Oaklandsocialist interviewed Micah Reddy of South Africa. Much of our discussion focused on the role of a murky figure named Roy Singham. Singham is a multi-millionaire who financed a left journal in South Africa. He is also closely tied to and influential in a major union in South Africa – the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). Singham also plays an international role, including in Code Pink in the US (which we don’t get into in this interview). His role is all the more insidious because he basically represents the position of the Chinese Communist Party. Here is the video of that interview and below it is a transcript. Micah also referred to an article by Monthly Review Online and Amabhungane’s response. Below this transcript is a link to that article and the reply.
So we’re talking with Micah Reddy in South Africa. And Michael works for the nonprofit AmaBhungane. Can you tell us a little bit about the group that you work for it, Micah?
Sure, John. So it was established in about over a decade ago now 2009, if I’m not mistaken. And it’s a nonprofit investigative center. It’s always been independent, but it was housed within an established weekly publication in South Africa. And some years back it went fully independent. Well, it’s split from from the mainland Guardian. And it is a donor funded investigative center. The funding consists of institutional donors. But the single largest source of funding comes from ordinary donations, small donations from members of the public. And we tend to focus on sort of the intersection of politics and crime. So really, we look at kind of high level corruption, and various things in between. Of course, there’s an increasing focus on the environment these days. You may have heard about the Gupta leaks. That was sort of something that really cemented our reputation in recent years that was looking at this series of expert days on high level state capture in South Africa, linked to one particular family of Indian origin, who had become very close to the president of the country and the faction around the president.
I should have asked that. So what does mom Amabhungane mean?
Good question. It’s the Zulu word for dung beetles. It’s kind of a local spin on muckraking.
Amabhungane recently was at the center of a controversy concerning the closing of that journal New Frame, which also involved Neville Roy Singham. Can you tell us a little bit about that whole issue?
New Frame was founded in 2018 I think it was. And it was set up to be this kind of radical left voice in the media landscape. To give a voice to workers and to focus, focus very much on union issues, poor and working class communities, that sort of thing. And it was it was a welcome addition to the media landscape. In South Africa, the media landscape is, like in so many countries, quite concentrated. And, you know, of course, I use this term, not uncritically, but mainstream media has its kind of certain preoccupations and biases. And New Frame was to bring a radical left perspective to the media landscape. It was a publication that was unashamedly leftist, proudly leftist, but was also supposed to be independent and nonpartisan.
It suddenly came onto the media scene, and it was unclear where the money was coming from. But it was evidently very well resourced. So they moved into fancy offices downtown. They seem to have a lot of money to pay staff and to pay freelancers, and they had a solid core of staff. And there wasn’t another sort of high caliber left wing publication. There are some sort of soft left publications and left vaguely left leaning left liberal publications, but this was going to be something genuinely radical. But there were certain questions around transparency and funding. And those questions continue to linger.
It was always sort of rumored to be linked to NUMSA. [National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa] And to be part of this kind of NUMSA project and I’ll get into that a bit later, but it didn’t seem to be a mouthpiece of of any trade union or any political party, but it had a minuscule, minuscule readership and really didn’t have much impact even within the left. And you know, the left and South Africa’s is a fairly small space. (New Frame) came across as a kind of ivory tower publication, very sort of insulated, insulated from the media world and the news cycle. And there was some particularly bad takes that were very much ideologically driven. But it read like a kind of… don’t get me wrong, there was some good journalists, but a lot of [unclear] is kind of like very heavy, dry academic treatise and that kind of thing.
There was a few things that were ideologically driven.
Well, yeah. For instance, you know about the July riots last year? There were these massive riots middle of last year, that was sparked by the arrest of the former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. And the Constitutional Court ordered his arrest. And that sparked mass riots across the country, particularly in [unclear], and in KwaZulu Natal, which is where he’s from; that’s his sort of stronghold. And in Gautang, which is the economic hub of the country. And New Frame was very quick to publish an editorial and I think this editorial… I don’t think this editorial had buy-in from the staff more broadly, I think it was very much one man’s decision, the editor in chief Richard Pitthouse. And it was very quick to sort of portray the riots as bread riots, as a sort of genuine popular uprising driven by hunger, or political disaffection. But it kind of glossed over the riots as this sort of noble grassroots act of a revolutionary proletarian disobedience and violence. And there was an element of truth to that in the sense that the mass disaffection and frustration, unemployment, poverty, hunger all fit into it. Obviously. But they were very political and New Frame intentionally turned a blind eye. They’ve intentionally ignored the political dynamics, or downplayed the political dynamics of it. And the Zuma connection and the extent to which these riots were planned and stoked and orchestrated. And completely, you know, it completely whitewashed, these riots, and it was so sad. So that’s what I mean by it was a kind of quick ideological take. It was a reflex ideological take, that came at the expense of rigorous journalistic analysis.
And then one day, New Frame just suddenly closed its doors.
Well, so that’s the thing. So , as I was saying, it never really had much traction, it never really had much of a following or readership. There was a kind of arrogance that, you know, “we’re better than all the other media, we know best.” And it had very much to do with the personality of [the editor] Richard Pitthouse, who was a sort of central figure in all of this, although he was booked off sick for a long time. I mean, he very much defined this organization and brought his politics to bear on it, and it was perceptible in things like the editorials and certain editorial decisions, but also, I think, in the general tone, which was this kind of patronizing, didactic, very academic term. And I think it alienated a lot of would-be readers. A lot of people were excited at the thought of a radical left wing publication, but it never really gained traction, New Frame collapsed earlier this year. The decision was sudden, and it took some people by surprise.
Remember there was this very promising left wing publication that was very well funded and held a lot of promise at one stage. Even a publication like New Frame, which had vvery limited readership. Its closure was still felt by the media fraternity. And just like the media fraternity had welcomed New Frame as bringing more diversity and kind of critical lifts perspective. I think, you know, as much as that was the case they were also shocked that New Frame was suddenly closing up shop, [since] it had seemed so flush, there was so much money going around. And so that prompted us to ask, “well, you know, what was the reason for the sudden closure in New Frame? It had been loaded, had been sitting on a treasure chest for a long time, had been pumped full of money by this Roy Singham.” And that was a kind of open secret that Roy Singham was the funder. And we had actually looked into him some time back when we were looking into NUMSA, the union that that is kind of connected to Roy Singham, and through money flows, and that New Frame was sort of a part of.
But when when New Frame closed, we thought “okay, well, you know, we need to start asking questions about the funding.” And we were hearing all sorts of things, all sorts of allegations from New Frame’s staff, who were outraged and who felt like they’d been betrayed and treated terribly as media workers by this ostensibly radical left wing publication, and its management. And so, you know, they came to us. A lot of a lot of allegations were made quite publicly on social media, about the sudden decision to pull funding, and there was a lot of kind of quite a lot of conspiratorial takes floating around. One of which was that the closure of New Frame had to do with Singham’s reprioritization, basically, that he was reprioritizing his philanthropic initiatives, if you will, and that he was supposedly was taking orders from the Chinese Communist Party, and there was some grand plan to kind of reorient the left, bring it more kind of into China’s fold.
And as is the case with a lot of conspiracy there seemed to be a kernel of truth. And certainly there were a lot of questions raised. And those questions were only heightened as the questions were made, [and] were added to by by an editorial that Richard Pithouse wrote, which was very revealing, in what it didn’t say. Basically, the editorial was saying something along the lines of, “well, you know, in a world of finite resources, where the left is always under resourced, there are better things to be spending money on than a left wing publication.” So basically, you know, it was it just kind of an apologia for the funder. It was making all sorts of excuses for the funder’s decision to suddenly pull funding and in quite a harsh, quite brutal way, actually.
So that got us asking questions. And that led us to the article that we wrote, which was all about the funder and his links to the Chinese Communist Party, and how that was sort of influencing funding decisions and the kind of network of, of political organizations think tanks, civil society organizations, call them what you will, but there’s kind of this this cluster of, of left wing organizations in South Africa and and other countries linked to Singham. And the sort of crux of the article was that his money was being channeled and used in quite opaque, unaccountable ways.
And that these organizations were, like New Frame [was] pretty much entirely beholden to this one, murky funder, and that his proximity to the Chinese Communist Party in his sort of pro-China ideology was having a discernible impact on this political network.
A lot of accusations coming from the staff at New Frame centered on censorship. And they were accusations that New Frame had taken an overtly pro China line and was kind of becoming more and more of a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party. Now, actually those those claims to me seemed somewhat overstated. In fact, it was quite hard to discern. You know, there were articles here and there. There were certainly silences. But one could also speculate the New Frame was closed because it wasn’t pro China enough, because the journalists were pushing back and it was kind of too independent for this network. And the network, as I said, consists of all these sort of think tanks and media outlets and civil society organizations. I mean, it’s quite a sort of thick mess. It’s quite a thick network of organizations in the sense that, yeah, there’s so many of them. And they all overlap in quite kind of sort of tight knit ways. So you have overlapping directorships. The same people keep cropping up in management in these different organizations.
Can you be a little more specific about that?
I can. So they’re not limited to South Africa. Singham funds, a lot of activity, a lot of political organizations in places like Brazil as well as in India. And the pattern is very much the same sort of way that these organizations are set up. But in South Africa, for instance, you had you had the sort of holding company for New Frame. The directors of the holding company for New Frame in turn will link to NUMSA. They were linked to the Pan Africa Today, which was the sort of political education initiative that was very involved in political education within NUMSA. The story of how Singham got into NUMSA … it’s a very sprawling story. But the story of how Singham got into NUMSA is also very interesting. So you had Pan Africa Today, you had things like the Tri Continental. Now the Tri Continental, you may have heard of, it’s quite influential in the international left, is headed by a man called Vijay Prashad. And Tri Continental in South Africa… So Richard Pithouse, the editor of New Frame, was very involved in Tri Continental. So were certain people who in NUMSA, and NUMSA’s political offshoot as well, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party. (They) had a lot of key people in that were linked to, had been employed by, Singham and were linked to Singham and other organizations. So there was that kind of thing. It was sort of the pattern of these overlapping organizations that shared the same managers and directors and so forth, and he funded a lot of sort of radical media organizations, it would seem. And these radical media organizations tend to have a quite a hard line on issues around Western imperialism, China, Russia, very much toeing the official Chinese Communist party line on topics like the ethnic cleansing of, persecution of Uighurs, and that kind of thing, right?
I should point out that a lot of the money was traceable to U.S foundations. US nonprofits have to file tax returns that are publicly available. And so there were a bunch of foundations that were traced to Singham. And for that we owe some debt to this article that was published in New Lines. You may be familiar with it. I think we spoke about it once. [Note: Micah is referring to this article on Uyghur genocide denial.] And what was interesting is that, you know, they were very obviously connected to Singham, but the money Singham had used as sort of fronting financial mechanism, if you will, to hide his money — the money was routed through the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund, which basically anonymizes funders for philanthropic initiatives. And from there, a whole lot of money. And then this was around the time that Singham had sold his very successful tech company. What is it called now? ThoughtWorks. And he’s so you know, there was some there was public information, basically, showing that Singham had sold ThoughtWorks so that he could get more involved in his sort of philanthropic initiatives in radical politics, basically. And so at around that time, this money starts flowing from the Goldman Sachs philanthropy fund into various foundations linked to Singham. Staffed by former ThoughtWorks employees, people close to Singham. And from there, we could see, you know, money going to a new frame and going to various causes around the world. A lot of money going to Brazil, other parts of Africa. I mean, there’s, you know, pretty serious money going into lots of different places, but some of it was traceable to to South Africa, Tri Continental loom large and all of that.
I asked the question about the closing of New Frame, and how much of it had to do with the tensions between the reporters and management around what would and would not be covered.
There certainly were some silences on major issues, but also as as Pithouse himself said it was very much a South African publication with the South African focus. You know, they didn’t have reporters or freelancers in places like Ukraine. And his sort of alibi, if you will, was that these weren’t deliberate silences. These weren’t for political reasons. It was just a matter of practicalities. It was a matter of practicalities and resources, and that they just couldn’t tackle these issues. I think that he acknowledged that there wasn’t a major article on the Uyghurs. But I’m pretty sure that’s what the issue was.
But (on) some one of those kind of big issues, he said, “Yes, it was true that they wasn’t some major article on that issue. But also New Frame had never actually received a pitch.” And he basically accused some of the journalists of hypocrisy, because he said, “Well, yes, you say that we never published on this, that or the other, but you never pitched anything, or you never proposed anything. You were silent all along.” And he was saying that, “you know, there were certain kinds of material constraints that prevented them. Or that meant that they didn’t cover certain things as much as maybe they should have or they would have liked or whatever.” And, you know, it’s kind of plausible. There were quite like finicky examples of stories being spiked. And the reasoning was very kind of intricate. And a lot of “He Said, She Said,” and it was hard to kind of determine who was in the right who was in the wrong.
But there were some articles that were spiked, that were critical. In one case, there was an article that was critical of the junta in Myanmar, that was spiked. And one of the journalists alleged that there was there was a political reason for that. [Oaklandsocialist notes: The Chinese government is friendly with that junta.] But was it a case of censorship? It to me, it was very unclear. There didn’t seem to be a sort of systemic level of censorship at New Frame.
But I don’t think that ultimately, that wasn’t that important to the story. What I think cannot be denied is that this publication was entirely beholden to a single, very unaccountable murky funder. And I think it was killed for political reasons. I think that case can be made. I mean, I don’t know for sure. And maybe the funder had a kind of change of heart that had to do with purely financial considerations or material considerations. But to me, that is not convincing. And the matter is made all the murkier by the lack of accountability from the editor in chief [Pithouse], and the funder himself [Singham]. I mean, they haven’t been frank about that. Yeah, the funder is still treated as this kind of secretive, mysterious man in the background. There’s a lack of willingness to even to even name him. And I think that says a lot. I think the fact that that Richard Pithouse… the real reasons for this very abrupt, you know, brutal closure of New Frame, you know, only underscored the importance of writing the story. And yeah, so one can speculate whether it was political reasons, but I think there’s a compelling case to be made. We know, a fair amount about the the funder and his ties to the Chinese Communist Party. It would seem, you know, if one takes a step back and looks at this network as a whole New Frame is a bit of an outlier. Because the network is very vertically pro China. There’s a kind of, there’s a very strong sort of propaganda stick. There’s a very strong propaganda stick current running through this network.
And so one has to ask, “well, you know, what, what were the political considerations? Yeah, and could new frame have been closed because it didn’t sort of fit politically anymore? It was no longer politically expedient. It was politically costly to this program, to this to this kind of pro China project.” And I think there’s a good case to be made for that. I certainly think the silence from people in this network, and not just the silences the extremely defensive responses, and really unhinged attacks on US after writing that article, I think.
I asked about the attacks on Amabhungani for their coverage of the closure of New Frame. These attacks included from Monthly Review Online here in the United States, which, at that time, I did not understand Monthly Review Online is not exactly the same as Monthly Review. Although I’m told that it’s the same editors.
And the Monthly Review piece was part of a kind of wave of, a barrage of very crude hit pieces on us, in response to this article that I initially thought would get very little traction, because it was about this niche, left publication that no one ever read. And this kind of only concerned the idea that there was some sort of network at play here. And I would just say that I was appalled by Monthly Review. You know, a similar article was written in Common Dreams, that one of the authors of the Monthly Review piece had written, and Common Dreams did at least make some attempt to kind of acknowledge that, that we hadn’t been given right reply. There were certain basic journalistic failings and they incorporated a brief response by us, but the Monthly Review piece offered no real evidence. And actively just they they misquoted. And on the odd occasion, they tried to offer something as evidence, it was invariably either totally misleading or misquoted, or, you know, just an outright fabrication and crazy sort of logical leaps were made, and it was it was, it was a mess. And we wrote Monthly Review, complaining and pointing out with evidence, you know. I mean, it was as sort of explicit as the author’s having taken a quote from one of, I think, one of our funders documents. And, you know, they could only deliberately have distorted that, it was a very, very obvious distortion. And we pointed this out, we included the document, we included the phrase, we included the relevant sentences, everything, and monthly review, you know, refused to… I mean, not even, not even talking about making a full retraction here, but just make the corrections. It was, yeah, I could go into the details and spend a lot of time going through each and every line of that article. [NOTE: See below for link to the Monthly Review Online article as well as the reply that Micah Reddy refers to.]
I commented on what appears to be a widespread and very well funded political network that plays upon the legitimate anger app and the crimes of capitalism in the West. And they use that to cover over the equal crimes of capitalism in China and Russia.
Yeah, and I mean, we see that in South Africa, it’s a major feature of our increasingly bankrupt politics at the moment. This term, Radical Economic Transformation, and these sort of empty left wing slogans are thrown around to give a veneer of legitimacy to the most venal and corrupt factions of what’s not just the ruling party, but but within our politics. And there is a kind of ideological affinity for Russia and a certain material interests at work as well. Russia and China. And, yeah, I mean, I think this sort of thing is quite easily weaponized. And we saw that during the Gupta years, I refer to the Guptas earlier, very close to the former president, years of rampant state capture. And I mean, interestingly enough, Bell Pottenger, the infamous British people, former PR company, you know, the firm that represented the likes of Augusto Pinochet and I think Assad and some of the world’s worst tyrants that… You know that Bell Pottenger was was hired by the Guptas to kind of, well to act as their PR firm and to give them, provide them talking points and media, training and that sort of thing, or to basically run the Gupta PR machine. And one very interesting thing to come out of investigative expertise of years was how Bell Pottinger had helped instrumentalize the slogan of Radical Economic Transformation and these kinds of left wing slogans to give a veneer of legitimacy to to state capture.
During the struggle against apartheid, during in the 1980s, the South African Communist Party was generally seen as being the most revolutionary sector of that struggle, and it had widespread support. However, it was continued to be linked with the leadership of the ANC. And in recent years, the ANC has really been the ruling capitalist party. In 2012, the striking miners at Marikana were massacred by the ANC with the complicity, really of much of the union leadership. So I asked how did that affect the support for the South African Communist Party?
The SACP is thoroughly compromised in that sense having been in a tri partite alliance with the ANC. You know, from the time the ANC was the governing party. So you know, the ANC governs alongside COSATU, the union federation, and the SACP, And SACP is a shadow of its former self. It’s become this kind of very sort of stodgy old fashioned Communist Party. I think it long ago lost any semblance of being a sort of genuinely radical force and South African politics.
Micah talked about the role of Russia and China in South Africa today.
Look, I mean, China’s very present in South Africa, but it’s not felt in the same way as say…. Yeah, I think of like, various African countries, Mozambique, and you know, where you’ll drive along. You will drive along nearly tarred roads that were built by Chinese road crews, or Chinese construction firms and new Chinese made buses. And you see, it’s much more visible. You see Chinese work teams everywhere there. It’s not quite the same here. That said Chinese investment… China is a major economic player, but it’s not quite as visible and tangible. I would say Russian economic interests possibly have a more discernible sort of political influence, certainly on the ruling party, because, quite interestingly, ruling party has significant business relationships, through mining ventures with Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian oligarch so it’s those kinds of things where you can you can sort of feel the the Hidden Hand of of Russia in South African politics.
That concluded my interview with Mike Reddy. And I want to thank him very much for taking the time and I hope that we can return to discussing these issues with him and other people in South Africa in the future.
MR Online and Amabhungane reply
Here is the link to the MR Online article.
Here is the reply of Amabhungane:
I write in response to the article published in Monthly Review entitled, “Manufacturing consent: How the United States has penetrated South African media.”
Although the article purports to be an analysis of a real phenomenon, it is actually an attempt to manufacture a moral panic without disclosing the origins of the debate or the involvement of one of the authors, Roscoe Palm.
The penetration of the South African media by foreign interests was not really a major point of public debate in South Africa, though the article is part of a retaliatory effort to make the US bogey loom large.
What discourse existed was mainly confined to those interested in media – and it was focused on the reasons for the abrupt closure of a small left-sympathetic publication (New Frame) and the motivation for the withdrawal of its sole effective funder, Roy Singham.
AmaBhungane published a story about this closure, raising legitimate questions about Singham and his network – and their relationship with another state actor, China – as well as their influence on South Africa’s largest union, Numsa.
Our article briefly mentioned the Pan African Institute for Socialism, which Palm co-founded with Phillip Dexter.
AmaBhungane’s single story provoked an extraordinary coordinated smear campaign, including separate articles published internationally in Counterpunch (by former New Frame editor Richard Pithouse), in Common Dreams (by Pithouse allies Dexter and Palm) and now Monthly Review – as well as in the local Sunday Times (by Singham’s close friend Vijay Prashad) – paired with radio and TV interventions and an attack by Numsa.
By shamelessly blasting on the dog-whistle of US imperialism, your authors have perpetrated a fraud on the natural solidarity of the global left and abused its platforms to launch an attack on independent journalism in South Africa.
This is ironic, because New Frame was treated entirely benignly by the SA media fraternity during its existence and questions were raised about its funding and management only in the aftermath of its brutal closure.
It is ironic because in defending his editorship Pithouse claimed that Prashad was in recent times published less frequently in New Frame than in the Mail & Guardian, which is now tagged as a virtual US vassal.
It is also ironic because these articles fail to mention the destruction of the credibility of South Africa’s Independent Media Group – a process facilitated by very large injections of Chinese money to prop up what has now effectively become the mouthpiece of the most venal and extractive faction of the ruling African National Congress.
It is entirely predictable that this faction, responsible for efforts to capture the South African state for private interests, has now seized on this smear against amaBhungane to bolster its own campaign to evade accountability.
There is nothing wrong with efforts to flag US influence peddling, but your authors betray their male fides by seeking to draw a straight line between the CIA, the National Endowment for Democracy, diversified philanthropies (such as Open Society Foundation and Luminate) and independent media outlets, such as amaBhungane – and by twisting the facts to suit their narrative.
This is evident in their effort to suggest, contrary to the actual wording of the Open Society Foundation report relied on, that OSF “provided funding to amaBhungane and Daily Maverick specifically to commence research on the extent of state capture in South Africa”.
As my former colleague Stefaans Brümmer has pointed out in the attached letter, while amaBhungane is indeed an OSF grantee, our #GuptaLeaks work was not commissioned by OSF or anyone else. It was an autonomous and highly acclaimed series of exposés after the Daily Maverick and amaBhungane obtained, directly from whistle-blowers, the contents of a hard drive with thousands of emails and documents.
The authors make no attempt to test our actual publication record against the allegation of US imperialist bias. They would be hard-pressed to find anything in our body of work that could remotely be considered beholden to US interests.
More damaging is the attempt to tar three young Black professionals – whose work and ethical commitment at amaBhungane provided a platform for deserved career advancement – with some kind of revolving door entanglement with Western imperialism.
Most damaging is the attempt to conflate amaBhungane’s fellowship programme and independent support network, the IJ Hub, with US initiatives in the region.
Contrary to what your authors write, the Media Institute of Southern Africa played no role in setting up IJ Hub.
The fact is that media elsewhere on the continent tend to be tethered to commercial or political interests – and journalists are exploited and very poorly paid.
AmaBhungane’s initiative is an attempt to provide journalists in the region with some additional skills and financial support to assist them to pursue independent journalism in their home countries.
It is aimed precisely at helping them break free from projects linked to contingent funding, whether from political or commercial barons, from their own governments or the US government – which is often the only game in town.
Your authors present an extremely reductive attempt at media criticism that effectively rules out the very possibility of plurality, internal contestation and complexity in the media landscape.
They are in essence arguing that independent journalism is impossible with the aid of “soft” funding, when this in reality represents very nearly the only option for media untethered from state control or commercial imperatives.
AmaBhungane’s transparency about its funding, its diversified funding policy, and its publishing record in fact demonstrate that we place a premium on genuine independence and we are not caught in anyone’s web.
AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism