[intro]In 2010 the SABC issues a request for a strand of investigative documentary film proposals titled “Truth Be Told”. They call for journalism that “opens viewers’ eyes to what’s going on in their world”. They subsequently commission a film called Project Spear but days before it is due to air, it’s pulled from the schedule mysteriously. There is no explanation at the time. The story is about South Africans being defrauded of billions by the apartheid government as it was leaving in the Nineties. They called it lifeboats. It involved Reserve Bank assistance mainly to the Bankkorp group that was later acquired by ABSA. The Journalist can reveal exclusively the full story behind this ongoing saga. SYLVIA VOLLENHOVEN, former editor of this website and the journalist behind the film, provides insight.[/intro]

A kid asks a question and you provide an answer. But each answer is met with yet another ‘why’. No matter how much information you dish out, the ‘whys’ keep coming. Bullets of insistence with no end in sight. Sometimes as journalists we need to go back to being kids and just stay with the questions, no matter what.

In the winter of 2010 the SABC’s official RFP book includes a formal Request for Proposals that states:

“In this strand we are keen to deconstruct, examine, prophesy and investigate… all in an effort to give the naked truth. We are greatly inspired by strong authorship that is emerging in our local book stores. [The SABC] is broadening the notion of what investigative documentaries can cover and think afresh about how they can be made into engrossing stories.”

Without thinking too much about ‘why’ the timid SABC is sticking its neck out, I submit a proposal for a story that has been grabbing my attention in the Martin Welz publication Noseweek for some time. Sometime later my script reads:

“At its simplest it’s a story about you and me being defrauded of billions… much of the loot was simply taken as the old government was leaving in the Nineties. They called it lifeboats. Reserve Bank assistance mainly to the Bankkorp group that was later acquired by ABSA.”

Return to Burn Beat Boys make a bold statement, in the style of the 1976 Bugsy Malone movie.

Spear Synopsis

A short synopsis of my documentary film: Soon after the dawn of the new South Africa, an international security consultant, Michael Oatley, gives the Mandela government details of grand theft by some of the leading lights of the apartheid order. Oatley, a former British intelligence operative, outlines a plan for the recovery of billions of rand. This plan is called ‘Project Spear’. The government contracts Oatley but a few years later renege on the contract. Oatley has by then submitted a lengthy report of how money could be recovered. But he is stonewalled by the government at every turn. Phone calls ignored. E-mails unanswered.


In my film I talk with a wide range of people including a pissed-off German investor who holds shares in the SA Reserve Bank, the author of an Institute for Security Studies (ISS) report called Apartheid Grand Corruption that tracks the stolen mega billions, the Editor of Noseweek who doggedly stays with the story over the years and the Advocate responsible for bringing Project Spear to the attention of the office of the Public Prosecutor.

Throughout it all the Government is silent. As I dig into story the ‘whys’ just keep coming thick and fast.

Oatley’s report states that there is money in accounts abroad. The money is stolen which makes the accounts illegal and the cash recoverable. It also outlines the background to the so-called Lifeboats, apartheid state handouts to Broerderbond buddies.

The organ of state that could recover this money is the Reserve Bank. I request an interview with the Bank’s former Governor Gill Marcus. At first she agrees. Then she delegates a senior colleague, Hlengani Mathebula, to talk with me. We agree on a time and place. Shortly before the appointed time he pulls out of the interview claiming I’ve misunderstood him.



From this point onwards matters become murkier. We complete the film without the Reserve Bank but the documentary is pulled from the SABC schedule at the last minute in late 2012. The e-mail trail between the Corporation and myself becomes a circus. Several SABC departments weigh in to tell me how my journalism is really poor and my work is not up to their standard.

At some point in the whole fracas that follows the effective banning of Spear in 2012, there is a fire that destroys many documents at Michael Oatley’s house in London. There is a break-in at the Noseweek offices. Only hard drives and computers are taken. We don’t mention these events to anybody at all, much less to the people at the SABC. Daily they request me to write more memos explaining myself and the choices I have made in the film. I give as much information as I can but ignore the more unreasonable demands.

As a result I am sent a long letter from Veronica Barnard who is a “Compliance Officer”. A paragraph in her letter claims that I am reluctant to supply information and states:

“[T]he producer stated in an e-mail that all the documentation was no longer available as sources where the alleged documentation is kept was ransacked. It is therefore evident that because there is no authentic documentation to support these allegations, the programme (the Project Spear film) and its allegations are all hearsay.”

I go cold as I read this paragraph tucked away among all the attacks on my professionalism. At no stage have I discussed the Noseweek burglary nor the Oatley fire with anyone at the SABC. I have certainly never written the mail Veronica Barnard is referring to.

She concludes her letter with:

“Given the absence of satisfactory proof of truth or reasonableness, I conclude that the programme is defamatory of all accused parties. Legitimate public interest cannot save the programme.”


Veronica Barnard’s letter is one of many SABC attacks on my professionalism. Why? Why not settle for dealing with the issues I raise instead.

I start showing Project Spear to some colleagues to obtain independent professional opinion. We also have a few private screenings to gauge what non media people will make of this story. The response from everyone is supportive and unanimous: They think it is a very important film.

In the film the interviews drive the story but to move beyond the conventional documentary format of talking heads, voice over and archive, we experiment with an innovative technique. This is a story of gangsters in government and big business dressed up to look like decent folk. So, we use a group of young kids who are street dancers, the Return to Burn Beat Boys to make a bold statement…. In the style of the 1976 Bugsy Malone movie.

In the autumn of 2013 Noseweek organises a forum to focus on media issues, at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. They ask if they can screen and discuss Project Spear. I agree. The day before the event, Nosweek Editor Martin Welz and I both receive letters from the SABC lawyers Werksmans Attorneys. They tell us we cannot screen the film.

The following day in a small room in Franschhoek where about 50 people are gathered to discuss media freedom, there are two attorneys from Werksmans. They stay for the duration of the session. We ask if we could show just a clip from the movie. They tell us their instructions are that if we put the film in the player, there is a judge on standby to serve an interdict telephonically. Two lawyers hanging around for hours and a judge on call don’t come cheap on a Saturday.

Layers kept a watch from the back at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.


The SABC applies for a Supreme Court interdict to stop me from showing the film to anyone because they own it. But they clearly have no intention of making use of the copyright they are defending so vigorously. I offer to buy the film from them. At first I get an e-mail saying they are preparing a “business plan” to enable the sale. Later Werksmans Attorneys tell me that there has been a change of heart.


Responding to the interdict application I have one of two choices. I can hand over all the material and refrain from “making an adaptation” of the Project Spear story as the court papers require, or I could fight Africa’s largest broadcasting corporation.

Most journalists do not have the money for expensive court battles. I consult the Legal Resources Centre (LRC). This amazing NGO comes to my rescue. For the next three years they delve into their sparse resources to take on a corporation that has all the state funding it requires to fight lengthy legal battles.

But it cost me much more than money to fight the SABC. Despite having publicly slated the quality of my journalism, they commission me subsequently to do four films on iconic South Africans. I am given a contract and I clear the boards for my company to spend most of 2014 doing this work. But after awarding the contract it is frozen because I am opposing them in the Spear case. Suddenly I have no income, having worked on acquiring the contract (worth about R 800,000.00) for a long time.

Accused of “Financial Transgressions”

An e-mail leaked to me by a friend in the SABC is doing the rounds internally. It tells people that I should not be contracted because I am guilty of “serious financial transgressions”. Accusations made in the dark by faceless people that does considerable damage to me and to my business.

As the whole process takes its toll, my finances suffer. I start selling some valuable possessions so that I can pay the rent while the whole sorry saga drags on. Somewhere along the line I have to sell my personal, signed copy of Mandela’s ‘Long Walk’. It is the saddest, lowest moment of the battle. Pulling a contract this size could easily sink most small companies.

When I am feeling particularly down a British journalist, who has heard about my story comes up to me in the street and gives me a thousand pounds out of the blue, to carry on with my fight and towards making a film about my story. A friend sends me a thousand dollars from the US. The Journalist offers me the job of founding Editor. I can pay the rent again for a while.

Now having spent some time in the trenches with a few people who can pull strings, I make phone calls about the frozen contract. Late one night a very well connected lawyer (no association with my case) calls me. He says:

“Impressive network you have? Top people have called me and said I should see what I can do about this issue and your contract.”

The lawyer speaks to somebody who calls somebody who goes to Pretoria… A while later the contract is signed and I am paid. One makes lifelong friends in the trenches. But until today a percentage of my production fee for both Project Spear and for the subsequent mini-series of biographical documentaries called Striking A Chord (one was nominated in two SA Film & TV Awards categories) and that I completed in 2015, has been withheld.


Another Burglary

As the court proceedings move towards a climax there is a violent break-in at my home late in 2015. In the early hours of the morning the burglars fling a huge boulder through a reinforced window. They make off with only my laptop and desktop. They ignore a brand new iPhone and cash lying on the desk with the computers.

The next day I have to do a presentation for a new TV Channel for a potential commission. I am shaken, sleep deprived and afraid. I realise as I am leaving home that the reason my dogs were so quiet is because they have been drugged. Both dogs are seriously ill from whatever it was the burglars gave them the night before to keep them quiet.

My Facebook page becomes a focus of the SABC’s attention. I post a link to a story about freedom of the media by the Khulumani Support Group. I don’t notice but right at the end of the story there is a link to an illegal YouTube pirated copy of Project Spear. Immediately the SABC files another interdict. An interview I do on radio is quoted in the court papers.

I take down the Project Spear Facebook site and go through my personal page to make sure I remove problematic posts where I might be tagged. I feel like I’ve been flung into a river, swimming upstream in the dark.

The widespread support from the public, Khulumani, the Freedom of Expression Institute, the Committee to Project Journalists, the Right2Know organisation and others is a source of comfort at a very difficult time.

Supreme Court Ruling

A year later in the Johannesburg High Court the matter is finally decided. The SABC is indeed the owner of the copyright, something we have never disputed. For me it’s a victory. The court states in September 2016 that it is clear the SABC does not have any intention of exploiting their copyright by screening the film. They are ordered to begin negotiations “in good faith” to sell the documentary to me.

The court sets a date. The deadline comes and goes but no response from the SABC. Their lawyers write to the LRC saying:

“Due to the goings-on at the SABC which you may be aware of, I am unable to secure a meeting with my client before going on leave… We have made arrangements to meet with the internal team to finalise the proposal on 30 January 2017 as we hope things will be normal again around that time.”

As a journalist I know that when the ‘whys’ outweigh the answers something is seriously wrong. I also know that there are no clear lines with good people on one side and the baddies running amok on the other. The truth has to be extracted somehow from the tangled, glorious mess that is life in 21st Century, post-apartheid South Africa.

But if we don’t keep firing off those ‘whys’ like a constant barrage of bullets from the watchful weapon of the media, we lose more than just wealth. We lose out on the fabric that we need to weave a healthy nationhood.

Somewhere along the line a head of department of the SABC questions a phrase in my script. She wants to know why I say it is “our money” that was stolen.

For once I am glad that I don’t understand the question….

As the Project Spear matter returns to the headlines in recent times I realise that I might have lost my signed copy of Madiba’s memoirs in the process but I’ve gained something far more important….

The liberation that comes from staying with the questions.

Sylvia Vollenhoven is head of the independent production company VIA that was commissioned to produce Project Spear for the SABC. She was the producer and director of the film.