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Media CEO link to River Club developer

  • Local publication punts River Club development while CEO has boardroom connections to developer’s interests

The boardroom deal which saw Highbury Media CEO Kevin Ferguson become a director in a company with direct links to the River Club developers, came after an editorial criticising the development was removed from Highbury’s Cape{town}etc publication without explanation. This was replaced by a series of articles pushing the view of River Club owner and developer Jody Aufrichtig, possibly written by Aufrichtig himself.

The removal of the critical editorial and publication of three praise pieces occurred just weeks before construction of the R4,5bn development started on 26 June this year. On 1 July, Ferguson took up a directorship in Daddy’s Deals, a company set up by Aufrichtig and his brother, Daniel.

Opposition to the River Club

The development in Observatory at the confluence of the Liesbeek and Black rivers involves filling in a floodplain and pouring concrete on a site widely acknowledged as land sacred to the Khoi and San nations. The 150,000 square metre development, which is to also house Amazon’s new Africa headquarters, has received unequivocal backing from the City and provincial government authorities, but has been vociferously opposed by scores of civil society organisations since the property’s owners, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLPT) bought the 14,5ha of land from Transnet in 2015 for R12m.

Despite civic organisation volunteers following all the legal channels for active participation for four years, including comments, objections, and appeals on environmental, heritage, and procedural grounds throughout the numerous planning processes, their concerns have been ignored by the relevant City and provincial government authorities. The Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning granted LLPT environmental authorisation to proceed on 20 August last year.

After an appeal against the City’s Municipal Planning Tribunal granting LLPT rezoning rights from Open Space 3 to Business designations and allowing departures from existing City development planning policies, former Mayor Dan Plato dismissed the appeals – including from the City’s own Environmental Management directorate – and on 19 April gave the developers the go-ahead to pour concrete on the floodplain.

Highbury Media’s apparent collusion

As mega-corporate Amazon’s involvement as anchor tenant in the development came to light, and the Observatory Civic Association (OCA) and Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council (GKKITC) moved to launch a court challenge, an editorial criticising the development was published on Cape{town}etc.

Titled ‘Rifles vs. Knobkerries – Amazon to build on Khoi and San land’, Cape{town}etc editor Robyn Simpson on 9 June wrote the Amazon-backed development on what is regarded as the original site of colonial dispossession of land in Southern Africa, was “a tangible metaphor for the cancer that is globalisation consuming everything linked to that which is distinctly and historically African”.

“I am disgusted by the blatant disregard,” wrote Simpson.

Within 24 hours, the editorial had been stripped from the Cape{town}etc site, with no explanation or note given to readers. Over the next two weeks, three articles praising the River Club development, and devoid of context, appeared on the news site.

On 16 June, the article ‘R4bn River Club development removing the cycle of Khoi and San invisibility’ was published.

Purporting to be an interview with Jody Aufrichtig, LLPT director and “the man behind the River Club development in Observatory”, Aufrichtig was given an unfettered opportunity to state his views, including that he was “sick of all the lies” from those opposing the development – with no indication of what the “lies” were – and allowing him to claim the development would be “a cultural and historical hub” celebrating Khoi and San culture. This was based on a deal struck with a new group set up as the First Nations Collective headed by Zenzile Khoisan. This would see Khoi and San symbols and street names included in the precinct, an indigenous garden, a First Nations media centre (Khoisan has worked as a journalist at various publications), and an ampitheatre included in the development. Numerous Khoi houses and organisations have rejected the First Nations Collective’s bona fides.

On 18 June an article purportedly debunking environmental concerns over the development – as expressed in an op-ed on Daily Maverick – was a published, followed by an article on 24 June about the LLPT’s deal with the First Nations Collective.

None of these articles, including the supposed interview, carried a byline, nor were the photographs credited.

Boardroom connections

On 26 June, building on the River Club site commenced. Four days later, on 1 July, Highbury Media CEO Kevin Ferguson was officially listed as a director of Daddy’s Deals.

Daddy’s Deals is a group buying company set up by Jody Aufrichtig and his brother Daniel Aufrichtig in 2011.

On the same day, Jody Aufrichtig and fellow LLPT director Nicholas Ferguson resigned their directorships of Daddy’s Deals, while Daniel Aufrichtig remained.

A link to the Daddy’s Deals site has been housed on Cape{town}etc since July. One of Ferguson’s fellow Daddy’s Deals directors, Gavin Basserabie, is also directly connected to business interests with Jody Aufrichtig. Basserabie and Aufrichtig are both directors in Canadian psychedelic and cultivation company Psyence.

Ferguson, who received detailed questions through his Personal Assistant Kovi Naidoo, did not respond, nor did Cape{town}etc editor Robyn Simpson. In a phone call to Naidoo, she said there was no familial relationship between LLPT director Nicholas Ferguson and Kevin Ferguson, and the timing of the Highbury Media CEO’s appointment as Daddy’s Deals director was “a coincidence”.

Emailed questions included whether there was a financial exchange for Ferguson’s directorship of Daddy’s Deals, and what measures were in place to ensure editorial independence within Highbury Media publications from Ferguson’s business interests.

Highbury Media owns numerous publications, including Getaway, Business Day Empowerment, and Business Day Earth.

The question as to whether Ferguson believed the removal of the Cape{town}etc editorial and publication of uncritical articles in favour of the River Club development were in line with the Code of Ethics laid out by the Press Council, of which Highbury Media is a member, were also ignored.

Emails sent to LLPT through their public relations firm received no response.