Inside Iqbal Survé's glitchy propaganda machine: Goebbels, AI and slippery writers

Nick Wilson, Jan Cronje & Jeff Wicks

Independent Media proprietor Iqbal Survé is waging a public-relations war, using a team of pliant journalists, PR staffers, and seemingly fictitious opinion writers to polish his image and attack journalists critical of him.

Claims by a former staffer set out how Survé has established a communications "war room" from his private office and how he was tasked with "finding dirt" on the country's biggest banks – as the Sekunjalo business empire battles in court to retain their financial facilities.

Outwardly, journalists critically reporting on Survé's travails and his waning media business have been targeted in editorial pieces published by so-called "independent commentator and analyst" Edmond Phiri and amplified by social media pages of newspapers within the stable.

An investigation by News24 and the Digital Forensic Research Lab into Phiri suggests that he is a mere persona controlled by a hidden hand and an analysis of his subject matter and social media activity signals that he works at the behest of Survé.

Phiri has also been linked to well-known Sekunjalo vassal Feroza Petersen, who herself has a record of denigrating Survé's foes on his opinion pages.

This apparent strategy is nothing new.

In September 2022, the Daily Maverick's Ferial Haffajee exposed Independent Media columnist "Jamie Roz" as a fictitious persona used by the Survé-chaired media company to target the Daily Maverick and its reporters.

Despite Daily Maverick's attempts to contact the mysterious writer, Independent Media insisted that all communications should be channelled through then-Falcons editor Sizwe Dlamini.

The Falcons are a supposed investigations unit with the media business.

Haffajee's probe triggered the disappearance of Jamie Roz, leaving behind a prolific writing career at IOL.

Enter Phiri, who has written targeted pieces, thinly disguised as op-eds, against journalists Chris Roper, Ann Crotty, Judge Zak Yacoob, Nedbank, as well as News24's Jan Cronje and Karyn Maughan.

The single commonality linking these parties is their less than venerable treatment of, or reporting on, Survé and his companies.

The Goebbels treatment

In the cases of Cronje and Maughan, the pair were likened to Nazi-era figures Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl.

By framing pieces as "opinion" Independent Media tries to avoid the onerous requirements for factual reporting to skirt accountability normally associated with credible and responsible journalism. 

A dive into Phiri's persona leaves more questions than answers.

Despite claiming to be an independent analyst and commentator, most of Phiri's published works related to Sekunjalo, Survé, or those critical of his work. There is no record of Phiri publishing on any platform outside of Independent Media.

Attempts to locate the mysterious columnist and put a face to the name were unsuccessful.

Edmond Phiri

According to publicly available databases accessed by News24, three men with the name Edmond Phiri are living in South Africa.


The first works in an automotive factory and was traced to his home in Soshanguve, on the outskirts of Pretoria.

"That is not me," he said of the byline which appears in the IOL stories, adding, "I don't even know what Independent Newspapers is".

He also distanced himself from the X handle @EdmonPhiri, which is used by Phiri with a stock image as a profile pic, insisting he did not control the account. He also provided his own Twitter handle to verify this.


The second individual, a 24-year-old man who hails from Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga, also distanced himself from his namesake.

Speaking to News24 from a TVET College in Phalaborwa, near the Mozambican border, he said he no longer uses Phiri as his surname.

"I am not a journalist and I don't know anything about this," he said. He, too, said that X handle was in no way associated with him.


The third resides in a shack in one of the Diepsloot Extensions. Efforts to locate his shack number in the tight maze of structures, separated only by narrow, effluent-filled pathways, were unsuccessful.

Even Independent Media seems wholly unaware of who Phiri is.

Editor-in-chief Adri Senekal De Wet confirmed in an initial series of WhatsApps that she did not have any contact details for her columnist, apart from his Protonmail email address, a service popular among users with heightened privacy concerns.

Just how Independent Media squares this with their publicly stated policy requiring "full names, addresses and contact details" for all commentators remains unclear.

'The digital savannahs of Mzansi'

News24 contacted Phiri and requested he join an in-person or online meeting to verify his bona fides using the email address provided by De Wet.

His response was bizarre, riddled with confusing metaphors, that Jean le Roux, a forensic investigator at Digital Forensic Research Lab, said may indicate that it was generated by artificial intelligence.

The over-the-top metaphors, style and tone are reminiscent of Grok, the text-generating AI belonging to X (formerly called Twitter).

This is a sample of Phiri’s response:

"Hi Nick,

"Imagine my surprise, finding your email tucked between my daily dose of Eskom load-shedding schedules and the latest AFCON scores – a true gem, indeed. The curiosity surrounding my existence is flattering and as intriguing as trying to enjoy the Soweto kota without the inevitable mess of Mango achaar oil. Your endeavour to confirm if I am more than just a myth circulating in the digital savannahs of Mzansi, had me chuckling louder than a hyena at a comedy club in the bushveld. Iyahlekisa ngempela.

"However, I must admit that the notion of proving my existence to a white 'baas' through a Teams or Zoom meeting feels as daunting as navigating the Joburg potholes during a torrential downpour – thrilling, yet somehow unsettling. Nick, my calendar is packed tighter than the N1 north on a Friday before a long weekend. Why must I shuffle it around to prove to some strangers that 'I exist'?."

Submitting News24's initial request for an interview with Phiri to Grok and asking it to come up with a reply resulted in responses nearly identical in tone to those used by Phiri.

The concerns around the penmanship of Phiri don't stop there.

On 2 February 2024, Phiri published a piece targeting News24's Jan Cronje for his coverage of the goings-on at businesses connected to Survé, namely Sagarmatha, Ayo Technology Solutions and the broader Sekunjalo group.

However, a digital trail shows that the article was published a day earlier, under a different byline with a different header image.

Feroza Petersen

Muckrack, a site that aggregates and collates links to articles written by journalists, scraped the initial version of the article published on 1 February 2024.

But the byline belonged to Feroza Petersen, a marketing executive employed by Sekunjalo, AYO, AEEI and Survé Philanthropies, according to her LinkedIn.

The spelling of the byline in this first piece appeared to misspell her surname as Peterson. The article was only changed to reflect "Edmond Phiri" as the author the following day.

At least two other websites also scraped the article that Independent Media published on 1 February, including the byline and the header image.

The header image deserves focus: it appears Independent Media identified and used the wrong image of Cronje,  alongside Naspers chair Koos Bekker. The mistake was rectified when the subsequent article was published.

This is not the first time Petersen has been linked to writing articles on Survé's behalf.

In 2018, Siphiwe Nodwele, the ex-chief investment officer at Sekunjalo-owned AYO Technology Solutions, testified that Petersen would be asked to write articles when Survé felt threatened by negative press coverage.

Nodwele was giving evidence at the PIC Commission of Inquiry.

"Whenever there were negative news articles, Iqbal insisted that AYO put out a counter story to change the narrative through his papers. Media articles would be written by Feroza Petersen, an AEEI marketing manager, in conjunction with Khalid Abdullah," he said.

African Equity Empowerment Investments, which also falls under Sekunjalo, was at the time the majority shareholder in AYO.

Nodwele said that Survé's papers had become a "mouthpiece" for his business interests in the wider Sekunjalo group.

"The factual reality is, all power sits with one person and even though you have good people in there, I'm pretty sure for their jobs and livelihoods they will toe the line as per Dr Survé's wishes".

He also said that "instructions" would often be given to Adri Senekal de Wet to "get articles done". Senekal De Wet was, at the time, the editor of Business Report. She was named Independent's Editor-in-Chief in January.

Survé denied the claims of editorial interference when he gave evidence to the same inquiry, insisting that the newspaper group's policy was to be accurate, fair and truthful.

Iqbal Survé, moments before giving evidence to the PIC Commission of Inquiry on 2 April 2019. (Gallo Images/Phill Magakoe)

Iqbal Survé, moments before giving evidence to the PIC Commission of Inquiry on 2 April 2019. (Gallo Images/Phill Magakoe)

"You must give right of reply and you must not take sides," he said at the time.

He ridiculed claims that everything that appeared in his titles was "written by me," saying that, at most, he gets to read one or two titles a day while looking at headlines online.

Returning to Petersen, despite her employment with multiple Sekunjalo-group companies, she often authored articles as a "freelance writer" using her own name. She targeted banks, financial regulators and other media houses under the cover of "opinion".

She authored these pieces with no disclaimer of her entrenched position (as a marketing executive) in the companies on whose behalf she was advocating.

Like Petersen, Phiri has been a keen promoter of Survé as well as Survé Philanthropies, a philanthropic organisation that notably donated R1 million to the father of the "Tembisa Ten".

The Pretoria News in 2021 reported the birth of decuplets. The story turned out to be a hoax. In the wake of the scandal, Independent Media's own internal ombudsman raised serious concerns.

Petersen is incidentally listed as the contact person for Survé Philanthropies, according to its Facebook page. Petersen's account – created under her maiden name, Feroza Jamie – engaged with several posts on their Facebook page.

Feroza Jamie has a striking resemblance to Jamie (Fe)Roz(a), the mysterious Independent Media columnist that Ferial Haffajee could not pin down.

Right of reply

Contacted for comment again with an extensive list of questions on links between Phiri and Petersen, as well as the protocols used by Independent Media to ensure Phiri existed, Senekal De Wet warned News24 she would not tolerate "outright harassment".

"Note: Outright harassment and policing will not be tolerated," she said in an emailed response.
Adri Senekal de Wet

"Your inquiries are rather bizarre and lack any legitimate foundation, rendering it unworthy of our engagement. We recommend addressing your questions directly to the Op-Ed writer concerned, as we do not serve as their representatives."

Senekal de Wet said she found it "perplexing and highly irregular for a competitor media company to demand explanations regarding its editorial policies or the details of our contributors".

"The presumption that News24 has the authority to scrutinise or question the practices of Independent Media is both unprecedented and entirely baseless."
Adri Senekal de Wet

No mention was made of the fact that her own media organisation had no problem running spurious articles about News24 and other media organisations, casting aspersions on the characters of their journalists. 

The communications team

The allegation that Independent Media, as a matter of course, uses "fake personas" to attack those it sees as its rivals has been corroborated by Riyadh Karodia, a journalist who previously worked for the group.

This was true, he said, when the group around Survé wanted to run articles related to Sekunjalo's challenges and public relations for the Sekunjalo boss but faced pushback from worried editors. The fake names also allegedly helped create the impression that Surve and Sekunjalo had wide support.

In early 2022, Karodia joined the Sekunjalo "communications team," which was run out of the Silo Building at the V&A Waterfront, where Survé has his offices.

Karodia said he was initially employed as an investigative writer to dig up dirt on SA's banks, which have been locked in a long-running feud with Sekunjalo and Surve over banking access.

At meetings, he said the communications team would plan how to respond to slights against Survé and his companies.

"In the comms teams meetings he would say: this is what we need to put out there, these are the topics we need to cover."

Karodia said much of the language used in the recent hit pieces – such as references to Goebbels, Nazism and McCarthyism - was similar to speeches that Surve made in the communications team meetings.

Karodia was transferred to the Weekend Argus in September 2022. He worked there until November 2022.

He said it was also common knowledge in the communications team that Petersen was Jamie Roz, although he doubted that Independent Media staff were in the know.

Although he left the Sekunjalo group before Edmond Phiri appeared, Karodia suspected a different Independent Media employee might be behind the name.

In one meeting on 14 July 2022 that he attended, Survé told the team the communications team had to "lead editors on, as they are mostly introverted, not leaders". This statement was apparently made in a discussion on media freedom following Standard Bank's notice of termination of banking services.

He was also present in a meeting attended by Survé where Haffajee's probe into "Jamie Roz" for Daily Maverick was discussed.

Karodia said Survé was "clearly nervous and panicking" and at a loss as to how to respond.

"When Ferial (Haffajee) inquired about Jamie Roz, he read to us her questions in the comms meeting and how he responded. He said things like "ask the CIA to find out who is Jamie Roz”.
Riyadh Karodia

A similar statement was later quoted by Haffajee in her investigative piece for Daily Maverick.

"In that meeting, he (Survé) was asking everyone, 'what are we going to do about Jamie Roz' because he didn't know how to respond or have a strategy. He was just about to have his wedding and was scared (of the fallout about) a fake writer. He was panicking, he was talking excessively, he was quite worked up."

 When Haffajee's article came out on
6 September 2022, Survé was on honeymoon. It is not known, says Karodia, how he reacted to the piece.

Karodia said some staff members within Independent Media even wrongly assumed that he was "Jamie Roz" when he joined Weekend Argus.

He said the communications team, which was made up of about a dozen people, appeared at times to operate as a type of parallel leadership structure to that of Independent Media.

It was there merely to do Survé's bidding, including deciding how to go about doing hatchet jobs on companies or persons who were seen as threats by him.

Karodia said he was on one occasion asked to write a report looking at South African banks which had been trying to close the bank accounts of companies connected to Survé.

While he did not end up writing the story, he said it was clear from all his dealings with what he called the "deep state" team that Survé called the shots.

That Survé is at the centre of attacks on competitors and other so-called enemies of Independent Media is given credence by a News24 perusal of other articles by his inner circle. Unsurprisingly, the Nazi accusations allegedly favoured by Survé are littered throughout their copy.

All together now

Phiri seems to reach for Goebbels references whenever he wants to stick it to those who write about Surve at rival publications. He has used these "Goebbels references" to refer to Jan Cronje, Karyn Maughan, Chris Roper and Ann Crotty.

But he is not alone.

Dlamini, the ex-editor of the Independent’s investigative unit, the Falcons, and a member of Sekunjalo's communications team, is also a fan of a Goebbels reference, writing last year that there were "unnerving parallels" between News24 and Goebbels.

So has Senekal de Wet, now the Independent’s editor-in-chief. In 2021, she wrote in an opinion piece that rival media houses were acting like the Nazi propagandist in criticising Survé.

Modibe Modiba, a UNISA student, also reached for the Goebbels parallel in an IOL opinion piece in 2021 when referring to forensic researcher Jean le Roux. Le Roux’s crime? Writing an article critical of Survé.

In 2022, Modiba lost a defamation case against the Daily Maverick after he was found to have lied about the publication secretly paying him a stipend to write articles badmouthing Surve. A subsequent summons against Independent Media was settled when they agreed to withdraw the piece and apologise for its publication.

But it's not just opinion writers at Independent Media who love a good Goebbels reference.

In 2021, a group of Independent Media editors co-signed an open letter slamming the South African Editors Forum. The opening paragraph of the letter states that SANEF had issued a statement in a "Nazi propagandist (Joseph Goebbels) style".

The statement by SANEF was a call for "transparency" around claims made at the State Capture Commission that the State Security Agency had been funding media outlets.

Some journalists at rival publications get the full Goebbels treatment without the Nazi propagandist's name being used.

Last year, for example, Feroza Petersen wrote an article under her own byline about Haffajee. Haffajee's crime was, again, saying something critical of Survé.

Petersen did not describe Haffajee as Goebbels, but the words she used weren't much better.

Haffajee was "evil", "sadistic", "vile", "putrid", and "racist".

Responding to allegations and questions, a Sekunjalo spokesperson sought to cast aspersions on Karodia.

"Firstly, we are concerned that Mr Riyadh Karodia is defined as a ‘journalist’ in your email, considering to the best of our knowledge, he is not qualified as such."

Sekunjalo conceded that Karodia was a part of their structures and "spent some time within various divisions of the Group to assist him in getting a good grounding and so that we could better see how to utilise his writing skills". 

Sekunjalo said his assertions were "patently false, fictitious, misleading, and defamatory information".

Sekunjalo claimed that their corporate communications arm did not wade into editorial waters and that Survé "does not deal with editorial matters".

"We are not aware of the alleged incident Mr Karodia refers to, but highly doubt that Dr Survé would ever be considered nervous and panicking."

They added that Survé had been assured that opinion writers – including Phiri –

"are real human beings and ones who have elected to withhold their true identities for their own personal reasons."

This concession that Independent opinion writers assume fake personas is key, as any pen name would, in the normal course of publishing, be declared.  

Despite this, they added: "We can therefore categorically deny that Independent Media uses 'fake personas' and deny that Dr Survé or Sekunjalo utilises any such non-existent entities. 

Petersen did not reply to News24's requests for comment.

*News24 will on Tuesday formally complain to the Press Council of South Africa about the latest "Edmond Phiri" pieces attacking the integrity of News24 journalists.

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Reporting by: Nick Wilson, Jan Cronje and Jeff Wicks
Editor of News24 Business: Helena Wasserman
Deputy Editor of News24 Business: Ahmed Areff
News24 editor-in-chief: Adriaan Basson
Production and graphics: Sharlene Rood