Johannesburg, South Africa—Stellar investigative journalism had already upended politics in South Africa when more than a thousand overseas colleagues assembled here from November 16–19 to plot further disruptions of business as usual the world over. Convened by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, some of whose member organizations helped bring us the Panama and Paradise Papers’ exposes of tax evasion by international elites, it was one of the largest international conferences of investigative journalists ever held.
In a keynote address, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who popularized the term “the 1 percent,” saluted investigative journalism for spotlighting the roots of economic inequality and dubbed Donald Trump the “money launderer in chief.” At a time when news organizations in the United States are besieged by collapsing revenues, shaky public confidence and bogus charges of “fake news,” to hear investigative reporters from 130 countries describe their latest revelations—and unpack how they did them and brainstorm their next targets—was a bracing reminder that bona fide journalism is capable of shaking establishment structures to the core. “We’re the backlash to the backlash,” David E. Kaplan, the global network’s executive director, told The Nation.
Perhaps the most striking success story was unfolding throughout the conference in the South African mass media: stunning revelations by the unforgettably named reporting outfit AmaBhungane. In Zulu, the name means “dung beetle,” an animal that “digs through shit”—as reporters must often do to uncover the truth. Under the motto “digging dung, fertilizing democracy,” this spunky nonprofit has been probing into the expansion of South African president Jacob Zuma’s financial empire since he took office in 2009. In June, AmaBhungane and companion outlet the Daily Maverick received more than 100,000 e-mails detailing how myriad business deals were cut, the government officials involved, and the amounts of money changing hands under the table at the highest levels of Africa’s biggest economy.
The effect has been explosive. Even as dictator Robert Mugabe was being overthrown by a military coup in neighboring Zimbabwe, South Africans of all colors and classes were riveted by a seemingly endless series of revelations about corruption in their own country. Zuma is scheduled to term out as president of South Africa in 2018. However, his ex-wife and long-standing political ally, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, hopes to be elected president of the African National Congress, the political party once headed by anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, at the ANC party conference that begins December 16. AmaBhungane’s exposés, which fanned widespread popular anger at Zuma’s alleged corruption, may jeopardize Dlamini-Zuma’s prospects to succeed him.