AmaBhungane: looking back, rolling on

We’ve come a long way. And we have far to go.

It’s time to take stock, not only of the last year, but the last decade.

It’s ten years and five days since we registered amaBhungane as a non-profit company, though our first stories had to wait until March 2010.

Next year we hope to celebrate that anniversary in an appropriate way, but in the meantime we urge you to browse back through our archive.

In a decade of impunity we have been at the forefront of fighting for accountability.

We looked at the media landscape in 2009 and decided on a new direction to help preserve and build the skills and space for serious accountability journalism.

It was to be donor-funded, releasing us from some of the pressures of a declining commercial environment and its baleful impact on journalism jobs, skills and resources.

We were helped in that endeavour by our then publisher, the Mail & Guardian, but in 2016 – as the M&G wobbled and new horizons beckoned – we stepped out on our own.

We lost the M&G’s financial contribution, but our brand and our reach grew exponentially – and we led the way in filling the gap in our budget by pioneering a local version of supporter funding via our donation portal.

Then came the #GuptaLeaks and our profile exploded.

It has not been easy to keep up.

We now run a “business” with annual turnover of some R10-million. Yes, it’s a non-profit, but it needs to be managed to the high standards of accountability that our donors demand – as do we ourselves.

Our small team needs to manage the ceaseless balancing between what is important and what is achievable given our still-limited resources – and keep punching above our weight.

We need to keep doing that even when the “new dawn” – ushered in at least in part due to our own exhausting efforts – proves to be fitful, weak and dogged by the damage of the Zuma years.

We need to keep doing that with integrity in the sometimes toxic media environment, which saw us even banned from EFF events.

We also need to manage the inevitable turnover of team members and maintain a commitment to the amaBhungane ideal, which demands personal sacrifices from every one of us.

This year we lost three star “beetles”.

First was veteran Craig McKune, a combination number-cruncher and bullshit-caller who struck more fear in the hearts of corporate communications departments (and executives) than any other journalist we can think of.

Craig left to become a fulltime eco-warrior, working in the energy and climate space, which represents the most critical challenge of the next decade – an issue to which we will return.

Next was Zanele Mji, who gave us memorable insight into the struggles over land (see here and here) and left us to spread her wings as a multimedia investigative journalist.

Finally, as the year came to a close, our advocacy powerhouse, Karabo Rajuili, broke the news that she had received an international offer that was simply too good to refuse.

The advocacy leg of our operation is somewhat unseen and unheralded, but it was often Karabo – with her charm, persistence and unassailable logic – who has got us access to information, swayed the views of legislators, and managed litigation that sometimes dragged on for years.

We have scored some remarkable advocacy victories this year: the high court decision overturning unregulated and unconstitutional parts of the state’s surveillance regime; the CCMA’s recognition that its hearings are by default open; and the court order that the department of social development must disclose its records on non-profit organisations – in this case the records of Zuma foundations we had asked for.

We also launched ground-breaking disclosure cases, including on internal party campaign funding and piercing the veil of corporate secrecy at Steinhoff.

One of our biggest efforts this year affected the skills transfer part of our mandate – again largely unseen and unsung.

Since we launched amaB we have hosted over 70 fellows from across Southern Africa and helped some of them launch their own investigative journalism centres, including in Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho.

But they have struggled to secure the funding they need to keep going, so this year we spun off the I J Hub, a separate non-profit company which will facilitate skills transfer, support and collaboration while acting as a central fundraising hub to promote and de-risk donor support for investigative journalism in the region.

We are also replenishing the dung-digging team. We have hired Dewald van Rensburg, whose attention to detail makes him a fitting successor to Craig, and are close to clinching two more key appointments. Late last year we hired Lizel Shepherd as operating co-ordinator, to free managing partners Stefaans and Sam to do more journalism.

Our journalism is, after all, the measure by which we stand or fall.

In September we received international recognition for our work on the #GuptaLeaks.

AmaB was part of the collaborative effort that tied for first place in the Global Shining Light Award, the accolade bestowed by the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

Our Susan Comrie was also joint winner of this year’s Taco Kuiper Award, the top honour for investigative journalism in South Africa, for her series on how advisory firm Regiments Capital sucked R600-million out of state-owned enterprises.

But in journalism, as the saying goes, you’re only as good as your last story – and we’ve had to recalibrate after the intense focus on the Guptas and state capture.

We delved into municipal muck, where the corrosive political habits of exchanging tenders for cash are incubated – as we describe here and here and here and here.

That made us unpopular with the ANC’s Geoff Makhubo and Mzwandile Masina, the DA’s Herman Mashaba and with the EFF as a whole (hence the ban on our attendance).

We followed our noses on the pong emanating from the Pubic Investment Corporation here, here, here and here, whose management of government employees’ pensions has been a patronage machine for years; the pure stink at VBS bank; and the transnational corporate cack at Samancor and Xolobeni.

We also tried to exhume the violent sewer that is the interface between organised crime and the police here, here and here courtesy of the inimitable Caryn Dolley, who served a short term contract with us.

As the year closed, we reignited our collaboration with News24 and Daily Maverick to begin to bring you the story of State Capture 2.0 – the fightback being pursued by the erstwhile Zuma faction.

Early next year we hope to unveil #EarthCrimes – our effort to play a role in uncovering the local corruption and vested interests that are dragging down efforts to rescue our planet.

As you wind down for the year, spare a thought (and maybe a dime) for the dung beetles who are trying to clean up the mess.

 

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