Investigative journalists in southern Africa can often not investigate the state, since there isn’t any.
By Lazaro Mabunda
The man standing in the thin shade of a traffic sign in the blazing midday sun explains why poaching rhinos is not such a bad thing. “It’s our living. Some people in my village have big and expensive houses because of hunting. Poaching bosses have started trucking and construction companies with the money they made. Some city councillors’ houses and municipal offices have been funded by them.” He feels proud, he says, to live in a community that shows some signs of prosperity. “Even if most of us are still poor. That is my only problem. It would be better if they –the poachers- paid tax and the money would benefit all of us.”
It is 26 July and we are in Magude, a village close to the border between Mozambique and South Africa’s Kruger Park. We are Huub Floor, of KRO-NCRV Radio Reporter in the Netherlands; me, Evelyn Groenink of ZAM; and Lazaro Mabunda, investigative journalist in Mozambique, whose award-winning reports on Mozambican rhino poaching have prompted us to ask him to take us into his story. Huub Floor and I will also visit colleagues in Botswana and South Africa, and follow up on their stories. The result will be an hour long programme of Reporter Radio on investigative journalism in all three countries.
It is by now already clear that a radically different definition of ‘investigative journalism’ itself may be called for in some of these parts. Questioning authorities about corruption, for example, seems laughable, since, technically speaking, there isn’t any. How can there be corruption when the rules themselves are made by those who are the strongest, richest, best armed? “In the West we are used to investigating the government and the rule of law and we make big headlines when there are transgressions”, observes Floor. “But what do you do when the transgressions are the rule?” “We are not even in Mozambique now”, Lazaro Mabunda has laughed, when driving up here. “This is criminal country”.
Criminal rule is so entrenched here that it is not the rhino hunting mafia that is hiding; it is us. “Don’t get out of the car”, the local man, Mabunda’s contact, has warned us. “If they see you snooping around they may not allow you to leave.” Hence our interview, a kilometre away from the village, on a sandy road surrounding a South African sugar plantation, where many locals work. So there is a decent employment alternative around here? One is not forced to kill rhinos for a living? ‘They pay starvation wages”, says our contact. “So people still prefer to work for the syndicates.”
But it turns out that Francisco, for that is his name, wouldn’t want his own young sons to grow up as poachers. “Poachers live by the day because they can be killed any time. They don’t think of education or development. They resort to good luck spells and charms from witchdoctors to buy some more time, because even with all their money, they are not in control of their own future. There is a new generation emerging that doesn’t want to live like that.” And Francisco, with his parttime work for the local community radio, his Aids Awareness T-shirt, his administrative job at the sugar plantation, and his dedication to schooling his three children, is clearly part of that.
“This is one of the reasons why people like me are asked by activists to go into politics”, says Mabunda. “They hope we can do something to ensure that people have jobs, that the state provides services and maintains the law.” Asked if he would like to maintain the law he seems surprised. “Well of course. Poaching is bad. To have rhinos is to have natural wealth. Instead of killing them, people should be getting proper employment and their kids must study. Policemen must arrest criminals instead of working for them.” Mabunda has been asked to become a candidate for a new democratic party, the MDM. “But I am not going there yet”, he laughs. “Maybe in fifteen years.”
That evening, we meet a policeman who discovered that his own commissioner was working with poaching syndicate bosses, and who received the order to kill Mabunda for his snooping. “But he didn’t want to do that, and eventually we talked and we became the best of friends”, the journalist introduces the silent, good-natured looking officer over dinner at a local Indian restaurant in Maputo. The policeman then tells his story: he was fired after investigating what the commissioner was up to. The charges levelled against him were corruption and being involved with poaching. But Lazaro Mabunda is not done working in his case, and hopefully one day the crooked commissioner will join a few other policemen who are in jail after their exposure by the journalist.
Somalis are fair game
“This type of investigative journalism is more about contributing to the development of a state than it is about checking on the existing state, like we do in the Netherlands”, concludes Huub Floor when we are on our way again, this time to Pretoria’s Mamelodi township in the company of city reporter Ntando Makhubu. And indeed, in Mamelodi itself, even if situated within greater urban Pretoria, the state seems as absent as it was in Magude. There is barricading of roads (motivated by protest: there is always something to protest about; today it is lack of electricity), building of illegal shacks, looting and setting fire to shops, with impunity. “The city councillors don’t even live here”, says Makhubu. “They stay in the richer parts and won’t dream of setting foot in this area.” The police have been here a lot, recently, but not exactly to help. Ntando Makhubu has exposed their complicity in recent xenophobic action against Somali shopkeepers, has assembled witness statements detailing, in her words, “how they protected plunderers of Somali shops, helped transport stolen goods, and shared in the loot.”
Like hippo’s in the Mozambican border area, Somalis seem to be fair game for locals here. Whilst the people of Mamelodi depend on the –usually affordable and well-stocked- Somali shops, every now and then there will be an explosion of anger against the foreigners ‘who take business opportunities away from South Africans’. “Then you will see the clients you served yesterday in the same mob that is looting and destroying your place”, says Somali shopkeeper Abdi with a sad smile. “Today, they are back again, and they will tell you that they are shocked about what has happened and that they didn’t know, that they were out of town. But these are the same people that I saw taking my goods.” Abdi, helped by the strong family structures and sharing ethos in the Somali community, simply rebuilds every time. “How many times I have done this? I can’t even count. Certainly more than ten.”
“It is so sad that there is no rule of law here”, comments Makhubu. “If we had proper leaders, good city councillors, good police, they could do much to stop this cycle. It is true that people are very poor. They could be helped with small business subsidies so that they, too, could have shops. Then maybe they wouldn’t be so resentful of the Somalis. But as long as the police seem to say it’s OK, the outbursts of violence will continue.” Could an investigative journalist such as herself play a role in getting local government clean up its act? “One could, if one would have the time to follow up with the head of police, with the ministry of local government. Presenting them with the evidence, and phoning them continuously, asking for progress. I try to do that, but I work in a small newsroom and there simply isn’t enough time.”
She is off again today, to report on violent student protests at a -predominantly black- medical school in a former black area, where old-fashioned authoritarian structures and, according to students, arbitrary victimisation of some at the whim of lecturers, are still the order of the day. “But I wish our people would stop destroying things”, Makhubu shakes her head. “They are still in revolution mode, as if apartheid is still here. Why can’t we have civic leadership and managed conflict resolution?” Aren’t these the same things that are lacking in Mamelodi, we ask and she sighs. “Yes. And just not enough civic leaders to go around.”
Functional but secretive
In contrast, in Gaborone, there seems to be plenty leadership. Things are orderly here and appear well-managed. Maybe too well-managed. “The state does a lot of things we don’t know about,” says Tshireletso Motlogelwa, editor of the Business Weekly and Review, a new follow-the-money- type of investigative publication, that in his short existence has exposed a Russian diamond investment scam, a mysterious arms deal concerning fighter jets, and an even more mysterious car accident that killed the country’s leading opposition politician. “We are well aware that we are relatively rich, with our diamond wealth, and that the government is sort-of-functional. But it is very secretive. We don’t have a law that gives the public access to information, and you can only find out about big business deals if you poke your own nose into state affairs. If we hadn’t gone into it, our government would have been buying these fighter jets without anybody knowing.”
If a journalist would not have asked, the government would have bought dozens of fighter jets in silence
The sort of business deals that the Botswana elite conducts with all types of investors –dodgy Russians the latest among them- sometimes lead to phantom projects, like a Russian refinery that was paid for but never built: the story was exposed in the first issue, last May, of the Business Weekly. Or to phantom car accidents, as Motlogelwa’s colleague, veteran IJ Lawrence Seretse, testifies over a beer at the local President Hotel. “I was at the scene and had a chance to look at the car of the prominent politician who died. The left front side was badly dented, but nothing else was damaged. The driver’s side –it was the politician who was driving was intact. It doesn’t make sense that he is dead. How did he die?” Seretse will spend the following weeks trying to answer that question.
Though the magazine is called the Business Weekly (“because everything is about money, so we follow the money”), editor Motlogelwa is also keenly monitoring the more immaterial process of state building in Botswana. “Our nation has so far left out the Basarwa, or the Bushmen, as they are often called, from the process. We have attracted worldwide criticism for our treatment of these indigenous people. We tell them they are primitive and that they must get out of the Kalahari desert, go to school, find jobs, stop hunting lions and start speaking Tswana or English instead of their own language. But we never engage, we never listen. How can you get anybody to do anything if you don’t even want to have a proper conversation?”
Motlogelwa wrote about the ‘Kalahari Catch 22’ choice presented to the Basarwa people in an earlier issue of ZAM Chronicle: “It’s Catch 22, because even our development opportunities don’t make sense. How can you successfully attend a school where you can’t understand a word the teachers say, or be forced to relocate away from the place where you make your living? Still, our government tells them to do that, or else they will be a failure and, as such, confirm our prejudices. This is clearly a wrong approach. There should be engagement, a real interaction between communities.” So, besides following the money, state building is a crucial issue, in Botswana, too? “Yes. It is about transparency and public debate, public participation and national identity. As investigative journalists, we try to play a role in all three.”
The radio programme ‘Investigative Journalism in (southern) Africa’ was broadcast on 31 August by Reporter Radio, KRO-NCRV, the Netherlands.