In search of the truth
Ylva Rodny-Gumede reviews the book Nothing left to steal – jailed for telling the truth by Sunday Times investigative journalist Mzilikazi Wa Afrika (Penguin 2014). A year after its launch, it continues to attract attention.
“I was stripped naked, brutally assaulted and thrown into the lion’s den”. So begins the story of Mzilikazi Wa Afrika’s expose of the modern-day slave trade syndicate making their money from human trafficking of cheap labour from Mozambique to South Africa.
However the story itself starts way earlier. As many of the investigative expose’s conducted by Wa Afrika, the Mozambican slave trade story starts innocently enough, a taxi trip from Johannesburg to Nelspruit in which a conversation is had about a man trading in human beings that sees Wa Afrika.
Wa Afrika goes undercover and puts himself through the motions as a work seeker smuggled from Mozambique back in to South Africa. It is a story that could have cost him his life as his cover is blown and he is beaten up and left for dead in the Kruger National Park.
And there are many other stories – the trailing of a car licence plate that leads to the first exposure of Tony Yengeni’s kickbacks (and many others) from the arms deal and the undercover soliciting of a fake ID that leads to the exposure of then Home Affairs Director General Albert Mokoena’s dodgy dealings with a basketball team consisting of Zambian players “newly” naturalised through the Minister’s office. And so it goes on. The stories are told from the perspective of the journalist’s investigations sometimes on his own and sometimes as part of a bigger investigative team.
Wa Afrika tells it all in his memoirs, detailing the major stories that have shaped his career as one of the premier investigative journalists in the country. What was initially to be a story of his life from humble beginnings in Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga eventually became a story of South Africa post 1994 and what has gone wrong in the socio-political makeup of our country.
Wa Afrika reveals the details behind the major corruption scandals in the last 20 years of democracy. He reveals the details of his and the Sunday Times’ exposure of the R1.7 Billion lease scandal between police commissioner Bheki Cele and property tycoon Roux Shabangu, a story that lead to Wa Afrika’s unlawful and unjustified arrest in 2010. The arrest triggered a public outcry as pictures of Wa Afrika were published showing him frog marched from the Sunday Times office in Rosebank supposedly to the nearby police station. He never reached the police station as he is bundled into an unmarked police car and taken quite literally for a ride. Wa Afrika is threatened and held against his will by policemen who will not reveal on whose orders they are acting. He is held in a cell with three other prisoners, refused the right to make phone calls to his lawyer, queried on his stories and asked to sign a pre-typed “confession”.
He is warned not to eat or drink as “they are going to try to poison you- that’s one of their plans. These people want you dead”. His arrest comes just days after the Cele/ Shabangu exposure.
Investigative journalism is not for the faint hearted. For all the criticism levelled against the South African news media, we cannot fault journalists like Wa Afrika who continue to bring us the stories that truly defines the public interest.
As such, this is a book that anyone interested in the current state of South Africa should read. It is also a book that journalists and journalism students alike should read and that should go on top of any reading list for aspiring journalism students.
Wa Afrika is as fearless and determined as he is modest. During a launch of the book at the University of Johannesburg in February 2015, he is asked what made him the brave investigative journalist he is, Wa Afrika’s responds: ‘I am not brave, I am simply doing what anyone would do faced with a crime, “I stand up and report it, and in doing so I am prepared to risk my life, I am prepared to die for my country”.
Prof. Ylva Rodny-Gumede is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg and a Senior Associate Researcher with the Stanhope Centre for International Communications Policy Research at the London School of Economics.