SHAKANTU, FINANCIAL TIMES AND THE SO CALLED WINTER REVOLUTION
On May 20 this year exiled former Zimbabwean Cabinet Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo introduced to our contemporary lexicon, for the first time, the contemptuous idea of a foreign driven ‘winter revolution’ besieging the country.
At first the idea of a winter revolution felt more like an innocent observation by a seasoned academic and political commentator who, owing to his very political credentials and societal pedigree, was expected to shape the public discourse and narrative on the subject. In his 'startling revelation', Moyo fingered Swaziland News Managing Editor, Zweli Martin Dlamini as a key conspirator in a foreign driven and funded grand agenda to topple the Swaziland government.
In a series of tweets, Moyo suggested that a meeting was held in Mauritius on the 11–13 of April where at least 15 people discussed the ‘winter revolution’ under the financial backing of the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The NDI is an American based non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all.
Soon afterwards, reports emerged that the NDI had allegedly committed to contributing $22 million (E330 million) to the pro-democratic movement in the country, with the equity investment firm providing the bulk of the funding. According to media reports, there was a meeting held at Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, on February 2, 2022, that pledged large sums of money toward the ‘winter revolution’. Then another one was allegedly held on the weekend of April 11 to 13 at Ebene Cybercity Quatre Bornes in Port Louis, Mauritius, where the fate of eSwatini was discussed. It would later transpire that not only did these meetings not take place, but some of the people alleged to have attended have never been to the mooted venues.
Professor Jonathan Moyo
Some of those alleged to have been present at the meetings were Mariela Belski of Amnesty International, Justine Lavarde and Hassatou Ba-Minte from the International Federation for Human Rights, journalist Zweli Martin Dlamini, and NDI’s Gemima Barlow. Both Dlamini and the USA embassy vehemently dismissed the story of a winter revolution and the Mauritius meeting as a figment of Moyo’s imagination. At first, it seemed none of the media houses in both eSwatini and South Africa took these accusations seriously until a newly launched Eswatini Financial Times elevated it beyond just a negligible tweet and gave it national verve and prominence.
Ironically, if not tellingly, the winter revolution being a foreign funded project was virtually the first 'big story' by Eswatini Financial Times. For the uninitiated, the Financial Times and its group of newspapers are a new media outfit in the country. For a new publication to exist in an already saturated readership the decision to publish glaring falsehoods was the first red flag. Given the sensitive nature of the story, and how it was easily proven to be false, the publication had invited necessary scrutiny.
A South African media company styled Rubicon Media Group owns Eswatini Financial Times and its sister publication the Eswatini Daily News and Eswatini Sunday News. The company is under the stewardship of Zimbabwean born academic Delta Ndou who is Chief Executive Officer. With no known media interest in Southern Africa, the media company is part owned by one controversial businessman Mohamed Yaseen Adam and, interestingly, Michello Shakantu of Inyatsi Construction Group.
A fully fledged media group operating three different publications and paying well above industry scale was another misnomer that raised many eyebrows. Operating in an era where the digital space has heralded the advent of online publications, seasoned hardcopy publications world over are literally folding up. In Swaziland, the transition from the era of hard copy publication to digital was led by an online publication, Swaziland News, with a readership more than double that of all publications in the country, hard copies and digital. Swaziland News happens to be owned by journalist Zweli Martin Dlamini who, coincidentally, is the object of libelous falsehoods first flighted by Zimbabwean academic turned politician, Professor Jonathan Moyo, and given national prominence by Eswatini Financial Times leading to the recent the proscription of the publication by the government.
With the Audit Bureau of Newspapers Circulations (ABC) 2020 statistics estimating that the Times of Eswatini has hit its all time circulation low of just below 18000 copies per day, the new media house was evidently going to swim up the economic stream. As the questionable return on investment and ownership of the Rubicon Media Group and demonization continued to generate interest, the Eswatini Financial Times was seemingly outperforming itself with spirited reporting on the Mphakeni Dam construction tendering. In the final analysis, the newspaper came short of saying ESWADE should award the contract to Inyatsi Construction.
Now with all the curiosity and vexing questions on the profitability and sustainability of the hard copy media project amid hard economic times seemingly offset by the fact that media project could come from the same stable with other much profitable entities like the Inyatsi Group. Still questions remained on the true agenda especially given the relentless reporting falsehoods.
The answers can be found by going back to the story of Professor Moyo. Soon as Moyo tweeted about a winter revolution, the Financial Times’s Managing Editor Alec Lushaba took the allegations with political gusto and went out of his way to make a number of damning allegations against not just Dlamini but the American government. Lushaba claimed that Swaziland News’ Zweli Dlamini had received half a million funding from the National Democratic Institute(NDI) and that the US Secretary of State was funding regime change programs in the country. He added that the pro-democracy movement had received E134million as part of a wider ‘winter revolution’ project. However, the USA embassy came out guns blazing and labelled the accusation as not only false but baseless too.
"Managing Editor Alec Lushaba’s baseless accusations against the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the U.S. Secretary of State are categorically false, which we told him when he reached out for comment. Regardless of the truth and with no corroboration, Mr. Lushaba printed the rumors on the front page and chose to bury the truth in a separate article on page 10. Further, Mr. Lushaba chose to publish images of two fake letters with NDI letterheads, which he purports to be evidence of the “funding.” It is irresponsible and dangerous to knowingly publish misleading information. The credibility of this new publication is badly tarnished by its very first front page article,” read the statement from the American embassy in response to Lushaba’s story.
Lushaba insisted that his story was correct and that he would not retract it despite that his source of evidence was found to be false. But the Eswatini Financial Times was not interested in the facts; theirs was a political agenda to roll back the influence of online pro-democracy publications that are thought to be driven by half-truths, propaganda and anti-king vitriol.
The idea was to counterbalance the emerging online, but largely facebook based, media entities with a well-oiled media infrastructure that can do better than the Swazi Observer. The first pushback against this 'winter revolution’ was therefore to be done via the media.
With the government’s unceremonious end of their Vuma Media Management contract, there was real pressure on the state to have a good public relations offensive in a multi faceted way. The starting point was to replace Sabelo Dlamini as a government spokesperson. Dlamini was accused of being timid and not aggressive enough in the role.
He was replaced by foreign envoy Vulindlela Kunene who turned down the offer as quickly as he took it. Kunene is known by many as a principled man whose friends describe as ‘working for the state but not for Tinkhundla’. Kunene, who had by now shifted from the USA where he was based to South Africa, politely refused the role days after being announced to the public. The Prime Minister looked for Rev Alpheous Nxumalo a man desperate enough to cleanse himself of his soiled image after his disastrous spell as the Managing Director of the Swazi Observer. He took the role with as much excitement and the media push back was ready to start.
Things escalated when businesses aligned with Inyatsi Group’s Michello Shakantu became targets for arson attacks allegedly by what has come to be known as the Swaziland International Solidarity Forces (SISF). Inyatsi put up a half a million reward for the arrest of the arsonists and decried the loss of up to about E60 million in property and business opportunities. Soon afterwards, Lushaba’s story was ‘repeated' by three publications in South Africa with the same talking points as Professor Moyo.
The second phase of the media battle was to obliterate Zweli Martin Dlamini into irrelevancy first by portraying him as a self serving egotist beholden to sinister forces and to flood his stories with bolt accounts that dismiss him as peddler of lies and to shape public discourse against him.
To do this effectively, the plan was to recruit 'credible' media people to plant negative narratives and counter his publication at every turn. The Swaziland News editor himself has not covered himself in glory because, according to sources working with the Committee to Protect Journalists, his publication and personal Facebook posts has slanted towards promoting violence something that is being scrutinised closely by regional media bodies.
In fact, a highly reputable organisation has hired people to translate his Facebook posts as they want to determine if the accusations of supporting violence are true. So far the source says it does not look good. There is also a concern about the credibility of some of the stories after the viral story claiming the King had fled after last year’s failed uprising. The source, who was contacted as a translator and refused, said some of the regional media organisations are treading with caution on the issue of proscription as they know the government is autocratic but also don’t want to be seen to be supporting violence.
Lenin Ndebele, a Zimbabwean-born journalist, published an article on News 24 where he came hard on the pro-democracy movement and its ‘extremist group’—the SISF. The article used the same Lushaba talking points and claimed the ‘winter revolution" had ‘derailed a European Union-funded project as pro-democracy groups push for the abdication of King Mswati III.’ Read the article in part: “Swaziland International Solidarity Forces (SISF) is a group aligned with an extremist faction of the pro-democracy movement that plans to overthrow the latest target, Inyatsi Construction - an international firm that operates in nine African countries, including Zambia, Ivory Coast, Uganda and Botswana. It is one of the companies on a 'terror hit list', drawn up by pro-democracy extremists, that targets businesses that are believed to be linked to the kingdom's royalty.”
The article went on to quote one Melusi Hlatjwako, identified as a Swazi social commentator pursuing studies at the University of West England, where he claimed the SISF attacks were misguided. “What's happening now is that they are destroying the communities that multilateral bodies like the EU are trying to save from abject poverty. When these kinds of companies are threatened, they easily can find jobs in other countries but local communities would never escape from the clutches of poverty if these terrorist acts persist," Hlatjwako is alleged to have said.
Days later several South African publications went with the same Lushaba talking points. The Independent newspapers carried a similar article all slanting against the pro-democracy movement. Reports on the foreign funding of the Swazi struggle got so much traction that Ringisai Chikohomero, Research Consultant at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), even penned an article for the Daily Maverick where he raised concerns about the authenticity of such allegations and the potential damage they could have in the dialogue. Today The Bridge can reveal that the story of a winter revolution was concocted and spread in South Africa with such verve by the same group linked with Michello Shakantu and his media outfit in the country.
In fact we can reveal that Rubicon CEO Ndou has prior association with Professor Moyo who started the allegations. Rubicon Media sits on the same domain as website http://constructionassociates.africa which uses Inyatsi email. http://rubiconmediagroup.net & http://constructionassociates.africa are hosted on the same server in South Africa, one is owned by Inyatsi Construction, the other by persons with interests in Eswatini Mining creating lies. The story was spread by Moyo and then Lushaba and subsequently South Africa as part of a media push back by Shakantu and the government. Interestingly, the stories about eSwatini are written by Lenin Ndebele sourcing them from Moyo who has a connection with Ndou. All are from Zimbabwe.
The government on the other hand has scaled up their media push back and set up several pro monarchy groups on social media and several websites that publish anti democracy articles. Some of these publications is Kingdom online and eSwatini positive news. The office of the government spokesperson has also gone on an offensive issuing statements after statements almost daily. The recent Gardee fiasco by Alpheous Nxumalo was only but a taste of many things to come as the media push back intensifies. The social media campaign of creating sweetheart social media pages to amplify the work of the government and some fishy websites all pushing a narrative that things were doing very well in the country is expected to continue. The government has also won over some South African publications like the Independent group where they have an avenue to publish what they want. Lenin Ndebele stands ready any day.