Were the Gupta Leaks South Africa’s Watergate?

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Whistleblowers: The anonymous sources for South Africa’s massive email leak known as the #GuptaLeaks have fled the country. They appeared in a video, in silhouette, at a Cape Town media conference in August. Photo courtesy: Daily Maverick

At the Daily Maverick’s annual media “Gathering” in Cape Town last month, the great and good of South African journalism sat rapt as two anonymous silhouettes addressed them in a recorded video. Their voices warped beyond recognition, the silhouettes described their central role in the biggest story to hit South Africa since the end of apartheid.

“We’re not political in any shape whatsoever,” one insisted. “The fall of the president was not in our minds at any time… We’re just regular South Africans.”

Last year, these “regular South Africans”— who have since fled the country and whose identities are a closely kept secret — leaked a vast cache of emails from inside the business empire of the Guptas: three brothers who moved to South Africa from India in the 1990s, cozied up to former President Jacob Zuma and his family, and gradually “captured” the levers of the South African state, siphoning mountains of public cash to their companies in the process.

The Guptas had been on South Africans’ radars for years, in particular after commandeering a state air force base for a family wedding in 2013. But the email cache, better known as the “Gupta Leaks,” confirmed for many just how deep their tendrils reached, snagging lucrative tenders from departments across government and even doling out ministerial appointments. The leaks implicated global heavyweights KPMG and McKinsey in the Guptas’ affairs, and helped to force out of business the British PR firm Bell Pottinger — which exploited racial tensions to spin scrutiny away from the Guptas. And they were a key factor as Zuma tumbled from office, ousted first as head of his party, then as head of state.

Comparisons to Watergate naturally followed. Both stories helped bring down a sitting president, and they contain comparable dramatic mystique. The silhouetted Gupta whistleblowers played the “Deep Throat” role, risking everything to put the truth in journalists’ hands. And in both cases, reporters hung out in a parking garage to swap state secrets (though Bob Woodward didn’t have to lock his mobile phone in his car to skirt electronic eavesdroppers).

But unlike Watergate, the Gupta Leaks’ political influence can be overstated. As Adi Eyal, who worked on the Gupta Leaks as head of Cape Town-based civic tech unit OpenUp, told GIJN: “We wouldn’t have gotten rid of Zuma had it not been for the factions and the infighting within [Zuma’s ruling] ANC.” The leaks, rather, were “the right ammunition at the right time.”

Journalism’s Golden Age

One consequence of Watergate was that it ushered in a “golden age” for journalism — making Hollywood heroes of reporters and boosting trust in the media as a whole. One year on, it’s not quite clear that the Gupta Leaks have given South African journalism a comparable shot in the arm.

On the plus side, the Gupta Leaks have clearly energized South African investigative journalists, who, collectively, are churning out explosive work on a daily basis. The leaks themselves continue to bear fruit — the dozen or so reporters who eventually worked on them still don’t know how many emails the cache contains (let alone what extra stories might be in them), while a public inquiry opened last month and has already heard shocking new claims. And other reporters have exposed a rot that goes far deeper than the Guptas. The brothers are relative bit-part players, for instance, in journalist Jacques Pauw’s acclaimed book The President’s Keepers, which tracks how Zuma and his cronies systematically infiltrated and dismantled state tax and law enforcement agencies.

The Gupta scoop, which was a rare example of cross-media collaboration in South Africa, has also boosted the outlets that worked on it. Nonprofit newsroom and GIJN member amaBhungane (translation: “beetles”; motto: “Digging dung, fertilising democracy”), for example, has seen a pronounced spike in public donations since it spearheaded the story, and is now fielding more high-quality tip-offs than it can handle.

“If you wanted investigative journalists to solve all the country’s problems then I guess you would need us to be one member out of 10 of the population,” amaBhungane co-founder Stefaans Brümmer told GIJN recently.

Susan Comrie, a reporter for amaBhungane, reckons this reflects increased faith in public-interest journalism as a whole.

“One of the really positive things is that (the Gupta Leaks) confirmed for a lot of people how valuable the media is,” she observed. “The media in South Africa, like anywhere else, struggles with the same things of declining readership, the economic rug being pulled out from under them. But I think in the past year people have really realized what a massive role the media played in being able to bring all of this to light.”

The Guptas and Zuma commonly sought to control the media narrative to shield themselves from scrutiny. The Guptas set up their own newspaper and TV station to carry their line, Zuma appointed surrogates to keep South Africa’s public broadcaster on a tight leash and the independent Sunday Times ran, then retracted, several reports impugning public servants who are widely held to be the good guys. The leaks story has cast the profession in a more positive light.

The economic problems Comrie mentioned, however, remain sharp for the South African media as a whole. And with low media literacy rates, a profound disconnect remains between middle-class newspaper readers and poorer South Africans, many of whom continued to back Zuma as one scandal after another rocked his administration. At the Gathering in Cape Town, part of a “Post #GuptaLeaks World” panel focused on whether the media tried hard enough to understand Zuma’s base — a problem with familiar, Trumpian overtones.

“Zuma always portrayed himself as a man of the people,” mused City Press Editor Mondli Makhanya. “He humbled himself to that level, which perhaps we didn’t do.”

In South Africa, this disconnect has a potent racial dimension. Since apartheid ended 25 years ago, some politicians and members of the public have cast doubt on the core legitimacy of South Africa’s watchdog press. Some have called it a hindrance to the country’s developing democracy. Others have called its work racist.

Mission Unaccomplished

Brümmer and Eyal both told me that the physical evidence in the Gupta Leaks was so extensive — and so undeniable — that it neutered most criticism of this type. With Zuma gone, however, even supporters of aggressive investigative journalism may see it as a less urgent imperative going forward, despite corruption remaining endemic.

“There’s a perception out there that because the president stepped down it’s ‘mission accomplished,’ we can go home,” Comrie said. “Unfortunately, it’s by no means ‘job done.’”

If the Gupta Leaks were a Watergate moment for South African journalism, then, they were a Watergate moment with a 21st century hue. They offered hope that dogged reporting can, eventually, cut through public fatigue and help haul down an unrepentantly scandal-plagued president. And who knows: Maybe Brümmer, Comrie and the Gathering’s silhouetted whistleblowers will even see themselves portrayed on the silver screen one day.

The twin crises of economics and public trust, however, remain acute. The feeling persists that despite its central importance, this is no golden age for journalism — in South Africa or anywhere else.


Editor’s note: Those reporting on the collaborative Gupta Leaks investigation — which included journalists from the Daily Maverick, amaBhungane and News24 — have swept some of South Africa’s top awards, including the Story of the Year at the annual Sikuvile Journalism Awards, announced last week. They also received the Taco Kuiper Award for investigative journalism, while Branko Brkic, the editor of the Daily Maverick, was awarded the prestigious Nat Nakasa Award for his handling and leadership on the massive email cache.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He was most recently a media reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review, and his investigative work on the global lottery industry has appeared in The Hartford Courant, the New York Daily News and South Africa’s Limpopo Mirror.

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