The Weekly’s most significant media battle occurred much earlier, however. In 2011, Zimbabwean-born journalist- turned-media entrepreneur Basildon Peta launched the now-defunct Free State Times.
‘I was the main publisher in Lesotho, but I wanted to expand to South Africa,’ Peta told me during an interview in late 2018. ‘The Free State was the logical starting point to do so.’
He felt that the province’s media offering left ample space for a new publication. Volksblad was doing great work in terms of holding the Magashule administration to account, but it only catered for Afrikaans readers.
After assembling a team of journalists and setting up shop in Bloemfontein, the first edition of the Free State Times hit the streets in April 2011. The publication was unflinchingly independent and critical right from the start. ‘Our very first front-page story ran under the headline “Premier Magashule under fire”,’ Peta recalled.
‘It detailed alleged irregularities involving the premier. In the months thereafter, we published story after story about Ace and his [alleged] corruption.’
The Free State Times tackled a series of government deals with companies and businesspeople who were allegedly close to Magashule, including Ntsele’s contentious website contract. Peta’s paper also investigated and wrote about the Magashule bloc’s dubious political manoeuvring within the ANC’s provincial structures.
‘We had been following the story of how legitimate [ANC] branches were sidelined, how Ace was elected as chairperson through [alleged] cheating, how delegates were [allegedly] paid off,’ Peta told me. ‘We published many reports on the branch- level manipulation that ensured Ace’s continued power.’
These hard-hitting reports soon earned the Free State Times a reputation as an uncompromising newspaper dedicated to exposing corruption in the province. This translated into promising circulation figures for a young publication.
‘We sold 15 000 copies of one edition in which we exposed a government contract that had been awarded to a businessman with links to Ace,’ said Peta.
‘The circulation began to increase at a steady rate.’ The publication also became a preferred channel for government officials and other individuals who wanted to tell their stories about problems in the Magashule-led government.
‘On some days, the reception area was full of people who wanted to share information about corruption,’ Peta said.
Given the Free State Times’s reporting on the website contract, it did not surprise Peta when Ntsele’s The Weekly began to attack his news paper. The Weekly’s ‘Letters to the Editor’ section was routinely used for this purpose. Nale, in his letter, accused the Free State Times of ‘perpetuat[ing] a sinister agenda that projects Magashule as corrupt’.
Another letter claimed that the Free State Times was controlled by ‘Regime Change handlers’, without providing a shred of evidence.
The hostility was not confined to The Weekly’s pages. According to Peta, Free State Times reporters and staffers were exposed to intimidation and threats when they attended government press briefings and other events. ‘I once received a phone call from someone who told me I should go back to Zimbabwe,’ Peta told me.
‘It is simply unethical for bureaucrats to punish newspapers for criticising government.’
From the outset, Peta was less than optimistic about his gutsy publication’s chances of securing much revenue from Magashule’s government. Given the newspaper’s promising circulation figures, however, he had thought that the Free State Times would secure enough advertising income from the private sector.
A former advertising agent at the Free State Times told me the same story. This source gave me the name of a large retailer in Bloemfontein that initially agreed to advertise in the Free State Times but later backed out for alleged ‘political reasons’. I asked the retailer for comment. It admitted that it had placed one advertisement in the Free State Times before terminating its relationship with the new publication, but maintained that this was for purely commercial reasons. ‘We didn’t get much traction after our once-off advertisement and therefore decided not to make use of it again,’ the retailer maintained.
Peta cited other companies that, according to him, boycotted the Free State Times because of alleged pressure from Magashule’s administration. These included cellphone network giants and other major South African companies.
Peta had started the Free State Times with a cash injection from a foreign investor, and he needed to keep up with the loan repayments. He also had to protect his employees’ jobs.
In the end, he decided to do a deal with the devil, in a manner of speaking. One of his friends knew Ntsele.
This person suggested that instead of closing down the Free State Times, Peta could enter into a partnership with Letlaka.
‘I did what a responsible publisher and businessman needed to do,’ Peta told me. In early 2013, he agreed to sell a controlling stake in his news paper to Ntsele’s Letlaka.
After that, government advertising revenue apparently started to roll in. But this money came at a great cost. ‘When we went into bed with Letlaka, we had to change the newspaper’s editor ial policy,’ Peta explained. ‘We could no longer do stories that could be seen as being anti- Ace. It wasn’t a question of being pro-ANC, we had to be pro-Ace.’ Gone were the days of the Free State Times’s corruption exposés.
The newspaper’s reports on Magashule and his administration instead began to look remarkably like The Weekly’s. For instance, in December 2013, the Free State Times ran two stories that depicted Magashule as a good leader (‘Hlasela has done wonders’ and ‘Premier orders jobs for widows’). However, the marriage between the Free State Times
and Letlaka did not last long.
In 2014, Ntsele pulled out of the agreement after a series of disputes with Peta over how the business should be run. Peta once again had full control of
his newspaper, but it was too late to save it.
‘Ntsele was the conduit for the government advertising revenue,’ Peta said. ‘After he left, we again had no revenue.’ The newspaper that once shone a light on corruption in the province finally closed for good in 2015.
This is an edited extract from Myburgh’s recently released book: Gangster State