A five-year war has been raging between the National Lotteries Commission (NLC) and investigative journalist Ray Joseph. It is a story that tell us much about investigative reporting, data journalism, the importance of non-profit media and – of course – what might be happening in our national lottery.
Joseph is well known among journalists for his passion, doggedness, thick skin and almost 50 years of experience. He has published a stream of stories which have collectively drawn a picture of the body that controls our lotteries as a centre of self-enrichment, corruption and wastage.
The NLC licences and regulates lotteries, and manages the programme to distribute the proceeds to “good causes”. In other words, it has a lot of power and a lot of money to hand out.
But the headlines on Joseph’s stories tell a tale: “Lottery money goes to waste as school falls apart”; “Lottery-funded rehab centre unfinished after two years”; “How a lawyer used a Lottery-funded projects as his personal ATM”; “The Lottery CEO and the mysterious payments”; “How to buy your dream house using public money”; “Money from Lottery goes to cousin of National Lotteries Commission Boss”; “Lottery paid millions of Rands to COO’s wife’s company” … You get the idea: evidence of malfeasance building up like water against a leaky dam.
Joseph’s story started at the African Investigative Journalism Conference of 2016, when a disparate group of reporters planned a cross-border, collaborative investigation. They agreed to each dig into their national lotteries and share their learnings. (Full disclosure: I convene the conference and the Henry Nxumalo Foundation, which gave a grant for this investigation.)
With data journalism’s Code for South Africa, they scraped NLC’s reports for 16 years of grantee information and built a tool which made it all available and searchable. “It was like switching on the light in a cellar,” Joseph says, for now one could discern the patterns and delve into recipients. It was a fine example of the value of journalists knowing how to handle large data bases and make them accessible.
Joseph also worked closely with Anton van Zyl of the Limpopo Mirror, who did important work in looking at local projects funded by the NLC. Early stories were in the Sunday Times and City Press. “Then they said we had done the Lottery story. But I said we had done a lottery story, not the story.”
For a while, Joseph says he self-funded the work. “But my wife wanted to kill me. I was running up debts.”
The editor who picked it up, backed him and stuck with the story was Nathan Geffen from GroundUp, a non-profit that pursues a bottom-up journalism, focusing on local, community-based stories. Others republished GroundUp’s work, but no one else was investigating. “This is the one state capture story that only one outlet is chasing,” Joseph says.
Another paper was interested in running a story that Joseph had been working on for months. “They said they would take 700 words at R3 a word, so I was going to earn R2 100 for months of work.” They ended up not running the story, but did suddenly run eight pages of NLC advertorial – advertising content disguised as editorial.
It was part of what appeared to be a multi-pronged NLC campaign to counter Joseph’s work.
Before I spell out how the NLC has reacted, let me say that they have denied all the allegations, without providing the evidence to knock them down. They have instituted two court actions against GroundUp and Joseph. Minister Fikile Mbalula has also made a demand for a retraction and R2 million compensation for things said about him.
When Minister Ebrahim Patel commissioned an independent investigation into the allegations, the NLC went to court to try and stop it. They failed and now that evidence has been handed to the police Special Investigations Unit, who are on it. They raided NLC offices in December 2020.
The first prong of the NLC counter-attack was to use its massive advertising budget to discourage outlets from running critical stories. Some of those who were looking into the stories were told that NLC were thinking about where to spend their money.
GroundUp, as a non-profit that does not carry advertising, is one of the few outlets immune from advertisers’ pressure.
The second prong was the legal strategy: lawyers letters, demands and summonses. But there were also personal attacks, threats, social media trolling and other forms of harassment. LRC COO Phillemon Letwaba said on television that Joseph was embittered because the commission had stopped funding entities related to him and his family. Joseph denies it and is now suing Letwaba. “I now have to have extraordinary security,” Joseph says.
Joseph is the kind of reporter who responds to such threats by digging further and harder.
So the battle is on. Just this week, Joseph wrote another exposé: “Fowl play! Lottery board member received millions linked to Lottery grants”.
It is not clear where this will end. Or – like so many corruption sagas – if it will end. But Joseph is not letting go.
Do we need to say this: After numerous unsuccessful attempts to get past the NLC switchboard this week, I tracked their spokesperson down at a conference and await his responses to the questions I have put to him.