Saturday, 13 August
Earlier this month, on 4 July 2022, left-leaning publication New Frame suddenly announced it was shutting up shop, taking the South African media by surprise.
Launched in August 2018, the non-profit seemed flush. Almost all of the money came discreetly and indirectly from a sole benefactor – an American tech mogul named Neville Roy Singham. The publication paid good salaries to a team of around two dozen journalists, offered highly competitive rates for freelancers, and operated out of spacious offices in central Johannesburg.
In its four years of existence, New Frame spent R122 million, and as recently as around late January or February, editor-in-chief Richard Pithouse promised staff that funding was secured for an improbable 20 years.
“Funding cycles are normally three years or five years. Assuming we don’t do something crazy and mess it up … that money is there. We’re in an extraordinarily lucky position.”
At the same time, Pithouse confirmed what everybody at New Frame already understood: Singham’s central role.
“Our funder, and of course we’re not directly funded by a person, it’s through funds he’s set up and so on, but you know where our money comes from – it comes from Roy Singham. Not all of it, but definitely most of it.”
But in the next few months, budget cuts were announced. First the freelancer budget was to be trimmed, then it was 20% across the board, and then the plug was pulled entirely.
The sudden decision to “step back” was announced in an editorial by Pithouse, but this only raised more questions than it answered, not least from the retrenched journalists themselves who felt they were owed a full account.
Staff wanted to know why the tap was shut off so abruptly and why, despite their offers to assist, there appeared to be no genuine effort to source funds from other donors.
Although Pithouse insists that New Frame maintained staunch editorial independence, Singham appears to operate within a different paradigm – one that suggests a more interventionist political agenda.
New Frame sat within a global network of media, think tanks, unions and political parties tied to Singham as funder.
In South Africa the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) – the largest single union in the country with a reputation among the international left for its militancy – became the centre point of Singham’s network, around which the various other entities hovered, including New Frame.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that the Singham network became an increasingly coherent political project intertwined with the propaganda and disinformation machinery of certain state actors, most importantly the Chinese Communist Party.
In the process Singham’s role in Numsa and his relationship with its secretary-general Irvin Jim also become controversial.
Pithouse has responded to public criticism and questions from media, including amaBhungane, in a series of lengthy letters and an op-ed in the Daily Maverick, alleging that New Frame’s management and funder are the victims of conspiracies and political point scoring from the “sectarian left, a space well-known for being riven with paranoia and bitter enmity”. (Read his full response to amaBhungane’s questions.)
Yet it is hard to conceive of a more paranoid response than the intensely personal attacks launched on one of the authors of this article – Reddy – following the delivery of questions from amaBhungane about Singham, New Frame and Numsa.
In one of his letters Pithouse says, “Reddy is widely perceived, across the fractious South African left, to be embedded in one faction of the left, a faction involved in intense contestation over the future of the trade union movement, and therefore, not as an independent journalist.”
As this article was being edited Numsa’s Jim issued a six-page attack on Reddy and amaBhungane – while failing to answer any of the questions posed about Singham and his network.
Meanwhile, Pithouse paints much of the criticism against New Frame and its funder as “malicious slander” and “racist” attacks from a “small but vociferous faction” of embittered ex-staff.
On Singham, Pithouse says they first met in 2017 and “talked about a possible media project that would be broadly pro-working class and Pan-African. I haven’t met him in person for years and he has never sought to discuss specific articles or more specific details of editorial policy with me”.
However, his unwillingness or inability to answer key questions around Singham’s decision to withdraw funding, and explain the channels and contractual arrangements of New Frame’s opaque funding model, leaves important questions lingering.
Why did the funder so quickly fall out of love with the publication that had been his darling? Could New Frame’s demise have been because it was no longer politically useful?
Attempting to answer these questions has led to a worldwide tour of entities and individuals seemingly built around Singham’s funding, New Frame among them. This dense network seems to have taken on its funder’s pro-China political bent, although here New Frame appears to have been the odd one out – never entirely falling into line with the ideological boundaries that came to define the network.
Singham did not respond to detailed written questions.
Singham’s network – from the US to SA
Singham is a 68-year-old American tech tycoon and the son of a prominent intellectual. He made a fortune through Thoughtworks – a software design and IT consulting company which he founded in the early 1990s.
In 2017, Singham sold his company to UK-based Apax for an undisclosed sum. At the time, Thoughtworks had 4 500 staff spread across 45 offices in 15 countries. It was taken public late last year and has a market cap today of about $4.6 billion.
Thoughtworks in South Africa provided Singham with his entry point into Numsa.
The union, and later its political party offshoot, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP), became central nodes in Singham’s network of moneyed influence, around which a number of Singham-linked entities began to orbit.
In 2016, Thoughtworks began doing pro bono work for Numsa, conducting a membership survey and updating the union’s IT systems for managing membership and subscriptions.
Thoughtworks employees were effectively seconded to the union, among them Vashna Jagarnath, Pithouse’s former partner and a close confidante of Jim’s, who is also the chair of the SRWP. This arrangement, according to one former Thoughtworks source, gave Singham his “in” to Numsa.
2017, the year Singham sold Thoughtworks, marked a turning point.
In a blog post about the sale from August that year, Thoughtworks’ chief scientist, Martin Fowler, cited Singham’s increasing involvement in his activist work as one of the reasons for the sale.
“[As] I saw [Singham] spend more energy on his activist work, it was apparent it would be appealing to him to accelerate that activism with the money that selling Thoughtworks would bring.”
As an article in the online magazine New Lines described, several Thoughtworks employees “began jumping ship” and turning up at various US-based charitable organisations linked to Singham. These began funnelling money to his various causes across the world, including New Frame and others in South Africa.
Key among the US donor foundations is an organisation that received tax exempt status in the US in 2017 – the People’s Support Foundation (PSF).
According to US tax filings, PSF’s president is Singham’s partner, Jodie Evans, who, according to the New Lines article, established the entity “with the help of Chad Wathington, Thoughtworks’ chief strategy officer”. Thoughtworks’ former general counsel, Jason Pfetcher, is listed as a director and treasurer of the organisation, and its secretary is one Jo Anderson-Figueroa.
The PSF provides grants from tax-deductible donations it receives and from revenue from corporate stocks it holds. The donations it receives come via the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund, a “donor-advised charity” that conceals the original source of the funds from the public record.
The PSF’s tax filings for 2019 show it had assets of $156 393 895 and distributed $12 218 487 in charitable disbursements that year.
Over 2018 and 2019 it channelled US$1.87 million (nearly R32 million at the current exchange rate) to the Centre for Pan-African Media (CPAM), the non-profit that houses New Frame.
A letter from CPAM announcing the retrenchments of staff shows how reliant the organisation was on a single source of funds. It stated that over the last six months it had “received 99.9% of its funding requirements from one foundation”, and that it could not secure funding beyond the end of September.
CPAM has three directors – Pithouse, Tariro Takuva, a former senior Thoughtworks employee, and Neo Bodibe.
Bodibe is a longtime Numsa staffer who sat on the boards of the Numsa Investment Company and chaired one of its subsidiaries until November 2021. She is currently the General Manager: Employee Relations at Transnet.
Bodibe told amaBhungane: “My role as a member of the board of CPAM was to provide advice and oversight on financial, governance and HR matters… The mandate of the board did not extend to editorial decisions and the board did not at any point influence the editorial direction of New Frame.”
The New Lines article detailed a complex string of other funding vehicles run out of the US by people connected to Singham. Their tax filings do not provide details on the organisations they fund outside the US, though notably, the New York-based United Community Fund (UCF) contributed a total of $22.9 million to various unspecified entities and causes in sub-Saharan Africa.
Another major recipient of Singham’s largesse in South Africa is Pan-Africa Today (PAT), which received over $2.5 million from the PSF.
The non-profit, founded in 2016, has been involved in running Numsa’s political school in Limpopo and providing political education to Numsa members.
PAT’s directors are Takuva, Jonis Alasow, a former student of Pithouse at Rhodes University, Numsa regional leader and senior SRWP treasurer Andile Zitho, and Ngenda Mwikisa, second vice-president of the Zambian Socialist Party, which Singham is understood to back.
Pan Africa Today appears to play an important role in bringing together various Singham-linked entities and initiatives.
A 2021 SRWP report by Jagarnath, who serves as the deputy general secretary of the party, notes that PAT “works with various organisations across the continent but its fundamental relationship is with the Numsa, Socialist Party of Zambia and SRWP”.
The report notes PAT’s involvement in “over 16 international schools and 4 international conferences”, and the non-profit’s role in “building of a Pan African Network of socialist organisations across the African continent”.
The report also mentions that the SRWP is part of the “leadership core” of an organisation called the International People’s Assembly (IPA), which bills itself as a sort of umbrella organisation for trade unions, political parties and social movements. Its affiliates in Africa are the SRWP, Numsa, the Socialist Party of Zambia, and the Socialist Movement of Ghana.
Singham is directly involved in the IPA, and it appears to play an important coordinating role in his network of influence.
On 23 June 2018, a group of activists met in South Africa to “examine possibilities of using the experiences from the GDR for today’s international struggles.” The GDR, or German Democratic Republic, is the former East Germany.
The meeting included “East German dignitaries and politically organised youth”, a Numsa delegation, and a contingent of representatives from various organisations linked to Singham, including PAT’s Alasow, and one Franziska Kleiner, who was listed as a PAT representative.
Kleiner is a former lead for social and economic justice at Thoughtworks in Germany, and is listed as the president of the UCF – the Singham-linked New York entity that made large donations to sub-Saharan Africa. Jagarnath participated in the meeting as the strategy advisor for the SRWP and coordinator for the Tricontinental Institute – of which more later.
Also in attendance was Singham, who was listed as representing the People’s Support Foundation and the “International Assembly”. He introduced the meeting to the rather loftily termed “International Assembly of Organizations and Movements of Peoples Working to Rebuild an International Movement to Fight Against Capitalism and Imperialism”.
Tellingly, in the footnotes of the meeting report under the heading “further projects” is point “e”, which states: “Roy’s invitation to the next Chinese Communist Party Congress”.
The picture that begins to emerge is of a tightly-woven network linked to Singham and his money, in which a coterie of activists, academics and politicians close to him hold overlapping positions.
Further evidence of this is seen in a South African non-profit called Common Ground, another cog in the Singham machine which a New Frame source believed was one of the funding vehicles for the publication.
Common Ground counts Takuva as a director, alongside two others.
One is Kayla Jacobs, a former Rhodes student whose LinkedIn profile describes her as the “head of operations” for “various companies”. Jacobs works for another company called Gspan which, which appears to be linked to Singham.
Common Ground’s third director is Anderson-Figueroa, the secretary of the PSF, who appears to be embedded in the wider Singham network.
In 2009 she was the recipient of a Chinese government scholarship to complete her master’s degree at Jilin, a leading university under the direct jurisdiction of China’s Ministry of Education. Her thesis was titled, “The win-win partnership between China and the Caribbean after the Cold War.”
From the outside, the boundaries between these organisations appear rather permeable, with the same group people linked to Singham circulating between them, seemingly as a conduit for Singham’s activism.
Pithouse, however, stressed that New Frame was insulated from the whims of its funder, who he says has never made a direct donation to New Frame, but instead “supported foundations from which New Frame has received funding”.
However, Singham’s influence, and the role of Chinese propaganda in his network, become a little clearer when one looks more closely at the role of the Tricontinental Institute, an organisation which received $12.5 million from the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund and $700 000 from the UCF.
The China connection
The Tricontinental is a research institute, headed by prominent Indian Marxist academic Vijay Prashad, focusing on the global South. According to its website, it has offices in Latin America, India and South Africa and is a partner member of the International People’s Assembly.
It appears to play an important ideological role in Singham’s network as a “bridge” between “academic production” and “political and social movements”. The research it generates is disseminated throughout the network, informing the political positions and talking points of the various other organisations.
It is also the crucial link between Singham’s network and the Chinese Communist Party’s public relations infrastructure. In Tricontinental, the party seemingly has a willing ally in China’s communication operations and a means of implanting the party’s official message within the international left.
The South African leg of the outfit, a non-profit company called The Tricontinental Pan Africa, includes Takuva and Bodibe as directors. So too is Phakamile Hlubi. She is Numsa’s spokesperson and was an electoral candidate for the SRWP in 2019.
Kate Janse van Rensburg resigned as a director in 2019. She was also a SRWP candidate.
Mikaela Erskog also resigned as a director in 2019. Her Twitter profile describes her as researcher at Tricontinental, and a member of two other organisations associated with people in the Singham network – No Cold War and Dongsheng News.
She is also quoted as a spokesperson for SRWP and has fronted for a number of pro-China initiatives, such as an event titled “Towards A Multipolar World: An International Peace Forum” in 2021, and, this year, an event called “China Is Not Our Enemy Webinar: A Closer Look At China In Africa”. Both were promoted by Codepink, a women’s anti-war activist organisations founded by Evans, Singham’s partner.
Other sponsors of this year’s event include the Qiao Collective and The People’s Forum.
The former describes itself as “a diaspora Chinese media collective challenging US aggression on China”.
According to Qiao Collective’s website, the organisation aims to “to foster critical consideration of the role of China and socialism with Chinese characteristics in contemporary geopolitics”. Its routinely publishes articles that promote the Chinese official narrative on issues from Hong Kong, Tiananmen Square, and the persecution of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang.
The People’s Forum is a cultural centre in Manhattan which received $12 million from the PSF in 2019. It shares an office with Breakthrough News, which the New Lines article describes as a project “spearheaded by Rania Khalek, an apologist for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad”.
Khalek was previously a producer and host for Maffick, a media site which sued Facebook after the social media giant posted an advisory comment on the Maffick pages identifying them as “Russia state-controlled media.”
Maffick filed an application for a temporary retraining order requiring Facebook to take down the label. A California court denied the application based on unrebutted evidence establishing that Maffick had multiple ties to the Russian government and known Russian propaganda outlets.
Again, Evans crops up as one of The People’s Forum’s directors.
As the New Lines article shows, and amaBhungane has independently verified, The People’s Forum sits within a web of US-based activist organisation and funding entities including the PSF and UCF, that are linked via money flows, shared addresses, and a familiar cast of characters connected to Singham.
The media component of this network includes organisations like the People’s Dispatch, the Qiao Collective, Breakthrough News and Dongsheng News.
All of these media organisations share a similar editorial line, consistently repeating official narratives of the Chinese state and communist party by, for instance, legitimising China’s persecution of ethnic Uighurs as a fight against “terrorism”.
Prashad, the head of Tricontinental, looms large in this media ecosystem – his widely syndicated articles faithfully toeing the Chinese party line.
New Frame also regularly carried Prashad’s pieces – something that several former New Frame journalists said led to some unease among staff who objected to his partisan politics.
Prashad did not respond to questions sent to him for this article.
However, Pithouse described him as “a highly regarded writer, held in high esteem by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis. He is published all over the world, often in prestigious publications”.
“As with any writer one does not have to agree with everything that Prashad writes to recognise that he is a major figure whose work often adds real value to public disputation.”
The overlap between New Frame and Prashad’s Tricontinental ran deeper because Pithouse wore two hats – one as New Frame’s editor-in-chief and the other as an employee of Tricontinental. Various websites to which he has contributed describe Pithouse as a “coordinator” for the Tricontinental in South Africa.
Tricontinental has an office housed within New Frame offices – a “glassed-in cube” as one New Frame source put it.
Commenting on the organisational overlap and the suggestion that New Frame’s may not have been sufficiently insulated from the Singham political network, Pithouse wrote:
“New Frame has always operated independently – legally, practically and editorially – from the organisations that are mentioned in the list of allegations. Of course, we did publish excerpts from some research by the Tricontinental research institute, but we did the same from a wide variety of sources including other research organisations, new books from various publishers, etc., etc. We did not publish excerpts from all the institute’s research and there was no expectation that we would do so.”
Belt and Road
Singham has a longstanding connection to China and a seemingly genuine ideological affinity for Maoism and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In 1971, as a 17-year-old, Singham joined the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, which was heavily influenced by Maoist thought.
In an email sent in August last year to staff at some of the organisations he funds, Singham said, “I have been following China since I was 14 years old. The Chinese and Cuban revolutions defined my generation’s attraction to liberation and socialism.”
Singham worked closely with Chinese tech giant Huawei as a consultant, according to the New Lines article, and in 2005 Thoughtworks opened offices in China.
Sometime after selling Thoughtworks, Singham moved from the US to China, and currently owns or part owns a number of companies domiciled there.
In 2021, Indian media reported that India’s Enforcement Directorate named Singham in a money laundering case against Indian media portal Newsclick and its People’s Dispatch website, alleging that he was “the key source of Rs 38 crore” (approximately US$5 million) it received between 2018 and 2021, allegedly to promote a pro-Chinese narrative in the Indian media.
The funds were alleged to have passed through a network of companies and NGOs including US-based Worldwide Media Holdings (allegedly owned by Singham), the Justice and Education Fund (one of the Singham-linked US foundations), Gspan LLC and Tricontinental Ltd in the US, and Centro Popular Demidas, Brazil.
India’s ministry of home affairs went so far as to notify banks to flag NGO donations from these companies in terms of India’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act – though it should be noted that the right-wing Indian government’s blocking of foreign funding for certain NGOs because of “anti-national activities” has been widely criticised as muzzling dissent.
Responding to the allegations contained in the Indian press, Pithouse said, “I would also caution you to take great care with the claims made by the highly repressive and right-wing Indian state. It’s hostility to donor funded NGOs, independent media and the left in general is well known.”
Prashad’s own links to the Chinese party-state are significant, given his role as a prominent ideologue within the Singham network.
Prashad is a senior non-resident fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, a think tank affiliated with Beijing’s Renmin University.
The institute bills itself as a “new style think tank with Chinese characteristics”, and says it directs “the Chinese Think Tank Cooperation Alliance for the Belt and Road”.
The Belt and Road initiative is the centrepiece of China’s foreign policy.
In a sign of just how embedded Chongyang is in Chinese officialdom, the institute and Renmin co-hosted an event last year organised by the People’s Government of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, also known as the Central Propaganda Department, an important organ in the propaganda machinery of the Chinese Communist Party.
Notably, two research fellows from the Tricontinental were listed as presenters. One of them, Tings Chak, also served as the secretary of the New York-based UCF and is a regular contributor to the pro-China media platforms in the Singham network.
A write-up of the event shows that it was, predictably, a sanitised affair which uncritically promoted the Chinese government line on Xinjiang and entirely elided any mention of the persecution of Uighurs.
This sort of staunchly pro-China politics appears to have seeped into the various organisations of the South African sphere of Singham’s network in which New Frame found itself – and was a source of disquiet to at least some of its staff.
More than just friends?
Singham’s August 2021 email – the one in which he explains his interest in China – shines more light on his connections to the Chinese establishment and the extent to which that influenced his network.
In it, he urges recipients to attend an online lecture by Li Bo, who Singham writes is “a very good friend of mine here [in China]”.
Li Bo is an academic linked to the Singham network as a representative of Tricontinental in China.
He is the executive director of the Shanghai Chunqiu Institute for Development and Strategic Studies, assistant dean at the China Institute of Fudan University, and the academic representative of the Guancha Syndicate.
All three organisations appear to be part of the Chinese propaganda machine linked to the party-state.
Guancha is a popular and influential Chinese online news portal with a nationalist editorial line.
In a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) study titled “China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order” Guancha is referred to as a Chinese propaganda outlet.
One of the co-founders of Guancha is well-known Chinese venture capitalist Eric Li, who has long been an apologist for China’s authoritarian system.
Eric Li’s many other roles include his chairmanship of the advisory committee of Fudan’s China Institute, where Li Bo is assistant dean.
Among the fifteen or so fellows at the China Institute is Alexander Dugin, the ultranationalist ideologue who is said to have laid the ideological groundwork for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and whose views have been described as “fascist”.
Fudan is a leading university in China, and was recently the subject of controversy after reference to “academic independence and freedom of thought” was removed from its charter, and a new pledge was inserted to ensure the university would “weaponise the minds of teachers and students using [President] Xi Jinping’s socialism ideology with characteristics of China in the new era”.
Asked by the Financial Times about the change to the university’s charter, Eric Li said “For a period of several decades, the Chinese national has been debating what kind of government and society they want… There are people who are liberals, who want to be a liberal country. I think that debate is over.”
The China Institute’s director is another prominent advocate of Chinese nationalism – Zhang Weiwei.
Li Bo, Eric Li, and Zhang again link up at the Shanghai Chunqiu Institute for Development and Strategic Studies, where Li Bo is executive director, Eric Li is vice president, and Zhang is a fellow.
The result of these overlapping relationships is a network of nationalist figures closely associated with the Chinese party-state. Li Bo, Prashad’s associate at Tricontinental and Singham’s very good friend, links this network to Singham’s – with the latter having seemingly increasingly pivoted towards China.
Influence in SA
Coming full circle, if Singham is as enmeshed in the Chinese party-state and its propaganda apparatus as his network appears to be, then how has this played out in Numsa and the wider the South African left, and at a publication that not long ago held so much promise as a progressive voice in the media?
The union has been gripped by purges, machinations and political mudslinging in the lead-up to its national congress at the end of July.
Last week the congress was interdicted by the Labour Court after a faction opposed to Jim accused him of having purged dozens of officials seen to be critical of him and a threat to his power.
More than 50 officials, including the union’s second deputy president, Ruth Ntlokotse, had been banned from the attending the congress where Jim was up for re-election.
Much criticism of Jim and his faction has centred on alleged abuse of power and claims of mismanagement and corruption involving the union’s investment company funds, but for years rumours have circulated about the mysterious foreign benefactor, Singham, whose patronage was said to be aiding Jim and his loyalists.
Singham’s name has been dragged into more recent fights in the union and SRWP, with a Western Cape branch of the party claiming that Numsa’s international activities are determined by NGOs funded by Singham and the union is adopting his Maoist politics.
“This means that structures driven by the funder are being put as future plans of Numsa,” reads a letter from the Shaun Magmoed Branch.
When New Frame’s closure was announced, the rumour and conspiracy spilled over into new avenues, giving rise to speculation about why Singham suddenly terminated a publication that many Numsa members considered “theirs”.
The letter from the SRWP branch reads: “When the New Frame was closed down overnight by sudden, overnight stopping of funds by Singham, Numsa offered no statement in defence of the publication nor of the staff and journalists there. Champion of the workers?”
A more far-fetched but widely circulated rumour is that Singham ditched New Frame because he is reprioritising his funding as part of a broader Chinese Communist Party-linked plan to consolidate the left in South Africa. Numsa, the SRWP and the South African Communist Party, and potentially certain social movements and elements of the ANC are to be brought together behind some sort of united front and drawn closer into China’s sphere of influence.
There is no evidence of such a coordinated plan, but the rumour does at least point to a growing perception of Chinese influence within Numsa and the constellation of organisations floating around the union.
One individual rumoured to be involved in the conspiracy to reorganise the left on China’s terms is former unionist, politician and businessman Phillip Dexter. Dexter is not shy about his admiration for the Chinese state and was a founding member of the African-Chinese People’s Friendship Association.
In recent months, Dexter, together with Jagarnath, has been involved in setting up an organisation called the Pan-African Institute for Socialism (PAIS). Its Facebook page states that “PAIS will partner with Pan Africanism Today and other like-minded organisations to conduct research, to do political education, and to publish its work”.
In July, PAIS and Tricontinental were among the organisers of a panel discussion on “Busting the Myth of Chinese Neo-Colonialism in Africa” hosted at The Forge – a venue at the same address as New Frame and Tricontinental’s South Africa office.
One after another, the event’s speakers – Prashad, Dexter, Fred M’membe of the Socialist Party of Zambia, and Kwesi Pratt of the Socialist Movement of Ghana – dutifully made the case for China in Africa.
Dexter told amaBhungane, “I have always supported the Chinese development path and continue to do so”, and while he acknowledged knowing Singham, he strongly denied that PAIS is linked to him.
The extent to which Singham-linked organisations such as Tricontinental and PAT have inserted themselves within Numsa and the SRWP could be the reason that overtly pro-China stances on major international issues have crept into the policies and positions of the unions and party.
The international section of Numsa’s 11th National Congress Secretariate Report of June this year is illuminating in two ways.
Secondly, the report listed a range of Singham-linked organisations that have played a role in Numsa – PAT, Tricontinental, The People’s Forum, The Forge. The report also noted Numsa’s “support of progressive media platforms such as Peoples’ Dispatch or New Frame”, just weeks before the latter was shut down.
After New Frame’s closure was announced, its journalists and staff were quick to make claims of censorship, alleging an editorial line aligned with its funders’ pro-China leaning. New Frame was also accused of having been soft on Russia.
Pithouse told amaBhungane that “New Frame was an emphatically editorially independent publication”, adding that it operated independently from the individuals and organisations named in amaBhungane’s questions to him.
He has made plausible case that there was no censorship at New Frame – at least not overtly – citing articles critical of Russia and China.
He told amaBhungane that “it is true that we did not publish a substantive piece on Xinjiang … After all, there are numerous regions and issues around the world that we have not published on – including many in Africa – for the simple reason that we didn’t have writers in these places and never received pitches from people who wished to write on these issues.”
In his op-ed in the Daily Maverick, he said “anxiety with regard to our coverage of China first emerged among a tiny number of our staff members after the publication of an article in an obscure magazine at the beginning of this year”, referring to the New Lines article.
Regarding criticism of its partisan coverage of labour issues and domestic politics, Pithouse told amaBhungane that “No person who has participated in the activities of the SRWP, including Vashna Jagarnath, my ex-wife, has ever had any influence – directly or indirectly – on our editorial process.”
He said that of out of 5 000 articles New Frame published since August 2018, only “nine of those mention the SRWP – 0.02% of our articles. Of the nine articles that mention the SRWP seven only mention it in passing”.
He attributed allegations that Jim had sat in on an editorial meeting early in the life of New Frame to a misunderstanding, saying that New Frame’s offices were “shared with two other organisations – one of which has the specific task of working with activists across the continent – and space has often been offered at no cost to other organisations”.
Jim, he said, was a participant in another meeting and “inadvertently found himself in the New Frame meeting”.
Pithouse’s forceful and detailed defence of New Frame’s editorial policies, however, stands in sharp contrast with his coyness about questions around New Frame’s funding.
When pressed, he has only admitted that “Singham has made contributions to foundations from which we have received support”.
In his editorial announcing the closure, Pithouse almost seemed to be speaking for the funder, who he never named. He wrote:
“When funding for progressive projects and causes is available every rand spent on media is a rand that could be spent on another dimension of the struggle for a more just world, including support for the people on the frontlines of resistance. Media is, in relative terms, very, very expensive.”
This raised eyebrows among New Frame staff, and despite lengthy letters and op-eds, Pithouse has yet to give a full account of Singham’s sudden decision to pull the plug.
“It was clear that, 1) our costs were too high for the available funders… 2) our audience was too small for us to be able to attract significant funding; and that 3) there simply are no media funders available who could make up the R34 million that we needed to run New Frame for a year.”
Yet New Frame’s high costs and low penetration were nothing new – and Pithouse has failed to explain why these factors were un-concerning and unaddressed earlier this year, but considered fatal at the end of June.
As for those positing political reasons for the closure of New Frame, Pithouse says, “a less kind interpretation is that they are punting conspiracy theory”.
But in social media posts and speaking to amaBhungane, New Frame staff say there was no meaningful attempt to attract new donors or diversify funding even after cuts were announced. A social media post by one former journalist read:
“New Frame refused, over many months, numerous offers from staff to identify potential funders, speak with our contacts in funding agencies and write funding proposals, market the site, consult experts in marketing, write up the impact reports that other news sites provide to funders.
“There was never a marketing or distribution plan at New Frame at any point in the last four years…Staff were never given any hearing when we suggested ways to save money. Suggestions that the very large office be closed and staff work from home were rejected.”
Pithouse’s failure to provide answers about the exact channels and contractual arrangements through which New Frame was funded, about who took the decision to abruptly cut the funding and why, and about reasons for not permitting a measured process in which alternative funding could be sourced, leaves a much to speculation.
Like the SRWP, which performed dismally in the 2019 elections, New Frame did lack impact. Perhaps to Singham it was simply no longer a worthwhile “investment”.
Or, if Pithouse is to be believed and New Frame maintained its editorial independence, then maybe the publication was killed precisely because its reporters did not kowtow to the dogmas prevalent in the rest of the Singham network.
AmaBhungane is a nonprofit centre for investigative journalism. We co-publish our investigations, which are free to access, to news sites like News24. For more, visit www.amaB.org.
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22 Jul 2020
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