Daredevil Journalists and The Ogre of Death Threats

When Sunday Times, on the 15th of October 2017, reported that Mzilikazi wa Afrika, one of their investigative journalists, had received a death threat from Diogo Mateus whilst enquiring about ZAR 1.2 million worth of Eskom contracts that had been awarded to a company with which Mateus is connected, it made for disturbing reading. It is not the first death threat that a journalist has received in the ongoing drama that has been the perennial story dominating South African print and online media for the past year.

Nor, in fact, have other protagonists in the state capture and state-owned enterprise contracts stories been immune from this nature of threat. Witnesses, accountants, whistle-blowers, politicians, CEOs, and even ministers have also received death threats. And, whilst South Africa may not be quite so dangerous as Syria for example – where more than 60 journalists have been killed since the Syrian civil war began – this country has increasingly become a perilous place to investigate and report the news.

Mzilikazi wa Afrika had every reason to enquire of Diogo Mateus the manner in which the Eskom contracts had been procured, and whether the garnering of these contracts had been influenced by Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown. After all, her close friend and lover, Ingrid Tufvesson, is part-owner of a company called E Smart Solutions, which had won the contracts, and which had committed in these contracts to supplying oil to Eskom’s transformers at 10 power stations. This is despite the fact that E Smart Solutions is a company registered to provide academic project work, and has no prior experience in the oil industry.

The other significant owner of E Smart Solutions is a woman called Michelle McMaster, who happens to be the mother of Lynne Brown’s former personal assistant, Kim Davids. Davids was effectively fired from her role in early August of this year after significant journalistic pressure had pointed out that there was documentary evidence that Davids had spent time at the Oberoi Hotel in Dubai, charged to the Gupta-owned company, Sahara Computers.

What makes the story Mzilikazi wa Afrika is pursuing even more intricate are two further family connections. First is the fact that a third director of E Smart Solutions is Serisa Bernice Davids, Kim Davids’ sister. And second is the fact that Diogo Mateus is Kim Davids’ husband. It would appear that Davids’ dismissal from her PA role was not going to hinder the advancement of the family’s questionable relationship with Lynne Brown, nor any profiteering that could be pursued out of that relationship.

The fact that Lynne Brown, Minister of Public Enter-prises – essentially the head of the Department of Public Enterprises, the government organ charged with overseeing and managing all state-owned entities including Eskom, Transnet and South African Airways – could award contracts to a company with which she is clearly connected, and to a company that would appear to have absolutely no experience in delivering, appears not only to be extremely dubious, but also to border on being career suicide.

But, within the context of the lack of accountability that she has thus far had to take, and in the absence of any real investigation into her affairs, her behaviour seems less strange and illogical than it might have been in another country, or context. The question naturally arises as to what hope there is of bringing the questionable Eskom contracts, or Transnet contracts, or for that matter the PRASA contracts, into the clear light of day, when the Minister charged with ensuring integrity across the totality of public enterprises is herself engaged in awarding suspicious contracts to connected parties.

In fact, given the free licence she seems to enjoy, the size of the contracts, summing only to ZAR 1.2 million – in contrast for example with the ZAR 1.6 billion that McKinsey and Trillian earned for 6 months of management consulting work at Eskom last year – seems abnormally small, perhaps even ungenerous. After all, 10 power stations surely require a lot more that ZAR 1.2 million of oil to keep South African homes and industry going.

In context of the position Lynne Brown holds, and in context of the revelations of the significant interventions of Gupta-linked firms insinuating themselves into state-owned enterprises, Mzilikazi wa Afrika’s questions to Diogo Mateus would seem, at the worst, to be relatively innocuous. Mateus, for example, might have simply replied that he had no knowledge of these contracts, since he is neither a director, shareholder, nor employee of E Smart Solutions. In fact, there are probably a hundred different answers he could have given to Afrika’s questions and left it at that.

But, this was not to be Mateus’ day for side-stepping provocative journalistic questions. This was a day for death threats. He is recorded by the Sunday Times telling Afrika telephonically, “You are putting your life in danger. Consider that you’ve got a family, just think about them. My friend, I promise, you won’t see the sun shine again.”

Clearly, for Diogo Mateus, there is an aversion to the kind of cloak-and-dagger behaviour that one ordinarily expects from sophisticated criminals. Perhaps one has been overly influenced by Hollywood movies and comic books, expecting the villains to demonstrate some level of perspicacity. Where are the surreptitious meetings, where are the henchmen, where is the refined, thoughtful, planning that must surely go into running a criminal enterprise?

In Marvel Comics Daredevil, Issue 296, published in September 1991, in a story-line that informed the collective imaginations of a generation, and that inspired many a teenager to become a lawyer, Matt Murdock – a blind trial attorney who dons his skin-hugging Daredevil outfit at night to battle evil – finds himself fending off henchmen that act on behalf of the lower levels of a criminal empire run by the Kingpin. The Kingpin is the central figure of corruption and evil in the Daredevil comic books of thirty years ago, and he is portrayed as an enormous, ponderous, fat, bald man who wears a white suit, a cravat, and looks perhaps a little bit like an overweight version of Dwayne Johnson.

Generally, the comic book panels in which he appears will have him smoking a cigar. He is serious in expression and calm in demeanour. On page 15 of Issue 296, a small-time gangster called Jimmy Sabini is complaining to the Kingpin that the Daredevil problem is affecting his business – much as a lower-ranking mafioso might have pleaded with Marlon Brando’s version of the godfather for assistance in curtailing some kind of turf infraction.

“So why do I have to put up with this baloney huh?” Jimmy complains, “For what? I mean, some upstart no name wants to muscle in, and I gotta get shook down by their ninja turtles?! I near went an’—Point is, I’m Jimmy Sabini!”

The Kingpin, looking calmly out the window, not even deigning to look in Jimmy’s direction responds, “You’ve vocalized the issue most emphatically, Mr. Sabini, but as is so often the case, in men of limited potential, you’ve missed the larger picture!”

In contemplating the banality of Diogo Mateus’ death threat, it’s sheer doltishness, one can only conclude that there must either be a Kingpin to whom he reports in the “larger picture”, or that petty larceny, even at the higher orders of government representation – even perhaps at ministerial levels – has become so normalised, and so unchallenged, that there is no real Kingpin in all of this. The structural landscape that we inhabit now is perhaps not as Kingpin-driven as we would imagine. Perhaps it is a world, rather, that is made up of many Jimmy Sabinis.

Whilst there are lawyers on the side of good arguing their cases in court – one thinks here of the work of the Helen Suzman Foundation and the Freedom Under Law organisation – it is currently the investigative journalists and a few other brave voices asking the most basic and essential of questions. They do so against the perennial force of banal, depressing, and ultimately criminal malefactors who press on regardless in leaching the state of its resources and rectitude.

Unfortunately for Mzilikazi wa Afrika, he has little choice other than to continue to press his questions onto even the most incoherent of subjects or to don a mask and tight red suit and to skip over buildings at night, protecting our freedoms.