours to resign or be recalled. Zuma chose the former.

Branko says: “#GuptaLeaks gave the pretext for Ramaphosa and others to act. If you look at the timeline, before #GuptaLeaks Ramaphosa’s platform was simply: ‘I am next. I am deputy and it is my turn.’ He and [ANC MP] Makhosi Khoza were the first ones to jump when they realised how profound this was. Ramaphosa said all of those implicated by #GuptaLeaks would have to be brought into court and prosecuted. For the rest of the year, his platform was anti-corruption.”

He continues: “What Ramaphosa also did, which is actually quite cynical, was say: ‘We only became aware how bad the situation was, when you guys came out with #GuptaLeaks.’ They were killing two birds with one stone. They were saying, ‘Oh, isn’t the media wonderful.’ And the other thing they were saying was, ‘We did not know.’ Except that after we did it, they could not ignore it any more. I think that’s what we did. We made it impossible to be ignored.”

More than two years since the #GuptaLeaks news broke, the media has still not finished plumbing the trove. The #GuptaLeaks stories thus far uncovered are still having lasting effects on the country today. From the Estina Dairy scandal to the capture of Eskom, the capture of Transnet, the public enterprises corruption, the horrors of Bell Pottinger, the entire capture of the Presidency… And this was all just the tip of the iceberg.

The NPA, meanwhile, is still attempting to resurrect itself, and ANC factions continue to wage their internal war over the battlefield of power and resources in South Africa. For the #GuptaLeaks whistle-blowers, it all seems a bit surreal.

“When I think about the #GuptaLeaks now, it’s a story, it’s almost not mine,” says Stan. “I actually wrestle quite a lot with this: is this me? Is this my work, did I do this? I kind of feel removed from it in a way, now and even then. Once it had been given to Brian and the journalists, I kind of felt distanced from it, because it was them not me. Branko said, when I met him last year: ‘Your job is done, it’s finished. It’s victory. It’s over.’”

While South Africa attempts to rebuild and hold the Zuptas to account, the whistle-blowers continue to live in exile, looking over their shoulder in fear of retribution.

Branko might have been right in the sense that the whistle-blowers’ responsibilities were complete, but Stan and John’s lives – and those of their families – will never be the same. While South Africa attempts to rebuild and hold the Zuptas to account, the whistle-blowers continue to live in exile, looking over their shoulder in fear of retribution.

Stan says: “I thought about what our lives are like now, the other day. It’s a battle. We had a home. It was our home. We don’t have one now. We have a house, a place where we live, but we don’t have a home. There’s a lot to that. That’s something we had for 30 years in that same house. That’s big stability, gone. We cannot possibly go back, it’s impossible. It’s done.”

He says he has been pleased to see other whistle-blowers stepping forward with evidence of State Capture. “I admire them for that. I don’t think I fully realised the impact it would have on my personal life. It’s very difficult to continue a life, a home with a job or a business.

What advice do I have? Without a shadow of a doubt, you have to find the right people. “Because we met some wrong people, some dangerous people. The fact is that these guys [Daily Maverick and amaBhungane] stuck with us, when they could have decided Lady Macbeth-style to dump us. And they would have had everything. I don’t think I would have had a family. The best advice I can give is meet somebody who is trustworthy, chat about it with them, discuss it and get the implications. It’s a unique type of experience, but it’s necessary. Society must change for the better. I think people like the Guptas and those characters should not be allowed to get away with what they have done. It should not be allowed.”

Despite all the positions of power the Zupta elite held, the money they stole from inflated deals and kickbacks with parastatals, and the public they betrayed with such nonchalance, there was one thing they were not prepared for. That was the resolve and conscience of two ordinary South Africans who had a plan.

Stan and John had committed to cleaning out South Africa’s gutters.

#GuptaLeaks postscript

Lady Macbeth’s ego-driven insistence on placing herself at the centre of what should have been a well-coordinated, systematic media exposé of the theft of South Africa’s sovereignty turned the initial release of the #GuptaLeaks story into chaos. Far more seriously than that, the arrogance of her actions put the lives of Stan and John at risk. She knew this, and seemingly didn’t care. So why call her “Lady Macbeth” instead of revealing her name?

The truth is, Daily Maverick doesn’t trust her enough to know to what extent she might choose to enact revenge on either Stan or John. There is a real fear that she could tell the world their names and, by doing so, once again put their lives at risk. If she should take any punitive action against Stan and John, rest assured that she will be named.

Pauli’s first zinger

Pauli van Wyk announced her arrival at Daily Maverick with a bang – and the decimation of Eskom CEO Brian Molefe. Her first Scorpio exposé was a sign of things to come from the investigative journalist, as she revealed Brian Molefe’s “golden handshake/retirement slush fund”.

Molefe’s claim that he had stepped down from the electricity parastatal in November 2016 “in the interests of good corporate governance” was cast in a different light by the revelation from Pauli that Molefe had started “the feathering of his retirement nest” a year previously.

Just over a week later, Pauli followed up the initial story with a knock-out punch revealing that Molefe had not only received a R30-million Eskom pension, but was also granted a R1.3-million tax discount. In November 2017, Solidarity Trade Union, the EFF and DA independently took the matter to court, and won.

Molefe attempted to appeal the decision in the Constitutional Court, but was knocked back in August 2019. Pauli summarised matters succinctly in a follow-up article: “He now has to pay back the money.”

All hands on deck

With the #GuptaLeaks trove still occupying the majority of the team’s time, Captain Branko needed more hands on deck – not least because he was about to lose Ranjeni Munusamy. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Ranjeni. She gave her notice just as #GuptaLeaks was about to unfold, leaving Branko with no choice but to exclude her from the Scorpio team. Despite this, before her departure in June, she wrote “one last story” to the Daily Maverick team.

From: Ranjeni Munusamy Date: Sat, 24 Jun 2017 at 08:21 Subject: One last story To: DM Editorial


I had been completely numb about the prospect of leaving Daily Maverick since I decided to do so two months ago. Last night I cried and cried and cried.

Though not all of you were there, I looked around that table and realised what I was walking away from. It was so great to have Bokkie there and to reminisce about all the crazy things we’ve been through.

When Branko found me in 2011, I was so broken, so damaged and so inadequate that I no longer thought of myself as a journalist.

He dusted me off, put me together again and made me write. Together with all of you, I started (in April 2012) to tell the story of our country, word by word, day by day.

I found a voice that surprised me, and a clan that made me better every day.

Daily Maverick is not a news organisation. It is a belief system. That is why it was able to recreate me – from the lesser form of life that I was.

From today, I need to learn to walk by myself, without the rest of you.

I do not know how to begin to thank you all for the years we’ve been together, for the ups and downs, for the misery and triumphs, for the absolute chaos, for the days we just had to type one word in front of the other when it seemed impossible to do so. The excellence in journalism made me so proud to be part of this team.

Last night I thanked the Joburg crew, individually, for what they’ve been to me throughout the lifetime I’ve been at Daily Maverick. I will spare the rest of you that torture.

But please indulge me this.

I was lost and alone and so misguided until Branko found me. He gave me courage and a new life. Every day there was a completely mad fight in my head until the words “Thanks Ranj” appeared on my screen. Mostly after midnight.

Through Branko I found friends, a new family, tragedy, heartache, triumph, love and life. People believed in me and trusted me again. I found redemption. He taught me to walk again and to write again. He made me fly. Most of all, he made me whole.

This country is so damn complicated. Every day I hate it. And love it. It is such hard work. This is a ridiculous point in time and we are all completely crazy to try to tell this story. It took a Serbian guy to come from across the world to put together this team so that we all understand the world we live in a little better. And to tell others about it.

So I have to go now to tell that story from a different place.

My friends, my family, fellow maverii, thank you for the greatest ride of my life. Thanks for all the laughs and crazy moments. You helped and inspired me in different ways and if ever I can help you in any way, let me know. Please stay in touch. And keep DM flying high.

Stephen and Popsie: You were the ying and yang that forced me to write politics better. Don’t forget to call me every day!

Jack. I could never say goodbye to you baby brother.


So long team,


A key staff member may have left, but Daily Maverick’s credibility was at an all-time high. It had become one of South Africa’s most sought-after newsrooms at which to work. With #GuptaLeaks, one managing editor wasn’t going to cut it. Janet Heard, parliamentary editor for News24, was the next to be drafted in in this role.

Janet says: “I would meet Branko every now and then for coffee – I was keen to leave corporate media at some point to join Daily Maverick as it was such a kick-arse, cheeky, independent brand. I then devised a plan to try to be entrepreneurial and launch an independent parliamentary agency. I pitched the idea of synergising and hosting it on Daily Maverick to him. Things came to a head when I got a dreaded 189 letter from HR at Media 24. One Friday evening about 6pm, Branko called me and said: ‘Please come on board DM to help save my life. I need two managing editors.’ I dived in a few months later, the last week in July 2017, and have been trying to come up for air ever since.”

The recruitment drive also secured senior M&G/Sunday Times journalist Jessica Bezuidenhout, who instantly become a key part of the Scorpio team. Jessica recalls her meeting with Branko as being devoid of any real sales pitch. “It was just: ‘Hey, I want you to join us’… followed by bits of ‘We rock’, and that was it, I wanted in. It’s been an incredible journey since. Working in a place that really is all about the journalism, surrounded and humbled daily by exceptionally talented, bold and wacky colleagues. It is everything!”

The Cape water crisis

Theewaterskloof Dam, practically dry in July 2017

Theewaterskloof Dam, practically dry in July 2017

Source: Christiaan Serfontein

No moment in South Africa’s recent ecological history has been a greater marker of the inexorable impact of natural disasters on societies than the 2015-17 national drought, and the ensuing Cape water crisis. It was, in all respects, a black swan event. Cape Town was about to become one of the first cities in the world to completely run out of water.

It was to be one of Janet’s first projects to manage, in the form of a “protracted investigation” that she describes as one of the most memorable in her time at Daily Maverick.

Published in parts towards the end of 2017, the investigation culminated in the three-part multimedia series co-produced by Daily Maverick’s journalist and former sub-editor Marelise van der Merwe and Chronicle’s Diana Neille.

The series, titled “Cape of Storms to Come”, involved what Janet describes as “a whole team of people, layers of research, tricky navigation between differing perspectives, and competing diary pressures”.

The investigation behind the series took a full 18 months and had its genesis in a long-standing battle in the Western Cape’s breadbasket, the Philippi Horticultural Area, on which Marelise had been keeping a close eye.

A rich, fertile zone of around 3,000 hectares, the agricultural area forms “part of one of the largest aquifer networks on the continent. It’s an incredible water resource for the entire area,” explains Diana. The community had alleged that the local DA government under former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille had been selling off tranches to developers at drastically inflated prices.

“There were also plans to pave over the entire area and build housing, threatening food security, decimating farms and covering up the charging zone that keeps the aquifer replenished with water,” says Diana.

However, another disaster that would utterly dwarf the micro-war in the horticultural area was beginning to become “a little hard to ignore”.

This was mid-2017 – “hardly anyone in the press was talking about the severity of the drought at all”, Diana says, but “once we began interviewing more broadly, it became very clear very quickly that, while the media hadn’t yet fully caught on and politicians were being irresponsibly quiet about what the data must by then have been telling them, water scientists and experts were full-on panicking about the severity of the drought, and that nothing was being done by the government to deal with it.”

As many an investigative environmental journalist would attest, being the first to uncover disaster comes with no small measure of apocalyptic dread.

Says Diana: “I returned home after a heavy day of interviews with water experts and a source from the City’s own groundwater science team – who wanted to remain anonymous, because he was afraid to report the possible implications of local government’s total head-in-the-sand approach, despite a decade or more of warnings from its very own staff and consultants. I stood in my living room looking out over Sea Point and thought, ‘Nobody yet knows how bad this could be, and potential disaster is only months away.’”

She understandably calls it a “really depressing and anxious moment, given what I’d been hearing all day – that there was a real chance of a breakdown of society in the city if we did actually reach ‘Day Zero’: clogged sewerage systems, cholera, violence, mass business shutdown, general panic and confusion as people lined up by the thousands to collect water from … where exactly? And knowing that De Lille’s approach up to that point had been mostly to stage an interdenominational prayer PR stunt on Table Mountain, entreating God to send rain.”

Diana would later be told by a source in a September 2017 interview that “He had made his young daughter promise to keep a bag of necessities in her car so that she could leave at a moment’s notice when the water system invariably collapsed and factional battles over the remaining natural resources began.”

Around the same time, Rebecca interviewed DA party leader Mmusi Maimane in his parliamentary office. While the drought was not the focus of her grilling, she took advantage of the opportunity to ask Maimane if he could give Cape Town his personal assurance that the city would not run out of water. Remembers Rebecca: “He said yes, but as he responded his foot was tapping in that classic anxiety tic.”

For Diana, these chilling portents spoke to the classic reporter’s hazard of digging into a story with inevitable preconceptions – until something comes along that forces a sharp about-turn.

“Reaching this intersection redirected the team’s trajectory from the DA’s failings on Cape Town land, water and food to the drought. It wasn’t a scoop per se, but we were among the first out the gate to address the possible consequences of a real Day Zero scenario head-on. The piece became a feature on the potential impact of the drought and the City’s response, with follow-up chapters about the Philippi Horticultural Area, the Cape aquifer and how mismanagement of these resources would exacerbate the problems.”

Diana knew before publication that there was a high chance the series would add to the public’s growing fears around the prospect of Cape Town running out of water. “We knew we were taking a risk going the alarmist route,” she says. “But after a lot of debate we decided it was better to be the first to warn people with substantiated, if rather frightening, arguments – even though we could potentially look like the hysterical town-criers if it did eventually rain – than continue to just quote the City’s (I would argue blatantly irresponsible and vague) updates and hope for the best.”

Rebecca says: “There was definitely a moment somewhere around late 2017 where it struck me that the subject of our journalism around the water crisis had to shift at least partly from analysis of the political context – because there was a while there when we were all obsessed with the growing drama between De Lille and the DA and trying to figure out who, between the City and the national DA, was really in charge of this mess – to more practical reporting on the likely scenarios, busting myths, and so on.”

Reliable experts were undeniably important allies to help the editorial team make sense of an unprecedented crisis – but not at the cost of teaming up with a purported former Nat spook.

“An issue we discussed collectively at Daily Maverick was whether to make use of one of the most frequently quoted expert sources on the water crisis, who clearly knew what he was talking about when it came to water, but also had an unsavoury past that may have included a stint as an apartheid spy,” says Rebecca – and quips: “A classic South African problem.” She adds: “I’m pretty sure we resolved not to use him.”

“The panic and misery induced by the water shortages for middle-class Capetonians was a daily reality for poor South Africans already…”

Another ethical talking point in planning sessions, particularly at the start of the water crisis, “was the space we should give to the water crisis while acknowledging that the panic and misery induced by the water shortages for middle-class Capetonians was a daily reality for poor South Africans already,” says Rebecca. “We were very conscious of the fact that ‘for X number of months my gym is restricting me to a two-minute shower’ was a relatively insignificant hardship when compared with the literally unending water scarcity experienced by large parts of the country. So we worked hard on consciously acknowledging that discrepancy – checking our privilege, you might say.”

Daily Maverick intern-turned-full-time reporter Suné Payne helped readers do just that: “If my household of nine can survive on less than 350 litres of water a day,” she wrote in a column, “why can’t others?” Her piece provided some much-needed perspective.

When part one of the “Cape of Storms to Come” series finally saw the light of day at the end of October 2017, says Janet, “There was a lot of celebration.” The headline, as well as the opening paragraphs to the exposé, drove home the situation’s urgency.


In September 2017, when it became clear the City of Cape Town had few viable solutions for a drought of potentially precedent-setting proportions, members of a non-profit Organisation Water Shortage South Africa took matters into their own hands. CEO and water expert, Benoit Le Roy, began planning for a proactive campaign to lobby the United Nations for aid and expertise. “This [drought] is bigger than South Africa can handle,” Le Roy said from his home in Johannesburg. “How does a country handle four million refugees?”

While cities and regions like Barcelona, Adelaide, California and Gauteng have all faced down a total water outage in recent years, Cape Town may be on a five-month trajectory to actually getting there. Alarmed experts have issued dire assessments, while the city itself has anticipated taps may run dry in March at the current consumption rate. For months, the city has been pleading with residents to lower their water usage, as it scrambles to augment the existing supply before “Day Zero”. In October, Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille released the first detailed statement preparing citizens for what might occur if they did not co-operate. Rumours, fears and false information abounded as officials quietly switched off taps in publicly unannounced neighbourhoods across the region.

What happens if a city runs out of municipal water? Models are clear on the severity: disease, the tanking of the economy, the destruction of sewerage infrastructure, outbreaks of violence; a potential shredding of the urban fabric. As Day Zero approaches, it is increasingly apparent that public over-consumption isn’t the only problem. Administrators, both national and local, are unprepared to avert what could become a full-on humanitarian crisis.

And so now it seems urgent to ask: How did this slow-motion disaster happen?

In the next instalment, the water crisis unit revealed “how two property developers, Uvest and Rapicorp, were handed the keys to large parts of South Africa’s most productive horticultural area per hectare – leading up to, and during, the area’s worst drought in a century. A horticultural area that happens to lie atop a massive, easily accessible aquifer.”

The final chapter addressed the questions burning on the lips of most who had been befuddled by the breadbasket’s fate: “What happened in Philippi? Why did the city seemingly disregard its own studies and forge ahead to gamble with a critical food and water resource during a disaster-level drought event? Is it a tightknit network of powerful individuals that stands to benefit? Legislation that’s too easy to find loopholes in? A systemic failure? Or a perfect storm?”

Regardless, the writers warned: “It’s the citizens who will have to adapt and struggle to survive.”

The “Cape of Storms to Come” series was the first full-scale investigation into the severity of the drought – and to announce the news that “Cape Town would be the first in the world to run out of water by March 2018 without an intervention,” says Diana.

The series, says Janet, was “widely quoted and served as a wake-up call to the seriousness of the crisis playing out in the Western Cape”.

Wondering about “Operation Wonder”

Rain may have been in short supply in the winter of 2017, but one thing was plentiful: drama. The amaScorp24 teams were in the midst of unleashing the #GuptaLeaks, when police minister Fikile Mbalula’s adviser, Bongane Mbindwane, called Branko on his cellphone. He feared for his and the minister’s life, he said. He was in possession of a dossier detailing an apparent elaborate assassination plot that placed him and the minister firmly in its crosshairs.

Marianne was assigned to dig deeper. “We started doing a bit of research, but there was already a caveat – you have 100,000 people under your control. Why would you expect journalists from some online publication to save you from murderers? What the fuck?” Marianne says. “That, and the fact that Minister Mbalula would not go on record, smelled pretty bad.”

A whole week passed with no response from Mbalula to Marianne’s questions. When Branko received a WhatsApp message on Saturday alerting him to the fact that a Sunday paper was going to publish the story, he called the publication’s editor and warned him to heed the many alarm bells chiming in the badly-written dossier.

Unfortunately, everything ended up being published by the Sunday paper.

On 31 August, Marianne ran a rebuttal explaining why the story ended up on the cutting-room floor even before Daily Maverick could kick off a serious investigation. In “Operation Wonder: Why we chose to ignore explosive dossier”, she debunked a dense and far-fetched plot supposedly orchestrated by the new acting police commissioner Lesetja Mothiba and an “evil triumvirate of rogue police officers”.

Why would these “rogues”, as the Sunday press dubbed them, have an axe to grind with Mbalula and his sidekick? The dossier claimed that Mbalula was a stumbling block to, among others, missions such as a “R10-billion project aimed at creating positions for former members of the military wings of liberation movements including MKVA and AZAPO”, Marianne wrote.

Noting there was “probably a kernel of worrying truth in the steaming pile”, Marianne explained why it should nonetheless have been obvious to anyone with a functioning brain that much of the dossier was, yes, wondrously fakey.

Among the points she questioned: why the minister didn’t immediately deal with the “reference in the report to the use of a grabber by those who were ‘authorised’ to carry out Operation Wonder” when the plot became evident. As Marianne observed, “There are not many grabbers in the country. It is not so difficult to keep track of them. Well, it shouldn’t be, at least.”

The real question, suggested Marianne, was the following: “Surely an effective, functioning government/state in control of all its branches would know about a serious plot of this nature – involving a long list of dubious and careless individuals, some of them convicted criminals – long before the evildoers even press send to the other evildoers on the evildoers WhatsApp group?”

A day after the clamorous Sunday coverage, investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh, writing for News24, revealed as a “fabrication” one of the claims in the Operation Wonder report that the Hawks had secretly raided a Gupta-linked dairy farm in the Free State.

“Operation Wonder is a badly written and dubious intelligence report. But in South Africa dubious intelligence reports can be, and are, dangerous and used as blunt political weapons,” wrote Marianne. “Ask former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas. One minute they were in England in March wooing investors, the next they were labelled zombies and agents of WMC in an ‘intelligence report’, ordered home by President Zuma and fired.”

Marianne concluded: “So we did not run with the story. The report was clearly planted and no one, not even the people whose lives were supposedly in danger, would go on record. As someone once said to us, ‘It has too many holes in it and smells like a dead seal in a blocked drain.’”

The Operation Wonder saga was just one example of stories which have been frequently brought to Daily Maverick over the past few years promising juicy revelations – but ultimately containing little substance.

Newsrooms don’t always show their worth by being the first to publish a story; sometimes that worth is shown by not publishing at all.

Says Branko: “There are people with hidden agendas who will try all the time. We weren’t in a panic to publish. My publication is not going to fall apart because we’ve missed a good story. And that’s a luxury we have.” Newsrooms don’t always show their worth by being the first to publish a story; sometimes that worth is shown by not publishing at all.

Zapiro v Mbalula

Daily Maverick cartoonist Zapiro has his own interesting history with Mbalula. In October 2017, Zapiro drew a cartoon showing the gulf between the police minister’s big talk around getting tough on crime – and the apparent total lack of accompanying action.

This take appeared to really get under Mbalula’s skin – so much so that the minister took it upon himself to “fix” Zapiro’s cartoon, tweeting a doctored version he considered a more accurate representation of his performance in the police portfolio.

Zapiro couldn’t resist, shooting back with another cartoon poking fun at Mbalula as the “minister of tweets”. Mbalula couldn’t let this one go either, taking straight to Twitter again to amend this cartoon too.

Says Zapiro: “It really felt strange and interesting to me that I’m drawing him as this spluttering and enraged character, and the irony is what he’s responding to more than actually doing his job – he’s responding to that portrayal of him, and he just reinforces it. He was verifying my doing the cartoon in the first place.”

And still there was more. “Shortly after that he was trying to show that he was doing something,” recalls Zapiro. Mbalula proceeded to tweet a picture of several men apprehended by police in a supposed “midnight criminal space shake-up”. A few problems: in contravention of the men’s rights, they were identifiable in the photo. But more significantly, they also weren’t the baddies the police were after.

“They were cable-tied with their hands behind their back, and left for three hours so he could get the photo-opp. It was a complete stuff-up. They were the wrong people. I think he may have admitted defeat after that…” says Zapiro.

But the feud between the minister and the cartoonist showed the genuine impact that Zapiro’s cartoons have on those in power. That such figures should spend their time responding to a cartoonist instead of doing their job inspired the editorial, “Minister Mbalula’s laughable attempt at defending the indefensible”.

Tiso Deathstar

It may have become clear from these pages that the relationship between Daily Maverick and the Sunday Times’ mothership Tiso Blackstar has often been a trifle rocky – to the point where the media company is occasionally referred to by certain Mavericks as “Tiso Deathstar”.

The fact that Tiso executives were troubled by the growing profile of Daily Maverick was evident as far back as 2013, when CEO of what was then the Times Media Group, Andrew Bonamour, reached out to Styli and Branko in December 2013 to discuss the possibility of a “transaction”. Bonamour had successfully led a private equity buyout of Avusa by his investment holding company, Blackstar, in 2012, and soon set about a culling of the operation, which had become bloated from years of success.

What Bonamour was offering was an equity injection and further access to loan funding in exchange for a controlling stake in Daily Maverick. The offer was garnished with the condition of “strong financial controls and discipline” to be implemented. Styli, Branko and their shareholders were unanimous in declining the offer. While they entertained the benefits of being part of a bigger media house, they agreed that closure was a better option than a deal that would expose the Daily Maverick project to profit-driven overlords.

The rejection must have stung, because in 2014 what is now Tiso Blackstar rebooted anti-apartheid newspaper brand Rand Daily Mail in an online format: an effort that Bonamour publicly stated was to take on Daily Maverick in the current affairs and analysis coverage of South Africa. The website had a staff complement of one, former Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley. Styli and Branko considered it a compliment that larger media houses now viewed DM as a sufficient threat to launch new brands, but it wasn’t an approach that worried either of them. They both knew the effort and sacrifice it took to get Daily Maverick to where it was.

Styli and Branko had previously offered the newspaper group the ability to syndicate DM content to any of their newspapers in exchange for a flat fee. The offer didn’t get much traction. By the time the #GuptaLeaks exploded, Tiso had adopted an alternative approach to dealing with Daily Maverick: poaching senior staff. With Ranjeni already crossing the floor, the offer letters for senior journalists – all working on the biggest story of South Africa’s post-apartheid history – came swooping in.

After initial refusals by all Daily Maverick journalists approached, Tiso returned with increased offers, in some cases double the Mavericks’ earnings, and even some share options. The combined annual salaries of the offers totalled more than the offer to buy two thirds of the Daily Maverick business back in 2013, and significantly more than the offer Tiso had been given to republish all Daily Maverick content in 2016.

While it warmed Styli and Branko’s hearts that their journalistic talent was being valued to this degree, the motive was clear: to incapacitate Daily Maverick in the midst of a story that would help mould South Africa’s future. Daily Maverick’s writers weren’t budging.

And indeed, why would they? 2017 was the year that Daily Maverick graduated. No longer the small fish trying to make an impact in a big sea, the publication had become a place to which the South African public turned when they needed to know what was really going on from a trusted voice. This, while Daily Maverick’s entire editorial staff was still equivalent in number to the size of the sports reporting teams in some of the big media players.

Styli says: “Every newsroom has pressures, but Daily Maverick journos have to produce more features than most news publishers expect of their staff, and that isn’t the easiest kind of writing to maintain reader interest in an attention-deficit society. And they have to deal with Branko. They deserve extra points for that.”