You know her as Mandy Wiener, high profile crime journo and author of Killing Kebble: An Underworld Exposed; and Ministry of Crime: An Underworld Explored. I know her as sis’ (well, it’s my blog and I get to interview whomever I want).
So how does someone from a conservative middle class family who is super smart (she got six distinctions in matric) and capable, become one of South Africa’s leading reporters and authors on crime and corruption?
I asked Mandy what drives her to stick her nose into the business of some of the country’s most notorious characters, what she has learned about greed over the years and whether she thinks South Africa has a chance of winning the war on corruption.
Wealthwoke: Firstly, who is smarter, you or me?
Mandy: You are, by miles
(Ok, I made this answer up but the rest are legit.)
Wealthwoke: What drew you to reporting and authoring books on crime and corruption?
Mandy: I suppose I kind of fell into the speciality as a breaking news reporter covering crime scenes and criminal trials. I was fascinated by the characters involved and their relationships with one another, as well as their relationships with the criminal justice system. There was also the element of mystery and unravelling a complex organised crime and the networks surrounding it. The reason I started writing books was because I felt that I had too much information to jam into a fourty five second radio report. I needed the space to lay out the stories and I fell in love with the narrative process. It’s a bit like laying out the various pieces of a puzzle and deciding where they all fit together.
Wealthwoke: Do you feel a sense of purpose in covering these stories and bringing them to light?
Mandy: Yes, I do think that through my reporting and my books I give listeners and readers insight into a world they know very little about, either because they are naïve or because they have never been shown it before. It can be very difficult to get access into the so-called ‘underworld’ and getting any kind of information about crimes and police investigations and through cultivating sources, I can glean the information to construct a narrative about what has happened for people to better understand. The work that I do on exposing the criminal justice system – the police and the prosecuting authority – that is absolutely crucial because it makes people aware of the failures and flaws of the system. In so doing, it holds power to account. We need a functioning criminal justice system in order for society to function and to avoid deteriorating into a lawless state where anarchy exists. We have to watch the watchmen.
Wealthwoke: Do you ever feel at risk covering these stories?
Mandy: Not nearly as much as people anticipate clearly because this is easily the question I get asked most often. The truth is that the subjects of the stories usually direct their anger/violence/general beef at one another rather than at me. I also try and be as fair and reasonable as possible and always ensure I offer right of reply. Many of them like the credibility or attention that comes with being the subject of a book that I write. We are also fortunate that we live in a country where independence of journalists is largely protected.
Wealthwoke: Why do you think people are so fascinated by characters such as Brett Kebble, Marcus Jooste etc who are involved in white collar crime and corruption?
Mandy: It’s the pathology of it, I think. I think they are intrigued by how these individuals can present a façade that is so believable and so convincing, yet in reality it’s a house of cards on the verge of collapsing. I also think that many of these individuals are absolute geniuses to get away with what they do and to pull it off for so long. Their fallibility is also fascinating – what is it that ultimately brings them down? Is it the greed or the hubris? When is enough, enough? I also think that people often identify with these individuals because they see so much of themselves in them and how they too may have been presented with the possibilities of going down the same path.
Wealthwoke: Do these people share similar characteristics?
Mandy: I think in many instances they would probably be diagnoses as psychopaths or sociopaths but I’m no medical expert. From a journalistic perspective though they are often very compelling characters and fantastic orators who can spin a story and convince people to trust them. Many of them are flamboyant individuals that attract people like moths to a flame. It also almost always makes their fall from grace spectacular because they go from having it all to having nothing.
Wealthwoke: Is it all about the money for these people, or is something else driving them?
Mandy: I think it starts out by being all about the money and then evolves into something else. They may convince themselves that it is about the money but it is usually about the hubris or the greed. It is about being the top of the pile, holding the power and the influence. It’s often about power and wielding it over others. It’s almost addictive and enough is never enough. Sometimes it might start with a small slip up and they spend years trying to cover it up and their situation just snowballs out of control until there are a pile of lies that are exposed.
Wealthwoke: Do you think white collar crime and corruption is endemic in South African business and politics?
Mandy: Yes unfortunately I would say that it is endemic and a culture of corruption has taken hold, particularly in the public sector. Over the past few years, through the Gupta Leaks and State Capture inquiry etc we have also seen how this has crossed over into the private sector and how companies have done business with SOEs and other government institutions. It became almost acceptable that if you were going to enter into a contract with government, there had to be a degree of corruption. White collar crime in general is also rife and that’s largely because there are very little consequences and the state law enforcement agencies don’t have the capacity to combat it and hold people accountable.
Wealthwoke: Do you have hope that the government can stamp out the massive corruption and state capture that has taken hold?
Mandy: I think they’ve made a start and by exposing it through the inquiries, commissions and media reports people at least know about what has been going on. I don’t think any of us anticipated the sheer scale of the state capture that we have witnesses. I think it is going to take time to stamp it out entirely and it is going to come down to changing the culture of the country when it comes to crime and corruption.
Wealthwoke: How would they need to go about doing this?
Mandy: The biggest crisis we have in terms of stamping out crime and corruption is the capacity of law enforcement agencies. Over the past decade there has been a deliberate, malicious campaign to eviscerate law enforcement agencies and these have been horribly eroded. Most capable civil servants have been pushed out and have gone to the private sector. This means that we simply do not have the skills or expertise to actually fight corruption and state capture and ensure that there are not only prosecutions, but also convictions. We need to restrengthen these institutions and that means rebuilding public confidence in organisations like the NPA and the Hawks. Otherwise no one will ever be held accountable and there will be no justice.
Wealthwoke: What role can business leaders and ordinary South Africans play in this?
Mandy: It is imperative that we all take our role as active civilians seriously. We need to contribute to civil society in any way that we can – offer our services to NGOs or civic organisations, give money to them, be politically active, just vote! Hold power to account by phoning radio stations and tweeting and making noise. Also, ensure that we don’t break the law or look the other way, regardless of how small the law is that may be flouted. We have to change the culture of corruption and lawlessness and we need to be courageous enough to blow the whistle where necessary.