THE South African Communist Party (SACP) has come out against a bid by Tokyo Sexwale's Mvelaphanda Group (Mvela) for control of media and entertainment company Avusa, saying the takeover would restrict media diversity.

Earlier this month, Mvela announced a cash and share offer for the R3bn media company, which owns the Sunday Times and half of Business Day.

"The planned Mvela-Avusa deal is not just a simple commercial transaction as capitalist apologists would like us to believe, but is a deliberate attempt to create a media empire and all the business and political influence this goes with," SACP spokesman Malesela Maleka said yesterday. The SACP's denunciation of the deal could be seen as an attack on Mr Sexwale, the human settlements minister, and a big shareholder in Mvela through its parent company Mvelaphanda Holdings, and a serious challenger to President Jacob Zuma's ambitions to retain the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC).

Mr Zuma enjoys the support of the SACP.

According to media reports, Mr Sexwale was building up a cash pile as part of a bid to unseat Mr Zuma. "There would be serious social consequences if this takeover were allowed to go through. Power and control of access to information must never be allowed to be in fewer hands," said Mr Maleka.

Media monopolies threatened diversity of opinion and media freedom, said Mr Maleka. While not mentioning names, Mr Maleka was referring to the dominance of newspaper groups Naspers, Avusa, Independent News and Media and Caxton, SA's biggest media companies.

"Already the lack of diversity and different opinion in South African media is a reflection of the concentration of print media into four oligopolies in SA," Mr Maleka said.

"The SACP is strongly opposed to this takeover. The silence of media houses and our distinguished editors who claim to be champions against abuse of power is not surprising at all as they stand to benefit and cannot oppose a system they so loyally serve," he said.

Mvela has support from investors representing 65% of Avusa's equity for its offer of either R24 per Avusa share or 1,48 shares in a new entity to be listed, Richtrau, for every Avusa share. The deal is likely to be finalised by September.

Anton Harber, journalism professor at Wits University, said it was clear the SACP was taking aim at Mr Sexwale. "I suspect the SACP is really taking a pot-shot at Tokyo Sexwale and his politics. This highlights the confusion over the meaning of transformation. On the one hand, there are calls for changes in the ownership of print media, on the other hand they are trying to block it when it happens in a politically inconvenient way. I think the SACP is saying that they want new owners, but they want their own new owners," Prof Harber said.

He said if one was really worried about the lack of diversity in the media, Mvelaphanda's possible takeover of Avusa was an unlikely target as it was relatively small compared to Naspers, based on market cap.

He said Avusa only had 11% of daily newspaper sales and 21% of weekly newspaper sales and mostly in a single title, the Sunday Times.

He added that the Mvelaphanda deal would also address criticism of a lack of empowerment ownership in Avusa.

Political commentator Prof Steven Friedman said the SACP's statement referred to battles between ANC factions loyal to Mr Zuma and Mr Sexwale.

"The leadership of the SACP is worried that a political opponent will have control over a key media outlet. It's got to do with ANC politics and that it would give a powerful weapon to (Mr) Sexwale."

Prof Friedman said the factional battles would continue well after the ANC electoral conference in Mangaung later this year.

neethlingt@bdfm.co.za

.This article has been amended to clarify Prof Anton Harber's comments on media diversity