A MEDIA colleague yesterday afternoon alerted me to an interview by local publisher Trevor Ncube (pictured) on his Heart & Soul online broadcasting platform, which is part of his Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) publishing group that owns the NewsDay, Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard.
I was in the middle of suffocating news deadlines, hence took a bit of time before listening to the interview. Initially, I thought it was going to be short, sweet and to the point, in other words concise; an engaging and refreshing exchange on critical current and national affairs.
It is important that as media and journalists we set the agenda on debating ideas and issues, not the mediocrity of harping on events and, worse still, descending into petty talk about people.
Regrettably, Ncube’s interview turned out to be a rambling session – over an hour long – and soporific, although its saving grace was that the presenter Blessed Mhlanga did a great job to rein in and focus him on important, clear and direct questions – a no-holds-barred approach – cutting through the turgid, prolix and incoherent narrative of his guest.
For an individual like Ncube who has a good story to tell, flowing from his role as a publisher who initially fought for press freedom, civil and political liberties and progress before losing his moral compass to join a regime which has ruined the country and impoverished the nation, not to mention violated human rights on an industrial scale and ended up as a pariah rogue, merely talking about events and people, like disingenuous silence on critical issues, is unhelpful.
Ncube’s story of activism, sacrifice and betrayal of the media cause is worth a gripping chapter in a book. Publishers like him have a right to make political choices and engage in political activities, but not to prostitute journalism for personal gain.
Yet, as we have seen with Ncube’s recent remarks in South Africa and on his newspapers talking about his time as part of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Presidential Advisory Council (PAC) before their bitter fallout about a year ago, his interview was based on teleological narratives; starting from the end and reasoning back, explaining things based on their end purpose.
His continued manipulation of the Keynesian logic – “when facts, I change my mind” – to exonerate himself doesn’t wash. In this case there has been no changes on facts before and after his politically naïve and opportunistic escapade into the Zanu PF government’s madhouse. That is why the rationale behind his self-serving change of mind as a power-hungry political lightweight is irrational.
A summary of what Ncube said in the interview is important before a comment. Basically he spoke about his role as an editor and publisher, the political economy of the media, press freedom, journalists and reporting, the principles and ethics of the profession, and his employees’ working conditions, as well as politics and dominant political players, Mnangagwa and main opposition Citizens Coalition for Change leader Nelson Chamisa.
The interviewer focused him on that, although he still strayed into pot-shots on personalities.
In the process, Ncube also spoke about myself as a former AMH chief content officer and Zimbabwe Independent editor.
Predictably he was negative, but also said complimentary stuff, saying he has huge respect for me and that I’m a great journalist. I appreciate that, but his toxic vitriol stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Let’s be brutally honest about that. Dumisani is very bitter. Dumisani left because we were about to fire him. Dumisani left because we had warned him a number of times. A final warning had been written to Dumisani Muleya for not being on duty…Dumisani Muleya is bitter,” Ncube opined.
I laughed, but this is a naked lie.
The truth is when Mnangagwa took over through a coup in November 2017, Ncube abandoned his media responsibility as a publisher and role as a moral agent for trinkets on the gravy train.
He wanted proximity to power and attendant trappings of his then newly-found position.
It is important to note he had lost control of his media group in South Africa, Mail & Guardian, which was sold to him by the Guardian Newspapers UK in 2002 on the basis of editorial integrity and not money. There were better offers from elsewhere.Ncube returns home amid bankruptcy and debts within his businesses on both sides of the Limpopo. In other words, he was broke. He wasn’t motivated by public service as he now claims. He was back home to reap low-hanging fruits of the coup, including radio and television licences that he didn’t eventually get.
For the avoidance of doubt, Ncube is a good person. He is a passionate media proprietor, hence deserves radio and TV licences. We worked together very well until he joined the coup project.
So as an inconvenient editor-in-chief, I had to be removed. In our last official meeting on 4 October 2019 at the AMH boardroom where editors’ phones were now seized in editorial meetings to stop journalists from recording his bid to sanitise Mnangagwa, Ncube actually said that he had wanted to remove me soon after the coup in 2017, but then he had struggled to justify the move as our Independent editorial team had evidently performed well.
The stories, copy sales and advertising bore testimony to that. Even newspaper vendors gave management at meetings in Graniteside on the industrially dilapidated outskirts of Harare, Ncube’s offices, that message.
So a hare-brained strategy had to be hatched by Ncube and his then managing director, now chief executive, Kenias Mafukidze to remove me. It was supported by their hangers-on in those grungy corridors of waning media power around Kelvin Corner.
Some dubious human resources firm had to be hired, at a huge cost, to preside over a Kangaroo disciplinary process against me. The allegation was that I had gone on my annual in January 2019 without signing a leave form, something many other colleagues often did without any fuss from anybody.
The whole thing was an embarrassing charade. I didn’t even get a lawyer. I represented myself very well. And the result was an email to me which said I was guilty of not signing a leave form and I should accept wrongdoing in my reply so that we move on. That was the absurd pretext required to fire me. So I dismissed that, saying if needs be I would escalate the issue and bring in a lawyer.
I was way ahead of them. Prior to that I had been told well before the 2018 elections by intelligence sources that Ncube would join Mnangagwa’s regime and I would be removed after that. I told the intelligence sources concerned that I was ready for that.
After rejecting their disciplinary farce which I knew was meant to appease the regime and show their goodwill, while also facilitating my dismissal, I did not hear from them. But they never stopped plotting until they appointed new editors by splitting my two top positions as AMH editor-in-chief and Independent editor between those editors who supported the coup.
I will publish details of the full story which speaks into bigger issues in my book.
Am I bitter about that? No. Not at all. My colleagues know that. We had seen the whole political plot from a mile away. We often joked about it with colleagues and we still do.
Besides, how can I be bitter for voluntarily resigning after being removed as editor-in-chief for defending editorial independence, integrity and credibility under siege from an unprincipled publisher who had been captured by corrupt and incompetent politicians?
I can’t be bitter either for resisting the mother of all screw-ups by a publisher who had abandoned his core responsibility, accountability and role as a moral agent for trinkets on the gravy train.
And besides, resigning meant finally escaping slavish working conditions that I had endured for over 20 years of dedicated service all for the love of journalism and my work; a publisher who treats his workers like monkeys and pays them peanuts, while proudly tweeting about it.
Unlike in other media houses, at AMH workers, including editors, are not paid any package when they leave, even after decades of service. Sometimes everything is taken away from them – from cars, laptops to even cellphone sim-cards, evidence of poor employment conditions.
As workers’ representatives in the past we always told Ncube and his blood-sucking managers that we were not monkeys, so we shouldn’t be paid peanuts. He always accused his senior staff of behaving like trade unionists, confirming his parasitic self-interest that gripped his soul and exorcised the ghost of his previous socialist pretences. His fat cat demons riled workers.
Although he sounded sober in the interview after his power-drunk stint at the lavish PAC ivory tower where his intolerance and political toxicity, especially against critics and Chamisa, manifested themselves, Ncube continues with his self-righteous posturing and in denial, unwittingly presenting himself as a wise owl, infallible and omniscient.
In the end, his interview turned out to be an exercise in self-justification and futility after needlessly discrediting himself through Mnangagwa’s coup project and trampling on media freedom in pursuit of self-aggrandisement as he retreated into a world of fantasy and self-delusion.
Now he wants to gaslight people.
While he waxed lyrical about the media, values of journalism and democracy, things that he was quick to turn his back on once he jumped onto the coup gravy train hoping to lodge his snout on the feeding trough and make easy money, Ncube failed a basic test as a publisher and someone who claims to be a “leader” and a “brand”.
He just couldn’t take responsibility and accept accountability for his actions that had implications for media freedom and editorial independence beyond politics. He passed the buck.
He has responsibility to the public as a publisher where a sphere of duty or obligation is assigned to him by virtue of his position, function, and work. This means a bundle of obligations associated with the media and the public interest.
Ncube has also failed to accept accountability. He thinks he owes no one an explanation, yet he is a publisher and claims to be a leader in his own right. The reality is he should be ready and prepared to give an explanation to relevant stakeholders for his judgments, intentions, actions and omissions when appropriately called upon to do so.
He mustn’t indulge in stonewalling – being evasive – obfuscation and sophistry as he did in the interview, as well as in his recent article and at the Drakensberg conference.
In addition, Ncube needs to understand that teleological (consequential) considerations tend to demand a level of accountability commensurate with the level of responsibility that he has.
Responsibility and accountability are closely related, admittedly importantly linked, hence often conflated, though not identical by definition or moral implication.
In all this, the bigger issue is how his actions impacted on and damaged media freedom and editorial independence. That is over and above perpetuating authoritarian repression, economic failure and suffering among the people.
Ncube must stop lying and denying that he was interfering in editorial matters after joining the regime because the problem was worse than that. He meddled and tried in vain to cajole, coerce and intimidate editors on behalf of Mnangagwa, sometimes publicly. This is a fact and the truth.
To their credit, all editors who understood the importance of editorial independence to quality journalism and the public interest rejected that, including those considered coup enablers. That is what saved AMH’s editorial independence which remains intact after his Damascene moment.
The idea in this response to his remarks is not to attack Ncube – who is a good person and well-meaning – but to ensure he takes responsibility and hold him to account for his various actions in an honest, transparent, humble and open-minded way. That is why the debate must stay away from petty personal grievances and focus on bigger issues affecting not just the media, but the people.