By Aarti Bhana

The joint winners of the 2021 Taco Kuiper Awards for Investigative Journalism were awarded to Pieter-Louis Myburgh of Daily Maverick for his Digital Vibes exposé, along with Susan Comrie and Dewald van Rensburg of amaBhungane for their in-depth investigation of the UPL Chemical Disaster.

The awards ceremony took place on 12 April and was hosted by the Wits Centre for Journalism along with the Valley Trust.

The Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism, now in its 16th year, recognises excellence in original investigative reporting that shines a light on pertinent issues in our country; which serve the public interest and has impact.

Panel Judge, Thabo Leshilo, who delivered the judges’ remarks on behalf of his colleagues pointed out that the 26 entries they received this year were very diverse in subject matter.

“Apart from state corruption and capture, as always, there were also the collapse of basic services, like the railways and small towns, land issues, fake Covid vaccine certificates, the July riots and looting, teachers grooming and preying on teenagers, mining, food prices and muti murders. There was a group of entries related to the violence of mob action, assassinations and police conduct –a growing focus on violence and lawlessness.”

Of the 26 entries, seven first appeared in print, four were in television, three podcast series and 13 online entries – four of which had rich multimedia elements. Regrettably, there were no radio or book entries.

Leshilo pointed out that overall, the judges received a generally higher standard of entries this year compared to last year.

Ten entries were shortlisted, but the joint winners of the 2021 Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism were:

Pieter-Louis Myburgh of Daily Maverick for his exposé of then health minister, Zweli Mkhize’s dodgy deals with his former colleagues and their media and communications company, Digital Vibes.

Susan Comrie and Dewald van Rensburg of amaBhungane for their brave reporting on the UPL Chemical Disaster, which revealed how toxic materials leaked into the sea after chemical giant UPL’s warehouse was torched during the July unrest. They published a list of all the harmful chemicals, which the company chose to hide.

This is what the Judges had to say about their work:

“Pieter-Louis is a familiar face at these awards, this year for the series of stories that over several months built up a picture of corruption in the Health Ministry’s Covid-19 communication operation. Through dogged persistence and digging, he pieced together the sordid mess of ministerial friends and family members who benefited from over-priced communications contracts. The detail was meticulous and good graphic added a strong visual element. The exposé led to the cancellation of contracts, saving millions, and the axing of Health Minister and presidential contender Zweli Mkhize. Such brazen corruption during a pandemic caused genuine shock and horror, and hopefully will still lead to some trials and convictions.”

“Susan Comrie and Dewald van Rensburg of our regular entrants, amaBhungane, for the UPL Chemical Disaster. This pair of reporters were alerted by a tweet about the chemical fire at the UPL plant in Durban during the July riots and looting. They were spurred on to dig deeper – as is often the case – when the company refused to give basic information about the chemicals in its warehouse. As it unfolded, it became clear that the scale of the disaster was enormous as the toxic mess spread around the area and washed into the sea. When the reporters got their hands on the full and frightening list of chemicals and what harm they could cause, they chose to share it all in the public interest, giving the public full access to this valuable information. Their reporting raised important questions about how this material could be stored next to a school and whether the state had been negligent in dealing with it.”

Referencing South Africa’s democracy presently, where we see regular attacks on the independence and standing of the judiciary an on the independent media, Leshilo said:

“At such a time, it becomes even more important to strengthen, support, defend, recognise and promote accountability reporting. At stake is not just our work, but the country’s democracy, its standards of governance and the fate of the less powerful. Investigative reporting is and is going to be more essential and important than ever.”

Read the judges’ full remarks here.