Watching the Press

7 September 2016

One day in the long life of a city newspaper can tell a lot more than the stories presented suggest.

Today’s edition of The Herald – which was first established in Port Elizabeth in 1845, just 25 years after the 1820 British Settlers arrived – is a case in point.

And for me what is most striking are two glaring omissions in the lead story, about a Johannesburg company that picked up a massive tender from the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (“Media firm’s uncapped city tender”, 7 September 2016).

This is a strong story in so far as it reveals that the firm was given carte blanche to spend money on services not related to communications, such as transport and catering. This was evidently done to circumvent the “lengthy supply chain process”.

Without going into all the details, what immediately struck me about this report is that its source is unclear. The second paragraph tells us “the city has lifted the cap on what was initially a R10-million tender given to Mohlaleng Media over a three-year period, with the company now having an unlimited cap”.

Firstly, the English is shoddy. There are too many “caps”. The term is to “lift the lid”, not “lift the cap”. But the real problem is they do not define who “the city” is. Was the information volunteered to them by acting municipal manager Johann Mettler? I doubt it, although he is the main person quoted, apparently quite happy with the scenario. I suspect the Herald followed up after six Bay businesses exposed the situation after they weren’t fully paid for their subcontracted services.

The report tells us two “media specialists” at the company were paid R771 552 to “beef up” the municipality’s communications unit. It adds that “both were contracted, largely, to former mayor Danny Jordaan’s office, raising questions about why the city did not hire them in political posts as it is allowed by law”. (That odd piece of editorialising is not expanded on. We’ll get back to it later in the context of another story about municipal profligacy.)

Evidently these people worked at Kwantu Towers, using municipal offices and equipment, but moved out “shortly after former communications director Roland Williams was suspended”.

While Mettler seeks to justify the employment of these outsiders, and the massive budgets they were allowed to play with, the report notes further on that “the municipality […] has about 15 staff working in the communications division, two of whom do secretarial work”.

So they mean to tell us that 13 people doing so-called “communications” work are unable to service the needs of the metro?

But here is the big omission. Having read thus far, and we’re about halfway into the story, no mention has yet been made of the ANC per se. It is only when timesheets of where these two people worked are revealed that it emerges they sat in on ANC meetings at Florence Matomela House, and another at the Tramways building on March 4, attended by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. So they were part of the ANC’s inner circle, no doubt helping it with its election strategy, if one were to read between the lines.

The big question for the Herald is: why was the fact that these were ANC appointments not made at the outset? Why bury this fact halfway down? Was it to cushion the blow?

But equally strange with this story is that at no point were the new political leaders of the council, the Democratic Alliance, approached for comment. This is now their baby, but if you read the story there is actually no reference made to them at all. It should have been incumbent on the reporter to contact the relevant DA leader, probably mayor Athol Trollip, to get his take on this issue.

(By the way, my repeated attempts, while still on the Herald, to get the municipal reporter to investigate the holding of ANC party-political meetings in municipal buildings, including the Tramways building, city hall and old Wool Exchange building, were never acted on. The issue I have with those meetings is: did the ANC book and pay for the use of those venues, as it would have been required to do? Because the Herald clearly did not wish to get on the wrong side of the ANC, it avoided asking the difficult questions which are the difference between a real newspaper and a weak one. One wonders if it will bother to keep tabs on the DA in this regard.)

On this story, Mettler should have alerted his new political masters to the fact that the Herald was doing a story. It would have afforded the DA an opportunity to give its side as the “new broom” which hopefully will sweep away all of the corruption that the ANC got away with for 20 years. Maybe the DA will wake up today and make a statement on the issue.

Another story I kept pestering the Herald news desk to cover is the organogram of the NMB Municipality. I felt it would be in the interests of the ratepayers for them to know just how much money was being squandered on political appointments when the city was crying out for practical people like engineers while facing imminent bankruptcy. Naturally, my call in this regard also fell on deaf ears.

Anyway, the chickens came home to roost, in a manner of speaking, in another municipal story today. On Page 4 we discover that two ANC “political advisers” are trying to get a final month’s pay out of the municipality following the party’s loss of the metro to the DA-led alliance in last month’s elections.

What is so shocking about this story is that we learn that one of these advisers, a, wait for it, “political strategist in the deputy mayor’s office”, was earning “about R92 000 a month” three years ago. So, given inflation, that would no doubt have risen to well over R100 000 a month, which is apparently what the second adviser – to the chief whip’s office – was also earning. It is a sum, we are told, that is on a par with that of a director.

You have to hand it to the ANC. When it came to inventing jobs for pals, they were certainly creative. Why on earth would the chief whip and deputy mayor need political advisers? It is truly bizarre. But what is worse is that they were earning obscene sums of money for providing political ballast to the ANC as it wallowed in its pitiful state of municipal dysfunctionality.

To put that sum into perspective, on retirement as a journalist with 32 years’ experience, I was earning a total package of less than a third of what those people were earning, often working virtually non-stop each night till midnight or later.

I have recently been taken to task on DA councillor Dean Biddulph’s Facebook page by people who believe it is unfair to expect the DA to respond to letters and SMSes published in the Herald in which people alert them to water leaks, potholes, and so on. My feeling is that the Herald remains the main public source of news and opinion in the metro and that the DA should welcome it as a forum. If people write to the DA leadership via the free press, it is incumbent on the DA to seek to address those issues, where possible, or at least write a public response spelling out their intentions. Often people even write offering to help the party, as occurred in today’s paper.

Which brings me to a case where the new DA-led municipality clearly has already done some good work. Reporter Tremaine van Aardt a few weeks ago, about when water restrictions were imposed due to the drought, did a survey around the city of the worst water leaks. In today’s paper he follows it up with a positive report to the effect that four major water leakages had been fixed.

And on the letters page, Page 10, there is a letter from someone thanking the municipality for fixing a major water leak “after it was re-reported late in the week of August 22”. The letter was accompanied by a picture of a “geyser-like” leak on the Churchill Dam bulk water pipeline passing through Bushy Park Farm.

Possibly the most cheering bit of news is on Page 4. New Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga, of the DA, it is reported, has rejected 10 new BMW 3 Series cars bought by his predecessor for use by the council executive. Oddly, the story omits the fact that this brave decision was taken by a DA mayor. I wonder why?

Anyway, to Msimanga’s credit, he said he “had to put a stop to purchases or leasing of luxury cars for politicians and senior staff”. He said a Toyota Corolla would be more than adequate, while the new vehicles would go to the metro police’s anti-hijacking unit.