10 years of digging: amaB’s decade in the dung

How a little faith, a little sacrifice and perhaps more than a little endurance have helped us beat the odds and build a unique South African solution to the malaise afflicting media worldwide.

Exactly ten years ago, on 19 March 2010, amaBhungane published its first set of exposés.

We called it “Zuma Inc”, an attempt to shine a light on the expanding network of business interests of then-president Jacob Zuma and his family.

We were just getting started, but it is instructive to look back at those stories, which were published in the Mail & Guardian, the media parent that helped birth us.

Zuma Inc introduced South Africa to “the Guptas”, describing them as an example of “the emergence of political entrepreneurs who appear to have used Zuma’s children to secure their transition from the Mbeki era to the Zuma camp”.

Little did we know in 2010 how they would come to dominate the political and reporting landscape.

But that first edition highlighted other enduring themes.

There was our story on the “sugar mommy” who (regally supported by the state) bankrolled Zuma’s home in Johannesburg – a precursor to the abuse of state resources we later exposed with the scandal over Nkandla.

Our story on Zuma’s pick for a national director of public prosecutions, Menzi Simelane, and his blocking of the last attempts to secure some criminal consequences for one of the kingpins of the Arms Deal, Fana Hlongwane, foreshadowed the Zuma administration’s full-scale assault on the independence and functioning of the National Prosecuting Authority.

How ironic that Hlongwane went on to be a fixer for the Guptas, and that Simelane, who was removed from his job, went on to be an advisor for Lindiwe Sisulu, the political princess now making a play as the pretender to Zuma’s tarnished throne.

Finally there was Adriaan Basson’s story on Bosasa – testimony to his dogged pursuit of one of the companies at the centre of what would become known as “state capture”.

Adriaan went on to become editor of News24, but our roads were to converge again in media collaborations such as the #GuptaLeaks saga – one of the strengths of our model, which values getting the story right over getting it first.

We introduced the name “amaBhungane” only two weeks after those first stories. Now it is almost a household name, cited all the way from shebeens to the Constitutional Court.

When we split from the M&G in 2016 – losing their financial contribution – we were nervous about how we would survive.

Staff reminded us this week how we told them not to make any large financial commitments until we found our feet.

But our reach grew exponentially – and we led the way in filling the gap in our budget by pioneering a local version of supporter funding.

We now run a non-profit company with annual turnover of some R10-million, with a team thrice its original size.

For a third year running, 25% or more of our operating expenditure has comes from individual contributions. And amaBhungane has set a new standard for transparency and accountability with our rigorous funding policy. In the last 4 years, we’ve received more than 13 600 small donations from individual donors. The median value of these contributions is R150.

We have spent the decade at the frontline of the fight for accountability.

It wasn’t just the Guptas and Zuma.

It was the shocking reach of organised crime (think disgraced police commissioner Jackie Selebi and Czech gangster Radovan Krejcir); the hunt for the full extent of the excess that was Nkandla; the dirty oil deals that put elite interests at the expense of the state; the manipulation of social grant payments to fleece the poor; and the capture of massive state owned companies to line the pockets of greedy tenderpreneurs and consultants.

Our advocacy programme has helped to shore up the space for investigative journalism, through access-to-information requests, submissions on public policy, and strategic litigation in the courts.

Over the last 10 years we have also worked to develop investigative journalism through skills transfers, which have included hosting 80-odd journalists from across Southern Africa on investigative fellowships.

Last year we launched the IJ Hub, a separate non-profit company which is sharing skills and support and while acting as a central hub to de-risk and raise donor support for investigative journalism in the region.

We take satisfaction in how far our small team has come – and how with a little faith, a little sacrifice and perhaps more than a little endurance we have beat the odds and built a unique South African solution to the malaise afflicting media worldwide, especially the probing, truth-telling kind.

In the time of the coronavirus, when we’re unsure about next week, never mind next year, or the next decade, it is hard to take a long term view.

Globalisation has lifted millions out of poverty, but it has also produced unprecedented global fragilities, of which the current virus outbreak is just one symptom, and among which the global climate crisis is the most serious threat – likely to trigger secondary crises of increasing severity in the decades ahead.

The social contract between states and citizens has been weakened – and the ability of political parties and governments to act as instruments of social cohesion and redistribution, rather than merely in the interests of elites, has been undermined, especially by the influence of money in politics.

But the current crisis has also shown the value of institutions that can sound the alarm, tell the truth, and push back against selfish elites and grimy politicians.

An independent and vigilant media is a core ingredient for restoring the health of our country and our planet.

AmaBhungane is here to play our small part.

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