The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is to hold a public forum on complaints of racial prejudice against the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ) and the issue of exclusive organisations.
This stems from last Friday’s controversial FBJ meeting addressed by African National Congress president Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg.
”Following a complaint on the exclusion of white journalists from attending a Forum of Black Journalists’ meeting … the South African Human Rights Commission today [Monday] decided to convene a public forum in order to interrogate the issue of exclusive organisations and the complaint in question,” the commission said on Monday.
Because the issues raised by the complaint were very complex, the commission believed an open forum would create both the space and enabling environment for a full and proper ventilation of the issues before it.
Both the complainant, Talk Radio 702 news editor Katy Katapodis, and the respondent, FBJ steering committee chairperosn Abbey Makoe, had indicated a willingness to attend and participate at this forum.
The event would take place on March 5 at the SAHRC head office in Parktown, Johannesburg, the commission said.
Earlier on Monday, Primedia Broadcasting group head of news and talk programming Yusuf Abramjee and Talk Radio 702/567 host Kieno Kammies also laid formal complaints of discrimination with the SAHRC.
In a letter to SAHRC chairperson Jody Kollapen, Abramjee and Kammies said they attended the FBJ meeting on Friday, and raised their objections to the fact that the meeting excluded white journalists.
This was discriminatory and went against the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.
”After we walked out in solidarity with our white colleagues who were ordered out and those who were excluded, we were referred to as ‘coconuts’ — ‘black on the outside and white on the inside’.”
A report by Chris Bathembu in the Citizen newspaper on Monday confirmed this. He was in the meeting.
This was also reported in the Rapport newspaper on Sunday.
”We are told that Jon Qwelane was one of the people who used this term,” they wrote.
”We are of the view that the term ‘coconut’ is not only insulting, but discriminatory.
”It was clearly used in a racial context and this is totally unacceptable and is meant to demean.
”We hereby lodge a formal complaint with the SAHRC and we will appreciate it if the commission can investigate this matter and make a finding as part of its investigation into the FBJ meeting and the complaint lodged by our colleague, Katy Katopodis,” the two said.
‘What is the agenda?’
Friday’s meeting of the FBJ has unleashed a storm of controversy, with the Democratic Alliance (DA) comparing the in-camera briefing to an off-the-record briefing given to black editors by Bulelani Ngcuka, the former national director of public prosecutions.
The DA’s Dene Smuts, the party’s spokesperson on communications, said Zuma at that time protested that the meeting was a ”character-assassination exercise”.
Smuts said while the party acknowledged the right of black journalists to revive a racially exclusive organisation, the forum and its organiser, Makoe, had to explain the reasons for the revival to the public. Makoe is the political editor of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).
”The need for an explanation is all the more urgent because Mr Jacob Zuma was the guest of the forum at its closed meeting,” said Smuts.
Ngcuka had an off-the-record briefing in July 2003 with black editors when Zuma was first being investigated. ”This was no ordinary media briefing; it was a character-assassination exercise,” Zuma said in a complaint to the Public Protector at the time, arguing that Ngcuka was abusing his position and not acting in good faith, Smuts said.
”It is to Zuma’s credit that he held a non-racial press conference immediately after the event. But what did he say behind closed doors? What questions did the black journalists feel they could only ask in camera? What is the agenda?” Smuts said.
These questions, Smuts said, were inevitable and that was what made the racially exclusive forum problematic. ”In the case of the SABC, it is not just problematic, it is unacceptable.”
White journalists fume
White journalists expressed their dismay after they were denied access to the ”hottest news ticket in town” on Friday.
The ANC president himself saw nothing wrong with white journalists being denied entry to the event.
”I saw nothing wrong,” said Zuma when asked whether he approved of the exclusion of white journalists. ”All of us as South Africans in the 13 years of democracy come from different backgrounds … there are experiences that people would have that they may want to share.”
The ANC president’s arrival at the forum after midday spurred white journalists, waiting in the wings outside, into action. He was questioned about why he would address a gathering that excluded journalists on the basis of race.
He declined to comment immediately but, after delivering his address to the forum, he agreed to a five-minute press briefing with all the media — including white journalists — to explain himself. He said he had been invited to speak in many different forums and was currently considering an invitation from the Black Management Forum.
Asked whether he thought it was constitutionally correct to bar white journalists, Zuma said this was a question for the forum.
Earlier in the day, reporter Ben Said from e.tv was denied entry to the room. Talk Radio 702’s Stephen Grootes was asked to leave after having gained entry.
Grootes said he was all for an organisation comprising only black journalists. ”The forum should exist, I understand the need for it … for me the issue was Zuma,” he said.
When asked why he had entered the venue knowing it was for black journalists only, he said: ”I didn’t think they would go through with it … it was wrong for them to deny us access to the hottest news ticket in town because of race.”
Makoe, the FBJ’s steering committee chairperson, described his white colleagues’ behaviour as ”shocking”. He accused the white journalists of ”stage managing” and causing a ”total commotion” prior to Zuma’s arrival at the venue. Makoe said the journalists in question were aware they were not allowed inside but gained entry anyway, only to be shown the door before proceedings began.
He said earlier that the FBJ was no different from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) or the Black Lawyers’ Association.
For its part, the SAJBD on Monday said in a statement that it rejected comparisons made between itself and the FBJ: ”In defending the concept of a forum exclusively for black journalists, FBJ chairperson Abby Makoe likened it to that of the SAJBD. By so doing, he erroneously implied that membership of the SAJBD is dependent on racial criteria, as is the case with the FBJ.”
Zev Krengel, national chairperson of the SAJBD, said that while a broad range of Jewish organisations were affiliated to the SAJBD, the common denominator linking them was that their members all adhered to — or at least were born into — the Jewish religious faith.
”Within Judaism, there is a multiplicity of races and ethnicities, including many converts. The concept of excluding any person or organisation from membership solely on racial grounds would therefore be anathema to the SAJBD,” Krengel said. — Sapa