A journalist from a small, independent community newspaper in Barberton stole the show at the Taco Kuiper Awards for Investigative Journalism ceremony on Friday, when he was awarded a spontaneous prize by the trustees of the award’s fund, writes Zanele Sabela for journalism.co.za.

Bheki Mashile is single-handedly Umgindi Guardian’s publisher, editor and reporter. He was awarded R25 000 for his courage and determination at tackling corruption in the local authority in spite of the limited resources at his disposal.

Mashile said as protectors and watchdogs of communities, investigative journalists’ work was very important whether on a local, national or international level.

He added that the prize made the R1.2 million defamation suit he is facing and the threats to his life worth it.

The overall R200 000 prize, however, went to Adriaan Basson, Sam Sole, and Stefaans Brummer of the Mail & Guardian, for their extraordinary commitment in chasing down every aspect of the hydra-headed tale of the arms deal.

Accepting the award, Sole said it was unfortunate that the story did not have a happy ending but was rather like a zombie that would not die.

He said that he was, however, ambivalent about how the team had kept the zombie alive.

Quoting writer Mark Gevisser, Sole said the arms deal was the poisoned well of South Africa’s politics.

“This has been the wellspring of the betrayal of some of our institutions, some of our ideals, some of the things we wanted to be as a nation. Until we confront those realities we are not going to be able to bury that zombie and be the nation that we want to be,” he said.

Echoing keynote speaker, David Leigh, both Basson and Brummer said what they wanted to see was the whole truth coming out on all aspects of the arms deal.

Assistant editor and investigative editor of the Guardian, Leigh is also Anthony Sampson Professor of Reporting at City University in London.

He was responsible for uncovering wrongdoing in British arms company BAE Systems and also made the link that led to the exposure of South Africa’s own corrupt arms deal.

“I think the story of the arms deal in both countries has been a testament to the rottenness of parts of our political system, but has also been a testament to the successful practice of investigative journalism, which has told citizens what’s going on in their own countries,” Leigh said.

“There is nothing that’s more important and it’s something which is the soul of investigative journalism,” he added.

Leigh drew parallels in the arms deal investigations in both countries. He told of how then Prime Minister Tony Blair moved to close down the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office because it was “annoying British politicians” and threatening national security.

Leigh said although often times culprits are not brought to justice, from a journalistic point of view it was a bold and vigorous triumph.

“We’ve all toiled with our spades and we’ve dug this stuff up and we’ve told people what’s going on and that is our job,” he said.

Leigh said at a time when investigative journalism was regarded as an optional extra by newspapers desperate to stay afloat, it was heartening to see philanthropic individuals and organisations such as the Valley Trust (Taco Kuiper Award trustees) supporting and encouraging this important work.

The runners-up who shared the R100 000 prize are the City Press for their story on corruption in the tenders for a new hospital in Soweto, and Carte Blanche for a story on police corruption in Hammanskraal.

Jacky Mapilogo of the City Press said: “For us this is a great win, we are not runners-up – we are the winners. We are very excited. We hope to win the big prize next year.”

Anton Harber, Wits University’s Caxton Professor of Journalism and convenor of the judging panel said this year saw an increased number of entries dealing with white collar crime. Notably two short-listed pieces by Rob Rose of the Financial Mail, one of which dealt with how the poor are exploited by big business.

Professor Tawana Kupe, Wits’ Dean of Humanities, welcomed guest to the ceremony held at the Rand Club in Johannesburg. Justice Tom Cloete of the Valley Trust toasted Taco Kuiper and introduced Margaret Renn, the new Taco Kuiper Fellow in Investigative Reporting at Wits University.