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No evidence attorney bribed City Press journalist to report ‘R5 billion scandal’ at South Africa’s labour department

IN SHORT: What appear to be emails between a prominent attorney and a journalist have been circulating on social media in South Africa, with the claim they reveal evidence that the journalist was bribed and fed information. But the emails have been proven to be fake and an attempt to smear City Press newspaper.

“If you still believe whatever is written/said by media people ... You're a complete fool ... Those propagandists are here to destroy other people's lives ...”

That’s one caption to a screenshot of what seems to be a Gmail conversation headed “More information for DEL”.

DEL is South Africa’s Department of Employment and Labour.

The screenshot has been circulating on social media in South Africa since early October 2023.

It appears to be a conversation between the attorney Neville Gawula and City Press journalist Mpumzi Zuzile.

City Press is a national South African Sunday newspaper. It’s owned by Media24, part of the Naspers group.

The top part of the screenshot is an email supposedly from Gawula. Its timestamp is 3 October at 12:46. Part of the email address is blacked out, but it’s shown in full above the message as [email protected].

The message reads:

Dear Mpumzi,

Thank you for the attack piece you did on DG,  Lamati last week. It went well.

Now that we have established some level of trust, I  am sending you more information extracted from the investigation, but not in the report I sent you. This will help  you have impactful article this coming Sunday.

Please keep my possible involvement out, because for a month no one leaked anything. You'll receive the balance of your payment after the publishing of the story.

Attached you will find all the documents to support this week's story.

Thobile Lamati is the director general of DEL.

The email appears to include an attachment with the filename Dept of Employment Emails (Gawula Inc).pdf. The file size is given as 5123K.

The second part of the screenshot, supposedly from the journalist Zuzile, is timestamped 3 October at 19:13. Again, most of the email address is blacked out.

It reads:

Hi Neville,

Received. Mondli will approve, so I  will definitely use the information,  covering the angle you suggested, and the notes you shared are helpful.

Last week's story made me look good,  because even ST never had the copy of the report.

Mondli Makhanya is the editor of City Press. ST is the Sunday Times, a rival weekend newspaper owned by Arena Holdings.

On 7 October, the day before the screenshot first appeared online, City Press published a report on an alleged “R5 billion scandal” involving DEL director general Lamati. It was written by Zuzile.

According to the article, a R5 billion job creation deal between the Thuja Capital Fund and the government’s Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), which falls under DEL, was cancelled after a forensic investigation ordered by labour minister Thulas Nxesi.

The emails from the screenshot can also be seen here, here and here.

But there’s no evidence that Gawula fed Zuzile any information for the article, or paid the journalist to write it. And the emails are fake.


‘Submit real evidence to press ombud’

On 9 October City Press posted the screenshot on Facebook and the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, stamped “FAKE”.

In the posts, the paper writes:

The City Press coverage of the canned R5 billion deal between Thuja Capital Fund and the UIF appears to have ruffled some feathers:

This has led to the fabrication of email correspondence between one of our journalists and a supposed handler.

“We would, however, like to ensure our readers that the below emails are completely fake, and serve to create the impression that our journalist has been paid to write said series of articles.”

It adds that the screenshot “also tarnishes the name” of Gawula, “the alleged source, who has nothing to do with the articles”.

City Press ascribes to the highest ethical standards, and we welcome anyone with (real) evidence that any of our journalists may have deviated from these to submit said evidence to ourselves and to the ombud, after which action will be taken.

South Africa’s press ombud is an independent body that, with the press council, investigates and settles complaints against print and online media.

On the same day, City Press published a detailed debunk of the emails.

This points out that all of the reporting was “based on verified documentation”, including the report of the forensic investigation into the R5 billion deal. 

In other words, there would be no need for Gawula to feed documents to Zuzile or to bribe the journalist.

“City Press stands by our reporting on the canned deal, and we also stand by our journalist,” the article reads

“We condemn the distribution of this fake email meant to cast doubt on our reporting and invite anyone with real evidence of anything untoward to submit that evidence.”

Oddities in the emails

Another sign that the emails are fake is the supposed attachment. The file size of the PDF is shown as 5123K. That’s 5.1 megabytes – MB. In a real Gmail message the attachment would be displayed as a preview and the file size given as 5.1 MB.

Despite repeated calls for real evidence of the supposed bribery, none has been provided. If it had been, it would have been widely reported in South Africa’s media – certainly by rivals of City Press.

The emails are fake and social media posts circulating them should be ignored.

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