Free Expression Won Over Black First Land First On Thursday Night -- But Only Just

Journalists were assaulted after Black First Land First disrupted amaBhungane's town hall.
AFP/Getty Images

An event hosted by the journalists who have revealed the extent of state capture suggests the Gupta network got nervous after an orchestrated and violent disruption. Black First Land First (BLF), a land rights organisation sponsored by the family, tried to gag the meeting on Thursday night.

The next thing we knew, amaBhungane managing partner Stefaans Brümmer was lying at our feet after being pushed across the room by BLF leader Andile Mngxitama and his members.

Brümmer and his colleagues were about to speak at the second Town Hall meeting arranged by amaBhungane, the investigative centre that has published and reported the Gupta leaks emails which have blown the lid on state capture by the Indian émigré family. Then things descended into chaos.

Mngxitama on Thursday night laid a charge against a "white man" -- likely Brümmer -- whom he claimed had approached him in a threatening manner, pushed him and said "stop your bullshit". The investigative journalist in turn said he had gone across to Mngxitama to ask him to keep his people under control as a group had entered the Braamfontein, Johannesburg venue singing and disrupting the discussion, which had just gotten underway.

Inside #Guptaleaks

Earlier, the offices of Livity Africa in buzzing Braamfontein had filled up quickly for the evening function. The emails that comprise the leaks have the nation agog: two terabytes of data make up the trove that has cracked open the extent of state capture in South Africa. At its heart is the Gupta family, who have muscled in on at least seven business sectors where the state is a major player to make a fortune that runs into billions. To do so, they have leveraged the extensive political capital that comes from their close relationship with President Jacob Zuma and with other politicians.

And how they nurtured and grew these relationships are anatomised in the emails that revealed favours like stays in Dubai; offshore companies with mysterious owners, and much more. Among the details are also revelations of how the Guptas funded Mngxitama and his land rights organisation that has morphed into a protector of the family and now a disruptor of the media that cast light on their dealings.

Hundreds of people filed into the Braamfontein room on Thursday where amaBhungane stuck up posters revealing its funders for all to see. The investigative centre has come under pressure from BLF and an army of fake Twitter accounts which question their funding.

The audience had come to hear the inside story of how brave whistleblowers had leaked the emails and headed out of the country. And they had many questions for the panel of journalists lined up to answer them. Then Mngxitama walked in and sat near the back of the room. Soon his squad followed and started singing and toyi-toying as the meeting got under way. There was clearly trouble ahead. BLF is under interdict from intimidating or threatening journalists after the SA National Editors Forum (SANEF) secured a court order earlier this month. This probably explains why Mngxitama rushed to lay a charge on Thursday night.

A planned disruption

It was clearly an orchestrated disruption of the event, and after Brümmer landed on the floor among his guests, there were several more skirmishes. While I recognised some leading members of the BLF, the rank and file looked like a hired crew. Some self-identified as members of the MK Military Veterans Association. The MKMVA is also allegedly aligned with the Gupta family. One man wore an ANC T-shirt baring the image of President Jacob Zuma.

Audience members shouted at the protesters who screamed back. Sunday Times investigative journalists, Thanduxolo Jika and Sabelo Skiti who have also reported the Gupta leaks emails extensively, were accused of doing "white men's work". I got the same treatment for telling protesters I didn't see Brümmer hit Mngxitama. Section 27 director and Save SA organiser and activist Mark Heywood was pushed about after he told someone on the other end of his phone that Mngxitama was there with a rent-a-mob. "Did you call us a mob? Did you call us mob?" shouted a young man.

The disruptors threw about slogans that sounded like those crafted by the British PR company Bell Pottinger -- these included "white media", "monopoly capital", "Rupert's boys" (in reference to billionaire Johann Rupert who is the figurehead of white monopoly capital in the online campaign against white monopoly capital). When Livity Africa, the organisation that hosted the event, asked everybody to leave because it was getting too dangerous, BLF members said it was their land as Africans and they would not leave because they owned it.

Eventually the group left and the amaBhungane Town Hall event went ahead. Journalist Sam Sole, also a managing director of amaBhungane, said the media was in the crosshairs of groups like BLF aligned to the Gupta project because the reporting of the Gupta leaks was having an impact.

Another amaBhungane journalist, Susan Comrie, related fascinating detail of how she thinks the Gupta money is moving out of the country. Sole said he believed most of the stash has been exported by now.

In the end, despite the planned disruption by an organisation funded by the Gupta family, free expression triumphed. But only just.