In a controversy reminiscent of the Nestlé saga, the insurance giant confirmed that it is a major shareholder in Zimpapers – Newspaper Publishing, which among others is responsible for printing, The Herald newspaper.

Braam Hanekom of People Against Suppression, Suffering and Oppression (Passop) said it had come to their attention that Old Mutual is the second largest shareholder in Zimbabwe Newspapers Ltd, and is thus directly supporting the Mugabe regime.

"Old Mutual is essentially arming Mugabe’s propaganda machine, which is politically equivalent to putting bullets into the guns that kill opposition voices in Zimbabwe," he said.

Hanekom demanded that Old Mutual publicly withdraw its stakes in the Zimbabwe group.

"We consider this interest a direct attack on the impoverished people of not only Zimbabwe, but also South Africa, considering the forced migration of recent years," he added.

"I should hope that the South African public and general policyholders, who have invested so much in Old Mutual, take a moral stand and reconsider the investments they have made with the insurance company.

Passop started an online petition last night, which will be handed over to Old Mutual’s management within the next seven days, if the company fails to comply with calls to withdraw its stakes in Zimbabwe.

South Africa’s labour movement COSATU and civil rights pressure group People Against Suppression, Suffering and Oppression (Passop) on Wednesday made a public appeal to insurance giant, Old Mutual, to withdraw its stake-hold in Zimbabwe Newspapers (1980) Ltd.

If Old Mutual ignores the call the pressure groups are threatening to mobilise protests against over its business interest in Zimbabwe’s state-owned media group, the largest newspaper publishing company in the country.

Old Mutual on Tuesday confirmed that it is a major shareholder in Zimpapers which publishes The Herald, The Sunday Mail, The Chronicle and other newspapers in Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare. The newspapers are now largely viewed as propaganda mouthpieces for Zanu-PF and President Robert.

‘We are shocked and dismayed that a company with so much to lose, considering its international profile, has chosen to include the Mugabe regime’s propaganda newspapers in its investment portfolio.  We demand that Old Mutual publicly withdraw its stakes in Zimbabwe Newspapers Ltd and openly apologise for an investment that we sincerely hope was an accidental oversight on your part. Should Old Mutual ignore this request, we will be forced to embark on protest actions, and plan to engage as many Old Mutual policy holders as possible,” Hanekom wrote in a letter addressed to Old Mutual Chief executive officer Julian Roberts.

We have a copy of the letter.

Old Mutual was, in fact, already a shareholder in the original Rhodesian and Printing and Publishing Company, the forerunner of Zimpapers. Soon after independence the new government of Zimbabwe created the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust, which acquired the majority of shares in the company from the Argus Publishing company of South Africa.

Zimbabwe’s independent newspapers have been subjected to a campaign of threats, intimidation and violence by the Mugabe government. In 2003 the government banned the popular Daily News and its sister paper, the Daily News on Sunday as well as The Tribune.

“While the international community, appalled by the actions of the Zanu-PF leadership, imposes sanctions on Zimbabwe, your company’s investment is essentially arming Mugabe propaganda machinery, the equivalent of loading bullets into the guns that kill oppositional voices in Zimbabwe.  In light of the detrimental effects of forced migration of recent years, we consider your interest in the company a direct attack on the impoverished people of not only Zimbabwe, but also those of South Africa.”, the letter added

Jonas Mushosho Managing Director of Old Mutual Life Assurance Company Zimbabwe said Old Mutual Zimbabwe’s investment in Zimpapers, dates back to the pre-independence era.

“This shareholding in Zimpapers of 19 percent is held on behalf of our policyholders and therefore this is a portfolio investment and as a result, we do not influence or involve ourselves in their operational policy or practice,” Mushosho said.

After the government, Old Mutual is the next largest shareholder in Zimpapers.

Mushosho added that from a top-down approach, Old Mutual was limited in the choice of print and media investment assets in the country and Zimpapers is the only substantial printing and media asset type that is available to policyholders in terms of exposure to that sector.

“Old Mutual Zimbabwe will continue to hold this investment for as long as it continues to make investment sense for our policyholders,” he added.

Zimbabwe Newspapers has for a long period now, not been a profitable organisation, mainly because of the flight of advertising away from the company’s

newspapers. Sales of the company’s publications have also plummeted. The Herald had a circulation of more than 160 000 in the 1980s. Now the company prints less that 20 000 copies of its flagship a day.

COSATU high ranking official, Western Cape Provincial Secretary Tony Ehrenreich, expressed outrage that Old Mutual has a stake in state-owned media in Zimbabwe.

“These newspapers are responsible for spreading the propaganda of the Mugabe regime and Old Mutual should, as a matter of urgency, disinvest in the company,” he said.