Sun, 12 Jul 2020

Ferial Haffajee: Iqbal Surve and how not to lead

17 Nov 2019, 17:43 GMT+10

Iqbal Surve was somebody I looked up to. As part of the inaugural Africa Leadership Initiative fellowship, of which I am also a part, he seemed a leader who had earned the mantle of the title. In the ALI initiative, being a moral leader is an assumed quality for nomination.

He speaks with the lilt of the Cape Town townships and seemed earnest in his endeavours to set right the apartheid economy. He projected himself as a change agent who would shift the needle on how his employees were treated.

On reading by Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield, both editors and news executives, albeit both short-lived, at Sekunjalo Independent Media (SIM), it's clear that Surve is in fact none of the things he projected to be.

The book, which is excellently written, gives an account only of Surve's time at the helm of SIM, not of the rest of his vast (and crumbling) business empire. If you are interested in how some of the top journalism titles in the country crumbled to bits and shards under him, then is worth reading.

But it's also an abject lesson in how not to lead in South Africa. Much of the book is about how Surve hounded Dasnois out of her job as a shape-shifting editor of the , the wonderful title now disemboweled of all of its history as media totem of the Mother City. Whitfield, then news boss of all the Cape titles in the group, left shortly afterwards when Surve tried to push him out.

He purged and pushed out a generation of skills in pursuit of what he called transformation but which, in the end, was anything but that laudable idea of shifting ownership, content, leadership and building the country's first significant black-owned media company. The last managing editor of the Cape Times, Martine Barker, was hounded out in what she calls a "brutal" period of her life. Brutality defines Surve's modus operandi in the book.

He divides and rules like a warrior gone rogue, taking out anybody who will not bow to the sycophancy he demands. The Cape Times news head, Janet Heard, suffered manoeuvres both cruel and transparently evil. The legendary environmental writer, John Yeld, was treated like a string of disposable kelp.

I write in the present tense for it continues. Even journalists like Gasant Abarder, Jermaine Craig, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya, Philani Mgwaba and Kevin Ritchie who took leading roles in the new company as a frontier guard of the promised transformation were all treated with disdain and disrespect when they began to point out the emperor was wearing no clothes. Surve's right-hand woman, Karima Brown, was forced out too in what may have been an act of political interference. She quit abruptly as group editor-in-chief.

He took out layers and layers of people, leaving only a husk today, as he turned his titles and platforms into two things only: weapons to fight his many battles in disinformation campaigns that have yet to be documented; and as his personal vanities. Dasnois and Whitfield have counted how many times Surve projected and pushed himself onto his own front pages and top-decks. It's a shocking count - beaten only by the world's worst despotic and vain media owners.

Surve funded his media empire on hot air and braggadocio; today he owes the Public Investment Corporation, which holds the funds of government pensioners, over a billion rands for SIM alone. He is yet to face a reckoning for his next boondoggle - the creation of AYO Technologies, a company he said would be a unicorn, but which in fact was a shell without even a tortoise. Still, the PIC in late 2017 invested R4.3bn for the chimera that is AYO.

The accounting may come soon, as the PIC has started proceedings to get its money back. It has filed a court application to have AYO return the funds and a separate application to liquidate SIM. AYO and SIM are opposing both applications.

If you look at the latest audited circulation numbers of the SIM titles, they are headed south faster than the Vaal Dam empties of water in a Gauteng heatwave. Without access to the pensions of the PIC, it's end-days for Surve. But what about his people? Those who know says he cares none as he beats a hasty retreat, perhaps out of the country.

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