Bhekwayinkosi Gift Manyanga vs. City Press / News24


Wed, Nov 21, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

21 November 2018

Particulars

Complainant: Mr Bhekwayinkosi Gift Manyanga, in his personal capacity

Date of articles: 22 July 2018; 6 August 2018

Headlines: VBS Boss: I knew, heard nothing; and VBS’ R1bn gamble: We were counting on Dlamini-Zuma to win

Author of articles: Sipho Masondo (first article) and Dewald van Rensburg (both articles)

Respondents: Prof George Claassen, internal ombud; Dumisane Lubisi, editor

Complaint                                            

In general, Manyanga complains that City Press / News24 did not afford him an opportunity to state his side of the story regarding allegations made in affidavits by the management of VBS; he now demands a right of reply.

He also complains that the:

  • first story incorrectly referred to him as an “agent”; and
  • second article falsely alleged he:
    • had said the potential Prasa investment had been affected by the ANC’s national conference in December; and
    • was a “middleman” for illegal deals that may have been planned or taken place between Prasa officials and ANC politicians.

The texts

The first article was about the former CEO of VBS Mutual Bank, who claimed he knew nothing about the huge amount of fraud “that allegedly sucked R1.5 billion out of the bank he ran”.

The sentences referring to Manyanga read: “The ‘agent’ brokering an ill-fated R1 billion deposit at VBS by … Prasa last year was Bhekwayinkosi Gift Manyanga through his company Bhekwam Holdings. Manyanga was paid R1.5 million for getting Prasa to agree to the investment, which was then cancelled.”

The second story related that a “make-or-break” deposit of R1-billion from Prasa into VBS fell through because the Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma camp lost at the ANC’s December elective conference (according to VBS treasurer Phopi Mukhodobwane).

The statements relating to Manyanga said: “The man who directly received the R1.5 million commission was Gift Manyanga, according to bank statements now before court. According to Mukhodobwane, ‘Manyanga himself told me that the outcome of the December elections were unexpected and that’s why it didn’t happen’. There was a veritable feeding frenzy around the Prasa deal with middlemen competing for the commission. One of VBS’ known deposit-raising agents, Kabelo Matsepe apparently entered the fray and ‘hijacked’ the deal from Manyanga, according to the Ramavhunga transcripts.”

The arguments

MANYANGA rejects allegations that there was anything untoward about his consultancy work during his one-year contract with VBS. He says the articles appear to have been based on affidavits from people other than myself, and therefore he demands a right of reply.

He says the facts are as follows:

  • He provided a consultancy service to VBS from February 2017 to February 2018 as a business development strategist;
  • As part of his contract, he negotiated strategic alliances with a number of trade unions and the KZN National Taxi Alliance, as part of building VBS’ customer base, and reworked the bank’s marketing strategy;
  • He succeeded in developing a number of new products for VBS, including payroll deduction products and funeral products for two trade unions; he also developed a taxi finance product and a third-party debit order facility, as well as new credit card-linked cheque account facilities for customers;
  • He successfully identified potential investment partners to help the bank grow its revenue base in order to apply for a commercial licence;
  • He proposed that VBS should offer Prasa a higher percentage interest on investments;   
  • None of Prasa’s previous investments had been made through tender processes – they were all based on unsolicited proposals from the various financial institutions, as is the norm in the South African banking sector, and he proposed the same approach to VBS;
  • As a consultant (not an employee of VBS, or an agent), he handed over a proposal to the bank; he was paid commission of R1.5-million, as stipulated in my consultancy contract, just over a month later;
  • Throughout this process, he did not receive any payment from, nor did he make any payment to Prasa – he says there was nothing illegal, illicit or questionable about his role in relation to the potential Prasa investment; and
  • He testified before the SA Reserve Bank Commission of Enquiry into the affairs of VBS, where he fully outlined his role as a consultant (including his successes in terms of growth and profitability).

Manyanga also rejects any allegation that he said the potential Prasa investment had been affected by the ANC’s national conference in December, and that he was a “middleman” for illegal deals that may have been planned or taken place between Prasa officials and ANC politicians.

He says he resents suggestions that he was in any way part of the VBS debacle, or that he acted in an unprofessional or dishonest manner.

CLAASSEN says the articles focussed on the SA Reserve Bank Commission of Enquiry into the affairs of VBS and a pending court case on the debacle. 

“In a matter of a court case and official commissions of enquiry such as this, the sub judice rule applies which means you can only report on what is before the court, or on documents handed in to the court, or testified during the commission’s enquiry. You cannot bypass the court or commission proceedings by interviewing an interested party as that would possibly come down to interfering with the legal process,” he argues.

The internal ombud says News24 is prepared to (and indeed should) report on Manyanga’s testimony before the Commission of Enquiry, but it may not interview him outside the commission’s investigation as it would amount to interfering with the enquiry.

He says Manyanga can file his papers in court, which is when News24 may report on his side of the story. 

MANYANGA replies his attorneys have established that no affidavit stated he was an “agent”. He argues that the journalists used this term to insinuate that he had taken bribes on behalf of Prasa – of which there is no evidence. This amounted to unfair reporting that has negatively impacted his personal and business reputation, he says.

Analysis

Right of reply

Claassen’s response hits bulls-eye – interviewing interested parties in a court case may interfere with the court’s processes and should be out of bounds. In fact, this is an accepted journalistic practice. City Press / News24 may (and indeed should) report Manyanga’s side of the story when his case comes before the court.

‘Agent’

The first story referred to Manyanga as the “agent” who had brokered a R1-billion deposit at VBS.

I have asked Lubisi why the story used the word “agent” (as Manyanga was a consultant, and not a VBS agent), and also why it put that word in inverted commas.

He says City Press:

  • relied on transcripts of investigators’ interviews with VBS’s CEO and treasurer into its collapse. In these transcripts, both officials referred to companies that facilitated deposits from municipalities as “agents” – which included Manyanga; and
  • put that word in quotation marks to indicate that it came from the transcripts, and not from the newspaper.

The editor adds that Manyanga’s company had a “consultancy agreement” with VBS in terms of which he was a “consultant”, but the work he did made it fair to use the term “agent” as he dealt with third parties like Prasa on behalf of VBS. “That’s an agent, even if his contract calls him something else. This feels like a semantic argument,” he concludes.

The last argument has some legs to stand on, but it is also debatable if the word “agent” fits the bill. However, I am satisfied that the publications were justified to use the word in question because it had been used in the interviews – on condition that it was put in inverted commas, which is what the publications did.

Admittedly, the story could have made it clearer whom it was quoting – but, in itself, that does not amount to a breach of the Press Code.

I also disagree with Manyanga that the use of the term “agent” insinuated that he had taken bribes on behalf of Prasa. I did not read any insinuation into it, and I do not believe that reasonable readers would have interpreted it in that way.

Deal affected by ANC conference

The second story said, “According to Mukhodobwane, ‘Manyanga himself told me that the outcome of the December elections were unexpected and that’s why it didn’t happen’.”

Whether Manyanga made this statement towards Mukhodobwane or not, I would not know as I was not present. It is also not necessary for me to know that, as the story did not state it as fact that Manyanga had uttered those words – it attributed it to Mukhobodwane. If the latter is dissatisfied with this specific quote, he was at liberty to complain about it. The publications cannot be at fault for reporting Mukhodobwane said that Manuyanga had used those words.

‘Middleman’

It is necessary, for context, to quote the reportage about Manyanga (in the second story) in full: “The man who directly received the R1.5 million commission was Gift Manyanga, according to bank statements now before court. According to Mukhodobwane, ‘Manyanga himself told me that the outcome of the December elections were unexpected and that’s why it didn’t happen’. There was a veritable feeding frenzy around the Prasa deal with middlemen competing for the commission. One of VBS’ known deposit-raising agents, Kabelo Matsepe apparently entered the fray and ‘hijacked’ the deal from Manyanga, according to the Ramavhunga transcripts.”

The complaint cannot be about the use of the word “middleman”, as that was an accurate description for a consultant who, in this case, brokered a deal between VBS and Prasa. Instead, the complaint is that Manyanga, as “middleman”, suggested that he was instrumental for brokering illegal deals that may have been planned or taken place between Prasa officials and ANC politicians.

After studying the quoted part in detail, as well as the rest of the story, I could not find any trace of a suggestion that Manyanga was acting as a middleman between Prasa and ANC officials – his role as middleman was confined to acting between VBS and Prasa.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud