A Nose for News Planted Firmly in SA's Dirt
WHAT do President Thabo Mbeki and investigative journalist Martin Welz have in common?
Not much, it would seem, given the ire with which Mbeki last week waved around Welz's scribblings as proof of Judge Willem Heath's perfidy, and the subsequent spat over the origins of the organogram.
Strangely though, the two men do have something in common the backing of international financier and philanthropist George Soros. Last year Soros joined Mbeki's international investment council. He also became a shareholder in Welz's journal Noseweek, which describes itself as "SA's unique investigative magazine for inside information on business, the professions, politics, health, the environment anything you weren't supposed to know."
Soros's investment was motivated, according to his New Yorkbased assistant Yvonne Sheer, by his belief that the publication makes a significant contribution to SA democracy.
Welz is not fazed by another moment in the limelight. Nor is he surprised that his current notoriety is related to the arms package investigation. Noseweek was the first publication, in its most recent edition last August, to highlight the arms industry interests of family members of SA National Defence Force procurement chief Chippy Shaik. He is merely bemused that the organogram was his path to notoriety, and a little put out that the attention is interfering with deadlines for the next edition of Noseweek, due out soon.
One may well ask how Welz makes a living from a slim journal with five months between editions. Well, that is where Soros comes in.
Welz admits he has spent the past six months drumming up funds to ensure Noseweek's survival. He eventually succeeded by selling 30% of equity to "a random group of small investors" of whom Soros is one.
"I didn't solicit it from him, and it was given unconditionally," Welz says, stressing that, for a publication devoted to digging up dirt on anyone, independence is critical.
For the same reason, he certainly did not want to operate on a bank loan.
If you wonder why, the last edition noted in an introduction to an article on one of SA's best-known financial institutions: "Who can a businessman rely on in a competitive and profit-driven economy to behave with a modicum of integrity and honour? His bankers, the cornerstone of sober and reliable probity, is your confident reply. Bzzzz! No thanks for playing but wrong."
Shaik and former defence minister Joe Modise are merely the latest in a long list of people to have come under Welz's scrutiny.
Probably the second most celebrated group of targets in a 25year career have been Mafia boss Vito Palazzolo and former National Party MP Peet de Pontes. The most famous would be the perpetrators of the information scandal that brought down prime minister John Vorster and several of his ministers just more than 20 years ago.
His former editor at the Sunday Express, Ken Owen, recalls that Welz was the first person to write the story that would have broken the scandal. However, his theneditor at the Sunday Times, the late Tertius Myburgh, refused to risk publishing it. It took a couple of years before the story broke again, and Welz was one of three journalists at the Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Express who led the pack.
"He is utterly brilliant and completely unmanageable," says Owen of Welz, who trained in law before starting his journalistic career at the Pretoria News in 1975.
Owen recalls a major exposť Welz did for the Express on medical corruption.
"He brought into the office a haul of 11000 documents and seemed to know what was in each one. He reads even the most boring and seemingly irrelevant documents in great detail.
"And then he asks the questions in his wonderfully engaging manner. Talking to him is like talking to a crocodile. And he has the imagination to envisage the story."
If Welz has a weakness, Owen suggests, it is that his imagination can run ahead of the story, "and it is difficult to rein him in".
Indeed, Welz's first independent publishing venture sank in a wave of defamation suits, and it took time before he could relaunch it as Noseweek.
Welz, 55, grew up in Worcester. After a stint at the Pretoria News he worked at Rapport and the Sunday Times before his last salaried job in journalism at the Express, which was closed down in 1985.
Owen describes Welz as "immune to fear".
Explaining this absence of fear, Welz says: "I am a bit fatalistic, and also have great faith in the goodness of the human spirit." He concedes that "we all have the potential to be venal and corrupt. That is why everyone, from the pope to the ordinary man in the street, needs to be observed and scrutinised equally and at the same level. Corruption is to be found in all centres of power, be it government, business or the churches."
With acknowledgement to Business Day.