15 April 2024 | 11:26 PM

Malema ally has the world in his hands

Key Takeaways

Tiso Blackstar this week announced that it would be selling one of its titles, Sunday World, to Fundudzi Media, owned by construction tycoon David Mabilu.

The EFF, in an excited press statement, was quick to hail the sale as a “positive development”, calling on “big corporations, as well as government, to support Fundudzi Media by advertising in the Sunday World”.

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What the EFF did not disclose is party leader Julius Malema’s longstanding relationship with Mabilu — presumably good reason for the party to cheer the takeover.

As far back as 2011, amaBhungane and others reported on Mabilu’s jet-setting Mauritius wedding which Malema, ANC Youth League president at the time, attended – together with a group of celebrities.

“The 44-year-old multimillionaire and his bride, Phala, chartered an airplane to ferry hundreds of friends, family and entertainers from South Africa to the Indian Ocean island for a weekend-long wedding party that reportedly set him back about R15-million,” amaBhungane wrote.

An amaBhungane report showed how in 2009 a group of politicians and businessmen close to Malema and his then ally, Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale, had leveraged their political capital to “jump the queue” in a municipal property sale in Polokwane.

According to the article, Mabilu acquired a plot, though he denied having received any special privileges. The article claimed that 15 sales benefitted politically-connected individuals, including Mathale and an associate of his, as well as Lesiba Gwangwa, the chief executive of On-Point Engineering, the company co-owned by Malema’s Ratanang Family Trust that was implicated in a damning Public Protector’s report on tender fraud involving the Limpopo Department of Roads and Transport.

Mabilu denies any wrongdoing in the land acquisition.

A separate amaBhungane report showed that Mabilu was involved in another questionable property transaction around the same time.

In that case, Mabilu’s company, Promafco, negotiated a property swap with the Polokwane Municipality, obtaining two lucrative pieces of land in return for four farms.

According to that article, Mabilu sold on the two portions only a year later to the Limpopo local government and housing department for five times the price, scoring a quick R20-million. He added roughly another R20-million to that figure by throwing in another two adjacent portions of land, acquired privately, whose value had similarly escalated.

Mabilu again maintains that he did nothing wrong, saying that bringing the matter up now “looks like a desperate attempt to dig up tiny bits of information from a long time ago in order to manufacture a whiff of scandal where none exists.”

Mabilu is a big player in Limpopo, and was involved in the bloated multimillion-rand Giyani water project. His company, Vharanani Properties, pulled out of the project after the Department of Water and Sanitation under minister Nomvula Mokonyane failed to pay monies owed to them.

It was the same company – Vharanani Properties – that, according to a News24 report, “on more than one occasion paid amounts exceeding R100 000 into the account of the Ratanang Family Trust, named after Malema’s son”.

Mabilu’s name has also cropped up in relation to the ongoing VBS banking scandal and was mentioned briefly in a report into the looting by Advocate Terry Motau.

Mabilu, through his company Promafco, held a 24,5% stake in a company called Dyambeu, with another 24,5% held by the company of the former VBS chair and key architect of the grand fraud, Tshifhiwa Matodzi, and the remainder owned by the Venda royal family. Dyambeu bought 26% of VBS for R6-million.

Mabilu points out that the report did not implicate him in wrongdoing, and says that he “was the one who fought against the looting of VBS”.

He forwarded amaBhungane letters and correspondence sent to the Reserve Bank in 2016 in which he flagged certain financial irregularities at VBS, in particular about the apparent unauthorised issuing of shares.

The EFF’s enthusiastic embrace of Mabilu’s purchase, which the party hopes will “reshape the continued degenerating idea of ‘truth’”, comes from a party that has a fraught relationship with the media.

Its leaders regularly tar their critics in the media with the “Stratcom” label, and in March last year its deputy leader, Floyd Shivambu, was filmed roughing up a journalist.

Malema has been criticised for dog whistle threats against journalists. Earlier this year he lost a court case brought by journalist Karima Brown, who had received rape and death threats after Malema published her cell-phone number on Twitter.

Concerns of potential interference by the title’s new politically-connected owner, whose controversies have placed him in the media spotlight before, are not unfounded.

Other titles have become mouthpieces of influential owners, but what does Mabilu make of concerns that Sunday World could adopt a more partisan editorial line?

“There will be no favourable coverage for any political party”, he says.

“Instead, we intend to be fair, balanced and accurate in how we interact with all political parties – from the ANC to the Freedom Front Plus.”

South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) executive director Kate Skinner says, “The hope is that owners respect independence of their publications and the media entities that they own. We have seen encroachment from media owners… that independence needs to be written into some kind of policy.”

In its press statement, the EFF also points out that Fundudzi Media’s purchase will mean more diversity in media ownership. The construction magnate’s foray into media may breathe some life into the Sunday World, which has teetered on the brink of closure under Tiso’s ownership.

As is the case across the haemorrhaging newspaper industry, Sunday World’s circulation figures have continued to plunge, falling from 47 835 to 40 383 according to The Audit Bureau of Circulations’ statistics for the first quarter of 2019.

A former editor within the Tiso group said that the 2016 redesign of the title was an unmitigated disaster.

Sunday World became the guinea-pig” for a planned redesign across the group’s titles, but readers did not appreciate the changes. They were unforgiving, and the paper has not recovered.

The paper’s new ownership could stave off further job losses and might just be the adrenaline shot that keeps the publication alive.

“Overall the feeling in Sanef is that it’s certainly a good thing,” says Skinner.

“The issue is that the media environment is so difficult, the industry is under such stress, so for the publication to have the possibility of continuing and for jobs to be saved is overwhelmingly a positive thing.”

Mabilu has yet to reveal how he plans to bring about some degree of financial viability and take the paper “to the next level”. It might be tempting to fill the paper with more boobs, more butts, and more red berets.

Sunday World has always positioned itself as an infotainment title, but the info side of it could be toned down in favour of more racy, eye-catching entertainment in the hopes of arresting the decline.

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But Mabilu says that the plan is “to increase focus on politics and business”.

“Our sustainability plans will become apparent in time. In 2006, the Economist said newspapers were dead. Decades later, newspapers are still here. My view is that newspapers must innovate, taking into consideration the impact of rapid advancement of technology on mutating reader consumption patterns.”

Buying Sunday World may not appear to make much financial sense, but even a struggling political tabloid brings social and political capital.

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Micah Reddy and Sam Sole

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