Defining a decade

Seven-hundred people have thus far been named in the evidence of witnesses to the commission. Judge Zondo has said that he will require a minimum of six months after the hearings close to sift through the mountains of testimony and affidavits with which the commission has been presented. The wheels of justice grind slowly – and often boringly.

Yet the Zondo Commission has also offered up some days of compulsive viewing. There was the appearance of former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, formally recording how the Gupta brothers offered him a R600-milion bribe to be their yes-man in Treasury. There was the testimony of erstwhile finance minister Nhanhla Nene, whose acknowledgement to the commission that he had met the Gupta family on more occasions than he had previously admitted ended up forcing his resignation.

“To have the story out in the open was a big moment for Daily Maverick…”

A month into the commission, Brian Currin took to the stand and revealed how the #GuptaLeaks came to be in his possession, how he brought them to Mark Heywood and then, in turn, to Branko. To have the story out in the open was a big moment for Daily Maverick; it illustrated the careful planning undertaken to ensure that the #GuptaLeaks were revealed to the public in a responsible way, with Stan and John’s safety secured.

In November 2018, the country tuned in to hear Pravin Gordhan lift the lid on the various tentacles of State Capture, not least the irregularities concerning the nuclear deal. Jessica Bezuidenhout was tasked with covering the commission for Daily Maverick. In “Gordhan on State Capture: ‘Places the interest of your puppet ahead of your people’” she skillfully summarised how he had, on day one of his testimony, unpacked three controversial deals – involving nuclear energy, state arms dealer Denel and oil company Petronas.

Poplak also covered Gordhan’s testimony, while laying out the corruption stemming from a company that was quickly to become a household name: Bosasa.

“Bosasa, now Dr Evil-ishly renamed African Global Operations, has a long history of bribing its way into state contracts,” he wrote. “Its CEO, Gavin Watson, an old Port Elizabeth rugby boykie, is described in the press as being ‘politically connected’ – which is not actually a thing. ‘Politically connected’ means that he pays off politicians in exchange for favourable treatment come tender time. Indeed, Bosasa wrote a big cheque for Zuma’s 73rd-birthday celebrations; they bribed Department of Correctional Services officials with houses and cars to win prison tenders. They are both the ANC’s heart and its asshole – a hybrid organ that drives the organisation and serves as its noisome end-point.”

What nobody knew at the time was that Bosasa would produce arguably the most explosive testimony yet heard by the Zondo Commission – when former Bosasa executive Angelo Agrizzi appeared in front of it in January 2019. As Jessica reported in “The unravelling of Angelo Agrizzi, State Capture’s racist whistle-blower”, Agrizzi’s testimony revealed the extent to which Bosasa had fuelled ANC corruption for years. It also exposed him as a racist.

Agrizzi told the commission that he had personally packed piles of cash into bags for Bosasa’s top brass to dish out to dirty civil servants and politicians. But after growing a conscience circa 2016 (and an understanding that he would end up in jail otherwise), he started gathering a personal stash of evidence – little black books, company records, secret recordings and a string of partners-in-crime – to expose the company, its CEO Gavin Watson and, of course, its ANC beneficiaries.

One of the prime recipients of Bosasa’s generosity, it emerged, was former Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane – who Agrizzi said was not only paid a monthly retainer, but was also given “Christmas gifts” that included braai packs and cases of whiskey.

For eight days, Agrizzi’s damning testimony gripped the nation. It proved that the Guptas were not the only corrupt family in town; as Ferial wrote: “Meet the Watsons: They will make the Guptas look like amateurs”.

Agrizzi was dishing dirt like no whistle-blower had done since the commission started its work. But on the afternoon of 29 January, his confidence seemed to wane in that witness box. The man who had been rattling off names, codes and payments for days on end seemed suddenly deflated.

This was when senior advocate Paul Pretorius, head of the commission’s legal team, announced that a short recording of a conversation Agrizzi had had with members of the Watson family in his TV room the previous year, was to be played.

South Africa was about to hear another ugly truth about Agrizzi, and just like his testimony about his own complicity in the corruption scandal, this too would come straight from the horse’s mouth. The clip, seemingly leaked through his former Bosasa partners, was short, painful and confirmed that apart from being a corruption-enabler, Agrizzi was also a racist.

The Zondo Commission would never hear directly from Gavin Watson: he died in a mysterious car accident in August 2019. And the inquiry was struck by another piece of Bosasa-related drama when it emerged that the security for the commission was being provided by none other than, well, Bosasa – giving us one of many you can’t make this shit up moments.

April 2019 saw former IPID head Robert McBride give his testimony, revealing how SAPS, too, had been captured. Marianne reported his testimony in a piece headlined, “Robert McBride: The biggest threat to SA national security comes from within”. McBride revealed how in 2016, the country’s Minister of Police, Nathi Nhleko, employed a convicted criminal with fake South African citizenship called Leon Moyo as the chief of staff in his office. Nhleko was responsible for circumventing the usual security clearance processes.

But that wasn’t the end of it, reported Marianne. “McBride painted a devastating portrait of SAPS and how old apartheid-era habits of secrecy and unaccountably had remained intact in democratic South Africa. The SAPS, he also said, ran on patronage. There were favours done for seniors, jobs and promotion offered in return,” she wrote.

She quoted McBride’s explanation of the very simple reason for this syndicate-like system: “The intention is to steal money. I can show a litany of cases where billions have been stolen.”

All this was viewed as a mere sideshow to the main event of the Zondo Commission: the day when former president Jacob Zuma would take the stand and be grilled by the commission’s lawyers.

But Zuma had dodged more daunting adversaries than this, and always come out on top. The old fox was not about to be taken down by a mere commission of inquiry – one, to add insult to injury, that he himself had (reluctantly) ordered established.

Zuma’s lawyer Muzi Sikhakhane entered the commission with all guns blazing, accusing the Zondo legal team of using “ambush tactics” for refusing to furnish him and his client with questions ahead of time – a luxury no previous Zondo witness had been afforded.

Yet Sikhakhane need not have worried. Zuma took a leaf out of memorial signer Thamsanqa Jantjie’s book and conveyed to the commission a haze of information amounting to almost nothing. This, while his lawyer repeatedly interrupted proceedings to remind the commission that Zuma was a “guest” present at the request of Judge Zondo who was not to be cross-examined.

Zuma’s testimony consisted of the “victim” rhetoric to which South Africans have become accustomed from the former president. As Ferial reported:

Former president Jacob Zuma unveiled on Monday what he said was a 29-year-long grand conspiracy against him engineered by international and local intelligence agents to take him out as country president – and now to kill him.

In the course of his first morning’s testimony before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, Zuma also claimed that former Mineral Resources Minister and ANC veteran Ngoako Ramatlhodi was a spy and said that businessman Mzi Khumalo had told him he and cabinet minister Penuell Maduna had been approached by former chief prosecutor Bulelani Ngcuka to provide him with a R20-million retirement nest-egg to evade prosecution and get him off the political scene.

After just three days, Sikhakhane would pull the plug, removing his client from the commission. For Jessica, Zuma’s entire testimony was not just disappointing but crushing. She says, “He said nothing. In that sort of vacuum of answers and information, of our quest for answers and information, I think a lot of us who covered his testimony walked away feeling broken. Because we’re not talking about an ill-equipped and ill-informed witness coming to this very important commission, we were talking about the man who led this country for two terms.”

Jessica continues: “So you sat there and thought, ‘Well, if someone like that can get away with saying absolutely nothing, what hope is there?’ But then of course there were comebacks after that. There were other witnesses, further information and facts that came to light after that. Your spirits get lifted. There is a greater purpose to all of this.”

Ferial agrees that reason for optimism remains. On covering the Zondo Commission, she says: “It was like having a front seat at a festival of truth, as journalism was turned into an instrument of accountability, and it holds out the tantalising hope that the talons of State Capture will not be allowed to tear so deep into our national DNA in future.”

The Daily Maverick inboxes were filled with mails from readers pleading: “But when is someone going to go to jail?”

But as the commission rolled on through the year, many members of the public became increasingly despondent. The nation had become numb to what would be, in any other country, explosive allegations: there was just too much of it. The Daily Maverick inboxes were filled with mails from readers pleading: “But when is someone going to go to jail?” What was sometimes difficult to hold on to was that all of this corruption had already happened; the commission was the dirty CSI clean-up job.

Chronicling Influence

The old adage, “If you play with fire, you’re going to get burnt” requires a modern South African update. Perhaps: “If you pour petrol on the already flickering flames of South African politics, your house is going to burn down. And you will likely get necklaced in the process.” Somebody should really have warned UK-based PR firm Bell Pottinger of this before they unleashed the rhetoric of “white monopoly capital” on the South African public at the Guptas’ behest.

After the #GuptaLeaks exposed how Bell Pottinger attempted to widen the fractures in South African society on behalf of their Indian clients, Poplak and Diana set about uncovering the deeper rot that this company has been seeding all over the globe in a documentary titled Influence.

The two Mavericks spent much of 2019 travelling to London, Baghdad, Santiago, Washington DC, Abidijan, Johannesburg and Belarus in pursuit of the story. In May, Canadian festival Hot Docs announced that Influence had been chosen as one of two recipients of co-financing with the Hot Docs Partners initiative – a much-needed cash injection to help cover those air-miles.

Influence is set for release in 2020 – and will doubtless cause South Africans to seethe anew at the damage consciously wrought on their country by one singularly unethical PR firm.

The (second) most explosive book of 2019

Branko scored another hiring coup in January 2019 with the luring of investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh to join the Scorpio team, just days ahead of the release of Myburgh’s book Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture.

“Corruption allegations have long trailed ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, but nothing has ever seemed to stick. In Daily Maverick journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s new book, Magashule is dramatically exposed,” wrote Rebecca in a review. “Through meticulous investigative work, Myburgh details how the former premier established a network of corruption in his home of the Free State, which drained the coffers of provincial government funds and left local communities further impoverished. The book should detonate like a hand-grenade.”

Pieter-Louis says of Gangster State: “It’s allowed a glimpse into someone who hasn’t really before then, in such a condensed manner, been exposed as a State Captor himself. We’ve always been speaking about State Capture as something that was perpetuated by the Gupta family, and later on the Bosasa lot also came into the frame.”

He continues: “I think this kind of research project allows an author who studies an individual like Ace Magashule to also prove that State Capture occurs from the inside. It’s not necessarily these third-party business entities and families who capture elements of the state; oftentimes somebody like Magashule really is the lead captor in the Free State province that he led. Impact-wise, hopefully, it unmasked somebody who, for years, has portrayed himself as a leader of the people. It certainly points to a man who did so to the benefit not only of himself, but of his family and his business associates.”

To say the book caused a little controversy would be like saying Cape Town went through a little water problem in 2018. Pieter-Louis’ Johannesburg launch of the book was interrupted, and ultimately called to a halt, as supporters of Magashule stormed Exclusive Books in Sandton, where they ripped up copies of the book and refused to allow the launch to continue. The ANCYL Free State planned a ceremonial burning of the book, which was later stopped and condemned by the remaining adults in the ruling party.

But that did not spell the end of the saga. In the face of this political heat, Exclusive Books and the V&A Waterfront promptly “postponed” Pieter-Louis’ planned Cape Town launch. Poplak didn’t hold back in his disgust at corporate South Africa’s total lack of spine.

“No matter the potential liability issues – the V&A mall is full of innocent staff members and patrons – this should have been faced down and dealt with,” he wrote. “It had a full 48 hours to make alternative plans, to involve the SAPS, to hire a phalanx of security personnel. That they chose to cancel is beyond shameful.”

Daily Maverick were not about to allow one of their journalists to be silenced by either a bunch of Magashule supporters or some cowardly businesses, so they scrambled to relocate the launch in defence of free speech. Primedia opened their doors to Daily Maverick, providing them with both a venue and a team of people to help. The resulting event was packed – and both SABC and eNCA turned up to film and help spread Pieter-Louis’ voice to every corner of South Africa.

Since the book’s publication, Magashule has publicly threatened on numerous occasions to sue Pieter-Louis for defamation. The journalist’s response? “In the last 10 years, corruption issues have not ended up in court when prominent people were involved because of the capture of government – so if it takes a defamation suit to finally get a corrupt individual in court, by all means, please sue myself and the publisher.” The last Daily Maverick heard, Magashule is still “consulting his lawyers”.

Bamboo booming business

There’s a species of bamboo that can grow by 91cm per day. It’s the fastest-growing thing on Earth – or it was, until Daily Maverick’s 2019 expansion.

March brought home one of Daily Maverick’s founding team members – veteran business journalist and editor, Tim Cohen. Tasked with launching Business Maverick, Tim quickly employed trusted colleagues Sasha Planting, Ruan Jooste, Ray Mahlaka and Ed Stoddard to help him cover and deliver business news and analysis every morning to the Daily Maverick reader’s inbox.

Tim says of his return to the mothership: “Life, it turns out, does not travel in straight lines. As one of the original team on Daily Maverick, my first job was to help assemble the desks at the Hyde Park office. ‘Office’ would be a slightly grand term for the room in which we established ourselves. Even the term ‘desks’ was a slight exaggeration. The desks consisted of large planks of wood, supported by triangular trestles. After my handiwork, they were functional but wobbly, a description that might describe the enterprise as a whole.”

He recalls: “At the time of the launch, I was a mid-career journalist looking for options. I had just become a freelancer, and Daily Maverick quickly became a regular, modest income source. I stayed working for my former employer Business Day on a part-time basis, writing columns on business. After a few years, in a kind of backhanded compliment, Business Day got irritated with their lack of exclusivity and offered me a permanent position. For better or worse, I accepted.”

From the outside, Tim says he viewed Daily Maverick’s rise “with an odd mixture of trepidation – because it always seemed on the verge of financial implosion – and pride at seeing its gradual growth, quality, quantity and impact. I once said to Branko that I thought that Maverick was propelled by the Improbability Drive from the [Douglas Adams] novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Branko, ever the sub-editor, said it was actually the ‘infinite’ improbability drive, which of course was true – both of the novel and of Daily Maverick.”

On returning to Daily Maverick in 2019, Tim says: “I rejoined at Branko and Styli’s insistence to launch Business Maverick, and what a changed organisation it had become. Most importantly, they now had actual tables with actual legs. The organisation was obviously much larger than the one I had left, but it was larger than I expected. Yet much of the character had remained intact. The sense of a publishing mission was still there. Many of the characters were new, but their passionate, off-beat personalities were not that far removed from the group that started the effort. There was just more of them. And they were louder. Much louder.”

The aim of Business Maverick is to become a business voice in the same vein as Daily Maverick has become a trusted, eclectic, vibrant political voice. Tim says: “Too much business journalism is formulaic, jargon-heavy and aimed at satisfying the needs of the companies concerned rather than their customers or their employees. The idea is to clone what has been successful as part of the main Daily Maverick site, and apply it to the business space in South Africa.”

In July, award-winning journalist and former deputy editor of Financial Mail Sikonathi Mantshantsha joined Scorpio and Business Maverick. In the press release announcing his appointment, Tim said: “Sikonathi is widely recognised as an astute journalist and a bold voice in business journalism, and we at Business Maverick will be honoured to publish his work.”

Sikonathi promptly turned true Maverick and distinguished himself through his Eskom and Prasa scoops.

There’s more to it…

Hot on the heels of the launch of Business Maverick came Maverick Life. One of Daily Maverick readers’ most regular complaints was the depressing nature of the news delivered to them daily. Emails would land in the newsroom inboxes begging for some good news – as though those investigating and reporting the political and current affairs of South Africa actually had some sway in what was going on. As Maverick Insider grew, however, so did the opportunity to expand Daily Maverick’s offering.

Emilie Gambade, former editor-in-chief of ELLE South Africa – and Branko’s partner of eight years – was the woman who conceived the new division. She says, “I personally always admired Daily Maverick and the team behind it, since it started. Daily Maverick is the reason we met in the first place: when Branko and Phillip de Wet accepted my first story, on the Cape Town Jazz Festival, I literally sent the link to every single member of my family, in South Africa and abroad. I was so proud to be contributing to the publication.”

Print magazines in South Africa were closing down one after another, and there was a significant gap in the market for a new lifestyle publication that spoke less about the intricate relationships of C-list celebrities and more about the meaningful aspects of life: from art and books to the business of beauty and the workings of the brain; from oceanography to the artistry of the African fashion industry. It was to be a Life magazine with substance, grit and meaning.

Emilie brought her longtime collaborator and associate editor Malibongwe Tylo with her. She says: “We spent some time in December 2018 on a farm in the Karoo, sitting facing the trees, the mountains and angora goats, our computers looking slightly awkward in this peaceful setting. We talked about Maverick Life, the stories we would like to cover, the frequency… Basically, we put the dream to paper. I then presented the first business case to Branko and Styli in January 2019. Branko’s experience with Maverick and Empire helped set the tone for what Maverick Life is. Styli helped me to get the business plan right, defining everything from the ‘why’ to revenue generation. Once this was ready and Branko and Styli had approved it, we were set to start. And so we did!”

For Emilie, the dream for Maverick Life is not only – or even mainly – to generate more revenue for Daily Maverick. She says that the Maverick Life tagline, “Because there’s more to it”, sums up their mission: “To give readers a breather from the relentlessness of daily news that adds to the already magnificent coverage of Daily Maverick, building on the brand’s ethos and integrity.”

Election reflection

In the frantic world of South African politics, elections seem to roll around with the frequency of seasonal colds. 2019 saw the country return to the polls once more, on 8 May, in the latest iteration of the general elections. Both running up to the elections, and directly following the polls, one question was foremost: would the years of State Capture and internal fissures within the ANC see the party punished at the polls?

To Poplak, the latter issue in particular was of vital importance. “On 9 May, following a useless billion-plus election-spending orgy that will secure for the ANC its sixth majority, the real war begins. It threatens to be the most dangerous this country has ever experienced,” he wrote in a Trainspotter piece titled, “This election means nothing. The real war begins on 9 May”.

Poplak laid out exactly what was at stake. This wasn’t going to be a minor factional battle that would, in the end, spit out another COPE. This was more likely to be ANC: Game of Thrones edition.

“In one corner, the Constitutionalists led symbolically (and now literally) by Cyril Ramaphosa and an oligarchy comprised of the ranking Sandtonteriat. In the other corner, the former Zuma faction, now led within the Congress by Secretary-General Ace Magashule, and by exiled Youth League leader Julius Malema. Following a 25-year feeding frenzy, the state has been robbed bare, so there is no possibility of a negotiated outcome. The battle is zero-sum. And this is the simmering conflict that will break into full-blown war come 9 May, after another general election has laundered whatever the latest version of the ANC is into legitimacy.”

The results themselves revealed that Ramaphoria had, at least for the time being, won out over resentment at the State Capture years. But the ANC still recorded its biggest drop at the polls since the advent of democracy, managing a relatively lacklustre 57.5% majority. The DA’s failure to capitalise on a decade of kleptocracy saw voters assign the party just 20.8% of the vote – while the EFF almost doubled its first election result, taking home 10.8%.

Most analysts had predicted that the EFF would emerge with the highest growth, but Grootes pointed out the importance of contextualising that growth. “Judging the increase in support of a political party can be quite complicated,” he wrote. “On one level there are simply the raw numbers: the EFF grew its support by 4.44 percentage points. That is growth and that growth should not be taken away from the EFF. But this growth is off a small base. The EFF was unable to attract 11% of the voters who turned out to cast their ballots for it. Or, as some critics have suggested, the EFF may be the government-in-waiting, but only if you wait a very long time.”

“Now that it is clear that the EFF has less than 11% of the country’s support, it may be that media organisations give it less attention.”

As Grootes pointed out, politics has many complicated strands, but ultimately it comes down to a numbers game: “While politics is about raw voting power, it is also about influence. It may be the most important takeaway from this election that the EFF has not been placed in a position in which it can exert any influence over the ANC, the governing party,” he wrote. “Another way of judging a party’s influence is through the media attention that it garners. It is common cause among almost everyone that the EFF gets more media attention for its size than almost any other party (apart from the BLF, but this election has put paid to any thoughts of that ‘party’ being taken seriously). However, one of the reasons for that was that it was difficult to quantify, before an election, how much attention should be paid to a political party, because it is difficult to judge how much support that party now has. Now that it is clear that the EFF has less than 11% of the country’s support, it may be that media organisations give it less attention.”

That would not be the case – but the media attention the EFF was to attract over the course of the year would be almost uniformly negative.

As Poplak had predicted, it did not take long for the internal battles within the ANC to break into public view. An attempt to cast aspersions on President Ramaphosa’s probity soon arrived in a manoeuvre spearheaded by the EFF-backed Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane and enthusiastically disseminated via Iqbal Survé’s Sunday Independent.

The attack came in a form of what came to be known as the #CR17 emails, or the #RamaphosaLeaks: a leaked collection of emails exchanged between members of Ramaphosa’s 2017 campaign to win the ANC presidency. A story that started with the initial denial, and then confirmation, of a payment made to Ramaphosa’s campaign by Bosasa, quickly spiralled into allegations of misconduct and even money-laundering related to donations received by the #CR17 campaign.

As Rebecca explained, although the campaign funding itself wasn’t illegal, the grain of truth to the smear attempt was that Ramaphosa may have lied under oath to the public protector:

Although many of the claims being circulated at the time were based on a misunderstanding of the laws relating to campaign finance, we noted that the emails appeared to contradict the assertion made by Ramaphosa and his team to the public protector that Ramaphosa “was unaware of the identity of donors to the CR17 campaign”.

There was evidence within the emails to suggest that, on at least one occasion, Ramaphosa had been made aware by his team of the identity of a donor – Macsteel founder Eric Samson – who had previously given money to the campaign.

As we wrote, there was nothing illegal about Ramaphosa knowing who some of his donors were, but his claim of ignorance on this front to the public protector opened him up to the charge that he might have lied under oath.

After a few weeks of Twitter uproar gleefully stoked by the EFF, the #CR17 “scandal” appeared to die a quiet death. But it was a clear indication that Ramaphosa’s political opponents were not about to go quietly into the night.

Johnny Clegg 1953-forever

Late in the evening of 16 July, the CarpeDM WhatsApp group exploded with messages of grief at the news that legendary South African musician Johnny Clegg had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. It was a further national blow in a year full of bad news – but Clegg’s inspirational life and legacy afforded a moment to reflect on why South Africa is worth fighting for. Daily Maverick published an obituary by Tony Jackman and sent it out as a newsletter at 10pm that evening with the subject line: “Johnny Clegg 1953-Forever”.

It was a piece in which the heartache of its author was palpable. Remembering one of Clegg’s farewell concerts in Port Elizabeth in January 2018, Tony Jackman wrote:

The two songs in that concert that really got me going, even more than they usually do, were Asimbonanga and The Crossing. The first opened an eye onto that island for us, helped us to picture Madiba there and what it must feel like for him to know that the water, the water right there, is all that separated him from us and our mutual future. The second, well, that’s Johnny Clegg writing about his friend and former dancing partner Dudu Mntowaziwayo Ndlovu crossing that great divide that soon Johnny would have to traverse. And knowing that was hard to know and to hear, and the tears could be contained no more.

And his voice rang out at that concert. When he sang King of Time, he had the purity and pitch of a 20-year-old. The way you sing when you know it will be the last time you sing. He danced the way you dance when you know you will never dance again. He talked, and told, and shared like you do when you know your voice will soon be stilled.

Your music remains, we keep it with us, and whenever we play Scatterlings of Africa, sing along to Asimbonanga, weep to The Crossing, hum the melody of Great Heart, or stomp around the lounge to Impi, singing particularly loudly on “Chelmsford’s army lay asleep” – you will be there, Johnny Clegg. King of our Time.”

It had been a hard couple of weeks for Branko, having lost Deon Schoeman, Daily Maverick’s motoring editor, to cancer a few short weeks before. He says: “We were devastated. Deon was one of a kind. A glass-half-full hard-working man, a dream to be associated with and to call a friend. SA motoring journalism has lost its greatest voice – one that will never be replaced. He was my personal friend, and I miss him very much.”

Investing in the future

After 10 years of fighting to stay alive as a publication, of always putting editorial first and navigating and innovating their way through the challenges of revenue models, Daily Maverick found itself in a position that not many media houses could relate to: its editors could look to the future.

“Newsrooms are not developing young journalists. They’re getting thrown to the wolves and have to either sink or swim.”

For managing editors Janet Heard and Jillian Green, that meant investing their time into South Africa’s journalists of tomorrow. Says Janet: “Daily Maverick had the reputation of being quite senior, and has absorbed a lot of the top journalists in the country who are incredibly able and very powerful in their own right. The challenge was to grow from the bottom up. Journalism is in crisis. Newsrooms are not developing young journalists. They’re getting thrown to the wolves and have to either sink or swim. I’ve worked with a lot of journalists through the years and they need nurturing, constant care, briefing and de-briefing. Now, that’s not happening in a lot of the newsrooms; in fact, they don’t run internships any more.”

Daily Maverick took it upon themselves to create an internship programme that would give young journalists not only the opportunity to carve out their own direction and beat, but the time to be mentored while doing so. The programme’s first year, 2018, saw three interns taken on in Joburg under the stewardship of Jillian, and three in the Cape Town office with Janet at the helm. Two were employed full time at the end of the year: Suné Payne and Ntaketo Mabasa.

In January 2019, the internship programme brought on eight new trainee journalists. Lelethu Tonisi, Chanel Retief, Yanga Sibembe and Ayanda Mthethwa joined the Joburg team, while the Cape Town office welcomed Sandisiwe “Yogi” Shoba, Karabo Mafolo, Aisha Abdool Karim and Tessa Knight.

“It’s very ambitious,” acknowledges Janet. “For me, it’s so wonderful to see this young generation of journalists who obviously see the Daily Maverick writers as role models – there is a certain awe. To see them develop and pick up on the stories they have has been so empowering for everyone. And to see the impact they’ve made. We call them the young Mavericks, and they really are. They’ve stamped their mark on Daily Maverick and they’re not apologetic about it. It’s a very diverse bunch of people. There’s a lovely relationship between the veterans and the younger generation. It’s not always easy – there’s some really healthy, robust engagements. But the wonderful thing about Daily Maverick is that you can have those discussions.”

The attack on truth

One of Daily Maverick’s most important statements of the year came on 1 April, when Branko declared the death of April Fools’ Day. After paying tribute to all the fun Daily Maverick has had over the years with various outlandish stories – from Branko being fired and replaced by Jimmy Manyi, to Daily Maverick’s 2011 hostile bid for Avusa [today Tiso Blackstar] for R12-billion – Branko went on to explain the publication’s change of heart:

In 2016, we started to get so exhausted by the crazy events in a crazy country in a crazy world that we simply cancelled April Fools’ with “We couldn’t come up with anything half as mad as SA reality today.”

In 2017, the mess in the country around 1 April was so great, that we didn’t dare add to it. In 2018, we didn’t even bother. It is 2019 now, and fake news outnumbers the real stuff. The entire reality is waiting to be replaced by another, evil one, as soon as galloping imaging, animation and video technologies enable it.

The years-in-the-making crime of relativising truth and murdering reality has not only wounded nations and crippled the future for millions, it has also killed any pleasure of lying deliciously on the morning of the first day of April. It is sad, but it must be done. Goodbye, April Fools’.

With the spread of disinformation came the twin scourge of vitriolic attacks on journalists – particularly those whose mission is to defend truth. There are very few in the Daily Maverick newsroom who have managed to escape the torrent of abuse. Pieter-Louis Myburgh, Stephen Grootes, Sikonathi Mashabasha, Zapiro and Branko have all been attacked online as “agents of white monopoly capital” or named as members of a “journalist cabal”.

Zapiro’s work has been plagiarised, cut and re-assembled to serve the agendas of those who want to undermine him. The cartoonist says: “There was a site that started putting out cartoons under my name with slightly different writing, with a Bell Pottinger tone. Some of these things were quite viciously racist, trying to show me as racist or amending [my work] to show a different perspective. We got the Twitter account shut down. But then they create another one. One was spreading it as ‘Zapiro’ but within a week they had it up again under the heading ‘Not Zapiro’, also using my cartoons and twisting them. There are still people who start wondering if it’s really me, asking: ‘What’s happened to him’? This is happening all the time. They’re plagiarising, cutting and pasting, changing messages to reinforce their own agenda; changing them to try to depict me as racist.”

Like a microcosm of South African society, however, the abuse received on social media and in person is infinitely more violent towards female journalists than their male counterparts. Threats of rape and death are commonplace. Being called a “bitch”, a “whore” or a “cunt”; being threatened with receiving a “bullet in your head” – this is all in a day’s work for Daily Maverick’s female journalists, with Pauli van Wyk, Ferial Haffajee and Marianne Thamm being particularly badly targeted.

In July, Marianne unleashed “trash journalism” in an instantly viral piece exposing the hypocrisy of the EFF. Having received a tip-off, she literally dug through rubbish bags left out after the EFF rented a villa in Camps Bay for SONA. Marianne unearthed at least R25,000 worth of empty high-end liquor bottles together with till slips from fashion retailers including H&M – the chain the Fighters had trashed in January 2018 in a protest against racism.

“Going through Revolutionary Trash is about policing hypocrisy,” Marianne wrote. “Because if these Economic Freedom Fighters want to create special economic zones in South Africa to stimulate local economies, then there are any number of ‘township’ bed and breakfasts that could have done with the recirculation of the R60,000 they spent on their own luxury accommodation. Restaurants too in Langa and Khayelitsha could have benefited from the clearly healthy appetites and thirst of the young revolutionaries.”

She continued: “If the EFF wants to ban foreign ownership, they should not support a foreign-owned business in South Africa. If they did not know the villa was foreign-owned, they could have asked. Camps Bay is crawling with wealthy Europeans cashing in on our weak rand. If the EFF wants to limit alcohol consumption they should set the example.”

The reaction from EFF supporters and bots was almost instant and predictably vicious. Marianne was repeatedly attacked on Twitter and other social media platforms. She says, “Instead of looking at the content of the story, I was attacked, which I sort of expected when I looked at that garbage and saw what it was. I knew it would cause trouble.”

Marianne’s approach was to threaten legal action. “Because [veteran broadcaster] Karima Brown had won a case taking Julius and the EFF to court for publishing her number on Twitter, it was very easy when somebody tweeted something to say, ‘Listen, you want to leave the tweet up? It’s great! I need my roof fixed. So up to you, you’re getting a lawyer’s letter soon.’ And that really worked. Rule of law. You just can’t attack people in an open space and think you’re going to get away with it.”

2019 will be remembered as the year in which the EFF’s relationship with the media imploded past the point of no return. In August, the South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) took the EFF to the Equality Court, accusing the party and its leader Julius Malema of hate speech towards journalists.

Greg reported: “SANEF and the five journalists – Adriaan Basson from News24, Barry Bateman from Eyewitness News, Max du Preez from Vrye Weekblad, Pauli van Wyk from Daily Maverick, and Ranjeni Munusamy from Tiso Blackstar – want the court to order the EFF to denounce the harassment of journalists and to issue an interdict preventing the party from directly or indirectly, through things like retweets, harassing the journalists.” Malema’s response? Journalists must not be “cry babies”.

Upon reading Malema’s more formal legal defence, in the form of his responding affidavit in the hate speech case, Ferial felt compelled to write an op-ed laying out her own experience on social media:

Every morning, I pick up my phone and check WhatsApp messages. Then, I open my Twitter feed. “Bitch!” reads a response to something I’ve posted or written or reported. I block. “Cunt,” reads another. Block. “Racist, go back home,” says another.

“I will smack you so hard, you won’t know your name,” I type. And then block.

Online abuse has become so commonplace that taking it in and blocking is part of the daily routine now. Just occasionally, you have to fight back.

Ferial says now: “Online cyber-misogyny is a relatively recently named phenomenon. You will find that it is for standard patriarchal reasons: it is easier to attack how women look, to threaten them with rape, to call them Satan (as happened to Pauli and other women colleagues), to call them ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’, and to shame women as a means of getting them to stop doing investigations and offering uncomfortable opinion. Sexist trolls are allowed anonymity online that they may not enjoy in ‘real’ life.”

In Rebecca’s view, the situation has escalated out of control. “The evidence has shown everywhere, not just in South Africa but internationally, that the journalists who are most harassed online are women and people of colour. It’s just unequivocal. It’s a fact. And I actually think it’s one of the greatest threats to journalism in the contemporary age: that we’re going to see people burning out quicker and faster, because the amount of pushback they’re getting and the amount of threats and insults… It’s just not something that anyone in any profession should have to deal with,” she says. “We have to aim for creating a kind of public conversational space where people can disagree without threatening to rape each other. Perhaps that’s too much to ask in the era of the Internet, but it would be nice to think that it’s possible.”

In November 2018, Branko had tackled the problem by writing perhaps his angriest editorial in recent years:

Weak But Vicious – EFF edition

It takes extraordinary cowardice to verbally attack female journalists just for doing their job in a society that is plagued with violence against women. That cowardice, however, is taken to a Trumpian level when the suppression of free media, racism and violence against women are wrapped in one continuous vicious attack that has just enough legal caveat – should something horrible happen to the targets of their attack – to claim innocence and throw one’s own supporters under the legal bus instead.

Politics by insult is nothing new under the sun. The crazier the situation the country is in, the more detached its politics is from truth, or basic humanity. South Africa has been a country in turmoil for many years, and its politics reflects it well.

The 2019 national elections were always going to get the political blood boiling. The stakes are that high. But the EFF’s leadership is already attempting to incinerate that political blood. The causes of their apparent fever are not difficult to understand – the VBS scandal and the continuous work of the investigative journalists cuts into the core of their message to voters. Their leader, Julius Malema, could well end up back in court again soon on corruption charges in connection with OnPoint Engineering – but on the opposite side would be an NPA with a new boss.

At the same time, by attempting to disrupt the Zondo Commission and by supporting Zuma’s helpers, like former SARS boss Tom Moyane, in their legal attempts to keep their jobs, they are actively working on weakening the ANC in time for the 2019 elections, so they can emerge as kingmakers.

In that, the EFF’s leadership is playing a dangerous game of actively graduating turmoil into chaos. Their war-like statements, cheap peddling of conspiracies, screaming in gatherings and on social media, reveal a party that is both in panic and rage. Pushing their supporters into violence but denying responsibility in advance shows the party leadership’s true passive/aggressive nature.

In other words, weak, but vicious.

It was the US president Donald Trump and his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders who reacted with righteous indignation when their continuous hateful rhetoric against the US media groups and Trump’s political opponents was seen by many as the probable incitement that pushed Cesar Altieri Sayoc to send at least a dozen letter bombs in October, just a few weeks before the US mid-term elections.

How dare you say it was President Trump’s fault, Huckabee Sanders hissed at the White House reporters. He was not the one sending the bombs!

For a brief, and unique, moment in her career, Huckabee Sanders was truthful. It was definitely not Donald J Trump, a grand scale con-artist who sailed on the wave of history into the White House and the leadership of the greatest power of all times, who physically assembled and sent the letters filled with explosives to his opponents.

But, inversely, it was not Cesar Altieri Sayoc, a small-time Florida man, who woke up one day in a pure vacuum and decided it was a good time to bomb the people he had never heard of until a few years before, before Trump’s escalator descent into casual evil. Hillary Clinton? Yeah, he’d probably heard of her. Joe Biden? Possibly. George Soros? John Brennan? Kamala Harris? Give me a break.

Trump may have weaselled his way out, mostly by injecting yet more madness into the news stream, but everyone knew it was his words, and his alt-right echo chamber, that eventually translated into Sayoc’s action.

He’s not alone, of course. Headlined by a man who would not accept responsibility for anything under the sun, little Trumps of the world stoke fires of anger and violence in their supporters, most of them forgotten people who lost life’s lottery and were further let down by the decades or rampant neoliberalism that didn’t care about the common man.

The truth is, these “mighty” populist leaders are personality profiles in cowardice.

Which brings me back to the EFF.

Its mighty, brave leadership enjoys too all the benefits of starting the fire against the news media, but then courageously runs away from any responsibility.

In their increasingly panicky, shrill tweets and social statements, they bend the truth, spew nonsense and purvey fantasy. They call their supporters into war against anyone who crosses them, and yet pull back at the end just enough to create space for good old plausible deniability. They also clearly see the media as their biggest threat, with the NPA and the Hawks still recovering after years of capture.

Like Trump, should somebody get hurt, they will bravely and responsibly claim they have nothing to do with it. And even if no one gets hurt, the logic goes that journalists and members of the prosecuting authority and judiciary will think twice before doing their job in face of the verbal onslaught.

The EFF national chairman Dali Mpofu, an advocate, thinks that improbable feat of logic, like comparing an opportunity to respond to investigative journalists’ legitimate questions within a more-than-reasonable 48 hours, can be compared to the treatment of black people during apartheid, and that more than just a few diehard EFF members and Twitter bots will accept that argument?

Remarkable logic, indeed.

For one only too brief moment, the EFF could have been somebody, they could have been a contender. In the late Zuma years, they fought for freedom of expression and media, they took a stand against corruption and even participated in a standing ovation in Parliament in support of Pravin Gordhan when he was one of the last holdouts against Zuma’s machine. When the media reported with indignation the physical abuse that was meted against them on many occasions in Parliament, they supported the journalists too. When the #GuptaLeaks broke, they were there to demand accountability from the corrupt.

But they could shapeshift only for so long.

It is remarkable how reminiscent their new strategies are of the Bell Pottinger-fuelled Gupta moves:

Now that they are caught in scandals of their own, the very same media is part of Stratcom, the journalists are either white racists or black servants of the same racists. Abusing mostly female journalists on social media? Check. (Call a particular journalist a Satan? Check-Check.) Calling investigator a bastard? Check. Name-calling Deputy Chief Justice? Check. Like in the old days when Malema and Shivambu’s Youth Leaguers merrily wrecked downtown Johannesburg while they watched from the top of Luthuli House, the EFF are now a force of chaos. Remember when Malema kicked the BBC journalist out of the press conference, screaming “Bastard!” and “You bloody agent”? Same thing.

But the EFF are wrong if they think that is to their long-term advantage. South African democracy was fought over too hard to be hijacked again. It didn’t happen when the Guptas controlled their own marionette, it won’t happen through screams and incitement of violence against SA’s institutions of democracy that saved the country when everything else was captured.

Judges, investigators, journalists, civil society will not be scared. Some may pause, some may even check out, but the people who confronted Zuma will continue confronting anybody attempting to pull South Africa back into the time of unaccountability, calls for violence against them notwithstanding.

Leaders’ true nature emerges when they are tested under pressure. The EFF leadership has failed that test. No country should be led by the weak and vicious.

It’s important to note, as Branko did in his editorial, that Julius Malema is not the only politician with a penchant for hateful rhetoric, and that South African journalists are not the only targets for this kind of abuse.

Brooks Spector says: “I wrote a piece which talked about the aftermath of two mass murder incidents, one in El Paso, Texas, and one in Dayton, Ohio. I borrowed a term that I’d seen recently, ‘stochastic terror’. This word is usually used within chemistry and physics. What it means is that you can predict certain things will happen to a universe or an experiment, which atom or which molecule will be affected first, or in what order. And the same is now true, obviously, within the United States: you can predict that hate speech and the kind of racialised rhetoric that comes from Donald Trump is affecting the nature of the American political and social discourse.”

“Sadly, what you can’t predict is who is going to be affected by it first; which person is going to wake up and say, ‘Yes, I am now emboldened, I am now empowered to go rid a town or a city of people who don’t look like me.’”

He continues: “Sadly, what you can’t predict is who is going to be affected by it first; which person is going to wake up and say, ‘Yes, I am now emboldened, I am now empowered to go rid a town or a city of people who don’t look like me.’ As a result, we have these incidents. You can’t say it’s direct cause and effect, but you can say it’s a climate of cause. And as a result, the world is a poor and more forbidding place because of this texture of hateful, racialised language.”

Five days before Pauli’s most recent exposé on the EFF and their VBS bank heist operation in September, she received a tweet advising her to “sleep with one eye open”. The joke was on that troll, since everybody knows that Daily Maverick journalists don’t sleep at all. But also not one to be intimidated, Pauli wrote up the investigation that she had been working on for months and fought back with the strongest weapon of all: the truth.

The EFF: coulda, woulda, shoulda

Ferial has covered the EFF since its inception. She says, “At the Mail & Guardian, my colleagues and I first covered how the ANC Youth League (where Julius Malema cut his teeth) descended into a hot patronage mess as it entered business and altered the purpose of the League, which had been shaped into a radical youth wing by Nelson Mandela. Later, at City Press, my colleagues and I uncovered Malema and his associate’s business interests in Limpopo, where he operated a network of companies that won provincial tenders. Then I was part of the team that covered his axing from the ANC.”

As was the case with many South Africans, Malema’s new party initially seemed to Ferial to be a breath of fresh air on the political scene. “I watched with admiration as he turned downfall into victory by starting the EFF, an exciting and pugnacious party that captured the imagination of young South Africans,” she says. “Now, I am part of a team covering his business interests again: this time, I am aghast at what our colleague Pauli van Wyk’s uncovered about the EFF’s shady business deals, and it feels like I am back to the future. It is a great pity that the EFF sells its voice by taking up disinformation campaigns on behalf of interest groups. The party has enormous potential to sculpt a better South Africa, but it is self-immolating as it uses its position for patronage.”

In September, Pauli continued her coverage of the VBS scandal with the publication of a meticulous investigation headlined: “VBS Theft, Money Laundering & Life’s Little Luxuries: Julius Malema’s time of spending dangerously”. The story tracked how Malema had stolen money from the Limpopo bank by funnelling funds into a front called “Mahuna Investments”, which effectively became Malema’s slush fund. Pauli tracked the credit-card expenditures associated with Mahuna Investments from Louis Vuitton to Nimmy’s Butcher House: shops and restaurants around the country. She also tracked Malema’s travel, confirming his presence in each of the locations that the card was used.

By this stage, the NPA had been officially un-captured – in the sense that it had a well-respected new boss in the form of advocate Shamila Batohi, who assured the public that she was doing everything in her power to rebuild yet another institution hollowed out by State Capture. And yet there was still no visible action in response to the detailed exposés of wrongdoing being published by South Africa’s investigative journalists. Branko had officially had enough – and in an editorial titled “Your move, South Africa”, he laid out why:

For too long now, the state of South Africa has been malfunctioning. It’s time for the choking apparatus to cough back into life. The truth is, South Africa doesn’t have much time left and it had better happen. Now.

The story titled “VBS Theft, Money Laundering & Life’s Little Luxuries: Julius Malema’s time of spending dangerously” has laid out in excruciating detail how the leader of Parliament’s third-largest party was a willing participant in one of the single-biggest thefts from poor people in South African history.

Daily Maverick Scorpio journalist, Pauli van Wyk, has spent months obtaining, researching, cross-referencing and analysing the data, before delivering a devastating blow to Julius Malema’s self-propelled reputation of being disaffected youth’s selfless champion and defender. Apart from the many laws that were broken, Pauli van Wyk’s exposé has blown to smithereens the myth of a corruption-fighter and exposed a naked hypocrite who’s in it for power and money.

Pauli van Wyk’s exposé has shown that Malema has broken at least four laws:

  • He received fraudulently acquired monies, taken from the poorest of the poor, which he clearly knew about – the provenance of the payments was even spelled out on Mahuna banking statements. (If you want to think of the morality of this act, just think of Robin Hood, but exactly the opposite.)
  • He disguised the fact that he was the recipient of the money by hiding behind his cousin, Matsobane Phaleng, a clear case of money laundering.
  • He used the bank card of the company that was not in his name, which is fraudulent.
  • Every time he made a purchase with the stolen money, he committed a crime (as in Jacob Zuma’s 783 counts).

We say at least four laws because we do not have access to Mr Malema’s tax records, which could dramatically increase that number. (We also could not assess the tax-compliance status of Mahuna Investments.) But we’d be willing to bet large sums that Mr Malema failed to report the millions he received from VBS loot via Mahuna Investments as his (taxable) income. That fact alone should be seriously troublesome for a taxpayer who not long ago barely avoided jail time by entering a compromise with SARS to pay off his debt. Repeat tax offenders are never looked upon with grace and patience by any functioning legal system anywhere in the world. (Functioning being a keyword here.)

According to a retired judge, “Theft like this carries a minimum of 15 years in a case where more than R500,000 is involved. Money laundering can carry up to 30 years. In this case, as a first offender and given that one has to be careful not to have duplication of charges, given his position and the sustained nature of the criminal conduct and the source of the proceeds, i.e. from poor people, the jail sentence would be at least 10 years.”

It is important at this point to pull back and understand where South Africa is right now.

The twin scourge of horrific violence against women and xenophobia have again reared their ugly heads this September. The country is a stuttering ship about to hit an iceberg.

We’re still nursing the wounds after the mauling that was Jacob Zuma’s presidency. These wounds are deep and by now badly infected; it is not at all certain the patient, South Africa, can recover. Any moment now, it could slip into anaphylactic shock and the entire structure, whose foundation was so expertly eroded over the last decade, may collapse. The economy is in freefall, people are desperately unhappy, the reforms that were expected to happen have yet to materialise, in great part thanks to the vicious fightback that’s been led by the Zuma-aligned forces. (One can’t really expect them to ride quietly into the sunset – should they lose this battle, it will be orange overalls instead of Armani suits and red berets.)

The streets are angry. The streets are dangerous.

It is time for decisive action by the South African state and its government. It is time for it to either put up or shut up.

For way too long, it was parts of civil society, the judiciary and the media who were not only doing their job but also covered for a historically, almost comically, absent state and its organs. It was the media who brought into the public domain the truth about the true extent of State Capture corruption. It was civil society, when it was not feeding the hungry, clothing and healing the poor, and educating the insufficiently educated (all of which should be the government’s domain), that took the media exposés and doggedly pursued them all the way to the Constitutional Court. All along, the judges refused to be intimidated and passed the judgements which in any normal country would have changed history.

But we, the media, cannot do it in a vacuum any more. Independent media these days is an impecunious place to be, where journalists are barely surviving, working for publications that soon might be no more.

NGOs are so stretched that they may soon break – and that’s even before they have to endure the ignominy of being branded “foreign agents” by the State Capture players and their attack dogs.

So… here we are. It is time for all, especially the bodies comprising the “security cluster”, to act. It is time for the NPA to take a trip to the nearest court with a bunch of empty folders. All they need is to print the media’s exposés and the accompanying attachments in the print shop across the street from the court. It is time for all ministers and everyone else paid by a public dime to show up for work and take action. Of course, results can’t be achieved in a day, as the problems are so deep and extensive that anyone can understand that it will take time to fix them. But they need to be SEEN as acting in people’s interest, and not for their narrow, short-term political gain.

It is also the time for the parts of the opposition that are willing to participate in rebuilding this country to actually do it. Time to stop shouting at people. Elections are in the future – now we all need to ensure we actually have that future.

AND, it is time for President Ramaphosa to remember he is not only elected to be the head of SA government, but also to be the LEADER of the South African people. That requires compassion, action and true commitment. Whatever the State Capture actors might do to taint his past, the people of South Africa will support him if they see that he is fighting for their present and never stops working for their future.

The independent journalists of this country are tired of shouldering that future, sometimes on their own. Over the many years, we uncovered what really happened in Marikana, we exposed the Guptas, Nkandla and the depths of State Capture. Since the #GuptaLeaks, literally hundreds of people involved in State Capture crimes have been outed, fully exposing the secretary-general of the ruling party, and the top leadership of the third-biggest party in the country.

How many of them have been arrested, charged and jailed since, say, Marikana? How many?

And you still expect us to consider South Africa a respectable state?

Relying on media and civil society to do these important jobs of government is unsustainable. The media fraternity cannot keep its motivation forever. Or our jobs. Or our lives. Do not think that investigations like “VBS Theft, Money Laundering & Life’s Little Luxuries: Julius Malema’s time of spending dangerously” will continue to materialise from thin air, over and over again. Journalists in South Africa operate in clear and present danger. It’s time to do something about it.

A good place to start would be to take the investigations brought into the public domain by Scorpio, amaBhungane, News24 and other investigative outfits seriously. The future of our country now depends on you doing your job.

Should you do nothing, just please don’t say again that we did not warn you. Because we have. Because we are warning you, right now.

Your move, South Africa.

Within two days of publishing this editorial, Julius Malema banned Daily Maverick, Scorpio and amaBhungane from attending any further EFF events or press conferences. Beyond the concerning implications for press freedom, the staff at Daily Maverick were largely unperturbed: the basis of their investigations comes not from EFF press conferences but rather what happens when the cameras stop rolling.

Madam & Eve move in

Increasingly conscious that readers needed some respite from the constant storm clouds of South Africa’s political news, Daily Maverick announced in August that the legendary Madam & Eve cartoon strip would be moving in.

Said Branko in a statement announcing the news: “We are proud to be the publishers of our country’s leading lights, Zapiro and Madam & Eve. After a decade of hard work and a life of commitment to quality, Daily Maverick is known today as the home of South Africa’s best media talent. We will continue our tireless effort to help nurture, develop and grow our already unparalleled team of the best and brightest.”

Madam & Eve cartoonists Stephen Francis and Rico Schacherl expressed joy at joining the Mavericks. Schacherl said: “Daily Maverick is hands down our favourite news, opinion and investigative journalism platform by far. It’s also really cool that we’ll again be stable-mates with the super-talented Zapiro, after spending many years as neighbours at the Mail & Guardian.”

Maverick Citizen

Further growth was on the horizon: this time in the direction of South Africa’s all-important civil society sector. Daily Maverick had long enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Section 27’s Mark Heywood, the activist who put the #GuptaLeaks in motion. In September, Mark and his closest collaborator and veteran journalist, Anso Thom, joined the Mavericks full time in the role of twin editors of the newly launched Maverick Citizen, a platform aimed at amplifying the voices of ordinary people and civil society. In his inaugural editorial, Mark wrote:

It is a fact that the climate is in crisis and so is our world. It is a fact that our health system is buckling and so are many others in the world. It is a fact that our education system is burying generations of dreams and excellence. It is a fact that many people were removed from their homes and the land needs to be restored to its rightful owners. It is a fact that the world cannot rely on business and politicians to right these wrongs.

The most powerful antidote to injustice is active citizenship. This spring morning, 2 September 2019, tens of thousands of people working or volunteering in thousands of organisations are on their way to work. They have one thing in mind – to campaign and fight tirelessly for other people’s equality and dignity, to try to build hope and opportunity.

Put another way, they work to advance the vision of our Constitution with its aim to “improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of everyone”.

They are what we call Maverick Citizens. They are Mavericks (Dictionary.com definition, na person pursuing rebellious, even potentially disruptive, policies or ideas) because they swim against the stream of inequality and deprivation. They are Citizens, not by virtue of where they were born, but in the best meaning of the word: because they take their duties as humans seriously.

Maverick Citizen’s intention is to bring the stories of what the many civil society organisations are doing, the progress they’re making and the challenges they face into the mainstream media.

We will report on individual efforts to make democracy work, advance accountability, for rights realisation and good governance. Maverick Citizen will strive to provide you with a window into the struggles for human rights, good governance and social justice. We will open that window on the people and organisations who fight for them. And – in the spirit of transparency that we all demand – on their donors.

Within days, their inboxes were inundated with tip-offs and offers to volunteer: a strong indication of how great the national appetite was for more coverage of ordinary South Africans doing extraordinary things.

Fighting fire with fire

In 2019, Daily Maverick’s dedicated environmental journalism unit Our Burning Planet got busy bringing readers news of the emergency dwarfing any of the planet’s political dramas: the climate crisis. With the Amazon ablaze and Hurricane Dorian ravaging the Bahamas, it was the right time to get more hands on deck and to realign the focus of readers to something that would be even more catastrophic than a Malema presidency.

One of the authors of this book, Tiara Walters, was brought on full time as an Our Burning Planet journalist. Her first exposé was on the declining numbers of African rhino – with the status being “in a worse state than South African government figures are willing to admit”.

Kevin Bloom, meanwhile, charged ahead with an investigation into the king of Western Pondoland’s proposed sale of an untouched stretch of the Wild Coast to a Chinese company:

Without informing his subjects, King Mangaliso Ndlovuyezwe Ndamase of Western Pondoland has signed a contract to lease a pristine stretch of the Wild Coast to a Chinese company. Among other things – a mine, a 10,000-ton grade port and golf courses – the joint venture is supposed to include a “Disney playground”. Daily Maverick has followed the deal to the Northern Cape, where the same Chinese company has presented the potential for gas-to-power plants and the damming of the Orange River.

In one of the most blatant cases of corporate evil-doing, the villagers were to be expected to leave on King Ndamase’s bidding.

On 27 November 2018, a contract was signed between the Nyandeni Kingdom and a company called South Africa Honglin Investment. At a price of R1-million a year, the former would lease to the latter “10,000ha of land, 30km of coastline and adjacent waters” in the vicinity of the Wild Coast town of Port St Johns. The contract, which has been confirmed as authentic by Daily Maverick, is remarkable for a number of reasons, but mainly for the following clause regarding the rights and obligations of “Party A”:

“After signing the contract and authorising the right to use, explore and exploit the land… Party A shall clear the leased land within three to six months in order to facilitate Party B’s use.”

Party A was listed as King Ndamase himself, the sole signatory on behalf of the Nyandeni Kingdom. As proof of the fact that he was required to clear the land of people and not, say, alien invasive weeds, there was the very next clause, which read:

“Party A shall be responsible for resolving the villagers’ disputes arising from Party B’s use of the land, and Party B shall assist.”

And so, returning to the notion of “use, explore and exploit”: Why were King Ndamase and South Africa Honglin Investment (Party B) in such a hurry to move the villagers off this pristine stretch of Eastern Cape coast?

The climate-crisis journalism quickly showed signs of being able to deliver the accountability from authorities that Daily Maverick’s political investigations so seldom resulted in. Says Kevin: “The deal was stopped because of our investigation. The chiefs who hadn’t been consulted confronted the king, and the deal was called off.” In addition to that, four of the five directors of South Africa Honglin Investment were forced to resign.

It was a hugely positive first step for the fledgling unit. Kevin says: “I want Our Burning Planet to shine a spotlight on the devastation of the natural world and the unacceptable carbon criminality of the vested interests.” And if he can stop a few more catastrophic deals in the interim, all the better.

It’s so flat, it’s inverted

Growing the organisation by 75% at a time when retrenchments and closures dominate media around the world is, in business terms, a questionable strategy. Styli says: “It’s no secret that we abandoned standard economic theory and practice years ago, as the need for survival drew on every effort of our being. A big part of the ability to survive was driven by our ability to remain lean and channel more resources to the writing of words than many other organisations.”

Daily Maverick’s growth meant more people, more management, more chaos. One element of the start-up that the now medium-sized business wanted to hold on to was a flattened management structure: ensuring that everybody’s voice within the organisation is heard and considered valid. Branko corrects outsiders who refer to his “Daily Maverick staff”. They are, he says, his “colleagues”. Styli says: “It’s so flat, it’s inverted.”

Branko and Styli have shied away from adding unnecessary layers of management. They operate without a CFO, COO, CMO, CTO or any other C-whatwhat. All there is are two directors, managing two distinct parts of the organisation: editorial and everything else. This allows them to invest every available bit of budget in the newsroom.

For most of their journey, 70% or more of every available cent was channelled into pumping out content. It was only made possible by the fact that Styli and Branko had the skills and experience to be able to cover the main gaps left in those unfilled positions. If they didn’t have the skills, they learnt them. Styli says: “While it’s not a strategy that we recommend for everyone, for a while it was a competitive advantage in that we sent generals out to fight on the battlefield. There were times it became a burden, weighing down our progress, because we were getting caught up in the weeds of running the day-to-day needs of the business.”

In Daily Maverick’s period of recent growth, the strategy has been to recruit highly experienced, multitalented editors to build and manage their teams. And around that, to build a skilled non-editorial support system that covers sales, finance and membership efforts that engage closely with members of each editorial team. No C-whatwhat appointments, and none planned.

Shining lights

Daily Maverick has historically had an uncomfortable relationship with awards. As Poplak puts it, “Journalism awards tend to be a taming mechanism for underpaid drunk divorcees.” He acknowledges that there are, however, some awards that really do matter. One such award, the bi‑annual Global Shining Light that rewards the best investigative journalism from around the world, was awarded to Daily Maverick, amaBhungane and News24 for #GuptaLeaks mere days before this book went to print. Poplak noted on an Instagram post:

“There are a number of reasons I’m particularly proud of this win. For one thing, the team assembled by my editors was multi-disciplinary – it acknowledged the strengths and weaknesses of three media organisations that, by the laws of corporate media, should have fought each other to the death for each page view. Instead, Daily Maverick’s Branko Brkic and his collaborators ditched that crap and focussed on great journalism, leaving ego and financial recompense for another day.

“Second, in a global political environment in which both the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ are terrified of fact-based investigative journalism, hundreds of stories from around the world were seriously considered for this award. (The judges said that they had never encountered quality on this scale before.) Like a shadow movement running under the dominant political cretinism, a (very) small cohort of people are saying, Fuck that, we’re onto you.

The discipline of investigative journalism – despite the financial and political pressures – is not going anywhere. This is cause for serious joy, unless you’re one of the assholes invested in The Silence. The pressure comes from everywhere: recently, the Canada Council of the Arts, the primary literary funder in the country, declared objective fact-based journalism ineligible for its funding and awards regimen. Whether it’s the progressive left’s terror of ‘objectivity’, or the right’s insistence on ‘alternative fact’ – the pressure comes from everywhere.

“So like I was saying, I’m proud of this one. But tomorrow is Monday, and it’s back to work in a field denuded of financial and, increasingly, physical security. And remember: the work we do is not free.”

On 10 October 2019, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Ajay Gupta, Atul Gupta, Rajesh Gupta and Salim Essa for their involvement in corruption in South Africa. Daily Maverick’s response: mic drop.

Daily Maverick 2009-forever

By the time you read this, South Africa will have seen innumerable big stories break. More corruption will have been exposed. More violence will doubtless have shaken the nation. More political intrigue will have been uncovered. And Daily Maverick will have investigated, reported and written about it all.

So where to now, after a decade of struggle and finally seeing some light? The growth of their membership effort and philanthropic support has allowed Daily Maverick and Scorpio to almost double in size in the last 12 months. Having to manage growth is not a problem many news organisations are facing in 2019 – and such growth makes long-term financial sustainability an ongoing challenge. But sitting back and relaxing has never been Styli and Branko’s style.

Maverick Insider celebrated its first birthday on 15 August. Already the “pivot to reality” by turning to readers, was being felt on a monumental scale. Along with the receipt of some philanthropic support and commercial wins, the financial support from members helped grow recurring revenues to a place that provided DM with the extra confidence to invest in so many new editorial efforts. At the anniversary point, just over 7,000 readers were counted as members, having contributed on a single or recurring basis. But Maverick Insider is about so much more than financial support, the main goal being the growth of and engagement with the community. Financial support is merely a by-product of doing that job well.

The earliest example of reaching out to supporters ironically came in the form of recruiting for the role of community manager. When it became clear that early success was going to overwhelm Daily Maverick, they hadn’t yet recruited any dedicated staff. New positions like a community manager and members’ support had to be filled quickly. Fran Beighton was one of the first people to sign up at the Media Gathering launch of the membership programme in 2018, and Styli reached out to her to interview for the position of community manager that would involve “hosting events, talking to lots of readers and journalists, and a lot of copywriting”. What was initially envisaged as a part-time gig soon exploded as the member numbers and the issues with that explosion came rolling in. Other ways in which members have contributed included volunteering for events, comment moderation, piloting a drone, offering source code and weekly jokes – and now DM has started capturing members’ skills and expertise in case they can help out with future editorial requests.

It soon became all hands on deck as the priority to grow Maverick Insider had to be tempered with the reality of growing at a human, manageable pace that wouldn’t erode the goodwill driving people to sign up in the first place. The top reason driving readers to become members was the ability to engage with DM journalists, leaving Fran and the membership team always on the lookout for how to involve members in or expose them to the behind-the-scenes efforts at Daily Maverick. Audience engagement is a fairly new addition to the world of media practices, and for Daily Maverick it has already yielded great results beyond the economic ones. Sharing experiences, information and updates about the organisation alongside listening to and requesting feedback from their most loyal supporters provides Daily Maverick with extra information that allows them to improve what they do. Styli says: “The more connected we are to our readers, the better we’ll be at our jobs, finding a tsunami of support in many areas and new stories to tell.”

Growing the Maverick Insider base is a continuous exercise in testing, tweaking and experimenting. Guided by the north star of engagement and authenticity, the Insider team is constantly writing up new words to graduate loyal readers into members. Luckily the newsletter effort that had for so many years demanded the early hours of so many editors, quickly availed itself as the go-to source of willing Insiders-to-be. Almost half of the Maverick Insiders who have signed up have come from the newsletter subscriber base, again proving the worth of newsletters to news publishers, in case there was any doubt.

Styli says: “The key to running a successful membership plan is directly correlated to the amount you engage with your members. We’ve got some way to go yet before we implement all the items on our to-do list, especially once we unleash the next round of tech on the situation. But we’re pretty amazed at the first-year efforts of something that is quickly changing us for the better.”

These days, the weekly Maverick Insider team meeting can easily rope in 10 people, as the extent of membership is both felt and ingratiated into every part of the organisation. Styli wrote a lengthy (and frank) Medium post about DM’s first year in membership that was picked up by international media taking note of the membership model as a possible solution to the news media’s woes around the world.

Daily Maverick views its battle for survival as inextricably tied to the media’s battle for survival, which in turn is chained to the country’s. Both the media industry and the country’s future will be better off, they believe, with a bigger and bolder Daily Maverick.

“The media in South Africa is down in a hole so deep that it may never escape from it, and this is no time for us to cash in our chips.”

Styli says: “The media in South Africa is down in a hole so deep that it may never escape from it, and this is no time for us to cash in our chips. That this industry, which plays such a crucial part in any functioning democracy, has been violated from the inside and out is beyond question. While the likes of ANN7 and The New Age may have evaporated with their masters, the trends for the rest of the industry do not look rosy. Mass consolidation, retrenchment and the loss of talent will continue like it has in other more developed markets, exacerbated by economic and political factors in South Africa. And so we must set aside short-term self-interest and continue to build a central place of trust that can serve the people of South Africa.”

What this looks like could take on any number of forms – as Daily Maverick expands into documentary film-making, multimedia projects and even printed efforts. Having a strong and healthy membership base that can be reached out to for support of these new experiments makes the process easier to test and tweak for better products. Says Styli: “Journalism as we know it will need to evolve, and so will we, striving to maintain the principles that served us, and the reader, over the last decade.”

The words, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” still silently reverberate around the walls of Daily Maverick offices. Their mission is to be part of the solution; to help rebuild South Africa. As Stan and John proved, the power of two men can change the country. And Daily Maverick now has 70-plus employees…

As for Branko? He says his one continuous wish is for a future in which readers will keep saying, “I read it in Daily Maverick. Therefore, it’s true.”

Daily Maverick. To be continued. DM