When amaBhungane first approached businessman Zunaid Moti with detailed questions on 11 April, his lawyers stalled.
By this point, it was obvious that files from inside the Moti Group pertaining to his Zimbabwe business had leaked to journalists.
The Sentry, a US-based investigative journalism unit, had already sent questions about the same material. But Moti’s lawyer said they would need until 8 May to respond to us.
As a compromise, we agreed to wait until 26 April.
In the two weeks that followed, the Moti Group machinery got to work to shore up the reputation of a multibillion-rand business, using paid articles, legal threats and conspiracy theories.
When the first major chapter of the #MotiFiles landed on 28 April, detailing how the Moti Group attempted to cosy up to Zimbabwe’s ruling elite, the Moti Group had already secured three magazine covers: Leadership, Black Business Quarterly, and Financial Mail.
At least two of the covers were paid for by the Moti Group: Leadership and Financial Mail (which was an insert made to look like a cover and which some stores displayed in preference to the actual front cover).
The premise of all three stories was that the Moti Group was now being led by former Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane (as CEO) and Moti’s 24-year-old son Mikaeel Moti (as executive chair).
Moti had announced he was stepping away from the Moti Group at the end of March. At this point, The Sentry had already started asking questions.
(AmaBhungane and The Sentry agreed to collaborate and publish together. Read The Sentry’s detailed investigative report Spincash Machine, available in English, Shona and Ndebele).
Speaking to IOL, Moti made oblique references to damaging allegations in the past but did not disclose that fresh allegations were emerging from the #MotiFiles.
“Unfortunately, the damage that has been done to my reputation over the years by various criminal allegations has meant that the value I am able to add to the management and growth of the company has become limited.
“While I have a clear criminal record as I have never been found guilty of any of the ludicrous accusations made against me, as a business leader, I am big enough to say that the assertions have impacted my family, the businesses and, to a large extent, my life,” he told IOL.
But instead of stepping away, Moti has made himself the front man for the public relations fightback campaign.
Days before the first article, Moti launched a TikTok channel: “Started filming yesterday for my tell-all video series for social media,” he wrote in one of his first posts.
When the amaBhungane and Sentry exposés were published a few days later, Moti released a series of videos produced by his PR team denying the allegations and attempting to discredit the journalists who wrote the articles:
“It seems that because elections are coming in Zimbabwe all these people are looking for a certain narrative, and they’re selling a narrative. Now we don’t know who’s causing this narrative to be sold, we don’t know who’s buying people along the way, we don’t know if they’re bribed, but there’s possibilities. So we’re looking into that as to who’s running this narrative behind this campaign that [amaBhungane editor Sam] Sole and the Sentry are running.”
Ironically, while Moti was accusing amaBhungane of being paid to push an agenda, his PR team continued buying paid content in other media to bolster the Moti Group’s reputation.
Behind the scenes, however, amaBhungane had been alerted to a growing threat to its journalists.
In February, former Moti Group employee Clinton van Niekerk was arrested before he boarded an international flight in Durban. Van Niekerk had left the Moti Group in November 2022 and was accused of taking thousands of confidential files with him.
A month earlier, private investigator Paul O’Sullivan, who works with the Moti Group, had called Van Niekerk and threatened him with arrest if he did not return the files.
“Trust me when I tell you, you will face the music for what you’ve done. You can either cooperate with me, and things can be handled that way, or you can put your head in the ground and wait for justice to catch up with you,” O’Sullivan warned in a recorded call.
A month later, Van Niekerk was arrested on a fraud warrant but the arrest was set aside by the high court in Durban.
Moti has always argued that the leaked #MotiFiles are “stolen” and has attempted to make the case that Van Niekerk is a “criminal” not a whistle-blower.
In his initial response to amaBhungane’s questions, Moti maintained that the documents amaBhungane might be relying on were stolen and that, by extension, amaBhungane is “knowingly perpetuating unlawful conduct”.
He warned, “Insofar as the matter is currently being investigated by the SAPS, I have instructed [my lawyers] to inform the SAPS of your involvement for purposes of potential further investigation and/or charges.”
Fearing that its journalists would be targeted, amaBhungane’s attorney wrote to both the police and National Prosecuting Authority, assuring them that amaBhungane would cooperate with any investigation and reminding them of the standing order that says police should not use arrests as a form of intimidation.
Within hours, we received an email from O’Sullivan threatening to declare war on amaBhungane.
“[Y]ou have made yourselves ‘fair game’. You really should have thought twice before receiving and using stolen property to exact revenge on me,” he wrote.
“If you want war, let’s go toe to toe. You try and destroy my reputation and I’ll try and destroy yours. Alternatively, we meet and have an off the record discussion and agree peace terms. If I don’t hear from you, by middle of next week, I shall assume you want that war.”
When approached by GroundUp, O’Sullivan said he was not acting for the Moti Group when he made these threats. Meanwhile, Moti took to TikTok to deny that he had laid criminal charges against amaBhungane — calling it “yet another example of amaBhungane’s smear-mongering” — then, a day later, he ran a TikTok poll asking his followers whether he should lay criminal charges.
After amaBhungane sent questions on part 2 of the #MotiFiles — published on Wednesday — the legal threats intensified.
Moti the journalist
On Monday, the Moti Group’s lawyer Ulrich Roux delivered two letters: the first was a response to our questions about the Moti Group’s secret loan to an Investec employee tasked with limiting the bank’s exposure to the group’s soaring debt.
The second letter was from Moti, on a letterhead of the Moti Group, demanding answers to a list of conspiratorial questions about amaBhungane, its funders and editor Sam Sole’s time as a young conscript in the army.
The allegation that Sole was an apartheid spy has previously been aired by Iqbal Survé when some of his own businesses came under scrutiny by amaBhungane. It is untrue.
The allegation that amaBhungane’s articles are influenced by a shadowy web of neoconservative funders is also untrue, and first emerged among Twitter bots attempting to discredit the #GuptaLeaks. Although it is easily disproven by reading our funding policy and disclosures on our website, it has often been rehashed by those who have found themselves the subjects of amaBhungane’s reporting or their supporters.
Moti’s theory that he was the victim of a conspiracy, linked to the Zimbabwe elections, had been quietly percolating among a handful of anonymous accounts on Twitter. All set up in the past month, the accounts floated the idea that Van Niekerk leaked documents to “sabotage the economy” of Zimbabwe.
“The West will not be happy until Zimbabwe bleeds,” one of the anonymous accounts wrote.
On Thursday, Moti tweeted: “Guys, check this out! 🤯🤯 I told you there’s sometimes bigger at play!” with a link to an article that rehashed the outlandish US-led conspiracy theory.
In the letter from the Moti Group, sent on Monday, Moti says: “We are conducting our own journalistic investigation with numerous other parties and informants regarding your conduct, which we plan to publish.”
Among the questions he posed were: “[Who] creates the narrative for Amabhungane? Do your sponsors utilize your organization to advance their own agendas, and if so, what are these agendas?” and “Why don’t you write any pieces on George Soros?”
AmaBhungane has responded to the Moti Group’s questions. See the full responses below:
In his letter on Monday, Moti again threatened amaBhungane with criminal charges: “Since we can now conclusively prove with the metadata that at least some of the documents originated on our system, we will be notifying the authorities that you are without a doubt involved in the theft and are in possession and actively distributing stolen property.”
He added: “To date we have not opened any charges against you, but I now find myself in the position that I can no longer in good conscience allow you to keep getting away with theft, and accordingly am taking legal advice on my civil and legal duties in this regard.” DM