The Premier of Limpopo vs City Press

Complainant: The Premier of Limpopo

Lodged by: Mr Phuti Mosomane

Article: Pravin guns for fat cats – Limpopo first target in fat-cat fight

Respondent: City Press

Complaint
Mr Mathale complains about the following five stories in City Press:
Pravin guns for fat cats – Limpopo first target in fat-cat fight (February 14, 2010)
The complaint is that the story falsely portrays that:
  • a national investigation into corruption is made to look like a local (Limpopo) one;
  • the premier is personally guilty of corruption;
  • the premier leads a gang of people who loot state coffers;
  • corrective steps taken by government to upgrade road infrastructure are merely ploys to plunder state coffers; and
  • the Limpopo government wants to centralize supply chain management.
Cadres – Finance minister orders investigation into corruption (February 14)
According to the complaint this story falsely:
  • portrays Limpopo as the most corrupt province in the country; and
  • states that the Premier’s spokesperson was not available for comment.
Malema’s R140 tender riches – Nationalisation’s frontman is a big entrepreneur (February 21)
The complaint is that:
  • the Limpopo government did not “anywhere near” give ANCYL leader Julius Malema tenders worth at least R140 million, as it was reported; and
  • a false impression is created that the above-mentioned amount constitutes the company’s profit.
Juju’s dodgy R27m bridges (February 28)
According to Mosomane the picture on the newspaper’s front page of the “bridge” is misleading.
The following statements in the story are also said to be false, namely that:
  • 3 bridges and roads that the SGL Engineering Projects (SGL) built were washed away;
  • some local employees complained that they were not paid;
  • the Greater Letaba and Mopani district municipalities paid SGL upfront;
  • only a portion of one of the two bridges constructed last year is still in place (Greater Letaba Municipality – GLM);
  • the GLM project was abandoned;
  • Mathale was aware of the GLM problem;
  • the road was 5 km long (Lepelle-Nkumpi Municipality); and
  • SGL was appointed as contractor (Mutale Municipality).
Revelling and rallying mix at Juju’s big bash (February 7)
The complaint is that Mathale is wrongfully said to co-own the “prestigious” Mekete Lodge where Malema’s after-party (birthday) was held.
Analysis
The first story: Pravin guns for fat cats
The story is about a probe into multimillion-rand tender processes in Limpopo which are “likely to suck in a number of top ANC and government officials doing business with the state”. Mathale reportedly may be in the centre of the probe, together with some of his cadres and friends.
Let’s look at the merits of the complaint:
National investigation into corruption to look like a local one
Mosomane says despite the fact that the investigation into corruption is a national one, the story makes it seem as if correspondence to this effect was sent to Mathale’s office only, that the investigation will start in Limpopo and that it is centralized there.
City Press says a letter dated 27 November 2009 from Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan (announcing an investigation into corruption in the Limpopo Province) is indeed addressed to Limpopo’s premier. Besides, the Limpopo Province is mentioned twice in that letter. “There can be no doubt as to the intended recipient,” the newspaper says.
The newspaper adds that the following sentence puts the matter in a wider context: “A source in national government told City Press similar investigations were planned for other provinces, but it was not certain whether letters had already been sent out.” It adds that the sub-headline, Limpopo first target in fat-cat fight, also makes it clear that Limpopo is not the only province to be investigated. City Press says it was not certain whether letters to this effect had already been sent out to other provinces.
Consider the phrases “were planned (for other provinces)” and “first target”. These words indeed suggest that:
  • the investigation began in Limpopo;
  • at the time of publication, Limpopo was the only target of the investigation; and
  • an initiative to investigate corruption elsewhere has not started yet.
A simple phone call or an e-mail would have easily cleared up this matter – Mr Dondo Mogajane from the Ministry of Finance confirmed to this office that Gordhan did sent a letter (already) in November 2009 to all nine premiers regarding the investigation of supply chain malpractices – at the same time the letter to the Limpopo government was sent.
Premier personally guilty of corruption
Mosomane says government institutions were going to be investigated, and not the premier in his personal capacity – which is, according to Mosomane, exactly what the story implies. He says the story also implies that Mathale is corrupt to the core.
City Press denies this – nowhere does the story create the impression that Mathale is “corrupt to the core” or states that the premier is personally under investigation.
This is what the story says:
  • The probe is likely to suck in a number of top ANC and government officials doing business with the state;
  • Mathale may find himself at the coalface of the probe; and
  • When Mathale became premier he reportedly declared his interests in at least 20 companies.
While it is true, as Mosomane says, that institutions are going to be investigated, the fact remains that institutions are manned by people. The fact that Mathale is the executive head of Limpopo may indeed mean that he could be in the centre of the investigation.
The reference to Mathale having declared his interest to the provincial legislature in at least 20 companies does not necessarily imply corruption – the fact that he reportedly declared his interest may indeed suggest the opposite.
Premier leads a gang of people who loot state coffers
The sentence in dispute says: “…Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale may find himself at the coalface of the probe, which may extend to some of his cadres and friends.”
This, Mosomane says, portrays the premier as a leader of a gang of people whose main purpose is to loot state coffers.
The newspaper says the comment that the probe may extend to some of Mathale’s cadres and friends is fair, given:
  • his position;
  • his reported business interests; and
  • the awarding of tenders to people seen as his associates.
This is a reasonable position to take. As mentioned before, institutions are staffed by people. This means that Mathale may be central to the investigation; also that the investigation may extend to people with whom he had dealings with. Besides, the word “may” is used twice in the regards, indicating not facts but possibilities.
Upgrading of road infrastructure looking like a ploy to plunder state coffers
Mosomane says corrective steps were taken by the Department of Roads and Transport – yet the story makes this to look like corruption (by manipulating tender processes).
City Press says the nature of this part of the complaint is unclear.
The relevant part of the story says: “City Press ran a series…on apparent political meddling in the Limpopo government’s procurement processes, especially in the provincial roads and transport department.” The story then mentions a few examples.
The reference to “political meddling” merely provides background and context, referring to what the newspaper has already reported on.
Plan to centralize supply chain management
Mosomane complains that the story alleges that the Limpopo government wants to centralize supply chain management despite the province never having attempted or even discussed such a move.
City Press argues that nowhere does the story state as a fact that the Limpopo government wants to centralize the supply chain.
To this, the newspaper adds that:
  • Gordhan’s letter to Mathale (dated November 23, 2009) itself raises the concern that “several of the Premiers are contemplating the centralization of supply chain management functions”;
  • The same letter requires Mathale to liaise with Gordhan “before initiating the shift”;
  • Mathale’s office was asked about this issue and its response was published (in the article in dispute); and
  • The other statements on this issue are presented as comment/speculation and not presented as fact. For example: “A senior government official said…started processes which may result in just that” and “this was seen by some as an attempt to take over the process…” (emphasis added by City Press)
After a close scrutiny of the story I can conclude that the newspaper’s reply is indeed convincing.
The second story: Cadres
This story reports on the launch of an investigation by the National Treasury into corruption in the Limpopo provincial government’s tender and procurement processes.
We shall now look at the merits of the complaint:
Most corrupt province
Mosomane says the story falsely portrays Limpopo as the must corrupt province in the country.
City Press – convincingly – argues that the story does not strike any comparison between Limpopo and other provinces and that it is factually based on a letter by Gordhan to Mathale, dated November 27, 2009.
Premier’s spokesperson not available for comment
The complaint is that the story says that Mosomane was not available for comment.
However, there is no such reference in this specific story.
The third story: Malema’s R140 tender riches
This story says that ANC Youth League president Julius Malema’s company has been awarded at least R140 million in government and municipal tenders over the past two years.
Let’s look at the merits of the complaint:
Tenders worth at least R140 million
Mosomane complains that the government of Limpopo did not award contracts worth “anywhere near” a total of R140 million to Malema during the last two years.
However, the story mentions “government tenders” without any reference to the Limpopo government at all. It also clearly states that various municipalities in Limpopo awarded the contracts in question. Later on in the story the district municipalities of Mopani, Vhembe and Waterberg are mentioned, as well as the local municipalities of Lepelle-Nkumpi, Greater Letaba, Mutale, Makhado and Tzaneen. Local government and housing spokesperson Clayson Monyela is also quoted as follows: “These people were hired by the municipalities. They are autonomous and do not even consult us before awarding the tenders because they do not have to.”
The newspaper is therefore quite correct when it says: “It is therefore clear from the report itself that it was not the Limpopo Provincial Government which awarded the tenders.”
R140 million of profit
Mosomane complains that the newspaper failed to indicate that the amount of R140 million includes money that had to be spent on materials, labour, consultancy, etc. He says this falsely created the impression that the R140 million was pure profit.
City Press says there is nothing in the story that indicates that the R140 million amounts to profit. On the contrary, it is “implicit that this amount reflects the total value of tenders”.
Correct.
The fourth story: Juju’s dodgy R27m bridges
This story says that at least three of several multi-million-rand bridges and roads built by Malema’s company (SGL) were washed away within weeks of their completion. This is reportedly mainly due to poor workmanship.
The merits of the complaint:
Front page picture misleading
Mosomane says that the picture used on the front page was taken from such an angle that it gives the impression that the bridge was damaged (he says no bridges or roads were swept away within weeks after their completion).
He has a point – a picture from another angle makes it clear that it was in fact not the bridge, but instead the side of the road that was damaged. When read in conjunction with the headline and sub-headline (FLOP! R28m for this! This bridge in Kgapane township, Limpopo, collapsed just a few months after SGL…built it) the picture indeed becomes misleading.
This makes one wonder about the accurateness of the story itself with regards to references to bridges. With reference to Kgapane Township the story says “only a portion of one of the two bridges constructed last year are (sic) still in place”. The question is: If that is true, why take a picture of road damage and pretend that that damage was actually done to a bridge – if there is indeed a bridge of which only a “portion” is left? Why then not take a clear picture of the damaged bridge itself? Or was there no such damaged bridge to take a picture of in the first place?
Three bridges and roads washed away
The story’s intro reads: “At least three of several multi-million-rand bridges and roads built by Julius Malema’s company in Limpopo were washed away within weeks of their completion.”
Mosomane says this is not true, as no bridges or roads were swept away weeks after they were built.
According to the story the newspaper visited quite a few sites and talked to some locals. The newspaper submitted other, similar pictures (which were not published) to this office to prove its point.
However, from these pictures it cannot be established that bridges (roads, yes) were washed away. The doubt as to the accuracy of the story (as far as damaged bridges are concerned) caused by the misleading front page picture is also not helpful.
From this it reasonable to conclude that the use of the word “bridges” is probably inaccurate and misleading. (There is no doubt that there was indeed road damage.)
Some employees not being paid
The sentence in dispute says: “Kgomotso Racheku (25), one of the 16 locals employed by SGL for phase two of the Kgapane bridge and street paving projects, said the company still owed him more than R3 000.”
Mosomane says Racheku himself denies that he is owed any money and that he was employed by a company called Makhasane (and not by SGL). Mosomane provided this office with an affidavit by Racheku to this effect.
City Press says that it is concerned that the Limpopo Government traced an individual construction worker (Racheku) “and then had him depose an affidavit in support of a complaint that effectively says City Press lied”. The newspaper says its information was based on three different sources with whom the reporter spoke independently – and note that, when quoted, Racheku often speaks in the plural.
The benefit of the doubt goes to the reporter for the following reasons:
  • I have asked the newspaper if the journalist have any notes or perhaps a tape recording of his conversation with Racheku. The notes that he has provided seem to be authentic, although admittedly he may he may have fabricated them afterwards.
  • Although Racheku denied the allegations afterwards in an affidavit, he may have lied to either party.
Greater Letaba and Mopani district municipalities paid SGL upfront
The story says: “ANC and municipal officials told City Press that some of the municipalities…had paid SGL upfront before work was started on the projects.”
Mosomane says the Greater Letaba and Mopani district municipalities only paid SGL a first installment – SGL was not paid upfront (in full).
Which means, City Press argues, that SGL did receive money before work on the project commenced – nowhere in the story it is either said or implied that SGL received the full amount upfront.
Indeed – “paid upfront” does not necessarily mean “in full”.
Only a portion of one of the two bridges still in place (GLM)
The story says only a portion of one of the two bridges constructed last year at Kgapane Township still remained in place. It also says that the bridge is effectively a hill of soil covered with pavement and that it was swept away just a few weeks after it was finished.
This is not true, says Mosomane – only one bridge and a small culvert were built there. Neither the bridge nor the culvert was swept away, he says, adding that the picture which is claimed to be a bridge is in fact a piece of the side of the road that has been eroded by heavy rains. Mosomane says that this portion of the road and the culvert were built in 2008 and not a few weeks before January, as the story says.
City Press counters that a structure was built to allow passage on top and water to flow underneath. It says that, when the reporter spoke with Greater Letaba municipal mayor City Modjadji, the latter took no issue with the term “bridge” in describing the structure. Even the complaint itself on occasion refers to it as a “bridge” over a “culvert”, the newspaper says. It concludes: “Whether technically the structure is best described as a ‘bridge’ or ‘a portion of a bridge’ or a ‘raised portion of a road traversing a culvert’, the main, undisputed allegation is that a portion of it was washed away.”
However, from the pictures provided to this office it cannot be established that a portion of either a “bridge” or a “culvert” was washed away. It much rather looks like it was merely a part of the road that was damaged.
To Mosomane’s allegation that the culvert was in fact built in 2008 and not a few weeks before January, the newspaper replies it only stated that the bridges and roads were washed away within weeks of their completion. (This implies that work may well have started in 2008).
The intro indeed says: “At least three of several multi million-rand bridges and roads built by Julius Malema’s company in Limpopo were washed away within weeks of their completion.” (emphasis added)
The GLM project abandoned
The story quotes community leader Robert Mahashe as saying that Kgapane Township residents were “not satisfied” because almost all of the subcontractors “abandoned their projects or did shoddy work”.
Mosomane counters that that specific project was not abandoned – in fact, it was completed and handed over to the community in a ceremony.
City Press says that the complaint is based on a partial quote. The full quote reads: “…almost all of the subcontractors ‘abandoned their projects or did shoddy work’.” (the newspaper’s emphasis) City Press says it finds it odd that the premier contends that the project was completed, and yet also admits that part of the structure had collapsed and that the contractor was called back to repair it.
The use of the phrase “almost all” is important in this regard – it implies that not everybody abandoned their projects, resulting in a situation where both City Press and Mosomane could be correct – the project could have been completed and handed over to the community and several subcontractors could have abandoned their jobs.
The addition of “or did shoddy work” also serves to make the sentence in dispute reasonably true.
Mathale aware of the GLM problem
The story quotes Mahashe as follows: “Even the premier (Cassel Mathale) is aware of this (GLM) problem. I wrote a letter to his office last year but received no reply.”
Mosomane says that Mahasha told him personally that the letters were sent in 2008 to former premier Sello Moloto and not to Mathale.
City Press argues that the story says the letter was sent to “his office”, meaning the office of the premier. The newspaper says the statement that Mathale is aware of the problem is therefore fair comment “considering that elected public representatives bear responsibililty for what they inherit from predecessors”. City Press adds that it is noteworthy that Mathale did not dispute the existence of the letter.
The newspaper’s argument is sound and reasonable. The story does not say that Mahasha wrote a letter to Mathale – only to his office. It is also indeed reasonable to expect Mathale to at least be aware of the situation.
The road was 5 km long (Lepelle-Nkumpi Municipality)
The story says the road in question is 5 km long.
This is not correct, says Mosomane, as R2 million cannot build a 5 kilometre road.
City Press says the distance of the road is largely immaterial to readers’ understanding of the story. And: “Whilst complaining about this alleged inaccuracy, the premier fails to provide further details.”
If the distance of the road is “largely immaterial”, why then mention it? However, given the lack of further detail, the mentioning of 5 km is indeed not material to the story.
SGL was appointed as contractor (Mutale Municipality)
Mosomane says that the story wrongfully reports that SGL was appointed as the contractor, whilst the company merely acted as consultants and that it therefore was “not responsible for the construction as reported”.
City Press argues that, according to its information, SGL is indeed the recipient of the tender – it is therefore fair to hold that company ultimately responsible for the work done. The newspaper adds that Mosomane fails to elaborate what is meant by the term “consultants”.
The intro reads: “At least three of several multimillion-rand bridges and roads built by Julius Malema’s company in Limpopo were washed away within weeks of their completion.” (own emphasis)
It is noteworthy that Mosomane only mentions this at the end of the complaint – several other less important complaints (for example employees not being paid; SGL paid upfront; GLM project abandoned; the 5 km long road) enjoy priority. Of course, this is not a conclusive argument, but it remains odd that this essential part of the complaint only comes at the very end.
Here is another problem: If SGL was not the contractor, as Mosomane says, why then not mention the name of the real contractor? Surely, that would have strengthened his case?
Be that as it may, either SGL has indeed received the contract, or the company acted as consultants. Even though “consultants” probably do not carry the ultimate responsibility for the construction, they surely do carry a part of it.
This makes it reasonable to give the benefit of the doubt to the newspaper.
The last story: Revelling and rallying mix at Juju’s big bash
The story is about the 29th birthday celebration for Julius Malema. It is stated that Mathale co-owns the “prestigious” Mekete Lodge where the after party was held.
The merits:
Mathale co-owns Mekete Lodge
Mosomane says it is not true that Mathale co-owns Mekete Lodge.
City Press says its information was based on two independent sources. However, the newspaper concedes that it was unable to verify this information and accordingly tenders a retraction in this regard.
Finding
The first story: Pravin guns for fat cats
National investigation into corruption made to look like a local one
The inability of City Press to establish the fact that Minister of Finance Pravin Gordan did send a letter in November 2009 to all nine provinces (involving the investigation of malpractices) led to the impression created in the story that the correspondence at that time was sent to Mathale’s office only – and that the Limpopo government was therefore singled out in the fight against corruption. As this was not true, it is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.” It is also in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Press Code: “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 summarization.”
Mathale guilty of corruption
Mathale is the executive head of Limpopo. This may indeed mean that he could be in the centre of the coming investigation. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Mathale leader of a gang that loots state coffers
The sentence in dispute says: “…Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale may find himself at the coalface of the probe, which may extend to some of his cadres and friends.” This is fair comment, given Mathale’s position, his reported business interests and the awarding of tenders to people seen as his associates. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Ploy to plunder state coffers
The sentences in dispute are merely references to what the newspaper has already reported on. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Limpopo government wants to centralize supply chain management
Nowhere does the story state as a fact that the Limpopo government wanted to centralize the supply chain. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The second story: Cadres
Limpopo portrayed as the most corrupt province in the country
The story does not draw any comparison between provinces; and Gordhan states in the November 27 letter that an investigation into Limpopo’s affairs is going to be launched. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Premier’s spokesperson not available for comment
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The third story: Malema’s R140 tender riches
Julius Malema given tenders worth at least R140 million
The story clearly states that “various municipalities in Limpopo” awarded the contracts in question – not the Limpopo government. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
R140 million as company’s profit
The story does not say that the amount of R140 million constitutes profit – it rather implies that this amount reflects the total value of tenders. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The fourth story: Juju’s dodgy R27m bridges
Front page picture misleading
From the pictures available to this office it is clear that the one used on the front page was taken from such an angle that it gives the impression that the bridge was damaged – when in fact it was not the bridge, but indeed the side of the road that was affected. This is in breach of Art. 5.3 of the Press Code that states: “Pictures shall not misrepresent or mislead…”
Three SGL bridges and roads washed away
It could not be established that “bridges” were washed away. This is inaccurate and misleading reporting and in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code.
Local employees not paid
Despite Racheku’s affidavit, the reporter’s notes and the possibility that Racheku may have lied to either party cause the benefit of the doubt to go to City Press. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Greater Letaba and Mopani district municipalities paid SGL upfront
By Mosomane’s own admittance, SGL did receive money before work on the project commenced. Moreover, nowhere in the story it is either said or implied that SGL received the full amount upfront. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Only a portion of one of the two bridges still in place
From the pictures provided to this office, it cannot be established that a portion of either a “bridge” or a “culvert” was washed away. It much rather looks like it was merely a part of the road that was damaged. It is therefore improbable that the sentence in dispute is accurate, breaching Art. 1.1 of the Press Code. The complaint with regard to the allegation that the structures were damaged a few weeks after their completion is dismissed.
GLM project abandoned
Both City Press and Mosomane could be correct – the project could have been completed and handed over to the community and several subcontractors could have abandoned their jobs (making the sentence in dispute acceptable). This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Mathale personally aware of the GLM problem
The story does not say that the letter was sent to Mathale – it states that it was sent to his office. This makes it reasonable that Mathale knew about the GLM “problem”, even though the letter was sent to his predecessor. Besides, the newspaper is correct: public representatives should bear responsibility for what they inherit from their predecessors. Furthermore, Mathale also did not dispute the existence of the letter. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Road 5 km long
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
SGL appointed as contractor
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The last story: Revelling and rallying mix at Juju’s big bash
Mathale co-owns Mekete Lodge
The newspaper conceded that it was unable to verify this piece of information and accordingly tendered a retraction in this regard.
So be it, then.
Sanction
Firstly, a general remark: Statistically, the bulk of the complaints against City Press are dismissed – yet the severity of the breaches of the Press Code should not be under-estimated.
The newspaper is directed to publish:
  • a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling) and the sanction;
  • an apology to Mr Cassel Mathale for creating the impression that the Limpopo government was singled out in the national fight against corruption; and
  • a retraction of the statement that Mathale co-owns Mekete Lodge.
The newspaper is reprimanded for:
  • using a front page picture to portray a misleading message; and
  • inaccurate reporting that bridges were washed away.

Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2010) for the full finding.

 

Our office should be furnished with the 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