When I heard that Mondli Makhanya had been promoted to editor-in-chief of Avusa Media newspapers, I thought Avusa must have taken a leaf out of Robert Mugabe’s early “media management” strategies.
This may sound outrageous and I am likely to earn “Mampara of the Week” spot this weekend, but the news of Makhanya’s “promotion” brought me to the sober, inescapable and intelligent conclusion that Avusa and Mugabe (infamous for his media intolerance) might have more in common than we realise. Avusa is just a little behind the curve.
In the early years of Zimbabwe’s independence, a crusading and feisty newspaper editor, Geoffrey Nyarota, exposed a major scam involving senior Zanu-PF Ministers and their cronies selling cars sourced from a state-owned car manufacturer at exorbitant prices and making a killing in the process. In those days of foreign currency shortages caused by sanctions from apartheid South Africa, the state-owned enterprise had shortages of new vehicles and sales were rationed. The newspaper that exposed the scam - known as Willowgate, the name of the company - was itself owned by the state, but in those days state-owned Zimbabwean papers enjoyed a fairly high level of editorial independence.
Mugabe reacted by instituting a commission of inquiry which was open to the public and covered by the media. Powerful ministers were publicly exposed without any recourse to political protection. Newspapers sold like hot cakes and long queues formed at newsstands. The outcome of the inquiry led to the resignation of no less than six senior Zanu-PF ministers and politburo members, and the suicide of Maurice Nyagumbo, then secretary-general and a close confidante of Mugabe.
Prosecutions followed, and one former minister was found guilty and sentenced to a prison term, but was promptly pardoned by Mugabe. Mugabe appeared to have lost his nerve at a time when it seemed as if he would not tolerate corruption from anyone, including close friends.
More of the same loss of nerve was to follow. This time in the media. Nyarota, who had broken the most significant corruption story of the newly independent country and proved that state media could enjoy editorial independence to the extent of exposing the powerful and the well-connected, was removed from his post as editor. But he wasn’t arrested, brutally tortured or driven into exile. He was actually promoted to - wait for it - public relations director of Zimbabwe Newspapers. Nyarota had a nice office with a nice view of Harare, and was thoroughly bored because he had nothing to do, and had to do it alone because he had no staff; a chief without a single Indian.
When Mugabe was asked at subsequent press conferences why he had removed and, in effect muzzled, an editor, he would act surprised that people could think of a promotion and a higher salary as anything but positive.
Now, what has this to do with Mondli Makhanya, former editor of the Sunday Times, a privately owned publication and fiercely independent scourge of the corrupt, the dishonest, the incompetent and the high and mighty Mamparas, wherever they are and whatever they do?
I read the company statement by Avusa CEO Prakash Desai with the same scepticism with which I read all company media releases; they are out to put the most positive spin on anything a company or organisation does (and that includes my own organisation). I waited to read what the Sunday Times itself would report the following Sunday. I expected the truth and nothing but the truth.
Though the paper tried to be faithful to the release, its headline and body exposed the truth. The story was reported on page two under the headline “New Editor for the Sunday Times” and side-by-side mug-shots of Ray Hartley, the new editor, and Mondli Makhanya, former editor and newly appointed editor-in-chief of “Avusa Media newspapers”. The headline didn’t focus on the newly Desai-minted post of editor-in-chief.
Hartley said nothing in the story about his new “chief” or the outgoing editor. Nothing about following in Makhanya’s footsteps or what a hard act it would be to follow. That was left to Desai. Makhanya was allowed to say a few things about his new role in very broad and rather vague terms. I’m still not sure if he’s going to oversee the convergence of the papers and their online presences. If so, shouldn’t he more accurately be called “Avusa content editor-in-chief”?
The little I know is editors edit their papers without having to consult some editor-in-chief, whose portfolio includes several group papers, serving different readerships. So exactly how is Makhanya going to “group edit” these papers - two dailies and two Sundays? I just can’t picture his daily routine.
The Sunday Times story was not helpful. It simply said Hartley and Phylicia Oppelt (who has been shunted from editing Business Times to fill the vacuum left by Hartley at The Times) would report to Makhanya. What does that actually mean in relation to newspaper editorship?
And also, why only these two papers? What about the editors of Sowetan and Sunday World? Did the Sunday Times inadvertently reveal that Makhanya would not actually be the editor-in-chief of all of Avusa Media’s newspapers, rather only two papers and their respective websites and digital platforms, or did the unnamed writer (strangely, the story lacked a byline) get the facts wrong? Will Thabo Leshilo, a former editor of Sowetan, now “promoted” to what some of my sharper-tongued friends call “Avusa’s editor-in-chief of apologies”, deal with this errant anonymous writer?
Try as I may, I cannot rid myself of the conclusion that Makhanya, at a young age and in his prime as an editor, has been retired by being kicked upstairs. But not booted out as was Mathatha Tsedu before him, or did Desai do a Nyarota on him? South Africa is not Zimbabwe. Avusa is not Zimpapers of yesteryear.
As my colleague Anton Harber, himself a former editor of the Mail and Guardian, wrote, it does seem that Avusa Media newspapers now have a lot of chiefs above its editors, what with another big man Mike Robertson, Avusa Media managing director, in the background as well. Maybe Desai should change his title to media director-in-chief?
But that’s just my perspective. And I am a Mampara.
Tawana Kupe is associate professor of media studies and dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University - and writes in all his capacities.