Date of article: 1 April, 2019
Headline: Zuma loyalist Lakela Kaunda ‘unlikely to become unemployed’.
Author: Gcina Ntsaluba
This ruling is based on a written complaint from Ms Lakela Kaunda and written responses from the Citizen’s news editors, Ms Amanda Watson and Mr Brendan Seery, as well as further correspondence, research, and interviews with both parties.
1.1 Ms Lakela Kaunda complains that the above article contains “baseless innuendos and accusations” that were not put to her directly for comment, nor were they put to the spokesperson of the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Mr Musa Zondi.
1.2 Ms Kaunda complains that neither she nor the spokesperson were given an opportunity to comment on three key paragraphs in the article. These were:
- “Named by Vytjie Mentor and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan in the Commission of Inquiry into State capture, chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, as the “fixer” who arranged meetings between ministers and the Gupta family, Kaunda is no stranger to controversy.”
- “She was Zuma’s closest adviser while he was president and also served as chief of staff in the presidency, where she left a trail of high-profile casualties, such as Jessie Duarte, former director-general Vusi Mavimbela, and former communications chief Vusi Mona.
- Mavimbela went on to write a book, Time is not the Measure, a memoir in which he details his experiences working with Kaunda, describing her as an autocrat and bully who undermined his office and caused general mayhem in the Presidency.”
1.3 She also queries the truthfulness of the phrase “named as the ‘fixer’ who arranged meetings between ministers and the Gupta family” at the State Capture Commission. She says no such allegation has been made at the Commission.
She challenged Vytjie Mentor’s evidence before the State Capture Commission, and is also taking legal action against Vusi Mavimbela for allegations made in his book. This was not reflected in the article
1.4 Although Ms Kaunda does not stipulate the parts of the Press Code she alleges have been breached, the substance of her complaint suggests the Citizen transgressed Clause 1.1. and 1.2, as well as Clause 1.8.
- The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.
1.2 News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarisation.
1.8 The media shall seek the views of a subject of critical reportage in advance of publication; provided that this need not be done where the institution has reasonable grounds for believing that by doing so it would be prevented from reporting; where evidence might be destroyed or sources intimidated; or because it would be impractical to do so in the circumstances of the publication.”
1.5 Later on in this finding, I will refer to another serious flaw that the Ombudsman discovered that is a transgression of both 1.1. and 1.2 of the Press Code.
- The text
2.1 Under the headline, Zuma loyalist Lakela Kaunda ‘unlikely to become unemployed’, The Citizen’s reporter, Gcina Ntsaluba, writes: “With eight weeks to go before the national elections, the power struggle in the ruling ANC is far from over, with former acting president Kgalema Motlanthe slamming President Cyril Ramaphosa and the party for being unsure of what to do with Jacob Zuma’s closest confidante and advisor, Lakela Kaunda.”
2.2 This paragraph is preceded by an intro or “blurb” that says in bold: “The Sunday Times reported yesterday that Motlanthe said he did not believe Ramaphosa was a messiah who could save the party.”
It then goes on to record that the Citizen had asked Ms Kaunda about her future in government and that she had referred queries to COGTA spokesperson Musa Zondi. “However, Zondi would only say Kaunda was a full-time public servant who was currently seconded to COGTA by the Presidency and that her tenure was linked to the term of the minister, Zweli Mkhize, at the minister’s request.”
2.3 It quotes the Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko saying a decision on Kaunda’s future is yet to be made; it also quotes political analyst, Somadoda Fikeni, opining that the ANC could deploy Kaunda “elsewhere” or make her an ambassador, adding it was unlikely she would return to the Presidency.
2.4 The reporter then goes back to the Sunday Times report, quoting Motlanthe as saying he did not believe Ramaphosa was a “messiah who could save the party.
“I don’t believe in messianic figures. I believe that, first and foremost, we’ve got to have a capable state. Because governments – when you refer to a head of state – come and go…But your state has got to remain capable with an institutional memory.”
2.5 The Citizen reporter then writes the following:
“Named by Vytjie Mentor and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan in the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture…as the “fixer” who arranged meetings between ministers and the Gupta family, Kaunda is no stranger to controversy.
“She was Zuma’s closest advisor while he was president and also serves as chief of staff in the Presidency, where she left a trail of high profile casualties, such as Jessie Duarte, former director-general Vusi Mavimbela, and former communications chief Vusi Mona.
“Mavimbela went on to write a book, Time is Not the Measure, a memoir in which he details his experiences working with Kaunda, describing her as an autocrat and bully who undermined his office and caused general mayhem in the Presidency.”
- The arguments
3.1 Ms Kaunda argues that none of these claims or allegations were put to her, bar the inquiry to Mr Zondi about the expiry of her contract with COGTA.
3.2 The reporter, Mr Gcina, also spoke to the DG of the Department and to the DDG: Corporate Services, as well as, on 31 March, directly to Ms Kaunda.
3.3 However, she was not asked to comment on the allegations attributed to Ms Mentor and Mr Gordhan that she was a “fixer” who arranged meetings between ministers and the Gupta family.
3.4 Nor was she asked to comment on the sentence – quoted as a statement of fact – that she was “Zuma’s closest advisor” and had left a trail of high-profile casualties, such as Jessie Duarte, former director-general Vusi Mavimbela, and former communications chief Vusi Mona.”
3.5 Ms Kaunda argues that neither Minister Gordhan nor Ms Mentor alleged before the Zondo Commission that she was the “’fixer’ who arranged meetings between ministers and the Gupta family.”
3.6 She acknowledges that Ms Mentor did, however, tell the Commission into State Capture that she, Ms Kaunda, had phoned her to arrange a meeting, ostensibly with the President, which turned out to be a meeting with the Guptas in their home in Saxonwold. Then President Zuma dropped in towards the end of the encounter, according to Ms Mentor.
3.7 However – critically- Ms Kaunda denies this call took place. She requested, and was granted, permission to cross-examine Ms Mentor at the Commission. She also provided the Commission with her cell phone records to show that she had not called.
3.8 Minister Gordhan mentions only one meeting to which Ms Kaunda called him at the behest of then President Zuma and she acknowledges that this was correct. “I organised the meeting as part of my official duties.”
3.9 On the claim that Ms Kaunda had caused the departure of staff from the Presidency, Ms Kaunda she says she has “no information” about why these colleagues had left the Presidency or why they were her “casualties”. However, she says Mr Ntsaluba did not put such allegations to her for comment on the 31st March when he called her. “The publication of such gossip as fact is malicious and grossly unfair.”
3.10 On the allegations in the Vusi Mavimbela book, she argues that Mr Ntsaluba did not ask her about them – she calls them “malicious allegations.” She has begun legal action against him. She says it is “unfair that the Citizen has published without offering me an opportunity to respond.”
3.11 Ms Kaunda argues the Citizen has treated her unfairly through its failure to obtain both sides of the story “and also through publishing total fabrications as the truth. The allegations that have been published as fact are damaging to my professional reputation, which has been built through 30 years of hard work. I have always carried myself professionally and with integrity wherever deployed and my reputation is all I own.”
3.12 The Citizen, in response, argues that the term ‘fixer’ is not in and of itself offensive. In a note to the Ombudsman, Deputy News Editor, Amanda Watson said it is “defined as someone who solves problems and gets things done.”
“It was in this context the word was used in relation to Ms Mentor’s allegation (that) Ms Kaunda had arranged a meeting between Ms Mentor and Mr Zuma, which allegedly led to Ms Mentor meeting a Gupta family member.
“It is also a term which has been in use since August 21, 2018 by at least two media houses and it is odd Ms Kaunda has not taken them to task while in the same breath acknowledging she arranged meetings for Mr Gordhan.”
3.13 Ms Watson did acknowledge, however, that the newspaper had erred in not including Ms Kaunda’s “denial” of arranging the meeting and indicated a willingness to add it to the article. The paper also acknowledged not asking for her comment on the departure of Presidency staff (although it points out “Ms Kaunda’s history since at least 2010 when it comes to this question shows she will not answer anything related to this”), nor on the allegations made in Mr Mavimbela’s book.
The newspaper invited her, through the Ombudsman, to respond to all the allegations.
- Further arguments
4.1 A right of reply was not sufficient remedy for Ms Kaunda.
She argues that:
- The Citizen made material errors of fact with regard to evidence at the State Capture commission of inquiry.
- Neither Pravin Gordhan nor Vytjie Mentor alleged she was the ‘fixer” who arranged meetings between cabinet ministers and the Guptas
- Where Ms Mentor alleged she called her (Ms Mentor) to arrange a meeting with the President –which ended up being a meeting with some of the Gupta brothers – Ms Kaunda had challenged it before the Commission.
- She has commented previously on the allegation that she “left a trail of high-profile casualties” in the President’s office, as reported by the Citizen. But the paper should have put this to her again as the allegation was repeated in this report. “My professional reputation was seriously damaged by this unfair and unfounded accusation.”
- Although the reporter had spoken to her before writing the article, he did not put several of the allegations to her, including those published in Vusi Mavimbela’s book.
- If she had wanted a “right of reply”, she would have approached the Citizen directly.
- But this article damaged her reputation. This is why she approached the Press Ombudsman, “as I have been wronged and believe I deserve redress.”
4.2 The Citizen’s senior editors, Brendan Seery and Amanda Watson, when approached a second time with some of this evidence, accepted that the newspaper had been at fault and undertook to abide by the finding of the Press Ombudsman.
4.3 There is a more serious issue – one not raised by Ms Kaunda – which I expand upon below. This is whether the Sunday Times report, which quotes former president Kgalema Motlanthe and which the Citizen reporter referenced, was accurately rendered.
5.1 This story is a good example of what happens when a “popular narrative” combines with “aggregated journalism” – in other words, reporting garnered from several sources not subject to checks.
5.2 A “popular narrative” means something that sounds true based partly on some knowledge, but also partly on assumption and prejudice.
5.3 In this case, the reporter made some key assumptions without checking: one was that, based on what Ms Mentor and Minister Gordhan told the State Capture Commission, Ms Kaunda was a “fixer”, who organised meetings between the Gupta brothers and cabinet ministers.
5.4 Although the Citizen, in its response, defined the word as simply someone “who solves problems and gets things done”, this is not sufficient to deal with the statement that both Ms Mentor and Minister Gordhan had suggested she organised meetings between ministers and the Guptas.
5.5. A perusal of the actual transcripts of the evidence will show that neither of them actually said this.
5.6 Ms Mentor, in both her statements before the Commission, which include a transcript of her conversation with the Hawks, and in her evidence, says she had been trying to arrange a meeting with the President for some time when she chaired the Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises. She mentions Ms Kaunda as follows:
“I communicated with Ms Lakela Kaunda, Ms Kaunda, who at the time I thought was Mr Zuma’s personal assistant in order to secure a meeting with Mr Zuma. On one Sunday evening in around October 2010 about a week or so before the Cabinet reshuffle I received a telephone call from Ms Kaunda to say that the President could see me the following day. I think Ms Kaunda was the PA although it could have been a different position, but she definitely appeared to be from the President’s office.”
She then recounted, in her statement and in testimony, how Ms Kaunda had telephoned her late in the evening and told her she should be on a plane from Cape Town to Johannesburg early the next morning. Ms Kaunda also apparently “advised that a certain individual would be in contact with me regarding the meeting.”
In her statement, Ms Mentor says the name of the person given to her by Ms Kaunda was of Atul Gupta.
5.7 In summary, Ms Mentor told the State Capture Commission she had flown to Johannesburg on a 6am (SAA) flight the next morning and been met by two “Indian men” at the airport, who had taken her to their private residence in a Johannesburg suburb, where, after waiting for some time, she had met the President briefly. The key part of her allegation was that they (the Guptas) had offered her the position of Minister of Public Enterprises if she would agree to cancelling the SAA route to Mumbai.
5.8 However, even if we accept Ms Mentor’s statement and testimony (about which see more below), Ms Mentor did not say Ms Kaunda arranged meetings between cabinet ministers and the Guptas as stated in the Citizen story.
5.9 The cross-examination of Ms Mentor should have raised even more red flags for the reporter.
5.10 Ms Kaunda denied Ms Mentor’s testimony that she had telephoned her and was granted permission to cross-examine her. In support of her denial, Ms Kaunda produced redacted cell phone records for October 2010.
Ms Mentor at first challenged the veracity of the records, then amended her original statement that she had been in telephonic contact with Ms Kaunda before this call to saying it was only SMS contact, and also reconsidered her evidence about the month this call (and meeting) could have happened, saying it may have been September 2010, not October.
5.11 At the same time, the Commission itself produced flight records from SAA (and later British Airways), showing she had not been on a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg in that month on those airlines.
5.12 This is what the Chairperson of the Commission, Deputy Chief Justice Zondo, had to say in response to the various records that queried her testimony:
CHAIRPERSON: … Now you might wish to say something about this and I am bringing this to your attention, because it may or may not be that at some stage somebody will address me and say I should not accept that you had this encounter at Saxonwold and look at the evidence you have given and the statements you have given and say they are unsatisfactory for a number of reasons.
Okay? So now one of the things that maybe somebody will say is SAA records were put up and you had issues with them. Parliamentary records were put up you had issues with them. Home Affairs records were put up, you had issues with them. Ms Kaunda has put up cell phone records, you have issues with them and somebody might say you seem to have issues with all records and that for that and other reasons, maybe I should not accept your version, your evidence, that indeed there was this encounter that you say you had at Saxonwold.
What would you say to that? 
5.13 It is not for the Ombudsman, nor for the reporter, to judge at this point whether Ms Mentor’s evidence is credible or not. But the records before the Commission show that serious doubt has been cast over some of her testimony – doubt that the Judge himself has drawn attention to. This includes whether Ms Kaunda phoned her or not.
5.14 As for Minister Gordhan’s statement before the Commission, he mentions Ms Kaunda in the context of the weekend of turmoil on the financial markets that followed the dismissal of then Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and his replacement with Des van Rooyen. “Over this time I engaged with Ms Lakela Kaunda, the Chief Operations Officer in the Presidency at the time, regarding my concerns, in the national interest, about the economic turmoil and the adverse impact in the country and citizens that followed the removal of Mr Nene. I suggested that a team consisting of the Presidency, the SA Reserve Bank, the Treasury and the private sector meet with investors to reassure them before the markets opened for trading on Monday 14 December, 2015.”
Later, he says he received a message from Ms Kaunda in the late afternoon of Sunday, December 13, 2015, requesting his attendance at a meeting with then President Zuma at his residence Mhlamba Ndlophu.
This was the meeting in which the President asked him to take up the position of Finance Minister for the second time.
Ms Kaunda acknowledges this. “I organized the meeting as part of my official duties. The Minister also mentions instances where he spoke to me about some tasks, which is also accurate.”
5.15 There is no part of Minister Gordhan’s testimony before the Commission where he “names” Ms Kaunda as a “fixer” who arranged meetings between Ministers and the Gupta family.
5.16 When his editors asked the reporter (at my request) where he got the information that both Gordhan and Mentor had called Kaunda a “fixer” who arranged meetings between Minister and the Gupta family, he sent a link to a News24 website story published as the Commission began on August 2, 2018.
It was headlined “Everything you need to know” about the State Capture Inquiry, and named some of those who had “recruited serious legal muscle”, including Lakela Kaunda. (https://www.iafrica.com/state-capture-commission-day-1-everything-you-need-to-know/)
Under a sub-heading: “Were there any surprises on Day One?”, ran a paragraph that read:
“It is quite significant that Kaunda’s name has sprung up. It seems that a statement was tabled at the commission which might implicate her arranging meetings for the Guptas with prominent politicians. She was chief operating officer in the Presidency under Zuma.”
5.17 But this piece was written before any testimony concerning Ms Kaunda was heard. It is hard to understand how a journalist can invoke in his defence a speculative story about evidence that may come up when, at his moment of writing, actual evidence had unfolded.
5.18 As far as the sentence about Vusi Mavimbela’s book, Time is not the Measure, is concerned, the reporter mentions a summary of how Ms Kaunda is described in the book, as “an autocrat and bully who undermined his (Mavimbela’s) office and caused general mayhem in the Presidency.
5.19 He is entitled to do this. However, he should have asked for her comment specifically on the Mavimbela allegation. He had, after all, spoken to both her and the COGTA spokesperson in the course of reporting this story, but failed to put this to her. Had he done so, he would have discovered that she has said she is taking legal action against Mavimbela for the book.
5.20 Lastly, and this is critical, there is a serious question mark for me over the entire premise of this story in the first place.
The opening paragraph quotes the Sunday Times interview “yesterday” (March 31st) with former president Kgalema Motlanthe. The second paragraph says: “With eight [in the online edition this was corrected to “six”] weeks to go before the national elections, the power struggle in the ruling ANC is far from over, with former acting president Kgalema Motlanthe slamming President Cyril Ramaphosa and the party for being unsure of what to do with Jacob Zuma’s closest confidante and adviser, Lakela Kaunda.”
5.21 But in the online version of the Sunday Times story, written by Qaanitah Hunter and headlined, “ANC is ‘worse than before Cyril Ramaphosa”, based on an interview with former president Kgalema Motlanthe, there is not a word about Lakela Kaunda in the article. (https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/news/2019-03-31-anc-is-worse-than-before-cyril-ramaphosa/)
I asked the Sunday Times whether there was possibly another interview with Kgalema Motlanthe that may have mentioned Ms Kaunda. Its legal editor, Susan Smuts, could not find one in the archives, nor on enquiry with its political editor.
Was this negligence on the part of the reporter or editors? Or was it deliberate invention on the part of the reporter to enable him to find an “angle” to write a negative story about Ms Kaunda?
5.22 It should be noted that the Citizen’s senior editors, Amanda Watson and Brendan Seery, have been extremely open to criticism and have co-operated fully with the Ombud’s inquiries.
Where at first they offered Ms Kaunda a right of reply, they quickly realized that in fact, as she herself said, the transgression of the Press Code exceeded simply a right of reply.
They have mentioned themselves how popular narratives, and unchecked and “aggregated journalism”, can undermine the Code of Ethics.
I find that the Citizen has transgressed the following sections of the Press Code:
1.1.and 1.2 in so far as the newspaper did not check exactly what Minister Gordhan and Ms Mentor had said about Ms Kaunda, and in so far as it did not report that she had challenged Ms Mentor’s testimony in the Commission and that it did not report that Judge Zondo himself had expressed doubt about the reliability of Ms Mentor’s evidence.
Also in so far as the original Sunday Times article on which the offending story is premised does not appear to reflect what the reporter claims it does. In other words, former president Kgalema Motlanthe did not say to the Sunday Times what he is quoted as saying in The Citizen about Ms Kaunda. In fact he did not mention her. This is a deliberate, not negligent, distortion of the truth.
There is no way in which the circumstances that exempt a publication from seeking the views of a subject of critical reportage – where evidence might be destroyed, sources intimidated etc – could have pertained in Ms Kaunda’s case. The newspaper was entitled to report the allegations about Ms Kaunda contained in Mr Mavimbela’s book, but it should have given her the right of reply. She should also have been given the opportunity to respond to the reporter’s own (as it happened, incorrect) interpretation of evidence before the State Capture commission that she was a “fixer” who arranged meetings between the Guptas and cabinet ministers. In fact, had he put this to her, he may have saved himself from making the errors in his report that have resulted in the transgressions of Clauses 1.1 and 1.2 of the Press Code.
Seriousness of breaches
Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors, which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3). The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences. In respect of the second count of the transgression of 1.1. and 1.2 – what appears to be a deliberate misinterpretation of an article – I am tempted to categorize this as a Tier 3 offence. However, it is hard to prove that the reporter was motivated by “commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting”, as stated in Press Code Complaints procedure. But the error is an egregious one.
The Citizen is ordered to
- Apologise to Ms Kaunda and retract the statement that she was a “fixer” who “arranged meetings between cabinet ministers and the Guptas.
- Apologise to Ms Kaunda and to its readers for not including in the article the fact that she had denied Ms Mentor’s evidence before the Commission that she had phoned her and had been allowed to cross-examined her on this. Also that she had produced her cell-phone records in support of her position.
- Apologise to Ms Kaunda for not giving her the right of reply on the allegations about her reported in Vusi Mavimbela’s book in so far as the Citizen reports them.
- Apologise to its readers for misleading them in creating an impression that former President Kgalema Motlanthe had criticized Lakela Kaunda in an interview with another newspaper when in fact this was not the case.
- be published at the earliest opportunity in both the print and online editions of the newspaper, after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;
- refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
- end with the sentence, “Visit org.za for the full finding”;
- be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and
- be prepared by the publication and approved by me.
The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
30 May 2019
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