Saturday, May 01, 2010

Sin International

How and why I was fired at AVUSA

The Lost City cycle race is held every year in late August. In 2008 I competed in the event [and provided photos and text for RIDE magazine and an international website] – I had a great race, finishing in around 2:31. The following year I intended to repeat the performance – do the race and write about it. And I did exactly what I did in 2008 in 2009 – before traveling to Sun City I asked whether they’d be interested in my coverage of the story. They said they were.

I told them I was working at Sowetan and so could offer them coverage in that newspaper, but also said I couldn’t guarantee them coverage. I did say that I’ve been published in cycling magazines so they’d get their exposure one way or another. They then suggested, in July, that I be put on a press list [some organizations have press lists, some make private arrangements with you].

What followed was no further communication from Sun City; in fact as the cycle race day approached, I didn’t have confirmation what was happening. When you book a flight somewhere you need a reference number or some evidence that your seat has your name on it. Well, did I have a room with a bed waiting for me? My pal at Sun City, Muhammed Jassat, assured me that the girl in charge of the press list, Funiwe Moshapalo, would be in touch, and that I should just be patient. After another week or two I contacted him again and again was assured I’d be contacted, and still not a peep from Funiwe.

It was on the Monday, with less than a week to go before the race, that I finally got hold of Funiwe myself. She didn’t know who I was, and when I asked why I had not been contacted [via email] her excuse was that someone else from Sowetan, Bruce Fraser [who?], was already on the list, and didn’t I know that you couldn’t have two journalists from the same publication. Well I didn't know they already had someone because no one had contacted me. Well, if that was the problem I could simply write for a different publication – and within about an hour I had an email of interest from Longevity magazine, thanks to editor Sonja Naude.

Funiwe said sorry, she couldn't do that, it was too late now, the press list had been finalised… My response was that it was as a result of her not contacting me that this arrangement had failed. Some minutes later I heard Bruce Fraser – sitting across the desk from myself – and her discussing the situation. Then I heard various people around me talking on the phone being asked what Nick van der Leek does. It was obviously Funiwe calling to cover her bases. In her next email she defended herself saying that I wasn’t even a journalist at Sowetan. Yes I said, I’m a freelance writer, I can write for any publication. This would have been established if she had contacted me sooner – why didn’t she?

And it was at this point that Bruce Fraser, the Sowetan journalist covering the story took me into a room and demanded who I thought I was. Who the hell do you think you are trying to write for Sun City? I offered, I said. As a freelancer I believe I have the right to offer. And if they wanted you as a writer from Sowetan they should have informed me.

Bruce then went on – yelling that I shouldn’t be working here, that I didn’t have any friends here [we’d moved to the 4th floor just weeks ago]. He told me he had been to Sun City as their guest over 400 times. He’d been there as recently as 2 weeks earlier.

I privately wondered what the point was sending a journalist to cover a race when here I was, competing in it, I even had the contact details of the guys likely to win – like Malcolm Lange.

In any event, despite the botched arrangements – what bothered me wasn’t so much not having accommodation at Sun City but being lead to believe I would have accomodation for weeks and weeks [the problem is you had to pick your race number up at Sun City the day before the race, so if you didn't sleep over, how were you supposed to pick up your number] – so I went to Sun City, fortunately a friend was able to pick up my number and fortunately it wasn't a case of her having to provide ID, I did the race, and came back the same day with some great shots of the winners, Lange, Brown etc.

On the Monday I looked for evidence of an article Fraser was supposed to have written, since I didn’t see him at all at the event – not even during the award ceremony where most of the press were gathered. Since I found no article I wrote my own and presented it to the sports editor, a guy called Sello, who showed me a tiny piece of text, about the wide of your thumb. It quoted Lange as saying that with 15km to go he knew he was ‘sitting pretty’. I guessed that this was not was Lange would have said, a sprinter only knows his chances of winning in the closing metres of a race. This is why you should have someone who does the sport write the article.

I called Lange and asked him if he had been quoted correctly and he said, “No.” He was also pissed off that a photo had been used in an HSBC outfit, a sponsor that was 5 -6 years old, and certainly didn’t help their current sponsor – Medscheme.

Having spoken to Lange, I then asked Bruce Fraser for a chat. I asked him where he had gotten these quotes from Lange? I told him I had not seen him at the race – and suspected he hadn’t even been there, or if he had, had spent so little time on the job I hadn’t managed to catch sight of him.  Where had he been, for example, when all the press, photographers had gathered in front of the podium to photograph and record the winner's speeches during the prizegiving?

Fraser exploded. He said he could make sure I lost my job for making these accusations, and who the hell did I think I was?  If I wanted to be a writer, why didn’t I go and write somewhere else? I reminded Fraser that there was a precedent to his sabotage and undermining - that some months ago, when I had been selected for a press tour of Dubai, I’d emailed him to ask for the relevant editors at Sowetan to ask them if they were interested in any material. He responded to this email by calling my boss and accusing me of getting onto the tour without anyone’s permission, and once again, pretending to be a journalist for Sowetan. How did he know if I had permission or not?  [I did.]  What made him think it was his job to play policeman to make sure I had permission?  Perhaps just a bit too much wanting, hoping he could catch me out since travel, travel specifically... was really his thing...and if anyone was to go to Dubai, it really couldn't be anyone was his thing...along with motoring...and sport...and general interest.  

I guess he’s never worked as a freelance writer. A freelance writer is writing for whichever publication offers them space at a given moment. To claim that I was fraudulently claiming myself to be a fulltime journalist at Sowetan, fully employed by any of these publications, was a bit cynical, and juvenile.  And of course Moshapelo asked Fraser in an email who I was.  Did Fraser say, "I guess he's a freelance writer?"  Or did he manipulate a little and say, "No idea who this guy is who sits across the desk from me.  It sounds like he's pretending to be a journalist.  Let me make a few calls and stir the office up... instead of just asking him, since he's here right now..."

But that was exactly the accusation that came out of the Sun City trip. Despite my contact with Sun City, including Sue Klerck, Sun City’s PR and Marketing Exec, on Tuesday, several days before the race, Sowetan claimed that Funiwe called the financial manager, Jason Sequeira [and Fraser’s buddy] claiming I had harassed them, and that I was insisting I be placed on the press list. Really?
The only reason I had called Sun City was to find out if I had been placed on the list, something they had offered. And since they repeatedly said I was, and it appeared to me that I wasn't [and in fact I wasn't] as the race approached I needed to establish what the situation was since they weren't communicating with me.
In addition, they claimed I had pretended to be a journalist from Sowetan, thus, a Sowetan journalist, in order to secure free accommodation.
All of this could have been clarified in the beginning had Funiwe troubled herself to do what PR people usually do, which is contact Public people and establish some sort of Relations. But she didn't, apparently because she knew from the start that I was pretending to be a Sowetan Journalist.  And of course even the folks at Sowetan thought this was true - I'd written a vast volume of 1 story for them, a freelancer...and I'd so to be calling myself a Sowetan Journalist made complete sense.  

These accusations, and all related emails from Sun City to myself, were brokered and packaged by Fraser and his long time PR contact, Moshapelo, and provided to Sowetan as evidence. What followed was a disciplinary hearing where I was found guilty of presenting myself as a Sowetan Journalist, and harassing Sun City. I appealed this decision, lost the appeal [the harassment charge was dismissed] and then took the company to the CCMA.

During the entire process I enquired: “Who is my accuser?” The company refused to tell me. If it was Bruce Fraser, AVUSA would have been liable for damages, in terms of his [Fraser’s] personal conflict of interest, and a dishonest distortion of what had happened. Fraser could also be accused of aiding and abetting Moshapelo in her efforts to defend her negligent lack of communication – which was the source of the problem.
If it was Funiwe Moshapelo Sun City would be held liable for making false accusations resulting in the dismissal of an employee; and it is easy to demonstrate that her failure to do her job, to communicate the press list, was a failure on her part that diminished the PR potential for her company rather than the opposite.

Also, the accusation, that I was ‘pretending’ to be a Sowetan journalist is a smokescreen; not only was there no evidence that I had done so, but immediately upon being told that PR in Sowetan had already been arranged, I found an alternate publication. If I was so determined in my pretense surely I would not have, in true freelancer style, offered to write for an alternate publication. How could a fulltime employee jump ship in that fashion? Everyone’s knows one couldn’t.

Again, if Moshapelo truly thought I was a Sowetan journalist what prevented her from picking up the phone and contacting me – not all my colleagues in a cynical manuoevre to ‘prove’ my own statements incorrect. Thus the bottom of this case is the failure of Sun City’s Funiwe Moshapelo to act, and then to cover this failure by making discriminating and untrue accusations which fell on fertile ground at Sowetan.

The result of the CCMA process is confidential. However, a few weeks later I travelled to Australia at company expense. For the record,  I'm providing this publicity for Sin International free of charge.  I'm hoping to publish part or all of this article in Noseweek.  By the way, that doesn't mean I work, or am implying I work for Noseweek.  Get the point?

Footnote: Oddly enough you won't find Fraser's 2009 Sun City Lost City Cycle Race online, with the misquote and the Lange picture from 5 years ago because it has been removed.
Here's mine.
And a recap of the actual events...

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