The Journalist Who’s Every Dishonest South African’s Biggest Nightmare
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s lifted the lid on his country’s biggest scandals.
In 1988 the Sunday paper Martin Welz was working for refused to run a story on an attorney who’d used his status as a donor to the apartheid-era governing party to cover up a scheme to profit from the sale of state housing for the mentally handicapped. Determined to expose the truth, Welz offered the story for free to an independent magazine, which published it that Friday. By Monday, both the attorney and his crooked banking accomplice had committed suicide — and hours later Welz was out of a job.
From the dust of that incident, Noseweek, a hard-hitting investigative magazine, was born. When I meet Welz, now 71, the 214th monthly issue (the title is a mashup of Private Eye, Newsweek and Welz’s oversize proboscis) has just gone to press. To appear in its pages — which feature biting (often humorous) articles on everything from multibillion-dollar mining scandals to petty but revealing neighborhood disputes — is every prominent South African’s nightmare.
My attitude is, stuff the law; I’m here to find a moral pathway through the mess.
We leave his charming, mildly chaotic home office (the peeling paint and piles of books are redolent of a poet’s lair; the waterlogged red kayak an unexplained mystery) and walk to a nearby coffee shop. Over the next three hours, he fills me in on a 42-year career in which he’s uncovered some of South Africa’s biggest scandals. “I grew up in an era when judges frequently had to say, ‘I’m not here to dispense justice; I’m here to apply the law’,” says Welz. “My attitude is, stuff the law; I’m here to find a moral pathway through the mess.” (He also makes me laugh, often: “We only allow ourselves one ‘fuck’ per issue,” he says. “More than that would be cheap.”)
Born months after World War II ended, to an Austrian architect-artist father and Danish journalist mother, Welz says his upbringing on the platteland (South Africa’s take on the Midwest) was “intellectually rich but financially poor.” Most vivid childhood memories? The smell of rotting pears on the tree in their garden and unearthing his mother’s Remington typewriter in the attic.
Days after qualifying as a lawyer, Welz took a job as a junior reporter at the Pretoria News. The law might not have been his bag, but it set him up well at his new job. And, with a couple of semesters of accounting under his belt, he could read a balance sheet too. That came in handy when he infiltrated the so-called “sinners’ meetings” of an ultraconservative sect of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1976. Bored by the deep theological discussions, he turned to the church’s accounting ledgers and discovered that this whites-only bastion of apartheid was deriving substantial profits by publishing textbooks for Black schoolchildren.
“Martin’s very candid, and he places a high premium on truth,” says Jonathan Erasmus, deputy editor at Noseweek. “He goes for the holy cows.” And then some. In the early days, when he was still employed by mainstream papers, Welz went after the Reserve Bank (“God resided there,” Welz wrote later) and uncovered — but was unable to publish at the time — the existence of the apartheid death squads. He also got embroiled in a story on the Sicilian Mafia that ended with one of his contacts being gunned down outside a Milan courthouse.
Since Noseweek launched in 1993, it’s beaten the competition to digging up the dirtiest dirt in South Africa, getting the scoop on corrupt mining magnate Brett Kebble (it emerged in court proceedings that Welz appeared on a Kebble hit list), billionaire and alleged child molester Sidney Frankel (under the breathtakingly blunt headline “Sidney Frankel Is a Paedophile”) and the Gupta family (said to wield “undue influence” over President Jacob Zuma) — to mention but a few.
Despite his many high-profile successes, there is a feeling among some South Africans that, where Welz is concerned, “the facts tend to fall a little short of the thesis,” as Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak claimed in a scathing 2012 critique of a Noseweek article about the proliferation of Chinese shopkeepers in South Africa. It’s an accusation Welz wholeheartedly denies (“We have never made anything up”), though he freely admits to being extremely irreverent at times.
In addition to the naysayers and court cases (and there have been a few), Noseweek faces common challenges like increased competition, shrinking ad revenues and the shift to digital, but the company of eight staffers is better equipped to deal with them than the mainstream media. It has always relied heavily on reader funding (most advertisers steer clear) and was forced to go digital more than a decade ago — sooner than it would have liked — thanks to the failings of the South African Post Office. Noseweek, says Erasmus, has inadvertently become “a model for modern journalism.”
That’s not to say the magazine’s future is guaranteed, but Welz is content to be able to keep the flame of investigative journalism alive in South Africa. In recent years a number of other outlets — mostly online and donor-funded — have taken up the cause. Marianne Thamm, assistant editor at the Daily Maverick, notes that journalists the world over are finally coming to terms with what Welz has known all along: Governments that abuse their citizens depend on widespread collusion from the private sector.
In any other country, Welz would be a wealthy elder statesman by now, Thamm observes. “I don’t know how he keeps it up.” But he has no intention of slowing down, and the answer to what drives him lies, not surprisingly, in the facts. For instance, when Noseweek exposed Frankel in 2014 as a child abuser, it set in motion a legal debate that will soon lead to the elimination of the statute of limitations for pedophiles under South African law. “Moments like that keep you going,” Welz says.