What do these infamous people — mining magnate Brett Kebble, Regal Bank CEO Jeff Levenstein, Fidentia boss J Arthur Brown and the SABC’s Hlaudi Motsoeneng — have in common? All of them, having been caught cheating, launched blistering attacks on the journalists who outed them.
It’s as if the “media” told the lies in the first place, not these blameless souls. Yet in every case, high court judges confirmed they’d broken the rules.
This didn’t stop Kebble from accusing the media of peddling “hidden agendas” implying (gasp!) he was a crook. It didn’t stop Motsoeneng, after being exposed for lying about his matric, from calling for journalists to be “licensed”, saying they “don’t show what is good”.
But playing the victim is a risky strategy when you’re operating in the shadows. The auction industry is a case in point.
Three months ago, journalist Fiona Forde got hold of a forensic report apparently written by Allan Greyling’s firm, Accountants@Law, detailing the machinations at Rael Levitt’s former company Auction Alliance.
Greyling’s 86-page report though unsigned, was a doozy.
It allegedly laid bare an industrialised chain of kickbacks. The report claimed that Auction Alliance “acted in contravention of various statutes”, paying more than R205m in “commissions” to liquidators, lawyers and bank officials.
Ill-advisedly, Auction Alliance went to court to stop Business Day publishing details of the report. It lost.
Clearly, some people wanted Greyling’s report to stay buried. But rather than deal with it openly, they’ve gone underground in a bid to target Forde.
In recent weeks, Forde, who wrote the acclaimed Julius Malema biography An Inconvenient Youth, has also had threats from an anonymous Gmail account from someone who went to great lengths to mask their identity.
Now, a Facebook group has popped up, started by someone calling himself Jonathan Hedley, entitled: “Stop the Smear Against Rael Levitt.” He says Forde has run a five-year campaign to “smear” Levitt and “ruin his life”. “Enough is enough; he doesn’t deserve it,” he writes.
On that Web page, former real estate powerhouse Wendy Machanik agreed. She said journalists “are steeped in hype and sensationalism that sells newspapers; they never stop to think of the hurt, harm and injustice they cause when they lie, prevaricate and twist the truth”.
Machanik is apparently still fuming from the media coverage around her conviction on 90 counts of theft, for which she was fined R1.5m for playing fast and loose with her trust account.
Only, it wasn’t “the media” who bent the rules — it was Machanik herself.
When I contacted Machanik, she cast herself as the victim, rather than someone with her own agency. Levitt’s downfall, “like my own, was born of a vicious vindictiveness in wanting to find a scapegoat,” she said.
(Perhaps if Machanik had paid more attention to her trust account, and less to the headlines, she wouldn’t have ended up in her predicament.)
What Levitt’s covert backers don’t realise is how harmful their actions are to his cause.
Contacted this week, Levitt said: “I completely distance myself from this Facebook page”. He says he first became aware of that Facebook page two months ago when he was invited to join, but “have kept well away, have not participated, joined or commented”.
“I think Jonathan Hedley is a pseudonym because I personally don’t know anyone with that name,” he says.
Levitt says after he left the auction business in 2012, he has “tried to move on with my life”.
Only the faceless trolls are making it a whole lot more difficult for him to do that.
Targeting the messenger, especially under the guise of anonymity, is a guileless strategy — something that Kebble, Levenstein, Brown and Motsoeneng weren’t able to grasp either.