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What should we investigate?

By Adriaan Basson

Being an investigative journalist, a question one often hears from friends, family or followers is: “Why don’t you rather investigate X or Y?”

When I started working as a journalist, I was afraid that I would not have enough material to write about. Today one of the hardest decisions we often have to make in the amaBhungane office is what NOT to investigate.

I still hate having to tell a whistleblower that we honestly don’t have the capacity or time to investigate his or her story. But the reality is that we are only so many hands and investigative pieces require extra resources and hours.

Unfortunately it is often stories about local government graft that miss the cut (although the exposés about Julius Malema’s tenders with municipalities in Limpopo taught us a hard lesson!)

We base our decisions what to probe on a number of things, including the impact of the story and the subjects involved. But maybe it’s time to ask our readers what you think we should be investigating and why.

A common complaint is that we have a too narrow focus on government corruption and don’t take a hard enough look at what’s going on in the private sector. There could be a number of reasons for this: the Mail & Guardian has established itself as a brand that exposes graft in the public sector and by far the majority of tip-offs we receive concern some or other state entity.

Another argument could be that state corruption affects every South African citizen, while private sector graft only concerns a limited amount of clients.

But what about big corporate players like banks and mines? Surely they affect the lives of millions of people (read fellow dung beetle Ilham Rawoot’s update on the Aurora mining crisis in this week’s paper)?

And if impact is the yardstick, what about the environment? Shouldn’t we be spending more time with the M&G’s brilliant environmental reporter Yolandi Groenewald exposing those who mess-up our air, water and resources?

Tell us what you think amaBhungane should be probing and why. And if you throw in some documents or footage to motivate your argument, we may even break the story sooner than you think!


  • 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.


  1. Kery D Kery D 9 April 2010

    Adriaan, come on. This is a very, very concerning piece. Editors and journalists are trained and paid to do their jobs, not ask for “consumer feedback”. You aren’t taste-testing stories. You write them. You decide, without fear or favour, what is newsworthy. Your success is measured by sales, not by rants from Moxster or VBWD or Dave Harris on the comments forum.

    I absolutely disagree with this call for “tell us what you want us to write about”. Do your jobs. Make your decisions. Whether I influence you with loud shouts or cash handouts, it is the same thing. Frankly, you open a door here into a type of journalism that is made to order. And that is wrong!

    What’s next? Do we now get to tell every independent professional what s/he should be doing in their job? “Ms Surgeon, I think you should not amputate my toe but my ear because you haven’t spent enough time looking at it.”

    Journalists must be independent and confident. And this isn’t the message of a confident journalistic collective!

  2. Dave Harris Dave Harris 9 April 2010

    I’m glad to see M&G take up the issue of investigative journalism after that spate of meaningless sensationalist headlines about Shabir Schaik and Zuma’s lovechild etc.

    Corporate corruption beats anything else hands down since the corporate criminals work hand in glove with corrupt politicians. It surprising to me the free ride that these white collar criminals get in our country where billions of rands are being squeezed from consumers struggling to keep their heads above water. Our government regulatory bodies are clueless, our watchdogs organizations are toothless and consumer advocate groups are practically non-existent.

  3. X Cepting X Cepting 9 April 2010

    Why not investigate those stories with potentially the most impact on the population? After all, a country’s resources, government, etc. is there for the people?

    The most worrying trend I am seeing at the moment, which is worth investigating, is that the cornerstone of our democracy, the Constitution seems to be under attack and if it falls, so will our democracy. Has the ruling party changed their mind about ruling democratically? Where are they taking us, to Facism? Communism? What is the hidden agenda?

    The other very worrying factor that affects all our lifes is the monopoly aspect of the parastatals. Good service delivery and a healthy free market will never happen unless the immense powers these entities wield (with the blessing of government)is broken. It threatens job creation as well. This means that they have to be investigated on a daily basis for corruption, price fixing/inflation and forming “brotherhoods” with other big business.

    Local government affects more people on a day to day basis than national government, so I find your reasoning not to investigate them as thorougly strange. Perhaps cooperation with smaller local newspapers will ease the workload? Not necessarily a strong opposition but good unsensationalist investigative journalism is the only defense we, the masses, have against our government in a democracy.

  4. Belle Belle 9 April 2010

    Corruption in government is number one for me … because it affects me, a taxpayer, directly. And because its so widespread. And because government graft is, imo, the single biggest factor that will result in the Zimbabwefication of SA.

    I would like to know, though, if some stories are suppressed. A relative, working as a journo at the Star more than a decade ago, worked on a story following the cocaine and heroin trade in Hillbrow all the way to major drug dealers involving top ANC politicians. His final draft was squashed by the editor (who I will not name) because in those days nobody wanted to expose anything dirty about beloved Mandela’s government.

  5. donald donald 9 April 2010

    I agree with you Adriaan.
    However I’m concerned about ARP (Alexandra Renewal Project). Residents of Alexandra believe that the ARP has achieved nothing and that corruption is rife.
    I think the M&G should look into the ARP.

  6. MLH MLH 9 April 2010

    Forget X. Forget Y.

    Investigate JM continually and investigate ANC strategies.

    That’ll do, thanks.

  7. brent brent 9 April 2010

    Probe the following:

    – lack of land transfromation from the angle of Govt failure
    – schools failure rates – probe the teachers union + dept of Education and why that title is an oxymoron
    – probe rape/crime in SA and the ANC does not care about it


  8. An observer An observer 9 April 2010

    interesting that there isn’t yet a single response as yet despite 400-odd views….

    some quick thoughts:

    would like a little more happy content in the electronic and hard print media, stories of people like grietjie van garies

    a running debate on poverty alleviation and eradication

    a running debate on national health care

    a running debate on national education

    a running tangible measure on progress with socio-economic development

    brief profiles on as many as possible model leaders across age groups

    the imperative for modernisation

    the imperative for upskilling

    environmental health/ abuse

    definitely, more on the private sector

    including accountability in the private health care sector for the surgical procedure outcomes

    including profitability or banks and corporates

  9. Alan Egner Alan Egner 9 April 2010

    Leave the corprate stuff to Noseweek, who do an excellent job. Your work on the state and parastatals is excellent and necessary. The arms deal will probably be dwarfed by the Eskom deals which are about to kick in. Chancellor House is also a good target.

  10. Stuck Inthepast Stuck Inthepast 9 April 2010

    You need to investigate the inequalities in South African comminities, as to what are the causes and why is the gap even wider when you categorise the communities along racial lines. The reason being, I have not come accross a single white individual who acknowledges the continued previlagies of apartheid system nor those who supported it, in fact all white people I come accross they dispise the system according to them it was government not them.

    While at it, invistigate the salary gap between, white office assistants (secritaries/personal assistants) VS Trainee Accountants/Intern Doctors/Machine Operators and which category is more productive in our economy.

  11. Anne Coventry Anne Coventry 9 April 2010

    I’d like to see more follow-ups. I’d like to know that information about corruption that has been exposed has been handed over to the relevant authorities, and I want to know what they are doing with it.

    I’d also like the handing over of such information to be fully documented, so that those authorities cannot later say they don’t know anything about it.

  12. Siobhan Siobhan 9 April 2010

    @Alan Egner Thanks for making that point. I second it!

    I follow and admire your work and that of other investigative reporters. You are doing exactly what The Fourth Estate is meant to do: exposing the abuse of power by government. Abuse of power takes many forms including failure to perform. There is no more important job than making the powerful accountable.

    The private sector is riddled with corrupt or dodgy practices and, yes, they need to be held accountable for their actions but so many corporations and BEE enterprises have their hands in the public coffers that crony capitalism is by far the greater cause for concern.

    In addition, the gov’t has responsibility for policing abuses in the private sector (through SARS, the DPP, the (de-clawed) ‘Hawks’, etc.). Your job is to ‘police the police’ as it were, and make certain that the gov’t agencies and departments charged with regulating and investigating abuses in the private sector do their jobs.

    Journalists have a public duty to ‘tell like it is’ and not embellish or minimise. That is a hugely important function– one that no democracy can survive without.

    Just keep on doing what you’re doing and you will render the greatest service to this country.

  13. Judith Judith 9 April 2010

    The communities that are being deprived of their livelihood by mining are a critical area because we can lose our entire country because of mining

  14. Vitriool Vitriool 16 April 2010

    Ag ja, Adriaan … corruption takes many forms … maybe consider starting with the corruption in your own ranks … the M&G’s shameless (and uncritical) re-publishing of western propaganda (as your part of the ” & Guardian” tragedy that befell your paper around the time of liberation) being a case in point … only when you cease lying for your owners´ owners´ agenda will your ‘local’ work begin to tell a more complete tale … because as anyone with smattering of sense knows, your owners’ owners’ also own most everything else, including Seffrica, liberated or otherwise …
    but jawellnofine boet, keep up the ‘good’ work exposing them african fellers, and protecting the reputations of the likes of ‘real-friend-of-africa’ Tony Blair. Cheers man!

  15. Siobhan Siobhan 18 April 2010

    Sorry folks, I meant 5th Estate!

  16. V3 V3 24 April 2010

    How about publishing a chart of who’s who and who owns whom in the croniocracy.

    Publishing a list of wives, husbands, paramours of the elite would educate the public and hopefully lead to more tip-offs.

    Keep up the good work.

  17. Peter L Peter L 28 April 2010

    @ Adriaan,
    I agree with your differentiation between corruption in the Public sector versus corruption in the private sector (BOTH are unacceptable), but there are some other differences:

    Shareholders can VERY quickly act against corporate sector villains – in the public sector, the public get to vote once every 5 years.

    Private sector shareholders take on RISK when they invest in a company and if the company misuses their assets, it is the shareholders loss – that is the risk that they voluntarily took.

    In the public sector, the shareholders are the electorate and the taxpayers – when graft occurs in the public sector, it is the whole popualtion that is prejudiced – they did not knowingly take on risk (other than voting the perpetrators into power, perhaps).

    @ Dave Harris
    You are 100% correct that there are always two parties to corruption the corrupter and the corruptee – each are equally guilty, and each party should be held to account.

    So when the M&G expose the ANC for the Hitatchi tender scandal, equal foocus whould be placed on the corrupt Directors of Hitatchi.

    It is quite wrong that Schabir Shaik is sentenced to years in prison (but spent a few months in hospital)whilst the other party is not even prosecuted.
    You are wrong that the Government regulatory bodies are useless and the consumer groups toothless.
    The competition comission has done some excellent work, for example.

    The problem is the SELECTIVE targets (parastatals are the worst monopolies)and the state of the Justice system.

  18. zed zed 15 May 2010

    The Coal Industry and its cosy relationship w Eskom, its the total control of SA’s energy policies.

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