Ferial Haffajee: the trials and triumphs of journalism in South Africa
26 Sep 2019
Digital content specialist
Former Investec CEO Stephen Koseff talks to award-winning investigative journalist Ferial Haffajee about the media's role in exposing the Gupta Leaks, CR17 and state capture.
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The first female editor of a major newspaper in South Africa, Ferial has played an instrumental role in calling out state capture, defending press freedom and advancing gender equality.
Stephen and Ferial tackle subjects including the scourge of fake news, the relationship between the private sector and the media, and the role of both in the national debate on governance, policy and inclusive economic growth.
LISTEN: Stephen Koseff in conversation with Ferial Haffajee
Skip to sections that interest you most, or read the transcript below.
00:09 Ferial’s journey into journalism
Stephen Koseff: Ferial, I’ve got to start off with your journey and I think it is important for us to understand the context of how you got to where you got to from those early days, you talk about your father being a factory worker.
Your mother wanted you to do law and just a little bit about your early background growing up in Apartheid South Africa as a person of colour and with you know, where did you get your hope from? Where did you get your drive from?
Ferial Haffajee: Thank you very much for having me here today and it’s lovely to be with all of you. Thank you for that question. All I could really do was write when I grew up in Bosmont as a young coloured woman and for me it felt like the only way out of the life of Apartheid and out of its pre-planned future for me which really offered one of two things: become a clothing worker like my parents or become a bank clerk because for that you only needed a Standard 8.
But I always wanted to be a journalist and the reason I did, and the reason I really went against my mother’s wishes, some of you in the room may know that our mothers only wanted us to be doctors or lawyers at the time, to be a journalist.
So I fought quite hard to get an internship at the Weekly Mail, I wasn’t successful the first time round and I think the second time round was only because I nagged Anton Harber almost to death, I think, and the reason I chose journalism is for me it felt like the only way of changing the country, using our voices, using our abilities to write to bring about political change and again in that Anton Harber was my hero. I once saw him speak at Wits University and decided that that’s who I wanted to be. From then and until today I choose to remain a journalist.
It really is, it goes against the grain of how much I like clothes, the other day I went to look at an Oscar de la Renta dress and I realised oh God, I absolutely can’t do that. These are the choices you make when you choose to be a journalist, Woolies is my shop instead.
But I stay with it because I remain convinced that it’s very key to upholding democratic societies and in the past two years as I have seen Life Esidimeni stories as I have seen my colleagues beginning to track for us how the Gupta family came to entrench a patronage network, how Bosasa did as well.
I remain convinced that journalism is a very powerful part of the edifice of the South African democracy and that’s why I chose that role and continue to stay with that today.
03:00 The Guptas rise to power
SK: I think broader society has a lot of thank yous to make towards our journalists, particularly the brave ones who’ve taken the risk to expose situations and I’m not going yet down the fake news road, because some stuff that is written is, we all know, is garbage and some of us have been on the other side of that garbage so sometimes we grow up with a little bit, you know it’s a journalist are they going to report the truth or are they going to manufacture a story to suit the purpose.
But I do think and it became very prevalent in the last few years. I can remember as a CEO of a public company getting an invitation to go to a wedding in Sun City and I’d never heard of the people. I didn’t know, you’d be happy …
FH: Did you get the invite in the box?
SK: I don’t know if I got a box. I remember it arrived here at Investec and I opened it and I said what is this? Who are these people? And I tore it up and threw it in the bin which with
hindsight was very, very lucky because I didn’t know the people.
I personally realised that as a CEO of a corporate which is in the top 40 or so, number 20 to 30 depending on the season, when they like our share, if they don’t like our share, so you have to start doing something similar to you as a journalist community and we started having the fight and started being expressive and started actually taking on, you know, government, up to then were pretty quiet.
And I think you guys as journalists have really taken a massive amount of risk, personal risk in terms of being vocal, in terms of standing up, in terms of challenging, what you know what everyone would call it, some of us we call it state capture. So, where do you get the courage?
FH: So I will take you back a little bit to when I first got to know the Gupta family. They of course came into political prominence via Essop Pahad who was the Minister in the Presidency under the former President Thabo Mbeki.
They first got to know Mr Pahad and I remember one day I was at my mom’s place in Mayfair sitting in the kitchen and Essop Pahad and his brother who lives across the way, he came bounding in because he bounds into a room, and said “look, I’ve got these people they want you to come and work for them”, you know, and I said which people. I had some vague recollection. The Guptas. I said oh, okay, no I don’t want a job there. I quite like the Mail & Guardian where I was working.
And then the first story of their state capture came into the public domain. They had basically photocopied mineral rights applications by Kumba and then copied them and then gave them into the Mineral Resources Department in the Northern Cape and subsequently won the right.
It was a case of absolute corruption but it was the first time that they became prominent so my colleagues, Adriaan Basson, Muntu Vilakazi and I went along to their very insalubrious offices in Midrand, still where Sahara Computers was and met the brothers and met, the first time in the same room was three brothers with Duduzane Zuma.
We asked them many questions, they were quite arrogant because clearly, they had huge political contacts at the time and again Abdul Gupta said to me “you’ve got to come and work for me” and I said “absolutely not” because by then it was pretty clear.
After that it snowballed pretty quickly. They parlayed their political influence over the State and thanks to amaBhungane who tracked them from that time onwards, often in ways that were not properly recognised at the time.
We now know what we do. It was enormously courageous because the political pressure they brought against any of us who wrote negatively about them was really, really significant.
07:15: The Gupta leaks
FH: Then the Gupta leaks happened, do you all know the story about how the leaks came into being?
SK: No, tell us.
FH: So it was two simple computer guys, the Gupta Lieutenant, I forgot his name for a minute, Ashu Chawla, he took the computers in, stupid guy, I think they must have fired him by now, and then these two chaps noticed “hey, look what’s here” and they didn’t do anything with it until one day when they saw former President Zuma on TV deny that there was a thing called state capture at Parliament and you know he did that, does that thing with his glasses. It was at that moment when they said "right, now we’re going to get this out there".
So they gave it to the lawyer Brian Currin who was their interlocutor. He then made sure that it got to Mark Heywood and together then amaBhungane and the Daily Maverick very carefully looked at all those emails and came up with a series that we now know as the Gupta leaks and from there you’ve got the Zondo Commission of Enquiry etc. So vitally it starts with the whistle-blower and really brave journalists who are doing that work for the longest time.
What I do remember about that time Stephen is the Gupta’s really thought African people in general was open to purchase thus it was “you must come work for me”, “you will come work for me”.
I think that the way they viewed our country was very neo-colonial and quite racist as if you can buy everybody and buy everything and I’m so glad they’re in Dubai today, they’ve had to hot tail it out. I still think they have got lots of our money, but they were taught a kind of lesson here and that makes me incredibly proud.
09:04: Shamila Batohi’s “house on fire”
SK: Ja, I think you guys, the journalists and civil society actually defended the line for South Africa and I think it’s cost us a lot of money, but we could have been done as a society.
FH: Sure. I think Shamila Batohi, the NPA boss, she’s put it at 1.4 trillion.
SK: So it’s not only the 1.4 trillion of additional tax revenue in 2018 that we would have had as a society, it’s the kind of amount that we have to use to repair. The State-Owned Enterprises, the hollowing out of the State because there is no capacity in the State.
And that is the problem is that we have to build the capacity of our country and we have been set back, but you know to me, as I was talking to Ferial before, we came into the meeting, into the discussion, you know it is spring and there is a bit of green shoots and one is starting to see the wheel turn and I think the Seriti, the turnover of the Seriti Commission I think is part of it and we just need Shamila to start prosecuting.
FH: There’s a really brilliant piece on News24 by Pieter du Toit today, where he seeks to answer this very question. So Shamila Batohi when she has spoken before, and I hope you’ll have one of these with her, she said that she’s inherited a house on fire…
SK: I can imagine.
FH: …when she got to the NPA that there had been a scorched earth policy by the former regime to basically get rid of any prosecutor who could take a corruption case from beginning to end, from the start to jail because I think people realised what was going to come so there was a very clear plan by President Jacob Zuma to ensure that appointees were put into place who were entirely malleable.
So with our labour laws, you can’t simply get rid of those people so what Pieter has written today that six of her deputies are all in some way comprised or aligned to the former order there. This means that she has no, what he called a ‘kitchen cabinet’, she has no trusted inner circle besides Hermione Cronje, the Head of the Investigating Directorate.
She has spent her time, and its well over a 100 days now, travelling and trying to secure buy-in from all of the NPA for her work, but it’s difficult to do because people have alliances outside. Personally, my view is sometimes you can’t wait for perfect structure before you start prosecuting.
FH: And that what you need to do is start executing to win confidence inside and so build up, but I think she’s from the management school of ‘create perfect structure and leadership and then prosecute so you make no errors; but I think the price now is better to prosecute, even if you have a couple of setbacks, even if you have one or two successful prosecutions, the nation will start to feel like there isn’t all just these revelations coming out but there’s some justice at the end of it.
Because the four commissions of enquiries, Stephen, have been fabulous for giving us like a festival of truth. We know exactly what happened at the PIC, at Eskom, Denel, Estina etc., but what we don’t have is a sense of justice.
12:33: Does President Ramaphosa need to be more like John Wayne?
SK: You and I were talking earlier about the President why he’s leading from behind and not from the front and why he’s not taking the risk, because if he fails leading from behind and he gets kicked out, he goes with his tail between his legs, whereas if he goes leading from the front he’s taken the risk and then at least people know he tried and his party threw him out, and they will suffer the consequence on that down the road.
So, we need now to be proactive, we can’t just be a talk shop with all these commissions pouring information out and it looks like so obvious, why’s there no action?
FH: So if I can make a step back a little bit just to think through, so everywhere I go and I tell the story often, I have a dentist and we disagree on Israel and Palestine a lot and so he’s drilling in my mouth and he’s like “I just want Ramaphosa to be like John Wayne” and I was, I‘m not going to disagree with you now. And yes, that I hear everywhere is why doesn’t our President lead from the front some more and do this and just put Ace in jail and just be better, you know, be John Wayne.
So, when I was looking at the G7 the other day I saw that our President was kind of, despite that stupid woman saying “unidentified leader” on Twitter, I saw that he’s aligned with progressive forces in the world.
He’s really close to Justin Trudeau, he’s quite allied with Macron, him and Angela Merkel have a good relationship, so imagine that we were still in the old days, there you had our President strongly aligned with Vladimir Putin and what we have is a world of rising autocrats: Trump, Boris Johnson - he’s trying to forego going to Parliament to get Brexit through, Bolsonaro who thinks the Amazon burning isn’t really an issue in the world.
So in this time of rising autocracy I would argue that it’s good to have a President who’s a consensus seeker, who’s aligned to a multipolar world and who believes in this idea of the big tent - that you have to build consensus societies.
I do think he’s taking too long, that he can ride his personal popularity a little bit more than he is doing at the moment. He’s at 62% popularity rankings via The Citizen surveys last week.
Julius Malema is down 29 to 25 so I don’t think President Cyril Ramaphosa knows enough how much his people support him, because what he does face is an ANC that is quite clear that it’s going to try and take him out next year at the National General Council Meeting.
Earlier this year when I checked with people they said no ways, no attempt will be made for a no confidence vote. When I checked again last year with his closest confidants, they said it’s definitely going to happen. So, between now and next year I think you’re going to see him fighting rear guard actions and perhaps doing things that are not great for business confidence.
I do wish he’d look up above that party parapet and see that he has the potential to take risks and to be perhaps a little bit more brave than what we see him doing at the moment.
16:04: Fake news and attacks on the media
SK: So I think Ferial, the other thing what we’re seeing is, which you wrote about the other day, is this issue around fake news as attacks on journalism, the attitude of, in particular the EFF, towards any kind of narrative that shows them up, if I can call it that.
Some of the words that come out of their mouths as a grouping are very, very offensive to lots of people and you have been subjected to that, as has someone like Pauli van Wyk and a whole host of other journalists, and how do you guys cope with that kind of continual abuse, if I can call it that, and threats that you have to face every single day?
FH: So, to the EFF, I’ve been covering Julius Malema since about 2008 now. He was the President of the ANC Youth League at the time. They would come and visit us often because my colleague Piet Rampedi, the same guy who calls the rest of us a cabal today, began to uncover Julius’s tender shenanigans in Limpopo.
He’s always been a person who has had high aspirations and I think high aspiration in our country is a good thing. The first thing he bought was a farm, then a really fancy house and one of his biggest devastations was when SARS was at him, he had to sell the farm and sell the house.
And I think a lot of the Julius we see today is embittered and wants to make right on what happened then. I think you see it in this binary person, business class flying, very expensive clothes, beautiful cars and this talk of revolution and socialism and communism which makes no sense when you compare it to the lifestyle that he wants to live.
But what’s very worrying for me now is that the EFF has become the leading vector of violence in South Africa. I keep like a running tally and I do a story every six months on it to show how over a month ago you will remember that Pravin Gordhan was attacked on a parliamentary podium by EFF MPs. When I checked in last week, not a thing had happened.
On the 9th of August, Malema attacked women judges who had made judgements that went against his view of the Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, this brought to 19 incidents of highly violent rhetoric which I believe the EFF’s been allowed to get away with.
FH: So on Twitter some of us really come in for hell you know, a range of activists and women journalists in particular, the language his trolling armies use against us can make you really question yourself sometimes. That Tim was some of what I was writing about.
And around the world these trolling armies who try and take out women journalists or anyone who oppose autocratic leaders is they come regarded as a real threat to media freedom so it is something that I’m studying.
So, for me, it’s really something to track because if you look at what happened with Cambridge Analytica, if you look at what happened with Brexit, these kind of disinformation campaigns can begin to impact on a whole country.
19:26: Tito Moboweni’s plan
SK: We saw Governor Mboweni fire his first salvo with his, you know, economic stimulus or proposal, and I think, you know, what starts happening now is going to be very important because they’re at the line on Eskom and my understanding is we’ll get something very, very soon and I hope it’s not a damp squib.
FH: If you read the document Treasury put out and have been watching, it’s a really interesting document, for the first time do I see that the private sector is regarded as far more of a partner than perhaps the past 15 years, so it does a couple of interesting things. It says that the private sector has to be brought in to at least the transmission section of Eskom.
It does, it puts a stake in the ground and says that it believes, the Treasury, that renewable energy should form a much bigger part of our mix. It says that the coal-fired power stations should be sold off and that you should be able to sell into the grid much more.
In addition it says Telkom should be liberalised so the last loop is open to competition, and that Spectrum must be auctioned off without the State trying to keep the largest part of it for itself, which if you look at the discussion paper from a different department, it says that. So really I think green shoots, and I think we’re seeing a helluva lot of spring cleaning happening. So there’s that document out, Spectrum allocation, I don’t know from about you, but Edward Kieswetter is spamming me to pay my taxes because it’s the season now.
SK: I got a text today.
FH: Did you?
SK: Ja, the Provisional Tax is due on Friday.
FH: Yes, I’ve had two. But anyway, SARS is being reshaped. The numbers are not there yet, but you could see from the Tax Indaba yesterday, it’s really happening. Four of the last state capture people left in there were put on leave pending disciplinary enquiries. So the Asset Forfeiture Unit, I am very sad to see Willie Hofmeyr is retiring, but….
SK: Can’t they give him an extension?
FH: I hope so because he got lots of Bobroff’s money back this week, so I thought the Gupta bucks have to not be far behind, apparently it’s in HSBC accounts not Investec accounts.
SK: We don’t have accounts in Dubai and they weren’t a client.
22:00: “Green shoots” and the Youth Employment Service
FH: So we’ve said like “Adiós Amigos” to so many people like the Guptas, Brian Molefe, Tom Moyane, Anoj Singh, Dudu Myeni, you can go for hundreds and hundreds. There has been this big clear out, the Spectrum auction is coming and every time I put on 702 I hear Tashmia Ismail speaking about the Youth Employment Service so I think between that and Harambee, you can actually see dealing with a quite what feels like an intractable problem, so for me I see green shoots but growing them is difficult.
SK: Growing them is difficult. So, I’m co-chair of the Youth Employment Service.
SK: So we’re up to almost 20 000 jobs. We are creating township jobs, we’re taking rural jobs. We’re training our people, we’ve got a thing called the Good Work Foundation that we’ve put people into call centres, people into learning. Some guys are engineers and they haven’t been able to get jobs and now they’re running electricity programmes. They’re doing you know game rangers, all sorts of stuff. These are jobs that you know, are really needed and tourism, that should be our biggest thing in South Africa.
23:11: The funding question around CR17
FH: Can I ask you something if I may?
FH: So I think for the next couple of years the Public Protector is really going to use the CR17 funding as a stick to beat the President, and that the way it’s been spun by the disinformation merchants is as if it’s a bad thing that Ramaphosa was well funded in what is a primary campaign to become ANC President. Is it not possible for the business funders to come out and say “yes we did and here’s why we did”? Take the sting out of it.
SK: I doubt that any Corporates would have funded it. I think it’s private individuals, and quite a lot have been named and I think at a point in time they need to come out, and I think the campaign was all around what is better for South Africa. Who’s going to lead South Africa out of the morass?
And so there were some very generous people who gave quite large sums of money who don’t even live in the country anymore and don’t have any kind of commerce with the country, they may have, they don’t even have children in the country and they gave money to a cause because what I found internationally is that everyone wants to see South Africa do well.
FH: That’s really interesting because the fight-back people present it as a far more transactional donation. They gave because they expect, but you’re saying that’s different?
SK: There’s no chance that those people, particularly I read some of the ones who are named, they don’t even live here, that they don’t expect anything.
FH: That’s interesting.
SK: Nothing. They say they did well, they made money, they built good… they did well in South Africa, they built businesses globally and they can give back.
24:56: Alignment of the moderates
SK: So, I think one thing that has sort of come out in these last 10 years is and it hasn’t come out politically, but it has come out socially, is the alignment of the moderates.
I don’t know if your sense is that there has been a much better understanding between all walks of life who want the same thing for society than ever before and I think that has come to the fore and sometimes you have to go through these kinds of periods to get that kind of alignment.
FH: You know there’s a, somebody has always pointed out to me that people like your extremes, maybe like your Freedom Front Plus and Julius Malemas, they attract the highest amount of coverage and noise, but actually South Africa at its heart has a sensible centre and that people will cohere towards that centre and make rational decisions and you can see that in how people vote.
So my own view though, and I can see how and why people vote for the ANC, when I went on the election trail this year you could see that sense of “you liberated me and I’m going to vote for you”. I also voted for the ANC again, at least one of my votes, because I do regard it like that, but I think that same sensible quality in South Africans is also going to realise that we’ll be better served in the medium to long term by different bits of different political parties coming together to form a clean centre, because to be honest my view is too much of the ANC has been corrupted and that you need a different kind of centre of our politics that’s led by different people.
26:45: If Stephen Koseff was the CEO of Eskom...
FH: Can I have the last question since it’s like 2 minutes away? What would you do with the Eskom debt if you were CEO?
SK: Okay, so what if I was CEO I think it’s like we dealt with Edcon, you have to take that debt, what is a serviceable debt is about 150 billion rand, the rest either the government have to put in equity or, I like Tito’s idea, let’s sell generation and get as much as we can. The grid maybe will have to be a utility or could be privately owned, we’ll get quite a lot of money for that.
And then we’ve got a hole, and the hole will have to come from the government unfortunately because it’s a government-owned enterprise. But let’s get the capital structure of the ongoing vehicles right so that they never get back into a position where they’re threatened by cash, that they’re built sustainably.
I’ve done lots of these things. We fixed African Bank. We had a bash at fixing Edcon, we’ve got no debt in Edcon now. Now the people will have to run it properly now. Maybe the business model will never work again, I don’t know, that’s the opportunity they have got over the next three years, but the first thing you do when you’ve got
financial trouble is “have I got financial or have I got operational trouble?”. Unfortunately, Eskom’s got both, so you have to fix the balance sheet and then you have to go into the various operations and fix them.
The grid works and the peaking plants are fine, and there’s a whole lot of midlife plants that work perfectly, those two pieces could be public/private and then you open the grid like you said to all the roofs on all the houses to clean energy projects, as you said we need a lot more of those.
In fact I was again at the World Economic Forum at an HSBC breakfast and one of the guys on the panel said the best example of a quality public/private partnership initiative was the South African clean energy projects and they didn’t rely on international funding.
They had international guys come in. Most of the funding was rand and the international guys converted whatever currency they had into rand to put into the equity. And it worked phenomenally well and it’s only because of that nuclear deal that we ended up freezing them.
FH: Do you know Eskom is looking for a CEO, right?
SK: I hope and praying that they are positive and that they are following on what the Governor said in his story on how to fix Eskom, because they’ve heard a lot from lots of people, in fact the President appointed a very capable task team. I was very impressed with the work that they did. They just need to take their advice.
SK: We really appreciate you coming and we thank you on behalf of civil society for the kind of work that you guys do to actually make South Africa a better place.
FH: That’s very kind, thank you very much.
SK: Thank you.
About the author
Lead digital content producer
Ingrid Booth is a consumer magazine journalist who made the successful transition to corporate PR and back into digital publishing. As part of Investec's Brand Centre digital content team, her role entails coordinating and producing multi-media content from across the Group for Investec's publishing platform, Focus.