By Pinky Khoabane
WHEN the media stops being a mirror of society but takes sides on stories, we end up with the confusion currently playing out between Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the Hawks.
The standoff follows Gordhan’s refusal to appear before the Hawks to answer questions about the establishment and operations of an intelligence unit in the South African Revenue Services (SARS) during his time at its helm. The Hawks had sent him 27 questions earlier in the year and he is adamant that is all he needs to answer.
Society depends on a fair, unbiased and factual account of stories so that they can take informed decisions. I doubt there is anyone in South Africa today who can actually say they know what is going on between Gordhan, Hawks, Eskom and Treasury except for the current rife speculation. What we have come to interpret as truth is based on how much we love or hate President Jacob Zuma and his friends the Guptas or how much we love or hate Gordhan and his friends who run financial institutions.
On either side of the debate is speculation based on suspicion and fuelled by our pre-conceived notions of who in the war are corrupt and who are clean.
The truth which those on Gordhan’s side of the fence are struggling to grasp is that this entire saga stems from articles by the Sunday Times, spanning over a year, in which it accused Gordhan and senior managers at SARS of illegally establishing a spy unit which has come to be known as the Rogue Unit. I have seen documents of the establishment of this unit and know it was approved by then Finance Minister Trevor Manuel as an intelligence gathering unit that would assist SARS in illicit dealings.
Despite protestations from the Minister and his colleagues, The Sunday Times was adamant there was wrongdoing to which Gordhan and colleagues had to answer.
Here are some of the headlines published in Sunday Times of 4 October 2015.
Call to probe Pravin Gordhan over SARS spy saga – KPMG report confirms our story piles pressure on ex-finance minister (front page article running over to page 2)
Bid to keep report under wraps (front-page side-ba)
Taxmen’s braai with prostitutes “not a brother’ – SARS official denies running sex club as part of spy operation (page 2)
Keep shady doings in SARS out in the open (editorial on page 16)
Among the allegations was the following but the list is endless
the unit was unlawfully or illegally formed
Gordhan and SARS had denied the existence of the unit
SARS officials had bugged people and specifically the home of Mr Jacob Zuma (before he became president), that the unit “infiltrated politicians as bodyguards
Key among its sources, the paper said, was a KPMG report which it was later revealed was not final. This report remains controversial and has not even today been placed legitimately, in the public domain.
The auditing firm has its own shady history with some of its clients allegedly being involved in illicit tobacco dealings and accusations that it has captured, completely, South Africa’s state security apparatus. That is a story for another article.
It must be said that the current chorus of support for Gordhan didn’t exist during the time the Sunday Times ran these stories. Readers perceived the stories to be true and Gordhan was guilty.
Three SARS officials approached the Press Ombudsman complaining about the articles. In startling revelations, a former Sunday Times staffer, Pearlie Joubert, in an affidavit, claimed that the paper’s former editor, Phylicia Oppelt, had been used by her ex husband who worked for SARS at the time. The Press Ombudsman found for the SARS officials. The Sunday Times hit back announcing it would appeal the ruling and lambasted Joubert and labelled her a disgruntled and bitter ex-staffer.
It wasn’t long thereafter that Oppelt was replaced and a group of voices from white journalists started a campaign vilifying the journalists who had written the story. Weeks or maybe months later, the Sunday Times backtracked saying basically, it had lied for most parts of its story of over a year. Piet Rampedi who was one of the journalists on the Rogue Unit stories distanced himself from the apology. Since that day, the story of Gordhan has basically changed. His is no longer a simple story. He now has a multitude of supporters who see him as a victim of some political machinations and a man who is above the law. He has become an untouchable.