IT comes as a surprise to discover that Ebrahim Rasool, former Western Cape Premier and next ambassador to Washington, is only 48 years old. It seems as if he’s survived a hundred years in politics.
A Young Turk from the UDF, a key member of the Call of Islam, one of the conveners of the National Muslim Conference in 1990 and the first Muslim provincial premier, Ebrahim Rasool’s CV bulges with achievement.
Something of an idealist who has managed to weather the cold fronts of political life, his ‘Home for All’ programme whilst premier, and his subsequent founding of the ‘World for All Foundation’, are cogent examples of a man with vision.
After the bitter acrimony of the ANC’s well-publicised infighting in the Western Cape, and his unceremonious axing as premier in mid 2008 due to the bruising conflict, most people in his position would have retreated to the political shadows.
Instead, Rasool has been re-invented as a Presidential advisor, a parliamentary back-bencher, and now, as ambassador to the United States. It’s obvious that his political nous is a talent too precious for the ANC to ignore.
But as Rasool was attending diplomatic school in Pretoria this month, a lingering old chestnut emerged as a full public confession: that two Independent Group journalists had been secretly paid to write stories to enhance his leadership in the strife-torn Western Cape ANC.
The charges came when former Cape Argus political reporter, Ashley Smith, admitted to penning Rasool-friendly reports for payment via a media company, Inkwenkezi Communications.
This was done in a sworn affidavit prepared by a Cape Argus lawyer, and presented to the National Prosecuting Authority. Apart from claiming he wanted to clear his conscience, the Cape Argus reported that Smith was seeking indemnity for possible charges of corruption.
The affidavit has since been returned by the NPA. Smith’s indictment – that political editor Joseph Aranes and he had abused their positions as full time staffers at the Cape Argus to assist Rasool’s office – has proved to be something of a Pyrrhic victory for Rasool’s rivals, who as far back as 2005 claimed that reporters were being paid to vilify them.
In his affidavit Smith admits to being involved in setting up Inkwenkezi Communications together with his former wife, Joy van der Heyde, Aranes and Cape Town businessman, and alleged former MK operative, Zain Orrie.
Whilst saying he did not receive any payments from Rasool, he does admit to receiving money – cash disbursements of between R5, 000 to R 10, 000 that were paid out on three or four occasions to Aranes and him by Zain Orrie at the River Club in Observatory.
The Cape Argus quotes Smith as alleging that the understanding between the Inkwenkezi group and Rasool was that they would assist him with ‘media advice’ in return for business from provincial government.
Inkwenkezi traded from February 2005 until Smith and Aranes were suspended by the Cape Argus in November when allegations of ethical impropriety surfaced against them. No evidence of payment was found, but the discovery that Smith’s wife was a director of Inkwenkezi was seen as a conflict of interest.
Smith resigned before charges could be laid against him, and Aranes – who has flatly denied involvement – was disciplined and demoted from his position as political editor for not divulging Smith’s conflict of interest.
Aranes, whom Smith alleges had shares in Hip-Hop, another media company with provincial contracts, has since resigned from the Cape Argus.
Also in his affidavit Smith alleges Inkwenkezi had late-night meetings with Rasool and sometimes MEC’s Marius Fransman and Leonard Ramatlakane, and that most of his work for Inkwenkezi in this regard was in relation to strategy against Rasool’s chief rival, Mcebisi Skwatsha.
Smith confirms that Inkwenkezi stopped trading shortly after their disciplinary hearings, and when a provincial official tried to pay Inkwenkezi R100, 000 through Oryx Media, a rival company run by former Cape Times journalists, Bennie Gool and Roger Friedman. Oryx questioned the payment.
And when the invoice (issued byZain Orrie) and its contents did come to light, payment was immediately stopped by Rasool’s office on the urging of the premier.
In response, Rasool wrote in an e-mail to the Cape Argus that Smith’s allegations were related to issues that had already been dealt with. They had already been publicly aired, investigated and dispensed with by a variety of bodies.
“In the various investigations, Mr. Smith has pronounced on these matters, at least once under oath. What is consistent about his pronouncements at that time is that he strenuously denied everything he now alleges.
“I have consistently denied these allegations (of paying journalists) and continue to do so. I do not want to enter a battlefield that I have happily exited, nor do I want to be party to anything that is designed to damage the ANC in the Western Cape further,” Rasool told the Cape Argus.
The DA called for President Jacob Zuma to hold back on Rasool’s posting to Washington until the matter could be cleared. However, National ANC spokesperson, Jackson Mthembu, said that the ANC’s decision-making structures were not influenced by media reports.
Other commentators suggested that the timing of Smith’s admission to the Cape Argus, prompted by a reported ‘confession’ to the ANC earlier in June, was ‘interesting’. They suggested that Smith was either down and out, and this was his ‘last card’, or that Rasool’s enemies still had their knives out – but this all had to be proved first.
Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos told the SABC that only a full police investigation would be able to clear up the cloud hanging over Rasool.
In a joint media statement Mcebisi Skwatsha, Max Ozinsky and former premier Lyn Brown (all regarded as anti-Rasool) said their ‘personal and professional’ reputations had been besmirched, and that they would be considering legal action against the Cape Argus.
Smith’s public admission of spin-doctoring, whilst still in the employ the Cape Argus, has raised awkward questions in South African journalism. The Vusi Mona-Ranjeni Munusamy saga, where spurious allegations of apartheid spying were made against then NPA director Bulelani Ngcuka, still rankles.
Newly appointed Freedom of Expression Institute director, Ayesha Kajee, has likened the actions of people like Smith as the thin edge of a wedge where journalists act as lap-dogs for political masters.
She told Al-Qalam that ‘brown envelope journalism’ led to embedded reporting of the worst type, as seen in the war on Iraq or during the apartheid era.
“Smith’s confession raises the spectre of those times, when the nexus between politics and journalism was often murky and shameful. South Africans never want those ghosts resurrected again,” said Kajee, who suggested that journalists should consider instituting an equivalent of the medical Hippocratic Oath.