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Phillip Van Niekerk
09 Mar 2000 00:00
Mail & Guardian editor Phillip van Niekerk’s submission to the Human Rights Commission.
I have, as you know, had grave reservations about appearing before this commission.
First, “racist” is the most provocative insult that can be levelled against my colleagues and me.
I was summoned before this commission and accused of racism on the basis of very insubstantial evidence, and this smear has been allowed to stand for 18 months.
For that time, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) has, I feel, encouraged the smear against both my newspaper and me, via the Braude report on racism in the media.
Two weeks ago I faced a situation where I believed I was being dragged before a statutory inquisition, under pain of imprisonment, to answer unsubstantiated allegations about the content of my publication. It is no secret that I (and other editors) doubted the legality of tile subpoenas and were prepared if necessary to take them to the high court to have them thrown out. Emotions, and even racial tensions, were rising. We were heading for a showdown in which the HRC, the media and the image of democratic South Africa in the eyes of the world would all be damaged.
We at the Mail & Guardian believed that, no matter what our hostility to file way the HRC was conducting the inquiry, we did not want a situation that would fuel racial acrimony and create further division. I am here today voluntarily because I believe that it is vital that a discussion on racism and the media be held and that we contribute our views on the matter.
I take solace in the words of the chairman, Dr Barney Pityana, that this is not a trial, and that the intention is not to make specific findings against individual publications.
The Mail & Guardian began as The Weekly Mail in 1985: it was created by a handful of journalists retrenched when the Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Express were closed down. It was born into a frightened South Africa sliding into recession, violence and repression.
White South Africa had locked itself away behind high walls and razor wire, while black South Africa was in rebellion, with a cross-country wave of strikes, boycotts and clashes with police that became bloodier each week. From the outset, this newspaper sought to tell South Africans the unsweetened truth about the country they lived in.
It was not expected to grow rich and famous (while it might have fame, riches it certainly doesn’t); merely to be an honest reporter and commentator. It was born at a time when the gatekeepers of much of the main- stream English-language media were conservative white men with sub-urban mindsets.
While they routinely vilified the African National Congress and its leaders as “terrorists”, we put human faces to ANC leaders, provided balanced accounts of their activities and policies, and campaigned for the release of Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners, as well as for peace talks with the ANC leadership. We were also one of the first to discuss sympathetically such “fringe” issues as environmentalism, gay liberation and gender politics.
This newspaper stood up to PW Botha’s government during the states of emergency, when we were closed down for a period. Along with Vrye Weekblad, we uncovered apartheid’s hit squads and the third force violence that later became the storyline of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 1991 we broke the “Inkathagate” scandal, describing how police funds were being secretly channelled to Inkatha to block the ANC.
Since the arrival of democratic government in 1994, we have continued to play a vital watchdog role, with hard-hitting investigative journalism and analysis. We have a particular personality as a newspaper. We are upfront, in-your-face, fiercely independent and critical. We dish it out, and we take it.
We know that our readers are, by and large, intellectuals, many of them from South Africa’s political class. Many read us because they love us. Others read us because they hate us. The significant thing is: they read us.
Figures produced by the All Media Products Survey the advertising industry’s survey of readership and audience patterns of all media, show that our black readership is 55% of the total and rising; moreover - and this might come as a surprise to many - that we are the favourite read of the black elite.
The critical question the M&G has had to face since 1994 is: How do we relate to those who rule over us now that there is no longer a white minority government? In the old days we had no truck with those in power. We saw ourselves as adversaries of the government. We were anti- apartheid and would not be content until there was a democratic order in this country.
Today we support and are proud of the Constitution of this country. We agree with the basic principles upon which our society is based and to which the ruling party has proclaimed its loyalty. And, yes, today we demand a higher standard of behaviour from our public officials, black and white. Why? Because they are our public representatives - they represent everybody. If they steal from the public purse, it is a betrayal of the entire nation’s trust. Every rand that is pilfered by a bureaucrat is a rand less to be spent on schooling for a child, housing for a homeless person, or support for an old-age pensioner in a rural village.
We at the M&G have no truck with racist ideology. But that does not mean that we are blind to the legacy and the complications that race creates. Our national discourse is laden with suspicion and distrust. Not even the media is free of this curse. In the past few weeks, we have seen our profession divided on racial lines. Mainly white editors felt that the subpoenas and the inquisitional nature of the inquiry were a threat to freedom of expression. Black editors, speaking from their experience, emphasised their rights to dignity and equality.
The M&G‘s view is that both are right. You cannot express yourself fully unless you are a full human being, unless there is equality in practice as well as theory. But nor can you truly exercise your right to dignity without having the right to express yourself. They are complementary and not necessarily antagonistic rights.
We have always seen our role at the M&G as being in the forefront of the struggle for freedom of’ expression. It is not a right of the privileged. In other societies, it is those with the most marginalised views - communists, anarchists, religious sects - whose freedom of expression has historically been most threatened.
In the past few weeks some have expressed the view that by defending freedom of the press we are asking for a special privilege for the media - VIP passes to the first-class lounge. But the freedom of the press is no different from the freedom of the individual. Freedom of information is a basic right without which we would not have a functioning democracy in this country. It is a right that every single person has a vested interest in.
Mr Chairman, race throws up emotions that draw on generations of legislated inferiority and superiority I hope that my daughters, who are at school today and who attach no significance to the skin colour of the children they meet in the playground, will be among the first generation of South Africans to emerge relatively free of the taint of racism.
Until then, we have to acknowledge that we have inherited a problem. Yet, underneath the cacophony of racial antagonism is a reality that is at once greater and grimmer. That is that there are other fault-lines in our society - between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the landlords and the tenants. To be disadvantaged does not derive only from the accident of birth that gave to some of us a little more or less melanin.
I don’t live in a squatter camp or a dingy hostel. I can read and travel abroad. I can feed my children and send them to a good school. I am a newspaper editor, which obviously means I have a measure of influence. The question is how I use it. Personally, I believe it should be used with humility and with regard to those - whether they be unemployed squatters, women or pensioners - who are less fortunate in their access to power or resources. Even though our audience includes the elites and those who have power, our journalism should be informed by a desire to take up the cudgels on behalf of file less fortunate.
My problem with much of what I have heard at this week’s HRC hearings is that there is an unarticulated assumption that all people with darker pigments are victims. The vast number of the dispossessed and the powerless in our society are, yes, black. But increasing numbers of the powerful and enfranchised are also black.
They drive Mercedes-Benzes; they have the ear of politicians and parliamentarians and very often access to the media. With this perspective in mind I turn to the complaint by the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) and the Association of Black Accountants of South Africa (Abasa). Most damaging and hurtful for the M&G is the claim that the paper has indulged in racially skewed reporting on corruption, thereby seeking somehow to prove the thesis that black People are corrupt or incompetent.
The only factual basis for this, in both the original complaint and the submission to the HRC, are two content analyses one based on M&G editions between January and June 1996, and the other’ on editions from March to December 1997. In the first it is alleged that we published 14 corruption stories about black people and four about whites; in the second the score was allegedly 33 to six.
The BLA does not claim that any of the stories were inaccurate. And it does not indulge in the kind of dubious textual analysis we have come to identify with Claudia Braude’s report on racism in the Media to prove that any of the stories we wrote were in themselves racist.
I heard for the first time yesterday, in the submission of the deputy president of Abasa, Hale Qangule, that the M&G‘s reporting is not based on fact but on hearsay without proper fact-checking, and that we often have to pay damages to the people we write about. That is a very serious allegation, not lightened by the lack of seriousness Qangule showed by not being able to back it up with a single example, in fact bringing rumour and hearsay to the commission.
We have not lost a defamation suit or settled out of court for a single article written during the three years of my editorship. I am aware of two cases where we did settle, but those were for stories written before I took over. Operating in the controversial areas of reportage that we do, we have to be extra careful and could never afford sloppy journalism.
I have a number of objections to the two content analyses. The first is that the examples of alleged anti-black reporting are not that at all. In the first body count, four of the 14 “anti-black” pieces involved the dispute surrounding Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, then of Wits University. Here is Makgoba himself, in his book Mokoko: “The M&G, the Sowetan and Business Day were always balanced in their reporting ... The most professional of the newspapers were the M&G and Beeld.” According, then, to what definition does the BLA find our reporting “anti-black”? There is more.
Why was Mark Gevisser’s illuminating and sympathetic profile of Mbongeni Ngema put into the “anti-black” column? Why is a split in the ANC Women’s League included at all? Should the M&G not have written about the disgraced National Party Minister of Social Welfare, Abie Williams? Not only is the BLAs research extremely sloppy but there is also no objective explanation of why any of these stories are included. In the March to December 1997 analysis, among the alleged examples of anti-black stories is a letter from a black student complaining that Makgoba had sold them out. Why is that black corruption?
A number of the stories were actually about the outcome of government-appointed inquiries - the Semenya commission into corruption in the Northern Province government, the auditor general and Dreyer reports into the Motheo housing deal and the report into the Sarafina II saga.
Problem two: The BLA assumes that it is possible to sort out some- thing called “black corruption” from something called “white corruption”. Included in the 1997 analysis, for instance, are a number of stories on the Motheo housing scandal that involved Minister of Housing Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele and a cast that included people from all population groups, including Kevin Gibb, a white banker who was fired by Nedcor. Likewise, in the Dolphin scandal in Mpumalanga, the central figure was Alan Gray, suspended head of the Mpumalanga Parks Board. Was that black or white corruption?
Problem three: What such content analysis can never divine is where we get our stories from. For instance, on the Motheo scandal our initial source was a senior black member of the ANC. In the Emanuel Shaw II case, we were consistently supported by Dr Gordon Sibiya, the then deputy director general of mineral and energy affairs, who left government in the wake of the scandal. Many of the sources of our stories were people within the movement or in government, concerned, like us, to combat corruption.
Problem four: The BLA does not show how we could have done it differently. Should we have introduced a quota and kept count to start spiking stories when we were exceeding the quota of black or white corruption stories? What should be the basis for this quota and who should manage it?
Problem five: The BLA has provided no proof that there was racist intent because it has not proved that there were stories about so-called white corruption that the M&G chose to ignore.
Problem six is probably the biggest of all: There is no attempt to link the broad content analyses with the charge in the BLA complaint that “the reporting is relentless and repetitive. Once a person is targeted his/her alleged corruptness or incompetence is serialised.” Having created the generalisation, the BLA implies that there is one mode of reporting corruption which always fits the bill. A quick perusal of the tabulated stories would reveal only one that conforms even vaguely to the definition of serialisation: the saga of Emanuel Shaw II and Don Mkhwanazi.
Eight of the 33 so-called “anti-black” items in 1997 were news stories and editorials involving this tale. The stories outlined how Mkhwanazi, as chair of the Central Energy fund (CEF), awarded a R3-million consultancy contract to Shaw, a notorious Liberian politician who had served as finance minister to former Liberian president Samuel Doe.
The M&G dug up details on Shaw’s past back in Liberia, and explored the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the award of the South African contract, which had not been put out to tender. The M&G also discovered that Mkhwanazi had close financial ties to Shaw. The two men even had a joint bank account - one of the crucial facts about the relationship that was never disclosed to the Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs or to the CEF board.
Shaw abandoned his much-publicised R-million lawsuit against the M&G, fleeing to Liberia with a string of debts - including more than R100 000 to the M&G in the form of legal costs. This is of the utmost significance because Mkhwanazi’s defence was the same as the BLA’s: that we were motivated by racism. Mkhwanazi’s lawyer, who threatened to sue us, was Christine Qunta, who is head of the BLA’s media racism project and was a prime mover in the complaint that you heard yesterday. I don’t know why the period March to December 1997 was chosen for the content analysis, but it might have been prompted by the fact that there were a slew of corruption stories breaking at that time.
We are very proud of the investigative journalism that the M&G did. For instance, our series on the CEF resulted in a commission of inquiry that fully vindicated us by calling for the heads of Shaw, Mkhwanazi and the entire CEF board, which had vetted Shaw’s contract. Mkhwanazi resigned in the wake of the damning commission of inquiry, accusing the M&G of a campaign of innuendo and malice, and has kept a low profile ever since. Standard Bank repossessed Shaw’s luxury Johannesburg house, the bond on which was paid out of Mkhwanazi’s joint account with Shaw.
At the opening of Parliament in January 1998, then president Nelson Mandela made specific reference to what we had achieved, complimenting the media for helping root out corrupt elements in the public service. “While there may be instances where fingers were pointed at individuals without justification, there are a good many examples where investigative journalism has helped us uncover the scoundrels - old and new - who prey on the public purse.” It was subsequently pointed out by a senior figure in the president’s office that he was referring to the M&G. If our reportage of corruption in government is termed “racist”, then the word is so ill-used as to be in danger of losing its meaning.
Too often race is an excuse for scoundrels to hid behind. Levelled indiscriminately against whites, file very term “racist” is in danger of becoming a piece of racist terminology in itself. It is a classic piece of stereotyping in the true meaning of the word - a generalisation used with the intention of denigration without regard for the individual. We have the “N” word and the “K” word; soon we will have the “R” word, which will be banned from use in decent company, because of the insult it might give to a section of our community. This misuse of “racism” is increasingly dangerous, given that there are those who define ours as a black government and then use the emotionality of the term “racist” to prevent its critics from speaking back.
Serjeant at the Bar, an eminent legal thinker, wrote in the M&G last week: “Censure of any white critic as a racist, no matter that the critic is liberal, Trotskyite or a social democrat, or a black critic as unpatriotic, is now so powerful that few whites venture a critical opinion in public.” Similarly, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, recently warned against the development of a culture of silence in this country that would undermine our fledgling democracy, silencing blacks with the fear of being accused of being disloyal and whites with the fear of being called racists.
My disappointment with the HRC’s handling of the BLA report is that the HRC did not dismiss it immediately. Instead, it found a life inside the Braude report. Tasked with investigating whether there is racism in the media, Braude simply accepted the BLA/Abasa complaint at face value, building some very dubious and in fact defamatory constructions on that shaky foundation.
She conflated the BLA complaint with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings on the media and how much of the media was in the pocket of the apartheid government, creating a linkage that not even the BLA had the chutzpah to make about the M&G. She writes: “The concerns expressed by the authors of the letter to the M&G and by the BLA about a perceived campaign about corruption, the result of which was perceived to be the denigration of black professionals, must be read against the TRC’s finding that deliberate campaigns had been run by agents of disinformation to discredit prominent black leaders in order to undermine their capacity to bring about transformation.”
Then she makes a further outrageous claim: “The apparent refusal on the part of the M&G to take the concerns of the letter’s 10 authors sufficiently seriously by publishing and thereby critically engaging their letter should be read against the finding in the TRC report that many white journalists failed to adequately empathise with the pain and anger of their black counterparts. Read in this way, it becomes apparent that a group of people whose life opportunities have been marked by racist discrimination and apartheid brutality could have experienced such a refusal as a repetition of the notion that black lives and views are of no consequence.”
Despite appearing to operate on a testable hypothesis, the Braude report in fact presumes the existence of precisely that which it sets itself the task of demonstrating. Braude complains that we never bothered to read the report; my retort to her is that I read it too well. And I stand by my position that this is an extremely shoddy piece of research. I would also like to challenge her uncritical acceptance of what was said at the TRC hearings. Much of it was indeed valuable but it was never intended as a finding and therefore it left out a significant part of the story of the press in this country.
Braude’s starting point is this claim: “The TRC showed that the objectivity of the South African Fourth Estate had been profoundly com-promised, news manipulation had been the order of the day, and racism that pervaded the society had equally characterised the media industry.” Much of the media was in fact compromised in the way she suggests, but Braude puts everybody in the same cart - unforgivable for somebody who makes a career out of analysing stereotypes - and omits to show that much of the media challenged the dominant views of apartheid, going far ahead of its readership and moving them towards accepting new and sometimes revolutionary views.
Obviously, there is the role of the World and Post under the courageous editorship of Percy Qoboza. But there are also the Rand Daily Mail, under the editorship of Laurence Gandar, Raymond Louw and Allister Sparks, the Cape Times of Tony Heard and the Daily Dispatch of Donald Woods, which all challenged the dominant white racist paradigm of the time. Similarly, in the 1990s, Afrikaans newspapers such as Beeld went far ahead of their own communities and readerships and in fact, I would argue, were critical in preparing their readers for what was to come and thus ensuring the peaceful transformation to democracy There was also the role of the alternative press, including The Weekly Mail.
Much of the TRC’s own research was made possible by the work of investigative journalists - many of them progressive whites - such as Martin Welz, Jacques Pauw, Eddie Koch and Kit Katzin. I believe it is important to point these out, not only because of the crescendo of press-bashing that has gone on these past few weeks but because Braude arrives at the unsupportable conclusion that the credibility of the press is in tatters with ordinary South Africans.
The Human Sciences Research Council released a survey last week that shows that, after the churches, the media is the most trusted institution in South Africa - more so than all levels of government, the police, the defence force and the courts. I leave you with one thought about the Braude report. We have heard this week that there are very different approaches and points of view in the media in this country Viva diversity, I say. You will appreciate that it would be very hard for the editors and journalists in this country to organise a Christmas party in a brewery together, never mind a conspiracy to trash a single researcher’s report. Yet we were of one mind on the merits of Braude’s research.
I suggest that it has something to do with the fact that every newsperson worth their salt has what could politely be called a bulldust detector. I turn now to our coverage of the African continent. My first claim is this: there is no newspaper in South Africa which, relative to its size and resources, devotes as much space, care and attention as the M&G to coverage of Africa. And my second is: in my previous incarnation as Africa correspondent for The Observer, London, I have probably travelled to and reported on more countries in Africa than any South African journalist still actively writing in this country today.
I am passionate about the problems and prospects of this continent, and that includes South Africa’s. Much of Africa is in tears. Many in other parts of Africa experience depths of suffering that most of us - even those who have suffered serious deprivation in South Africa - might find hard to grasp. But Africa is also, in the view of the M&G, a continent of hope - hope perhaps best enunciated in Thabo Mbeki’s quest for an “African renaissance”. Our African coverage reflects both those perspectives: Africa’s problems, as we see them, and our optimism that we can overcome them.
Frankly, I have come to the conclusion that there is no pleasing our critics. If we report suffering in Africa, we are accused of making out that the continent and black people are helpless incompetents. If we fail to report on their suffering, we are accused of being insensitive to their plight. If we report on the horrifying spread of HIV/Aids in Southern Africa, we are accused of presenting Africans as over- sexed and diseased. If we neglect to do so, then we are accused of being insensitive to Africa’s crisis.
If we report on the savagery of the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, we are accused of Eurocentrism. If we report on the savagery of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we are accused of making out that all blacks are savages who cannot govern themselves. We are not, however - please note - accused of making out that all Europeans are savages when we report on the Bosnian and Kosovan situations.
We at the M&G have had to ask ourselves countless times why we have attracted this kind and ferocity of criticism. The best explanation we have managed to arrive at is that there are several strata - from sections of the black elite who have benefited most from liberation in South Africa to sections of the white population craving to ingratiate themselves with that elite - who fear an independent voice such as our own.
They fear a voice that speaks directly, strongly, without favour - and without apology Mr Chairman, I can speak for hours about the problems of the media in this country, and among these would be the globalisation of information, the development of mega-powerful multimedia organisations that span the continents, the incredible restructuring of the industry that is taking place under the onslaught of the Internet, the cultural hegemony that comes with McDonald’s hamburgers, American sitcoms and even the English language.
We need to talk not just about race in the media but about how to democratise the media in this day and age. These are issues that media professionals feel passionate about, but we do not have the time to deal with them now. The big issue I would like to leave you with is that we will neither over- come stereotyping nor complete any process of transformation without an improvement in the quality of our journalism.
Let us then confront the real evil which lies behind much of our present-day predicament: Bantu education. This horrific attempt to enslave the minds of the majority of the population failed, as it was bound to fail, because of the lie that underlay it. But it did undeniably lead to a skills shortage, which is reflected in the dazzling salaries and career prospects open to those who have over- come the disadvantages with which apartheid would have yoked them.
The shortage is a relative and temporary one that will be filled by the young people emerging from our liberated schools. But it does exist and impacts particularly on newspapers, which battle to compete for labour not only with others in the media, but with the moguls of commerce and industry who are as eager as we are to give effect to the demands of racial representation.
There are many who have overcome these disadvantages and can be a source of pride for us all: Tim Modise, Jon Qwelane, Justice Malala, Rehana Rossouw, Wally Mbhele, Barney Mthombothi -the list is growing longer by the day. Frankly, Mr Chairman, I do not long for black journalists to satisfy government audit. I seek them because they know our readers, like no one born to the luxurious bedrooms of the northern suburbs can know them.
They are therefore self-evidently of crucial importance for the survival of my newspaper. But personally and philosophically I have a deeper reason for wanting to see the emergence of more successful black journalists. I long for them because I heard in the writings of such as Nat Nakasa and Lewis Nkosi the true voice of South African journalism, a voice which has still to be heard by the rest of the world. It is a unique voice born of unique experience, including that of suffering.
Many times since my days as a young reporter I returned from assignments in the townships filled with emotions which included envy - envy at the sense of community their residents enjoyed, and traditions including that of the extended family I did not fail to see the suffering and I will not pretend that I envied that as well. But in a curious way, if I do not envy the suffering itself, I do envy the experience of it.
I believe that those who suffer shall inherit. Out of the prison comes liberation. Out of a log cabin came the Gettysburg address. How often is the great financier born on the wrong side of the tracks? In the same way I believe that out of the suffering of apartheid will come the glittering voices I heard in the Sophiatown years, to claim their rightful inheritance and bring about a golden age of South African journalism.
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