The man in charge of one of the biggest Afrikaans dailies is a passionate young South African with an indestructible sense of justice – for all.
It has been more than 10 years since my path first crossed with the current editor of Beeld newspaper – 16 years ago, in 1998 to be exact – when the inquisitive energetic scholar from Brackenfell High School, with a soft spot for the voiceless, started his ‘career’ as an intern at Die Burger newspaper, where I at the time edited the daily’s teen supplement.
With such a passion for journalism, and an indestructible sense of justice at such a young age, it was very clear to everyone: there was leadership ink in Adriaan Basson’s veins – yet some even thought he would end up in politics...
In many of our detailed discussions about politics, the media and life in general, we have had back then, when he frequently popped into my office, the frank and critical lad indicated once that one day he would want my job and edit the youth publication. And in no uncertain terms he made it clear – he was one day going to lead the way and change the world with
Although he never became the editor of the teen publication, he proved me and my colleagues right and went onto much bigger things and reached the top of his game in record time.
Outspoken, witty and at times provocative, since our last meeting in 2002, after he had graduated, the award-winning Basson has reported for and edited Beeld and the Mail & Guardian and in 2010 he co-founded the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, nicknamed amaBhungane.
Basson, who grew up in the rural Eastern Cape, Gauteng and the Western Cape (Ugie, Maclear, Roodepoort and Brackenfell), studied Political Science and Sociology at Stellenbosch University for three years before moving to Joburg, where he has been working since.
To date, after a number of impressive positions and accomplishments in the newspaper world, he has also published a number of books which include the controversial Zuma Exposed (2012) and Finish & Klaar: Selebi’s Fall from Interpol to the Underworld (2010).
Basson regularly appears on television and radio programmes as a commentator on current affairs. He is a speaker at conferences on corruption, good governance and the media. Since August 2013 he chairs the Media Freedom subcommittee of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef).
Needless to say, we were quite excited when Basson, who at 32 was the youngest journalist to become editor of Beeld, agreed to partake in this year’s Leadership’s Tomorrow’s Leaders Convention.
He would join (at the time of going to print) Dr Bandile Maskuku (spokesperson for the ANC Youth League), Mbuyiseni Ndlozi (spokesperson for the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters) and Mabine Seabe II (co-founder and director of Youth Lab) on stage in a debate that would bring together people with a veritable array of political opinions, insights, beliefs and agendas shortly before the general elections. I was even more thrilled when Basson took time out of his busy schedule for a pre-event interview in Leadership:
In the very beginning, you were actively involved in the media at Stellenbosch University. Can you tell us about that?
I was a very angry editor of Die Matie, the student newspaper in Stellenbosch. I was very anti-establishment in those years. I thought that Afrikaans was used as an excuse to keep black students off campus and expressed my views in a very forthright manner.
Would you mind expanding a bit on the road that has led you to where you are in your career today?
Starting at Beeld as a crime and courthouse reporter was a solid grounding. I’ve learnt all the ropes there; how to conduct an interview, how to answer the phone – even how to drive a car in peak-hour traffic. Then I moved to the Mail & Guardian, where I was thrown into the world of investigative journalism. I realised that it was really just good journalism. I enjoyed having a bit more time to properly dig deeper into a story. City Press exposed me to newsroom management. It was an absolute honour and privilege to reinvent the paper with the editor, Ferial Haffajee. I suppose I climbed the journalism ladder quite fast. It wasn’t always the plan. I was always conflicted between being a good reporter and being a newsroom manager. At City Press I did a bit of both, but I realised I had to throw myself fully into the management side if I really wanted to experience it. So I’m still learning about management, but I still get a kick from seeing my byline in the paper!
What initially drew you to journalism and the industry?
The honesty, the frankness, the critical thinking. It feels like the only industry in which you can really express yourself robustly.
Under your leadership City Press has strengthened the newsroom’s own investigative capacity and enhanced its standard of investigative reporting. What prompted this move?
Journalism is changing so rapidly. It’s essential that newspapers adapt and give readers something different to what they can find online, otherwise we’ll become redundant.
I did at one point think you would end up in either magazines or TV – yet you stuck to newspapers. Was this a calculated decision?
I love hard news. In fact, I am addicted to it. Magazines and TV are for relaxation. Newspaper journalists can change the world.
What, in your opinion, is the role media and publications have in South Africa?
To inform, educate and entertain.
You are part of a group of relatively young high-powered, influential and energised chief editors in the Media24 stable. It must be pretty exciting to be part of this ‘new breed’ of editors?
Yes, but it is a bit scary, though. But I think we are digitally more savvy and not averse to risk-taking.
You call a spade a spade. Has the spade ever called back?
I respect my readers and will never push them on something I don’t truly believe in. When I challenge the government, I do so with facts at hand. I try not to react purely on emotion, although something like the Nkandla development can push up one’s blood pressure.
Let’s talk about your books — Zuma Exposed and Finish & Klaar. Both brave pieces of writing. What inspired Zuma Exposed and have you ever, while writing, had any doubts whether you were doing the right thing?
No. I covered the Schabir Shaik trial. I realised that this is a fascinating story that needs to be told in longer form than newsprint. A politician being bankrolled by a scaly businessman who in turn uses the politician as his chief lobbyist. In 2004 I spent six months reporting on the Schabir Shaik trial in Durban for all Media24’s Afrikaans titles – an experience that opened my eyes to the triangle of where politics, crime and business meet.
Any feedback from the president after Zuma Exposed was published?
No. The only feedback I got after publishing Zuma Exposed was from Jessie Duarte [Deputy Secretary General of the ANC], who said I was trying to influence the ANC’s conference. I thought it was a compliment.
You have at times been ‘labelled’ a “liberal editor”, “controversial” and “outspoken”. How did you deal with this kind of scepticism and criticism?
I am labelled differently every day. It doesn’t bother me. It comes with the territory. I had to grow a thick skin.
You have quite a love for justice. Where and when did this passion start?
I was brought up in a house where we were taught to respect other, irrespective of who they are. My parents are both teachers. We never had lots of money, but we were mostly happy and stimulated.
Do you think we truly have freedom of speech in South Africa?
Yes, but we must fight any attempts to curb this. Like the Protection of State Information Bill.
What do you think makes a good leader?
To set expectations, execute and lead by example.
How did it come about that you got involved with political reporting?
I realised that politics rule the world, and where politics and truth come together – that was where I wanted to be.
Do you ever see yourself going into politics?
No, I don’t! I’d rather change the world through journalism.
Standard Bank Sikuvile Awards: Journalist of the Year
Standard Bank Sikuvile Awards: Investigative Journalist of the Year (for the Nkandlagate series)
Media24 Legends: Investigative Journalist of the Year (for the Nkandlagate series)
CNN African Journalist of the Year Awards: Newspaper Journalist of the Year (for a series of stories on Julius Malema)
Media24 Legends: Journalist of the Year
Media24 Legends: Investigative Journalist of the Year (for a series of stories on Julius Malema)
Mondi Shanduka Awards Winner: Investigative Journalism (for a series of features on corruption in the Department of Correctional Services); Mondi Shanduka Awards: Runner-up (for a series on controversy around the 2010 Fifa World Cup and Confederations Cup)
Taco Kuiper Award Winner (Part of the Mail & Guardian team who investigated the arms deal scandal)
Mondi Shanduka Awards Winner: South African Story of the Year (Part of the Mail & Guardian team; for the series on Jackie Selebi and the suspension of Vusi Pikoli)
Taco Kuiper Award Runner-up (Part of the Mail & Guardian team; for the Selebi and Pikoli cases)
Media24 Investigating Journalist of the Year
(For a series on irregularities with the eNaTIS traffic management system)
Taco Kuiper Award Winner (for a series of features on tender fraud in the Department of Correctional Services)
Media24: Investigative Journalist of the Year (for a series of features on corruption in the Department of Correctional Services)
Beeld: Scoop of the Year (for revealing the lack of facilities at a Pretoria court to accommodate child victims of sexual offences)