'I'm like Oscar Wilde'

The media is not the public. The public knows a media-lynching when it sees one. This little local noise demonstrates the dying power of an old establishment.
It used to win quiet victories, but now finds it must raise its voice and then it still fail, says Ronald Suresh Roberts in an interview with the Mail & Gurdian‘s Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

Don’t you see the judgement and the language used to characterise you as a form of public humiliation?

The media is not the public. The public knows a media-lynching when it sees one. This little local noise demonstrates the dying power of an old establishment. It used to win quiet victories, but now finds it must raise its voice and then it still fails, as in the recent cases of Snuki Zikalala and Dali Mpofu.

Because the media is not the public, media ridicule is not the same as humiliation. Humiliation means an internalised ridicule. It means that stuff gets to you. But sticks-and-stones rhetoric, like John Matshikiza’s, simply cannot be taken seriously.

People mention Oscar Wilde. A good analogy because, of course, history has vindicated Wilde. Do we believe, whatever the trial verdict, that he was justly and properly destroyed? No. He is a martyr to the sexual orientation clause in our own Constitution. In New York I bought a brilliant new book called Typecasting, which has an epigraph from Wilde: ‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” The big difference, of course, is that I am no martyr, because the mining house liberals have not and will not destroy me, as the homophobes indeed destroyed Wilde.

The expectation that you should be feeling humiliated isn’t out of place, is it?

This expectation is part of the dying establishment’s exaggerated sense of its continuing power. They simply have no existential grip on me. It is the spirit that President [Thabo] Mbeki takes from Oliver Tambo: ‘He knew that those who had created and benefited from racism, sexism, oppression and injustice would neither applaud him nor be his admirers. He would have known that something was wrong if these had sung his praises.” That is Mbeki’s genuine radicalism: he doesn’t care what the old establishment thinks. It terrifies them.

People might point out that the media in which you have been attacked, including the Mail & Guardian, are owned and largely editorially controlled by black people and therefore your reference to colonial media may be out of place. What’s your comment?

Have you ever seen a more colonial piece than Matshikiza’s? It was entirely steeped in the worst antique stereotypes.

The American pro-slavery Puritan, John Saffin, for instance, wrote the following invective 300 years ago: ‘Cowardly and cruel are those blacks innate,/prone to revenge, imp of inveterate hate. He that exasperates them, soon espies/mischief and murder in their very eyes./Libidinous, deceitful, false and rude, the spume issue of ingratitude —”

Now I have never had a substantial conversation with Matshikiza, so he writes not from knowledge of me, but from preconceptions. It is racist to believe that blacks cannot be part of a media that regurgitates colonial imageries and values and even violence. Blacks can. Look at Condoleezza Rice. Look at Matshikiza playing an outright minstrel role in the Leon Schuster film, There’s a Zulu on My Stoep, where our boy’s the funny Zulu.

What do you make of the judgement itself?

The Sunday Times has sought to portray the judgement as a victory for free speech. This is odd as the piece, published in 2004, quoted three visible sources, two of whom were former Sunday Times editor Ken Owen and his wife Kate. The third on-record source was Tony Leon. Of these three, both of the Owens immediately submitted letters for publication. You have never read these letters even though the Sunday Times has now re-published the original piece. Kate Owen’s letter said that her words had been so distorted that she would never speak to the newspaper again.

Ken Owen, who originally hired [Chris] Barron, wrote: ‘In his eagerness to smear Ronald Roberts, Barron has misquoted me. I have no wish to get into the gutter with Barron, but I must say that on matters within my knowledge his reporting is false. He should stick to writing obituaries — the subjects will not complain.”

Not only did the Sunday Times never publish this but, despite the fact that it was led in open court, not a single newspaper quoted it. Yet it is eminently quotable and is from a source who also happens to have edited the very newspaper in question. They also denied me a right of reply. Forgive me if I therefore see more censorship than free speech in the Sunday Times side of the case.

The judgement also had financial implications. How are you coping with it? And has it affected your attitude to future litigation?

I’m coping fine.

Is this despite that commentators such as John Matshikiza, academics and Sanef all seem to be twisting the knife?

Media academics such as Anton Harber are really pseudo-academics constantly grinding axes. Harber calls himself professor, but is actually an adjunct professor. Did you know that? I’m not sure people outside colonial media take him very seriously.

Sanef ought to support media freedom rather than just giving knee-jerk support to every outlet that gets in trouble. As Tawana Kupe [a professor of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand] said after the Sunday Times called Xolela Mangcu [a political commentator] a liar and then denied him a right of reply, the press itself can sometimes be an enemy of press freedom.

Why didn’t you raise the matter with the ombudsman and force the Sunday Times to give you a right of reply?

After the ombudsman ordered the Sunday Times to give Mangcu a right of reply, the Sunday Times attacked the ombudsman as an opponent of press freedom! And it is the newspapers that appoint the ombudsman, who will thus tend to be duly intimidated by such tactics. Hence public cynicism towards that office. 

What do you make of the judgement itself? Have you put in notice to challenge it? And what aspect of it will you be attacking?

The decision of the acting judge was fascinating, particularly in its references to Tony Leon’s father, who sentenced the teenaged Umkhonto weSizwe combatant, Andrew Zondo, to death five times over; to William Gumede, the defrocked plagiarist who unsuccessfully attacked the personal character of President Mbeki; and to Nadine Gordimer, who unsuccessfully sought to suppress my highly regarded biography of her.

The judgement also contains many adjectives. The appeal is in process with my legal team. Obviously, I must be circumspect.

You seem quite unfazed by the judgement. Are you? Isn’t there a part of you that feels disappointed that it went against you?

Disappointed? Obviously. Fazed? Not if you mean running for cover as Mr Matshikiza and merry band apparently imagine. The trope of the Despondent Native has no space near me. Outside the colonial media, there is an upsurge of support. People have donated pro bono legal assistance.

So what next for you?

Business as usual, really. James Sanders and I are launching Molotov, an explosive publication. James did the research on Anthony Sampson’s biography of Nelson Mandela. Mandela told him to keep causing trouble. We will. My book on President Mbeki will be launched on June 16. Then the international roll out of my Gordimer biography — The supposed media ‘humiliation”, incidentally, played out rather differently in the international media and publishing trades. The public abroad also knows an attempted lynching when it sees one. They get interested in the lynch victim. They offer book deals.

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