IFP/Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi vs Sunday Times


Tue, Dec 8, 2020

Finding Complaint 8389

Date of Article: 04/10/20

Headline: ‘Mangosuthu Buthelezi accused of meddling in municipality’; Sub-head: ‘Veteran IFP leader denies anything untoward in letter’

Author: Zimasa Matiwane

Page: 6

Online: Yes

Particulars

This finding is based on a written complaint by Ms Liezl van der Merwe, MP, on behalf of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party, a written response from the Sunday Times’ Ms Susan Smuts, references to the Local Government Municipal Systems Act of 2000, and judgments of the High Court of KZN, and a Constitutional Court decision endorsing those.

Complaint

Liezl van der Merwe, MP, of the Inkatha Freedom Party, complains on behalf of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, about an article in the Sunday Times under the headline, ‘Mangosuthu Buthelezi accused of meddling in municipality.’ She says the article’s inference that he interfered in a local municipality, including the administration of tenders, damages his legacy and reputation. It also fails to indicate the source of the accusation, transgressed:

 and does not corroborate any of the allegations, or distinguish between allegation and fact. It was also inaccurate in its report of  the causes of the municipal manager’s dismissal.

Specifically, she complains that the following clauses of the Press Code have beenThe media shall

  1. 1 take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly
  2. 2 present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts, whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization
  3. 3 present only what may be reasonably true as fact; opinions, allegation, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such

1.7 verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated.

1. Text

1.1 The story is headlined ‘Mangosuthu Buthelezi accused of meddling in municipality’; with a sub-head; ‘Veteran IFP leader denies anything untoward in letter’.

1.2 The article is accompanied by a picture of Prince Buthelezi with a caption: “Former IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi denies having tried to influence a tender process by berating a municipal manger.’

1.3 The intro to the article reads: “Retired IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi has been dragged into tender squabbles of a municipality in KwaZulu-Natal after scolding a municipal manager – apparently for defying instructions from an IFP mayor on granting infrastructure contracts.”

1.4 It then references a letter written by Prince Buthelezi to the municipal manager of Nquthu, Mr Bongi Gumbi, in which he “rebukes” him “for ignoring the mayor’s orders regarding the awarding of tenders.”

1.5 The next sentence is: ”Gumbi has since been fired”.

1.6 It quotes Prince Buthelezi, President emeritus of the IFP, as saying there was nothing “untoward in the letter as he was responding to a report Gumbi submitted to the IFP’s national executive committee”.

1.7 The article notes “Buthelezi’s interference in municipal operations is in contrast to his very vocal public stance on the ANC’s meddling in government.”

1.8 It quotes sources “close to Gumbi” saying the dispute is over a “contractor who was allegedly hand-picked by the mayor for infrastructure projects”, which included R34m worth of electricity installation and R32m of road work.

He, Gumbi, had refused to appoint the contractor. It quotes an “insider”, as saying these projects were already “in motion and Gumbi was supposed to stop the process and start afresh” to accommodate a particular person.

1.9 The “insider” refers to forthcoming elections, noting “the IFP needs money to campaign, therefore releasing their hand-picked companies means they get kickbacks.” He says when the municipal manager refused the instruction, he was fired.

1.10 It then cites the letter, which starts with Prince Buthelezi thanking Mr Gumbi for his report on the financial state of the municipality. “But then his tone changes.”

1.11 Quoting the letter, it says: “I must say that we have been told of quite an unacceptable attitude that you, in collusion with some councillors, have adopted towards the mayor.

“What you state about accepting the mayor is quite contrary to what we have been given to understand are your actions towards the mayor.

But I must say I am quite perturbed about how you seem to ignore the instructions of the mayor and the lockdown in the country, particularly when it comes to awarding of tenders. What you are alleged to be doing now tarnishes your long record and loyal record.”

1.12 Citing “people close to Gumbi”, the article says this is “a reference to his refusal to award the tenders to Zama Shabalala’s chosen company.” [the story does not identify who Zama Shabalala is; according to the website of the municipality the municipal mayor is IL Shabalala]

1.13 The article then quotes the letter further saying Buthelezi “warns Gumbi to ‘please what your steps’” [sic]

1.14 The article quotes Mr Gumbi’s lawyer, Mondli Thusini saying his client “intends to pursue legal avenues in respect of the issue of his dismissal from work”, and adds he will not comment further until the matter is before the relevant court.

1.15 The newspaper says “it is believed” Mr Gumbi will use the letter to challenge his dismissal.

1.16 It quotes Prince Buthelezi saying there was nothing “sinister” in the correspondence.

“In my letter I advised him that allegations had been made which contradicted his report. It was only fair that he be made aware of this. I also urged him to comply with instructions from the mayor, as his position required of him, and to comply with lockdown regulations.”

1.17 He also said Mr Gumbi’s removal had nothing to do with tenders.

Several months later [presumably after the letter was written], the IFP was informed of a Constitutional Court judgment upholding the Pietermaritzburg high court ruling in which the municipal manager’s appointment was declared to be illegal ..based on the council having extended the municipal manager’s contract without first advertising the position.

“On the basis of the judgment, the party was compelled to suspend the municipal manager”.

1.18 It then quotes [mayor] Shabalala who “denied meddling in the tender processes”.

I never interfered with tenders,” he says. “I was saying meetings must not sit because of the lockdown but the municipal manager continued.”

It cites him saying he’d heard there would be a meeting of the tender bidding committees but it should not sit because it was “illegal”.

1.19 He also denied ordering “the municipal manager to stop work that was already being done and give the tender to a company hand-picked by him.”

2. The Arguments

Ms Liezl van der Merwe for Prince Buthelezi

2.1 Ms van der Merwe, IFP MP, filed the complaint on behalf of Prince Buthelezi, described as founder and president emeritus of the IFP.

2.2 She says his “legacy and public reputation are built in his well-known stand against corruption. For years he has been outspoken against political meddling in the administration of governance and, in particular, corruption within municipalities through tender fraud.”

Thus if he were to be found actually interfering in tenders at a municipality “his reputation and legacy would be damaged.” This would also be so if the public were to perceive him as having done so, even if this were not the case.

2.3 The reporter “had created this perception, and she has done so on the basis of nothing more than the defamatory opinion of an unnamed source and the existence of an unrelated document.”

2.4 The headline, picture and article builds a “perception of wrongdoing.” However, Ms Matiwane (the reporter) “fails to indicate who has accused Prince Buthelezi”.

“...[T]he reasonable assumption would be that he is being accused by the Hawks, the Police or the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. Yet this is not the case.

“In fact, nowhere in the article does Ms Matiwane explain who is supposedly making the accusation. Without an accuser, the accusation cannot exist.”

2.5 The reporter “implies” that the accusation has been made by the former municipal manager, Mr Gumbi. However, she reports that he would not speak to her but referred her to his lawyers.

2.6 But the unnamed “insider” claims, among other things, the mayor is corrupt, there is corruption within the Municipality; the IFP gets tender kickbacks and uses them to fund its election campaign, and that Prince Buthelezi tried to influence the municipal manager to act illegally, and that he was fired for refusing to wrongfully award a tender.

2.7 The accusation could be classified as “opinion”, which was “extremely damaging and defamatory”.

2.8 Thus, argues, Ms van der Merwe, it was unethical of the reporter to convey it as fact.

Moreover, none of the allegations in the quoted statement were corroborated.

“In fact, the central allegation (that the IFP fired Nquthu's former Municipal Manager Mr Bongi Gumbi because he refused to award tenders to IFP-connected businesspeople) was shown to be inaccurate before this story was published, as Ms Matiwane sent questions in advance to Prince Buthelezi and he explained the facts, which are easily checked.”

2.9 Prince Buthelezi had explained that Mr Gumbi was dismissed on the basis of a court ruling in an application brought by the MEC for COGTA in the province, who claimed that his appointment was illegal “as the Council had extended his contract without advertising the position. This was upheld by the Pietermaritzburg High Court, which ruled that Mr Gumbi should step aside so that the position could be filled through a proper appointment process. The High Court ruling was taken on appeal to the Constitutional Court, which upheld the ruling.”

She argues this shows his dismissal was unrelated to any alleged tender fraud, nor even politics; it was also “entirely unrelated to Prince Buthelezi’s letter to him”. The letter was sent several months before and related to him allegedly flouting lockdown regulations, “which reflected badly on the party for an IFP-led municipality.”

2.10 “Knowing that the Constitutional Court had already ruled that Mr Gumbi be dismissed, Ms Matiwane should have questioned why Mr Gumbi refused to talk to her on the basis that his dismissal was still going to come before ‘the relevant court’”.  This should have alerted Ms Matiwane to the dubiousness of the allegations being made by her unnamed “insider”.” (emphasis in original)

This shows that the reporter did not verify the accuracy of doubtful information. The article was “intended to create the impression that a genuine or official accusation had been made against Prince Buthelezi. But this is simply not the case.”

2.11 In this, argues the IFP, the reporter failed to report news truthfully and accurately or to present it in context.

“Clearly someone fed Ms Matiwane false information. Despite not being able to corroborate or confirm the information with the former Municipal Manager, and despite both Prince Buthelezi and the Mayor presenting her with facts that contradicted the information, and despite her only source making clearly defamatory allegations, Ms Matiwane presented this as a story with substance, going so far as to make her own comment on “Buthelezi’s interference in municipal operations”.

2.12 She had stated as a fact that Prince Buthelezi interferes in municipal operations, viz: “Buthelezi’s interference in municipal operations is in contrast to his very vocal public stance on the ANC’s meddling in Government.”  Had she included the word “if”, it would have made the meaning different. In this she breached clause 1.3 of the Press Code that enjoins journalists to present only “what is reasonably true as fact.

The reporter had presented the “opinion of an unnamed individual as though it were a genuine accusation against Prince Buthelezi.”

2.13 The IFP seeks an apology and a retraction of the article.

Ms Susan Smuts for the Sunday Times

2.14 Ms Smuts says the basis for the story was the letter written by Prince Buthelezi to Bongi Gumbi, the municipal manager. Among other things, it said: “I must say that we have been told of a quite unacceptable attitude that you, in collusion with some councillors, have adopted towards the mayor…I personally appreciate your long service to the IFP and the people of Nquthu. But I must say I am quite perturbed about how you seem to ignore the instructions of the mayor and the lockdown in the country, particularly when it comes to awarding of tenders.

“Please watch your steps [sic]”

2.15 She describes the letter as “extraordinary”, saying he had no “legitimate reason” to be writing to the municipal manager to complain of the matters he raises.

“He is an MP but he has no reason to intervene in the municipal affairs of Nquthu. His conduct in this matter is ultra vires.”

2.16 She also notes that neither should the Nquthu mayor be giving tender instructions to the municipal manager. “The letter itself justifies the headline.”

2.17 She says contrary to Prince Buthelezi’s assertion, “we did not accuse him of corruption or of tender corruption. We stated that he is accused of meddling in a municipality”.

The fact that he was “rebuking” a municipal manager for ignoring instructions from the mayor – including the awarding of tenders – “is a clear case of meddling in municipal matters, no further evidence necessary.”

2.18 Nonetheless, she says, once the paper had obtained the letter it obtained further information.

The reporter tried to speak to Mr Gumbi himself – “it was self-evident we would need his input” – but he was reluctant to speak so the paper spoke to his lawyer “and to two other people who had direct knowledge of the tenders in question.”

One was an official “in the supply chain of the municipality”, the other a member of the finance committee. Their version was reflected in the story, which was about allegations that the municipal manager “declined to appoint a contractor favoured by the mayor.” The allegations were properly attributed to “sources close to Mr Gumbi” – none were stated as fact.

2.19 None of the three sources had seen the letter but were aware of its content and confirmed that the “tenders” it referred to were for infrastructure.

2.20 None of the allegations by those close to Mr Gumbi “state or imply that Inkosi Buthelezi is involved in the awarding of tenders. We said he’d been drawn into tender squabbles. His letter, in his own words, provides evidence that he has concerned himself” with these matters in Nquthu.

2.21 She says the paper made it clear when information was being alleged. The only thing stated as fact was the contents of the letter.

The letter itself is authentic and its contents not in dispute. “It is within the bounds of the Press Code for us to approach the parties concerned and elicit further information and comment.”

She also states the letter was not leaked to the paper “by anyone in Mr Gumbi’s camp. It was in fact leaked to us by a senior leader in the IFP who had no way of knowing what we might do” with it.

2.22 It is relevant that it was not Mr Gumbi who “brought his allegations to us in an effort to put pressure on the complainant. It was someone who was perturbed by the tone and contents of the letter”.

2.23 In response to Prince Buthelezi’s argument that he had written to Mr Gumbi because he had “defied lockdown regulations”, Ms Smuts says that even if they were to accept that this was true, he had “no standing to rebuke Mr Gumbi for defying the mayor.” In any event, it goes further than complaining about lockdown regulations. “It explicitly refers to Mr Gumbi defying the instructions of the mayor when it comes to awarding tenders.”

2.24 It was also unnecessarily “threatening”, she argues, invoking Mr Gumbi to “watch his steps”. This, for “an infraction which was none of the complainant’s business”.

2.25 It was reasonable for the newspaper to have put both versions – by Prince Buthelezi and by those close to Mr Gumbi – before readers to allow them to draw their own conclusions.

2.26 As far as Mr Gumbi’s dismissal is concerned, the newspaper quoted Prince Buthelezi on the Constitutional Court ruling. “We did not state the reason for Mr Gumbi’s dismissal and we do not know what legal strategy he may have in mind or what he hopes to achieve from further legal challenges. Of course the Constitutional Court is the end of the road as far as the issues before it are concerned. However, we do not know – and nor does the complainant – whether Mr Gumbi believes any ancillary issues arise from that, that need to be aired in another court.”

Thus, the paper quoted Mr Gumbi’s lawyer but his comment was not “very revealing” on that question.

2.27 Moreover, the complainant had already been given space on the letters page where he took issue with the report. “We submit that this is where the matter should end.”

2.28 She asks that the complaint be dismissed.

Further arguments

2.29 Ms van der Merwe, replying to Ms Smuts, says she seems to have “misunderstood the relationship between a municipal manager and the political party administering a municipality.”

In terms of the Local Government Municipal Systems Act of 2000, a municipal manager “is responsible and accountable for managing communications between the municipality’s administration and its political structures.”

This was why the manager had provided a report to the IFP’s NEC “and why it was perfectly normal for an NEC member to communicate with the Municipal Manager in

response to his report.

2.30 “Moreover, a municipal manager "is responsible and accountable for carrying out the decisions of the political structures and political office bearers of the municipality". ln other words, he is accountable to the party in charge of the municipality. It is therefore not untoward for a party leader to rebuke the municipal manager for going against the party's decision (communicated by the mayor) to comply with lockdown regulations by refraining from holding municipal meetings. (ln this case the Municipal Manager held a meeting of the tender committee after being warned not to do so.)”

2.31 Thus the letter was not a sign of “meddling” in municipal matters. “Ms Smuts is therefore incorrect to say that the letter justifies this accusation…”

“Meddling in a municipality…would indeed constitute corruption.” Thus the reporter, in accusing Prince Buthelezi of this, was in effect accusing him of corruption “wrongfully.”

2.32 “Ms Smuts claims that the mayor should not be giving instructions to the municipal manager, which is patently untrue by the very nature of the employment contract.

Nevertheless, the Mayor's instruction to the Municipal Manager was to refrain from

holding a meeting regarding tenders, due to lockdown restrictions. This is not the same as ‘giving instructions on tenders’.”

A municipal manager is responsible for the implementation of “legislation applicable to a municipality”, and in this case this included lockdown regulations.

2.33 Moreover, the Sunday Times did not get Mr Gumbi’s input, which Ms Smuts said they needed to report on the letter. And his lawyers had said they would not comment. This meant they did not get further information.

“The allegations by the two other people Ms Matiwane spoke to, identified by Ms Smuts as an official in supply chain and a member of the Finance Committee, were so clearly politically motivated as to be outrageous (i.e. that the IFP gets tender kickbacks and uses these to campaign for elections).”

2.34 It is “simply untrue” that Mr Gumbi was fired for refusing to give a tender to a “hand-picked company.” He was suspended in compliance with a Constitutional Court judgment and the reporter knew this as “Prince Buthelezi had told her prior to publication.”

2.35 It was also incorrect to say that the article did not state anything as fact, when the reporter had written, “Buthelezi’s interference in municipal operations is in contrast to his very vocal public stance on ANC’s meddling in government.” She spoke, not about Buthelezi’s “alleged interference” but stated as a fact that he had interfered in municipal operations. This is a transgression of clause 1.3 of the Press Code. The alleged ‘interference” was either an opinion based on “inadequate understanding” of the legislation, or a supposition “based on the belief that the IFP must be corrupt”, or a rumour “based on ignorance” about why Mr Gumbi was fired, or an allegation “albeit of no substance”.

2.36 She said the law allowed him to write a letter to a municipal manager and it did not constitute “interference.”

She argues Prince Buthelezi’s reputation had been harmed and the IFP believed that ‘further damage would be done” without an apology.

2.37 Although his letter of complaint was published this was not sufficient, particularly as the editor wrote: “We stand by our story” underneath it.

3. Analysis

3.1 It is important to note for the record that a week after this story was published the Sunday Times published a letter from Prince Buthelezi on its letters page. It was the lead letter.[1]  Many of the points made in the letter are repeated in the complaint to the Ombud:

  • That his stand on fighting corruption was well known
  • Nowhere does the story say who is accusing him “It is not the Hawks, or the SAPS or the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs. In fact, no-one has accused me, beyond Ms Matiwane herself.”
  • It was a “wild story” relying on hearsay – and she should have been tipped off to “the dubiousness of her information when the former municipal manger avoided her questions.”
  • He repeats what was quoted in the story that the matter of Mr Gumbi’s dismissal had already gone to the Pietermaritzburg high court and to the Constitutional Court.

3.2 It is also important to note the original letter that the Sunday Times relied on for its story from Prince Buthelezi to Mr Gumbi. The letter, provided to me by the newspaper, is dated 25 April 2020.

The Sunday Times has quoted from it correctly.

3.3 It acknowledges receipt of Mr Gumbi’s report to the NEC and adds: “I must say that we have been told of quite unacceptable attitude that you in collusion with some of our Councillors have adopted towards the Mayor….

I personally appreciate your long service to the IFP and the people of Nquthu. But I must say I am quite perturbed about how you seem to ignore the instructions of the Mayor, and the Lockdown in the country, particularly when it comes to the awarding of tenders. What you are alleged to be doing now tarnishes your long and loyal record.

“Please watch your steps.”

3.4 The letter can arguably be interpreted as “extraordinary”, as Ms Smuts does.

Certainly, it was reasonable to report on the letter and to try to ferret out what was behind it as the Sunday Times did.

3.5 But Ms van der Merwe’s argument to the Ombud that the Local Government Municipal Systems Act of 2000 gives political party leaders (in this case the IFP) the authority to “communicate with the Municipal Manager in response to his report” to the NEC is also arguable. The Act phrases the relationship between a municipal manager and his political principals thus: “As head of administration the municipal manager of a municipality is, subject to the policy directions of the municipal council…”

It then lists various responsibilities including:

  • The formation of an “economical. effective, efficient and accountable administration.”
  • Management of the administration
  • Implementation of the municipality’s integrated development plan [2]

It stipulates that the municipal manager is the accounting officer responsible for the finances of the municipality.

3.6 In terms of a municipal manager’s relationship with political structures, the Act states the following in Section 55, sections i,j,k

  • He/she is to advise “the political structures and political office bearers of the municipality”;
  • Manage communications “between the municipality’s administration and its

political structures and political office bearers”;

  • Carry out the decisions “of the political structures and political office bearers

of the municipality” (My emphasis)

3.7 Thus the Act stipulates that while a municipal manager is accountable to the political structure, it states clearly that this is within the municipality [3].

3.8 Thus the complaint that Prince Buthelezi is accused, unfairly, of meddling in the affairs of a municipality must fall away.

Had such a letter been written from the current secretary-general of the ANC, Ace Magashule, to a local municipal manager in, say, the Free State, the reporting by a newspaper may have been equally trenchant.

3.9 However, the Sunday Times did not follow up on a critical point made by Prince Buthelezi to the reporter. This was about the Pietermaritzburg High Court case and the subsequent Constitutional Court affirmation concerning the dismissal of the municipal manager.

3.10 The article implies, without explanation, that there is a link between the letter and Mr Gumbi’s dismissal. It does this by the juxtaposition of a sentence next to the letter quoting Prince Buthelezi’s “rebuke” of him, saying “Gumbi has since been fired.” It also says: “It is believed Gumbi will use Buthelezi’s letter to challenge his dismissal.” The article also quotes an “insider”, saying: “Remember we are going to elections so the IFP needs money to campaign, therefore releasing tenders to their hand-picked companies means they get kickbacks. The MM [municipal manager] refused and the letter came, then the MM was fired.”

3.11 Had the reporter checked the court records, it would have established this was not the case.

The reporter was told by Prince Buthelezi that Mr Gumbi’s “removal had nothing to do with tenders” and referred her to two court judgments – one by the Pietermaritzburg High Court, the other by the Constitutional Court.

3.12 Although the story quoted him on this, the newspaper apparently failed to check the judgments, thus missing the context around Mr Gumbi’s dismissal.

3.13 The Nquthu municipality has been one of a number of KZN municipalities taken to court by the KZN MEC for COGTA for allegedly appointing municipal managers either without the proper qualifications or without properly advertising the post.

3.14 In early 2018, after a 2017 hearing, Acting Judge Mahabeer in the Pietermaritzburg High Court ordered that their contracts of employment be suspended.[4] Notwithstanding this, on 13 April 2018, the municipal officials’ contracts (including Mr Gumbi’s) were renewed at higher remuneration scales.

3.15 Then in August 2019, a High Court judgment by Gorven J in the Pietermaritzburg High Court, ruled that Mr Gumbi’s contract (along with two other officials) had been illegally extended in 2017 without proper advertising taking place. Moreover, the salary packages were above those allowed by law: in Mr Gumbi’s case he was appointed at a package of R1 199 811 per anum, whereas the applicable package should have been R937 632. The judge ordered that the renewals of the contracts be set aside. [5]

3.16 The municipality, Mr Gumbi, and the other officials were refused leave to appeal in September 2019. [6]

3.17 It appears that despite these court rulings, Mr Gumbi remained in his job.

3.18 He and his colleagues then applied by petition to the Supreme Court of Appeal for leave to appeal. This was refused in November 2019; they applied again for reconsideration and this was also refused in March 2020.[7]

3.19 In June 2020, the Constitutional Court confirmed this decision, noting Mr Gumbi and his colleagues had been illegally appointed, and that “all of their contracts of employment provided for salaries in excess of the prescribed upper limits.”

Despite the MEC obtaining an interim order in 2017 to suspend their contracts, her efforts “came to nothing”.

The managers continued to hold themselves out as municipal manager and senior managers of the Municipality in defiance of the law and throughout this period were paid more than is permitted. They deliberately adopted evasive and dilatory tactics to avoid compliance with the law.”[8]

3.20 Mr Gumbi and the other managers argued they had stayed in their jobs pending the outcome of a petition to the President of the SCA. However after a hearing in February 2020, (although judgment was only handed down in August 2020), Judge Moodley ordered that Mr Gumbi and the others vacate their offices immediately.[9]

3.21 The story told by the various court proceedings tell a substantially different story than either the newspaper or Prince Buthelezi have told, although he did refer to the Constitutional Court judgement.

3.22 It begs the question of why he should have been writing to Mr Gumbi at all in April 2020 after two High Court judgments ordering that he vacate his position.

The Sunday Times story, published in October, did not cover these events, although it quoted Prince Buthelezi referring to the High Court and Constitutional Court judgments.

3.23 What is clear, though, is that Mr Gumbi’s dismissal had nothing to do with Prince Buthelezi’s letter. The inference in the article that this is the case is therefore inaccurate and does not take the context of news into account.

3.24 So while it was perfectly reasonable for the newspaper to report on the Buthelezi letter – and to raise questions about its implications – it was not reasonable for it not to explore further his references to the court judgments.

3.25 In effect, Mr Gumbi and his colleagues remained in their positions for nearly three years after a High Court had ordered that their contracts be suspended and about one year after another judge had ruled that their contracts had been renewed illegally.

Finding

The article, in its second paragraph, mentions that Mr Gumbi had been dismissed. This comes after a sentence that cites Prince Buthelezi’s letter “in which he rebukes [him]…for ignoring the mayor’s orders regarding the awarding of tenders.” It also quotes an “insider” stating unambiguously that Mr Gumbi was dismissed as a consequence of the letter.

A reasonable reader would infer a connection between Prince Buthelezi’s letter to Mr Gumbi and the latter’s dismissal.

As shown above, this is not the case, nor is it an accurate reflection of a chain of events that began in 2017.

That said, the newspaper behaved reasonably in inferring that the letter from Prince Buthelezi to Mr Gumbi raised the possibility of the former’s “interference” in municipal affairs. The relevant Act makes it clear that it is the political structures of the municipality to which the municipal manager is accountable.

However the paper failed to provide accurate context to Mr Gumbi’s dismissal, which had nothing to do with the letter.

The Sunday Times has thus contravened clauses 1.2 of the Press Code: failing to present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts, whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization.  There was clearly failure by “material omission” in neglecting to reflect the outcomes of not one but four High Court judgments (including the dismissal of leave to appeal) and one Constitutional Court decision.

And 1.7 : “to verify the accuracy of doubtful information.” It was indeed not only doubtful but unlikely that Mr Gumbi’s dismissal was related to the Buthelezi letter, as inferred by the article.

These are Tier 2 offences.

On the complaint that the newspaper failed to report accurately and reported allegation as fact contravening Sections 1.1 and  1.3 of the Press Code: it was reasonable for the Sunday Times to infer “interference” in the affairs of a municipality. It had the letter in its possession, and the tone of the letter bordered on threatening (“Please watch your steps”). Even if Prince Buthelezi had been admonishing Mr Gumbi to obey lockdown regulations, this was surely within the purview of the mayor to do. The fact that it mentioned “the awarding of tenders”, while not conclusive of any corruption, raised legitimate questions.

On linking Mr Gumbi’s dismissal to the letter, we have shown above that this was wrong. However, in this respect, it did quote Prince Buthelezi that this was because of a High Court and a Constitutional Court decision. Thus the newspaper did not present allegation as fact. Nor was it untruthful.

These parts of the complaint is dismissed.

The Sunday Times is to apologise to its readers and to Prince Buthelezi for not reporting the facts or context around Mr Gumbi’s dismissal in sufficient detail, and for not verifying the accuracy of the claim that he was dismissed as a result of the letter.

The apology should:

  • be published at the earliest opportunity on all the newspaper’s platforms, after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;
  • be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and
  • be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Pippa Green

Press Ombudsman

December 7, 2020


[1]What a shock that I am being accused – Buthelezi” (Letters, Sunday Times, 11/10/20)

[2] Local Government Municipal Systems Act, no 32 of 2000.

[3] Adv AJ Dickson, SC, who has appeared for the MEC for COGTA in the KZN High Court against various municipalities, including Nquthu, confirmed this interpretation.

[4] Cited in Y N Moodley: MEC for COGTA vs Nquthu municipality and four others, KZN High Court;

 CASE NO: 13020/17P

[5] Gorven, J : MEC for COGTA vs Nquthu municipality and four others; KZN High Court, 3620/2018P

[6] Gorven, J: KZN High Court, 11/9/19

[7] Decision of the Constitutional Court in MEC vs Nquthu, B P Gumbi, Mr W S Mpanza and Mr M B Jiyane, June 24, 2020

[8] Ibid

[9] KZN High Court, MEC for COGTA vs Nquthu Municipality and four others;

 CASE NO: 13020/17P