/ 5 March 2008

Don’t cry no tears, FBJ tells 702

Newspaper columnist Jon Qwelane has refused to apologise for calling a former colleague a ”coconut” for objecting to a blacks-only event.

”I made it clear that I won’t apologise for using the word ‘coconut’,” he said in Johannesburg on Wednesday at a public forum organised by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

Qwelane, a former Talk Radio 702 host, made the remark at a recent off-the-record briefing organised by the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ) to mark its relaunch. African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma addressed the briefing two weeks ago.

Wednesday’s frank and at times heated SAHRC forum focused on exclusive organisations. The commission hosted the forum after receiving a complaint from Talk Radio 702 Radio and 94.7 Highveld Stereo.

This came after white political reporter Stephen Grootes was asked to leave the FBJ meeting, which was by invitation only to black, Indian and coloured journalists. The radio station submitted that while it did not object to the existence of the FBJ, it believed the exclusion of white journalists was not in line with the Constitution, the Equality Act and international law.

Yusuf Abramjee, group head of news, said Qwelane called him and talk-show host Kieno Kammies ”coconuts” at the FBJ meeting when they objected to its racial exclusivity. They also lodged a complaint saying it was discriminatory and hurtful.

”We can see no conceivable basis on which the conduct of the FBJ is justifiable,” he said, adding that its ”destructive” behaviour has caused divisions in the journalistic fraternity.

Issues in journalism

FBJ chairperson Abbey Makoe said: ”To say the FBJ has no place in South Africa is to deny that black journalists have the right to association and organisation.”

He said issues in journalism are not limited to job descriptions and newsroom positions. ”They extend to psychological, spiritual, cultural aspects of reconstruction of their [black journalists’] own rehumanisation.”

Black journalists want to be able to submit a black view without white sanction and their rights are protected by the Constitution. He said the FBJ knew that Zuma’s presence at the briefing would be a ”magnet of sorts”, attracting journalists who would not otherwise have attended.

Members of the FBJ could discuss whether they wanted to admit white colleagues, he said.

”It [the complaint] smacks of paternalistic arrogance and undermines the right to independence of thought and action,” he said. ”This is about black journalists, their rights, their fears, their concerns.”

He added: ”I challenge anybody to tell us what we are doing is illegal.”

During the discussion, AfriForum spokesperson Kallie Kriel questioned whether the FBJ would be conducting a pencil test — a demeaning apartheid method of classification by running a pencil through a person’s hair to determine their race — to ascertain whether forum members were black, considering there was no longer legislation determining race.

An outraged member of the audience shouted: ”For 50 years you knew how to classify us, now it becomes academic?”

Qwelane said that the definition of ”black” is a ”very cerebral thing” — it is not necessarily the colour of a person’s skin, but his or her state of mind. He said he believes this includes Indian, coloured and African people ”minus the coconuts”.

To which Kammies responded: ”If black is a state of mind, then what stops white people from also being able to identify?”

‘Not racism’

Writer and land rights activist Andile Mngxitama, speaking in his personal capacity, said white people do not need organisations for their own interests because they are already in organisations and making decisions for themselves.

To nods and murmurs of agreement, he said there can be no such thing as racism against white people, because the term originated in the violence white people perpetrated against black slaves. ”If there is a new form of oppression where white people are oppressed, let’s not call it racism; let’s call it something else.”

Tempers flared briefly between Department of Arts and Culture spokesperson Sandile Memela and Sowetan editor Thabo Leshilo when Memela said he could have been an editor at the Sunday World newspaper but was forced out of the newsroom because he was ”uncontrollable”.

He said there is no room for journalists in South Africa who are ”authentically black” and there are black editors who suppress black self-determination and identity. He said some newsrooms look like ”bantustans” with black journalists doing the ”running around” and the decision-makers being white.

Leshilo countered that Memela was being ”economical with the truth” about the circumstances of his departure. Memela replied: ”Let’s take it offline, then,” before order was restored.

The forum ended with the announcement that South Africa’s 2010 soccer chief, Irvin Khoza, had apologised unreservedly in a statement for using the word ”kaffir” towards a black journalist.

Khoza — chairperson of the 2010 World Cup local organising committee — said he had decided on this action after seeing the controversial University of the Free State racist video on the news, in which four white students are shown apparently urinating into food then served to black university workers during a mock initiation ritual.

”I therefore unreservedly and, without qualification, repeat my apology for using the K-word,” Khoza said. — Sapa