David Mabuza vs City Press

Compliant: David Mabuza

Lodged by: Ronald Lamola

Article: Premier’s brother lands top job

Author of article: Sizwe Sama Yende

Date: 17 May 2011

Respondent: Sizwe Sama Yende

Complaint
Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza complains about a story in City Press, published on January 23, 2011 and headlined Premier’s brother lands top job.
Mabuza complains that the story:
  • and the picture wrongly give the impression that he was involved in nepotism; and
  • does not adequately reflect “detailed and comprehensive answers” provided by the department.
Analysis
The story, written by Sizwe Sama Yende, says that an Mpumalanga department has employed premier David Mabuza’s brother (Mike) as assistant director for security management in the province’s agriculture, land reform and land administration department.
His new job, the story reports, allegedly is to clamp down on information leaks to the media and law-enforcement agencies, although a spokesperson for the department reportedly denies this.
The story continues that the job was not advertised “and questions remain unanswered as to how Mabuza came to know about it”. A departmental spokesperson reportedly said that any official within the public service may apply for an internal transfer to any department across the country. (Mike) Mabuza was a lieutenant-colonel in the South African Police Service’s crime intelligence unit in Nelspruit. The story says: “…he (Mike) refused to shed any light on his new job, saying: ‘I am not prepared to say anything’.”
Next to the story, a big picture of the premier is published, with the following caption: “Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza, whose brother, Mike, was given a job as assistant director for security management in the province’s agriculture department after an exposé of irregularities in a R230-million tender.”
I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Nepotism
Mabuza complains that the story gives the wrong impression that Mike got the job of assistant director because he is his brother and not because he is competent and skilled as a public servant. The premier adds that the insertion of his picture next to the story misleadingly insinuates that he was in some way responsible for his brother’s appointment.
City Press argues that:
  • departmental spokesperson Janine Julies has confirmed that the position was not advertised and that Mike was transferred;
  • its story is based on interviews with more than two independent and reliable sources;
  • Mike was given an opportunity to shed light on how he got the job, but replied that he was not prepared to say anything;
  • questions remained unanswered as to how Mike came to know about the job;
  • nowhere in the story it claims that the premier appointed his brother. “In fact, we make it clear from the start he was transferred to the department…” and says that it reported that the transfer was done by Ms Nelisiwe Sithole, the HOD;
  • it is not unusual for the media to report on the appointment of people to high positions in government;
  • when the premier’s brother is transferred from the SAPS, an entity that does not fall under the jurisdiction of the provincial government or the premier, to a department that does, it is the duty of the media to probe the appointment – even more so when the position wasn’t advertised; and
  • the use of a picture of the premier next to his brother was fair – “it is without doubt in the public interest if the premier’s brother is appointed to a senior position in his government, and it is a fact that they are brothers”.
The first question to consider is if the story, together with the picture, does suggest that the premier may have had a hand in his brother’s appointment.
It is true that the story does not explicitly say that the premier was responsible for his brother’s transferal or that he appointed him. However, it is futile to argue – as the newspaper does – that the story says that Sithole was responsible for staff appointments (and that the premier, therefore, was not involved), as the premier may have ordered Sithole to do the transfer.
But there is more. The story says that the newspaper has earlier exposed damaging details of a forensic audit report which showed irregularities in a R230-million tender. It says that the auditors found that the tender had not been budgeted for, and adds: “David Mabuza was the department’s MEC when the tender was awarded.”
Now, if one reads this in conjunction with Mike’s alleged job description, namely to ensure that no more documents are leaked to the media and law-enforcement agencies, it is reasonable to argue that the story created the impression that the premier needs his brother to stop further such leaks.
This argument, of course, does not suggest that the premier is guilty of nepotism – all it says is that the reference to the audit report in the story may have implied such a possibility.
Also, it should be noted that the picture is of the premier, and not of his brother. That, in itself, is telling.
The suggestion of nepotism hangs in the air, indeed. It is futile for the newspaper to deny this.
This brings me to the next question, namely if it was reasonable for the newspaper to do so.
It was, because:
  • it is the newspaper’s duty to raise eyebrows when a premier’s brother is appointed to a senior position in his government;
  • there is no reason to disbelieve the newspaper’s argument that it used two independent and reliable sources;
  • questions indeed remained unanswered as to how the premier’s brother came to know about the job;
  • there may have been a link between the “tender irregularities” and Mike’s alleged job description and appointment; and
  • taxpayers’ money is involved, which means that the public has a right to be alerted as to possible nepotism.
Note that this is not a judgement on the question if the premier indeed pulled his weight to get his brother appointed. I am in no position to make a ruling on that, and it is beyond my jurisdiction anyway. My task is to establish if it was reasonable for City Press to imply possible nepotism.  Based on the argumentation above, it was.
Answers provided by department not adequately reflected
Mabuza complains that the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Administration (DARDLA) provided the journalist with detailed and comprehensive answers as to how his brother was transferred and implies that these answers were not properly reflected in the story.
The newspaper’s only response to this part of the complaint is that it is not in dispute that the provincial government spokesperson, Lebona Mosia, declined to comment when asked if the premier had a hand in his brother’s transfer and referred its journalist to the department.
This argument is irrelevant, as the newspaper’s questions were referred to DARDLA and the department did respond to them. The real question is if the essence of DARDLA’s response was reported or if the story omitted any essential part of that response.
Here are the newspaper’s questions (bulleted), together with a summary of DARDLA’s answers (in italics):
·         Why was the post not advertised?
Mike applied for a horizontal transfer from the SAPS to the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Administration (DARDLA). His transfer was approved by the Head of Department, in line with Section 14 of the Public Service Act of 1994, which stipulates the procedure to be followed for transfers within the Public Service. His transfer within the public service is not unique.
·         Is the post on the organogram of the department and has it been budgeted for? Please provide proof.
A vacant and funded post existed in the current organogram.  
 
·         Can you confirm or deny allegations that Mr Mabuza was employed after the Farm Mechanization Tender audit report by the Integrity Management Unit leaked to the media and that the main purpose for his employment is to clamp down on the leakage of information to the media and other institutions?
The tender was awarded in September 2008 and the investigations started during that year. The only “preliminary report” was released in January 2010 and it has been in the public domain ever since. The leaking of the information has not happened only in January 2011 or during Mike’s transfer. The overall accountability of security in the department is the responsibility of the Accounting Officer and not the any other official.
DARDLA had a vacancy rate of more than 40% before the current recruitment drive. Mike’s transfer is part of DARDLA’s recruitment strategy.
·         Is it true that Mr Mabuza has already warned staff members against releasing information to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the media and other institutions?
Communication tasks are not part of his job description
.
·         Mr Mabuza is a brother of Premier David Mabuza, and the allegations are that MEC Candith Mashego-Dlamini was instructed by the premier to ensure that he is employed. What is your response?
Members of the Executive Council of the Provincial Government are not tasked with matters of administration. The Head of a Government Department receives and approves all appointments and internal transfers of officials.
·         Is the employment of the Premier’s brother in such a questionable manner not confirming the allegations as raised above?
Any official employed within the public service may apply for an internal transfer to any other government department across the country. There is nothing questionable about the procedures followed regarding the internal transfer of Mr Mabuza and everything was done within his right as a South African and for the benefit of the department.
Now for some closer examination:
The first question was why the post was not advertised. The response was about a “horizontal transfer”, the approval of the transfer and that the transfer was not unique. (There is no reference to the question itself.)
The story does not use the phrase “horizontal transfer” and the words (or idea) “not unique”.
The “horizontal transfer” is not essential to story as it does not matter if the appointment was “horizontally” or “vertically”. Also, consider the fact that the story does mention Mike’s previous position (lieutenant-colonel in the SAPS) and his present one (assistant director for security management in the department). To the uninformed, like myself, this looks “horizontal” enough.
Although the story does not use the words “not unique”, the following response by Julies does imply that the transfer was normal: “Any official within the public service may apply for an internal transfer to any department across the country.”
Secondly, the newspaper wanted to know if the post was on the department’s organogram and if it has been budgeted for. The department responded in the affirmative. The story, however, does not refer to this issue.
My first question is why the newspaper asked this question in the first place. Well, the essence of the story is that there are unanswered questions regarding Mike’s transfer. So, if there was no such post on the organogram and it had not been budgeted for, the story would have been “stronger”.
However, this angle turned out to be unfruitful, and so the newspaper decided to leave that out. This is a case of: Don’t let facts stand in the way of a good story.
The next question would be how heavy this issue should weigh. While I do not think that the matters at hand are at the core of the story, I also do not think that they are totally irrelevant. In other words, while the omission of these matters did not change the essence of the story, the reporting of them would have made a slight difference because at least it would have been clear that there was nothing untoward regarding the post itself.
The third question was about allegations that Mike was employed after an audit report was leaked to the media and that the main purpose for his employment was to stop further leakages of information. DARDLA’s response was that the leaking of information has not happened only when the preliminary report was released or during Mike’s transfer. The department also said that the overall accountability of security in the department was the responsibility of the accounting officer and not that of any other official. It added that Mike’s transfer was part of DARDLA’s recruitment strategy.
The story includes a denial by Julies that Mike was employed to stop information leaks and a quote by her to the effect that communications was not part of his job description. The story only omits the reference to DARDLA’s recruitment strategy. However, this omission cannot be seen as essential to the story as the possibility of nepotism is not necessarily excluded by this piece of information.
Fourthly, City Press wanted to know if it was true that Mike has already warned staff members against releasing information. DARDLA responded that communication tasks were not part of his job description. The story reports this.
The fifth question was about nepotism (namely an allegation that the premier issued an instruction that his brother was to be employed). The response was that members of the Executive Council of the Provincial Government were not tasked with matters of administration. DARDLA said that the head of a department receives and approves all appointments and internal transfers of officials. This is reflected in the story.
The last question was if Mike’s employment “in such a questionable manner” does not confirm the allegation of nepotism. DARDLA responded that any official may apply for an internal transfer to any other government department across the country. The department denied that there was anything questionable about the procedures followed, adding that it was Mike’s right to apply and that everything was done for the benefit of the department.
The story reflects the statement that any official may apply for an internal transfer and the denial that the premier had anything to do with his brother’s appointment. However, the story omits the statement that everything was done for the benefit of the department. This omission is not material, as it does not necessarily exclude the possibility of nepotism.
Based on the above, I conclude that City Press adequately used DARDLA’s response to its questions, except for the issue of whether the post was on the department’s organogram and if it has been budgeted for.
Finding
Nepotism
It was reasonable for City Press to imply possible nepotism, even though the newspaper denies that it did. This is not to suggest that the premier was indeed guilty of nepotism. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Answers provided by department not adequately reflected
City Press adequately used five of the six responses provided by DARDLA. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The newspaper omitted to report DARDLA’s response that Mike’s post was on the department’s organogram and that it has been budgeted for. This is in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Press Code that states: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…material omissions…”
Sanction
City Press is cautioned for omitting DARDLA’s response mentioned above. The newspaper is directed to publish this caution, as well as a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling). The following sentence should appear at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings 2011) for the full finding.” Our office should be furnished with this text prior to publication.”
 
 Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman