Pallo Jordan. Phumzile van Damme. It’s tempting to think newspapers are out to make black South Africans look bad, writes Verashni Pillay.
According to the Sunday Times, ANC heavyweight and intellectual Pallo Jordan may not be a doctor, honorary or otherwise, as he claims to be. According to the same newspaper, Democratic Alliance national spokesperson Phumzile van Damme may have a fraudulent South African identity document, calling into question her membership of Parliament.
Both stories touch on an uncomfortable fact of the past: black South Africans have historically been subjected to all manner of administrative problems and inconsistencies to get by in the face of a system that either opposed them or never fully catered for their needs.
In Van Damme’s case, the DA claimed their spokesperson’s mother was poorly served by a home affairs official who advised her to register the birth in South Africa instead of Swaziland based on the fact that Van Damme was entitled to citizenship anyway through her grandparents and the department was dealing with a huge caseload of people exiled by apartheid who were returning to claim their South African citizenship.
But it is Van Damme’s mother’s comments that are the most intriguing.
“I was involved in the ANC and some of the things around children’s birth are very complex, as you would know as an African,” she told the Sunday Times reporter who contacted her.
“You are an African, I think, and if I go into ... you don’t know ... the nature of her birth was ... it’s a bit very secret,” she said.
In Pallo Jordan’s case on the other hand, it is not clear why he did not finish a degree at any of the universities mentioned in his biography. However his mother too, Phyllis Ntantala, casts a strange light on that time.
In her book A Life’s Mosaic she describes how her son was “endorsed out” of the New School for Social Research in New York, where he was enrolled for a master’s degree, according to the Sunday Times.
She wrote of Jordan: “Then about the middle of November , he received a letter from immigration telling him to be out of the country by the end of the month, as the purpose for which he had entered the US had been accomplished and he was prolonging his stay unnecessarily.”
Despite the request being unreasonable, Ntantala writes that Jordan eventually agreed to leave for England, or risk imprisonment.
In both cases, the stories digging into the past of accomplished individuals read like a shaming exercise, leaving their peers deeply uncomfortable. Surely they had little control over these events? Why judge them for it now?
Is it true or not?
Yet for both individuals, despite our deep-seated emotional reactions to the stories, one question remains as the most important: whether or not our sensibilities are hurt by the tone of the article: is it true or not?
Analyst Eusebius McKaiser illustrated this concept when the story around Van Damme first broke.
“The salient issue has been lost in the middle of the fat klap given to the Sunday Times,” wrote McKaiser. “And that salient issue remains breathtakingly simple: Is Van Damme legally eligible to be in Parliament?”
The same, I would argue, holds for the story on Jordan.
I was on a guest on SAfm on Sunday discussing media in South Africa and I was saddened to hear that many listeners still believed that newspapers were trying to tear black people down.
The logic goes: the media are intent on only showcasing corruption among black people, never white people, and they never show the success stories of black South Africans. Plus the media obsesses with government corruption despite corruption in the private sector being so bad.
Demographics, not bias
Given the two stories I mentioned here as an example, it would be tempting to think so. However that argument simply isn’t true for a few reasons:
1. When people say the media are too negative they don’t really mean The Media. They mean a handful of newspapers, which represent a fraction of our country’s media whose first five or so pages are dedicated to investigative or political journalism. Of course you won’t find happy stories here. Dig deeper into the paper for the more human-interest features and success stories. In the Mail & Guardian‘s case, we spend several months a year putting together a list of top young South Africans doing amazing things in this country, as well as women. If you want more of that kind of coverage there are loads of other media that cater for it: Destiny Magazine, Oprah’s magazine in South Africa and more. Expecting the news sections of investigative and political newspaper to report good news stories is like barging into a bakery and throwing an all-mighty temper tantrum because they don’t stock raw meat.
2. Political newspapers cover the political elite, who in this country happen to be predominantly black. It’s an issue of demographics, not bias.
3. Yes we could cover more private sector corruption and the business sections of many newspapers do this. If the stories on private sector corruption tend to dominate more headlines it’s usually because there’s higher level of public interest. We choose to lead with what the public wants to read given what they’re clicking on and which headlines gets them buying a paper. Why are you, dear reader, more interested in public sector corruption than private? Partly because there are more recognisable names involved. But mostly because it is, after all, your money being wasted much of the time – not some rich shareholder’s. This doesn’t excuse the fact that we should care equally about private sector corruption – but it does explain it.
It’s convenient to find emotive and simple explanations to justify the ills of our society. But shooting the messenger doesn’t change the truth.