City Press published a sensational report under the headline: “Was Ngcuka a spy?” on 7 September 2003. The story said that the national director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, had been investigated by the ANC in the late 1980s to establish whether he was an apartheid spy. The evidence largely consisted of an ANC intelligence report, which said he had been identified as “possibly, but not conclusively” a spy with the code-name RS452. Ngcuka himself was quoted, through his spokesperson, as declining to comment. (Read Business Day’s report on the start of the furore.)

The report was accompanied by a front-page editorial, justifying the decision to run the story. This placed the claims firmly in the context of an investigation Ngcuka’s office was conducting into the financial affairs of deputy president Jacob Zuma, who had been ANC intelligence chief at the time of the ANC probe. The City Press editorial commented: “If indeed Zuma once investigated Ngcuka, the public should have been told. It would help provide a political perspective of what is really going on in the Zuma-Ngcuka saga.”

It emerged in the next few days that a senior political reporter of the rival Sunday Times, Ranjeni Munusamy, had passed the story on to City Press after her own paper declined to publish it. She was suspended by the Sunday Times, and then resigned.

In a front-page editorial on September 21, Mathatha Tsedu, at the time Sunday Times editor, said the paper had decided not to run Munusamy’s story for three reasons: firstly, it had too many holes; secondly, its publication “would have served interests other than those of the public” and thirdly that it might have exposed the paper to legal action.

In a statement justifying herself, Munusamy said her story had never been that Ngcuka was a spy, but just that there had been an investigation that had suspected him. She argued that the publication was in the public interest, since it could help explain the “vicious public exchange between Zuma and Ngcuka”, and accused the Sunday Times of suppressing an important report.

It soon emerged that agent RS452 had in fact been a former civil rights lawyer in the Eastern Cape, Vanessa Brereton.

Meanwhile, President Thabo Mbeki had appointed retired judge Joos Hefer to investigate whether Ngcuka had been a spy, and whether he had abused his position as a result. Hefer subpoenaed Munusamy and several editors to give evidence to his inquiry, to the general disquiet of the profession.

Supported by several media organisations, Munusamy asked Hefer to withdraw the subpoena, saying she needed to protect her sources and had been threatened. Hefer turned down the request, but said Munusamy would be allowed to object to particular questions. Munusamy appealed against the decision, and lost in the Bloemfontein High Court.

One editor who did not object to being called to the stand was City Press’s Vusi Mona, who in the meantime had left City Press under a cloud.

He testified about an off-the-record briefing Ngcuka held in July, which he said had been a “vitriolic character assassination session”.  He also testified Ngcuka had said Zuma was in trouble because he had “surrounded himself with Indians”. He said his decision to break the confidentiality of the briefing was justified by the fact that it violated the constitutional rights of those Ngcuka attacked. Mona was sharply criticised by other editors for his decision. Under blistering cross-examination, he later conceded that the spy report had been inaccurate, that the decision to publish it had been reckless, and he apologised to Ngcuka.

In the wake of his ignominious exit from the commission, his former paper published a front-page editorial retracting the initial spy story, apologising to Ngcuka and distancing itself from Mona.

Some questions to consider:

  • Was City Press’s story claiming that Ngcuka was a spy in the public interest?
  • Did it matter who the story’s sources were?
  • Was it in order for Munusamy to pass the story to a rival newspaper?
  • Was she right to resist the Hefer Commission’s subpoena?
  • Was Mona right to disclose details of Ngcuka’s off-the-record briefing?

Additional material:

Anton Harber: When should journalists testify?

Anton Harber: The dark side of journalism