The Role of Investigative Journalism in Uncovering Organised Crime and Corruption in South Africa

The Role of Investigative Journalism in Uncovering Organised Crime and Corruption in South Africa

Annie Kok
20 Aug, 2021

In the fight against organised crime, it is important to identify policies, institutions, and actions that have a meaningful impact. The significance of the media – specifically investigative journalism – in this regard, should not be underestimated. This blog explores the importance of investigative journalism in South Africa in not only informing the public of the state’s involvement in organised crime and other large-scale illicit activities, but also in providing evidence and initiating criminal investigations.

During the zenith of apartheid, the South African government censored the media by enacting and enforcing a myriad of laws ranging from the power to suspend newspapers to targeting individual journalists. The state kept journalists in constant fear of legal persecution. In fact, in the 1980s, media legislation was published that required journalists to register with the state, allowing regulators to monitor and promptly de-register any journalists who published stories that opposed – or rather exposed – the government. Under this law, practicing journalism without permission was punishable by up to ten years imprisonment. The register of journalists legislation was withdrawn at a later stage, but its existence remains a powerful testimony of the measures adopted by the apartheid state to suppress any form of critical journalism.

Although several international treaties – including the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights – promote press freedom, journalists have little recourse if the very governments they are investigating undermine these policies. When the apartheid media gag ended, press freedom was finally guaranteed by Section 16 of the South African Constitution. Yet, the democratic state has shown exceptional intolerance in its response to revelations of government involvement in organised crime and corruption. The Protection of State Information Bill, which was passed in Parliament in November 2011, is a prime example of the state’s attempt to classify and protect information. This bill attracted severe criticism from civil society, advocacy groups and political opposition, who collectively argued that it violated the constitution. The enactment is commonly referred to as the “secrecy bill” and is often compared to apartheid-style censorship due the severe constrains it imposes on media freedom.

State corruption can facilitate organised crime and materialise at various institutional levels. The South African media has highlighted the contentious relationship between organised criminals and public officials. Within the upper echelons of government, media reports have detailed former president Zuma’s clandestine interactions with gangstersillicit funding for presidential campaigns, and the now-convicted former South African Police Commissioner’s link with a convicted drug smuggler, among other high profile exposés. At lower levels of the state, numerous reports have highlighted the alleged role of police officers involved in criminal networks, trafficking in persons and illegal weapons trades to name but a few examples. The disheartening reality portrayed by local media is that there is a systemic corruption and organised crime nexus entrenched in the South African state. The magnitude of purported state corruption and its links to organised crime in South Africa is unfathomable.

During the Zuma presidency, 2009 – 2018, the state seemed to have adopted an impervious culture of impunity that saw multiple institutions falter. The tide started to turn with the unprecedented leak of a trove of emails, the Gupta leaks, providing evidence that state institutions were captured. This sentiment was further emphasised when Ferial Haffajee, an investigative journalist, highlighted 25 major corruption scandals directly linked with the governing party. This list excludes the R14.3-billion (€848 million) Covid-19 related corruption allegations, which has been described by prominent international media as “frightening”. This while the Zondo commission – mandated to inquire into allegations of state capture, corruption, and fraud – has been hearing evidence of racketeering with impunity. Where words fail, numbers may serve better; it was recently revealed at the Zondo Commission that state capture has cost South Africa an estimated R48 122 117 466.82 (€2.8 billion). However, whilst state apparatus falter and individuals vie for power, investigative journalists have been uncovering state capturecorruptionfraud and other illicit activities to hold the upper echelons of the state – as well as their accomplices in organised criminal groups – accountable for their involvement in corruption and other illicit activities.

The South African media widely investigated and reported the improper influence exerted by the Zuma administration, revealing a state capture network of unscrupulous individuals including the Gupta brothers, who occupied influential positions. In fact, three media outlets (AmaBhunganeDaily Maverick and News24) were awarded the 2017 Taco Kuiper Award for investigative journalism, honouring the collaborating trio’s investigative skills and experience in uncovering grand corruption related to the Gupta-leaks. In The President’s Keepers, investigative journalist Jacques Pauw provides a narrative description of former President Zuma’s network, revealing how he compromised the state to stay in power and out of prison. The magnitude of Zuma’s corrupt shadow state was so vast that Superlinear tried to make sense of the network by rudimentarily mapping the book with TextNet. This map visualises Zuma’s links with three distinct clusters of well-known organised criminals involved in the illicit cigarette tradeprotection gangs and extortion rackets, amongst other illicit activities. Organised crime flourished under Zuma’s presidency.

Following the publication of The President’s Keepers, the State Security Agency served Pauw and his publisher with a cease-and-desist letter, stating that the book reveals classified information and, of course, is allegedly riddled with inaccuracies. The State Security Agency threatened to pursue legal action against Pauw and the publisher if certain parts of the book were not redacted and withdrawn from circulation. The publisher responded by standing tall in the face of state pressure, stating that “[w]e have refused to bow to the pressure – and will continue to do so.” This exposé quickly became one of the best-selling books in South African history, as people defiantly attempted to get their hands on the book before it was banned. Pauw writes that while law enforcement searched his office during a raid, one of the police officers actually asked him to sign his copy of The President’s Keepers.

The advantage the media has over public officials in seeking to illuminate state corruption lies in its detachment from government and its processes. Numerous public officials who have attempted to investigate serious and organised crime, such as Major-general Jeremy Veary and Johann van Loggerenberg, have faced stern opposition. Viewfinder reports that South African Police Service members accused of serious crimes often remain on duty, whilst Jeremy Veary was recently dismissed after an expedited hearing found him guilty of being “disrespectful” towards police management on Facebook. The notion that the role of the media is to observe and report newsworthy events is trite; journalism plays a much larger role in creating awareness and mobilising public opinion, although one must concede that the threat of a book ban certainly helps. Journalists are nonetheless harassedtargeted at their homes and workplaces, and even assaulted by the police. Although Reporters Without Borders lists South Africa at 32nd out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, journalists are monitored by the State Security Agency and subjected to intimidation campaigns, such as the Bell Pottinger PR campaign, which are used to discredit and discourage reporting on topics involving the governing party.

The impunity of the Zuma-years cannot easily be undone, but some progress has been made. In 2019, the AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism challenged the state on the constitutionality of bulk surveillance and interception of journalists’ communications. The Constitutional court ruled in favour of AmaBhungane, declaring bulk interceptions illegal. As at 1 June 2020, President Ramaphosa has returned the Protection of State Information Bill to the National Assembly for consideration of the President’s reservations about its constitutionality, thereby reaffirming the importance of protecting the right to freedom of expression, including media freedom. Despite vast censorship apparatus, journalists not only agitated the state, but successfully exposed the violence of the apartheid government. Similarly, twenty-seven years after the end of apartheid, investigative journalists continue to expose the symbiotic relationship between organised crime and the state, to hold those in power accountable by creating awareness and keeping the conversation in the public eye. Ideally, more should be done to prevent and reduce state involvement in serious and organised crime, but whilst state institutions rebuild, South Africans rely on investigative journalists to apply pressure to the wound left by state capture. In the bravery and defiance of South Africa’s media there is a valuable example of best practice which is, perhaps, a too-often ignored segment of the global response to organised crime.

Annie Kok is a doctoral candidate and researcher at the Centre of Criminology, University of Cape Town, South Africa. Her research interests include deciphering organised criminal networks through network analysis, and historical public inquiries into police and policing.

Main image credit: Jon S, via Flickr

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution