The astonishing outburst of Dali Mpofu

And so race re-enters the debate about the media.

SABC CEO Dali Mpofu says the current furore about blacklisting is all about ”wresting control” of the corporation from ”the barbarians”. He writes in City Press that a ”right-wing lobby and its fellow travellers in the mass media” is attacking the SABC for ”not feeding into their gluttonous, greedy smell of black blood which must be sacrificed at every whim”.

In publishing the report of the internal inquiry into the matter, the Mail & Guardian was, among other things, motivated by ”pervasive anti-establishment hatred of anything connected to the democratically elected black-dominated government of the day”.

Strong stuff. We haven’t seen this kind of rhetoric since the Human Rights Commission investigated racism in the media several years ago.

But it is unlikely to persuade many people. It seems difficult to sustain a charge of racism against the M&G, a paper that is black-owned and edited. The notion that these are dupes and fellow travellers just doesn’t wash.

The paper was right to publish the document. There is unquestionable public interest in the issue: the SABC belongs to all citizens, and the way it carries out its mandate affects us all.

It was never going to be possible to sort out the matter quietly and neatly behind closed doors, as Mpofu now suggests he wanted to do. Undoubtedly it is not easy to deal with it in the full glare of public attention, but that is the nature of managing the SABC.

In a curious move, it now appears that the SABC may act against both news chief Snuki Zikalala and SAfm presenter John Perlman.

As is well known, Zikalala came in for extensive and harsh criticism for having barred some commentators from airwaves he seems to regard as his own. The SABC has made much of the fact that the commission found no evidence of a coherent political agenda behind these decisions. But it did find the decisions were improper.

By contrast, the report found that Perlman was justified in contradicting on air the corporation’s official position that there was no blacklist. The charge against him would be bringing the organisation into disrepute, a provision that big corporations like to use against whistle-blowers who have embarrassed them.

As when it sought a court order to force the M&G to remove the report from its website, the SABC is behaving as if it has forgotten it is a media organisation.

Journalism is about openness and accountability. Both Perlman and the M&G acted in the best traditions of the craft.

The SABC occupies a central place in our public life — it should be the great national meeting place. Tragically, it seems to be retreating into a defensiveness of astonishing belligerence.

It’s not even as if Mpofu’s intervention advances the discussion of race in the media. There is no doubt that there is still much to be talked about, even though the subject is uncomfortable.

But these kinds of sweeping generalisations about a white racist plot are both expedient and laughable, and make reasonable discussion of real issues around race more difficult.

A lawyer’s letter arrived at the M&G recently with a demand that the paper apologise for defaming Dirk van Loggerenberg, a former workshop manager for the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Council. The demand arose out of a report on an internal forensic investigation that named Van Loggerenberg and seven other employees as having been involved in fraud involving about R120-million.

Van Loggerenberg’s lawyers said he had not been charged, had not resigned as claimed, and had no involvement in the specific misdeeds alleged since he did not work in the municipality’s Alberton workshop where much of the corruption allegedly occurred. He worked in the council’s Kempton Park workshop instead.

At first blush, it seemed like a serious matter. If Van Loggerenberg worked in a different workshop, and had not been charged, the article would be seriously defamatory.

But the M&G had the charge sheet against him. The paper did make one mistake: it said the charges against the eight related to the management of the Alberton workshop, and set out some of the details of the things alleged to have happened there. It did not make it clear that some charges, admittedly lesser ones, related to the facility in Kempton Park.

The entire lawyer’s letter was cleverly worded to build a litany of complaints on the back of this one error. I advised that the paper should offer to clarify that Van Loggerenberg was not charged in connection with the Alberton workshop, but with Kempton Park. It was a mistake, and should not have crept in. But rather than a gross libel against an innocent man, it amounted to a mistake about which workshop his charges related to.

Unsurprisingly, there has been no response from the lawyer.

The Mail & Guardian’s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact Franz Krüger at [email protected]. You can also phone the paper on (011) 250 7300 and leave a message

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