“We’re going to be in trouble.”
This is what ANC general manager Ignatius Jacobs said when he got his first glimpse of Sihle Bolani’s “war room” report.
Bolani, a public relations expert, had just handed Jacobs her report on the ANC’s covert campaign set up ahead of the 2016 local government elections.
Bolani, Jacobs and others were sitting in Jacobs’ office at Luthuli House. In the background, an ANN7 news report about Wayne Rooney confirms the date as November 25 2016.
“You told them that you raised 50 million? So where is that money?” Jacobs asked.
“No, we said we were going to raise that … Our target was 50, but we didn’t reach our target,” replied Joseph Nkadimeng, one of the alleged war room architects.
Two months later, as Jacobs predicted, both he and the ANC are in trouble.
The ANC was on the defensive all week after amaBhungane revealed the party’s hand in a covert campaign targeting opposition parties before the municipal elections in 2016.
The allegations emerged when Bolani, who worked on the campaign, took the ANC to court for nonpayment.
Included in court papers was Bolani’s report, which detailed how the war room planted fake Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) posters, produced a news site and a chat show and used a network of social media “influencers” to influence voter sentiment towards the ANC – without revealing its hand.
In response, both the ANC and activist Shaka Sisulu, the other alleged war room architect, tried to distance the party from the campaign.
“Their activities were not sanctioned by the ANC … We distance ourselves [from] any insinuation that any such campaign was known to or approved by the ANC,” the party said.
However, recordings of the meeting on November 25, as well as two other meetings at Luthuli House, suggest that the ANC or Jacobs – or both – lied about the extent of their involvement.
The recordings show:
- The war room was set up specifically to “dig at [the ANC’s] opponents”;
- The initial R50 million budget was not, as Sisulu claimed a few days ago, “a figment of someone’s imagination”; and
- Jacobs held meetings with war room members during the campaign to get feedback, but became frustrated when he did not see the desired results.
Jacobs, through his attorney, denied any impropriety and said he was willing to subject himself to an investigation and a disciplinary process by the ANC, adding that he was willing to go on paid leave, in order to focus on clearing his name.
Bolani said she was instructed not to have direct contact with Luthuli House during the campaign, which ended prematurely amid money troubles and apparent mismanagement. She reported to Sisulu and Nkadimeng.
As a result, her first meeting at Luthuli House with ANC officials, where she pressed her demand for payment, took place more than three months after the elections, on November 21.
Bolani recorded the meeting on her cellphone. Jacobs and Nkadimeng were present.
What is immediately apparent is that Jacobs is not shocked by the campaign’s existence, but concerned that money from ANC donors may have been misspent.
Nkadimeng starts the meeting: “The reason we’re primarily here is it has to do with Sihle Bolani’s company, SBC, and KTI [broadcast personality Phat Joe’s company, which also participated] … He also sent me an invoice of R2 million.
“They’re supposed to have been paid … We know that money did get paid, I did raise money, I raised R11 million … [but] we know what happened.”
Jacobs replies: “What I know is that even the work that was asked was never done. Phat Joe was coming with Shaka. I kept saying, ‘What are you doing, show me what you are doing because I don’t see it.’”
What went wrong
Later in the same meeting, Jacobs complains he was being hauled over the coals because Bolani approached minister in the presidency Jeff Radebe to ask for her bill to be paid.
“Now I’m made out as some bad guy who was trying to create a team that must just help us with the EFF and DA in particular…
“Because we had teams, but this team was set up … to just dig at our opponents. It did not do that, and how long have I been trying to get them to give me reports, even during the campaign? It never came.”
Nkadimeng agrees: “I said to Sihle, we will settle this – and I also spoke to Joe – at whatever cost.”
Jacobs closed the meeting by asking Bolani to produce a report on the campaign detailing what was done and what went wrong.
“We must have that report and it must be honest. I’m not going to tell comrade Jeff that this work was done when it was not done,” Jacobs says.
Bolani said she emailed Radebe her report on November 24, and the following day delivered a copy to Jacobs in his office.
The fiercest resistance from the ANC against amaBhungane’s investigation has been to the allegation that the war room engaged in “black-ops” activities.
“Black ops” is a military term referring to secret operations that conceal who is really behind them.
Producing fake EFF posters – as the war room appears to have done – would fit this description, but the ANC is adamant: “The ANC does not need [to engage] nor has it ever engaged in any clandestine ‘black ops’ to woo voters,” it said in its statement.
However, Jacobs reveals a different vision for the war room in a recording from a third meeting, on December 9.
He told Bolani: “I, personally, was trained in propaganda, deception, subterfuge, political warfare, spy works – I know what must be done. But I left it.
“I thought Joe [Nkadimeng] and Shaka [Sisulu] [would] be okay. If I had the resources, we [would] be way ahead now.”
Jacobs suggests such tactics are necessary to counter a media onslaught.
“I think the problem in this country is that the public discourse is run by white capital … I know what they are capable of – they are racist, they are fascist – but we are not running the media space … and that influences sentiment, that influences opinion … If we don’t change this discourse, we’ll be [gone], we’ll be dead,” Jacobs says.
“When you pick up South African [media], especially print – social media, television, radio we’re still okay, but print, Jesus…”
In Jacobs’ affidavit, submitted to court on Tuesday, he claimed Bolani misunderstood that she was a volunteer, but “purely as a gesture of goodwill” he agreed to a R1 million settlement: “[Bolani], like all other volunteers, would have received payment for disbursements… “At a meeting between [Bolani] and [myself] on December 9 2016, it became apparent [she] misunderstood that she was expected to volunteer her services to the marketing campaign.
“Purely for the sake of settlement, [I] undertook to pay [Bolani] the sum of R1 million by December 31 2016.”
However, at no point during the recordings does Jacobs or Nkadimeng suggest Bolani was a volunteer.
During the December 9 meeting, Jacobs asks Bolani to bear with him as he tries to source funds to pay her.
“I can understand the way you’ve been frustrated by Shaka and Joe, [but you] can’t put us in the same boat, we are part of the party apparatus, in other words, bureaucrats,” Jacobs says.
“I’ve started talking to other people, I’ve had two meetings now asking if they can help me. Quickest I can solve your problem is we agree on one-m [R1 million].”
Jacobs proposed the R1 million settlement, down from Bolani’s full demand of R2.3 million.
“If I agree to one-m, when do I get it?” Bolani asks.
“At least let’s say until the end of this month,” Jacobs replies.
The ham sandwich
Nkadimeng denies being a central war room player.
“I was just [the] ham in the sandwich,” he told amaBhungane via SMS on Friday. “My intrinsic value-add to the [local government elections] was to volunteer for my beloved movement.
“Both Mr Jacobs and Ms [Bolani] can give you a helicopter view of their war room operation with Ogilvy.”
Ogilvy & Mather – contracted by the ANC for its election campaigns – has denied involvement in the war room, following initial discussions.
Bolani says she was mostly engaged in project management, but Sisulu’s team carried out the more controversial aspects.
Detailed questions were sent to ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa on Friday afternoon. He had not replied by the time of going to print.