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Chancellor House and the art of grabbing

By Stefaans Brümmer

amaBhungane’s dictionary entry for the day:

grabology n. The systematic, usually practical study of the optimum means to grab as much as you can, while you can, because you can — after all, you’re a pompous political prick and who gives a damn about the poor?

amaBhungane’s insight for the day:

Simple truths often only sink in when they hit the public in the pocket.

Think Chancellor House. I co-wrote the series of articles in 2006 that exposed it as an ANC funding front. Vicki Robinson and I had put heart and soul into it, our scoop of the decade.

My colleagues and I are often criticised, with good reason, for not saying what we mean. Our investigations are lengthy, detailed and corroborated, but omit the “so-what” element, those basic paragraphs telling readers why what they’re about to read matters. Perhaps we don’t see the wood for the trees.

But I thought we had got it right that time. The first three paragraphs of our first Chancellor House story, I thought, could not have been clearer:

    The ANC’s new funding front

    This week, we expose a new business front set up by the African National Congress (ANC) to seek profit on its behalf.
    The Johannesburg-based Chancellor House group of companies has acquired “empowerment” stakes in a wide range of businesses.
    More often than not, these opportunities have depended on the government’s discretion — the award of state tenders, mineral rights and the like. This means the ANC, as ruling party, has been both player and referee.

In a sidebar we gave practical examples of Chancellor’s investments, starting with this:

    COMPANY Hitachi Power Africa, local subsidiary of Babcock-Hitachi Europe

    CHANCELLOR’S SHARE Reportedly 25%

    PARASTATAL OPPORTUNITY Hitachi Power Africa was formed last year in response to Eskom’s drive to increase electricity generation capacity. It has tendered for a R26-billion contract to construct a coal-fired power station near Lephalale.

Our scoop of the decade went down like a lead balloon. Unlike Oilgate when other media were humming with our exposé within days, there was hardly a whisper.

Fast forward a year, to November 2007: Sam Sole and I reveal that Hitachi, the company 25% owned by Chancellor House, has bagged the Eskom contract:

    ANC front wins huge state tender

    One of South Africa’s largest state contracts yet has been awarded to a consortium that includes the African National Congress’s (ANC) own funding company.

Another lead balloon. Who cared that the ANC, rather than some capitalist in Europe, would skim part of a R20-billlion contract?

Fast forward to today. Google “Chancellor House” in combination with “Eskom” and a cool 10 000-plus results pop up, with 62 news results in the past week alone.

Okay, someone’s noticed. How did that happen? It took opposition politician Lance Greyling to grab the moment this January, when he put out a statement asking ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa to “come clean over whether the ANC stands to benefit financially from [Eskom’s] proposed 35% electricity tariff increase per year for three years”.

The penny dropped. We, the public, would be paying so that the ANC can have that profit, which was inflated by who knows how much. Not good. The ANC was — and now everyone was saying what we had said in that very first story — profiting from being both player and referee.

Academics call it “rent-seeking” when political elites abuse their power to extract wealth. That sounds awfully polite. amaBhungane decree that henceforth the phenomenon shall be known as “grabology”.

Here’s the deal: when amaBhungane expose corruption and the abuse of power, we’ll do our best to be clear about what we’re trying to say — as long as you, dear reader, try to remember that wherever there is someone who’s grabbing, there’s also someone being grabbed from. And more often than not it’s the public.

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  • amaBhungane are the investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit, public interest initiative to produce better investigative stories and plough back through internships and advocacy. On this blog, amaBhungane -- seasoned and award-winning journalists -- will penetrate the world of smoke and mirrors to bring you the story behind the story. www.amabhungane.co.za