Top local news controversies of 2010
What got you talking? The M&G‘s Faranaaz Parker puts together a nice compilation of oohs and aahs of the year.
1. Zapiro and He Who Must Not Be Drawn
There was an uproar in May when satirical cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro—known as Zapiro—penned a cartoon featuring the Muslim Prophet Muhammad following “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” a movement started on Facebook.
Anger mounts over Zapiro cartoon
The South African Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) sought an eleventh-hour court interdict to try to prevent the paper from publishing the cartoon. But the paper had already gone to press and been distributed in some parts of the country.
The following day, the Mail & Guardian office was inundated with calls and some reporters even received death threats. The incident caused a huge controversy and vigorous debate. Editor Nic Dawes held discussions with the MJC and the paper eventually published an apology. The next week, Zapiro penned another cartoon, which carried a lot of text and no pictures of the prophet.
2. Zuma’s bastard
The year had barely begun when the Sunday Times broke the story that President Jacob Zuma had fathered a child out of wedlock with Sonono Khoza, the daughter of football don and close friend Irvin Khoza.
The news broke just a few weeks after World Aids Day, when Zuma publically exhorted South Africans to stem the tide of HIV by using condoms when having sex.
There was a public outcry over the incident. Zuma had recently taken a third wife, and is engaged to a fourth woman. The baby girl was Zuma’s 20th child.
After initially ignoring the speculation and berating the media for reporting on what it said was a personal affair, the ANC admitted that Zuma had paid inhlawulo, or damages, to the Khoza family.
Zuma eventually issued an apology to the ANC and to the nation but his public image was irreversibly tainted.
3. World Cup shenanigans
The 2010 Soccer World Cup was widely hailed as a success, but it was not without its controversies. There were questions about the long-term sustainability of the stadiums; fear-mongering from European companies looking to sell stab-proof vests to tourists; a security worker strike in the middle of the competition; a controversial new ball that frustrated free-kick specialists; a call for goal-line technology after an English goal was denied; a continent-wide uproar when a Uruguayan handball denied Ghana entry into the semifinals; and a generally derided yet dance-worthy Afro-pop theme tune sung by a Colombian belly-dancer. Yet arguably the biggest controversy of the tournament was the vuvuzela, which deafened football fans around the world and later entered the Oxford Dictionary.
4. Angry unionists blindside government
For public-sector unions, 2010 was wage negotiation year. While some unions successfully completed negotiations early in the year, September was by and large strike season for the larger unions.
The state initially offered public-sector workers a 7% raise and a R700 housing allowance. But this was well below the union demand of 8,6% and a R1 000 housing allowance. Union negotiators said that what they had demanded was far lower than what other unions had asked for and received. Eskom workers, for example, negotiated during the Soccer World Cup and managed to extract a 12% increase from the government.
After a crippling strike that affected hospitals and schools, the state upped its offer to 7,5% and an R800 housing allowance. The ministry of public service and administration made it clear that there was no more room in the budget and that this would be its final offer.
In a move that shocked the ministry and union leaders, union members rejected the offer. The strike continued for four weeks and reports filtered in of patients dying in hospitals and at home, and of matric students being left to study on their own.
Eventually the president stepped in, calling for unions and the ministry to come to an agreement. Union leaders announced a 21-day suspension of the strike, and three weeks later the unions quietly accepted the government’s final offer.
5. The advent of the “tendency”
In April ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema was involved in a spat with a BBC journalist, which not only embarrassed the South African press and the ANC, but also gave onlookers a string of tongue-in-cheek insults that are good for any occasion. “White tendency”, “bastard” and “bloody agent” have since become social media fodder.
It started when Malema called a press conference on his return from a trip to Zimbabwe. At the conference, he criticised the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), saying the MDC should go back to Zimbabwe instead of fighting its battles from “air-conditioned offices in Sandton”. BBC journalist Jonah Fisher then interjected with, “But you live in Sandton?”
At this, Malema exploded into an angry rage and, when Fisher tried to respond, said: “This is a revolutionary house and you don’t come here with that tendency.” He called security and asked for Fisher to be removed.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the story is that when Malema prompted other journalists to follow Fisher, none chose to do so. So much for solidarity.
Although Malema’s actions were condemned by the ANC and the National Press Club alike, the youth leader did not apologise for the incident. Instead he invited Fisher to make an apology to the league.
6. Murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche
In October last year Eugene Terre’Blanche told the Mail & Guardian “The final chapter of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging [AWB] has not been written. We refuse to give in. In fact, we are just beginning our new journey.”
Six months later he was hacked and bludgeoned to death with a panga and a knobkerrie at his farm in Ventersdorp, allegedly by two farm workers, one of whom was aged just 15. The pair told police they had argued over unpaid wages. One of the accused, Chris Mahlangu (28), also claimed that Terre’Blanche had tried to sodomised “one or both” of them. However, he later dropped this claim.
Racial tensions in the province spilled over in the aftermath of the murder and when the accused first appeared in court, police separated black and white protestors with barbed wire.
With just two months to go before the kick-off of the Soccer World Cup, the international media flocked to Ventersdorp to cover the issue. The AWB blamed Julius Malema for inciting violence against farmers by singing the lyrics “shoot the boer”, from a struggle song, and vowed to take its revenge.
The matter eventually simmered down and was soon forgotten in the World Cup euphoria. The accused will remain in police custody until their trial resumes in May.
Eugene Terre’Blance: A special report
7. Jules High School scandal
There was a moral outcry when the media reported that a 15-year old girl had been drugged and gang-raped at school, during school hours. More disturbing, the act was filmed on cellphone and passed from person to person.
Almost as disturbing as the news itself was the handling of the matter by police and the media. At first the boys, aged 14 and 16, were left to write their exams while investigations continued, then they were arrested in contravention of state law. Then they were released.
Meanwhile, the girl was interviewed by newspapers and shadowy pictures of her were printed on the front page of certain dailies. Cameramen camped outside her house and, while they did not photograph her directly, they took and published pictures of her home, which made it easy to identify her. The media began to speculate about whether she had been drugged or drunk during the incident, and whether the sex had been consensual or not. Still later, news of the girl’s in-camera hearing was leaked to the press.
Then the bombshell—the state opted not to pursue a case of rape and instead chose to charge the girl and both boys with underage sex.
Later, child advocacy groups launched a high court application to challenge the law that allowed the children to be charged. The groups questioned the use of the law, which is so broad that it not only outlaws sexual penetration, but also kissing and fondling between adolescents.
8. Nationalisation at the NGC
Nationalisation reared its head once more at this year’s ANC national general council (NGC), becoming the most hotly contested issue at the event.
The call for nationalisation was spearheaded by Youth League leader Julius Malema. Malema was effectively sent back to the kids’ table on the opening day by President Jacob Zuma who, in his opening speech commented that “Juniors must respect their seniors”.
Despite this, the Youth League leader left the NGC held in Durban with his head held high, having achieved its goal of keeping nationalisation—not only of mines but also of banks and land—on the agenda. When the event came to an end, the ANC leadership had resolved that the party’s national executive committee (NEC) would investigate the circumstances under which the nationalisation of mines would be viable.
Though senior ANC leaders have always maintained that nationalisation is not ANC policy, there is now at least a possibility that it could become so. Depending on the outcome of the NEC’s investigation, which will be carried out by two researchers and a project manager, nationalisation could well be put on the table at the party’s next national conference in 2012.
9. Threats to press freedom
Although the idea of a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) had been mooted in an ANC policy document three years ago, it was only this year that the idea really picked up steam. The release of an ANC discussion document, “Media transformation, ownership and diversity,” led to heated discussion about the role of the press in society.
The ANC called for the establishment of tribunal, which would report to Parliament, to protect the general public from unscrupulous journalists, saying the press is are not adequately controlled by the existing ombudsman system.
This was also the year that the proposed Protection of Information Bill (POI)—dubbed the “Secrecy Bill” in some circles, came to light. If passed in its current format, the Bill would allow the bureaucrats to classify a broad range of information. It would also allow for the incarceration of whistleblowers and reporters found to be in possession of classified information.
Press fears about persecution by state entities were only strengthened when Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi Wa’Afrika, who had written a series of articles about allegations of corruption within the police force, was arrested, spirited away to a neighbouring province and detained at a secret location without access to legal council. His files, notebooks and cellphone were also confiscated. Charges against Wa’Afrika were subsequently dropped.
International news agencies spoke out against both proposals, saying they would obstruct the free flow of information and undermine the media’s independence.
Shortly thereafter South Africa dropped five places to 38th in the Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index, scoring worse than Ghana and Mali.
In recent months, government rhetoric around the proposed tribunal and the Protection of International Bill have simmered down. However, both issues are still on the cards.
View more highlights of the year that was in our special report here: