Abbey Makoe, chairperson of the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ), has lashed out at a South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) finding regarding a controversial FBJ meeting where white journalists were barred based on the colour of their skin, calling it “nothing more than a judicial ambush” and a “banning order”.
This finding was among several announced by the SAHRC at Human Rights House in Johannesburg on Tuesday. The commission also recommended that the FBJ consider amending its constitution to open its membership to all races, subject to its aim of furthering the “advancement and empowerment” of black journalists.
African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma delivered an off-the-record address at the FBJ relaunch meeting in Johannesburg in mid-February, where white journalists were turned away by their black colleagues. Zuma said afterwards that he saw nothing wrong with white journalists being denied entry to the event.
Talk Radio 702 news editor Katy Katopodis — among those barred from the meeting — then lodged a complaint with the SAHRC.
The commission, following a public forum held in March on this matter, found that the FBJ had acted unconstitutionally by barring white journalists.
At the forum, Makoe had said: “To say the FBJ has no place in South Africa is to deny that black journalists have the right to association and organisation,” adding that members of the FBJ could discuss whether they wanted to admit white colleagues. “I challenge anybody to tell us what we are doing is illegal.”
SAHRC chairperson Jody Kollapen said on Tuesday that the FBJ’s excluding people based on their race was not acceptable, though exclusion based on membership only would have been accepted.
Makoe, however, reacted to the SAHRC’s findings by calling on journalists at an impromptu press conference to consider the “circumstances that had led the SAHRC to what amounts as its first banning order to a black initiative”.
He called the SAHRC’s public forum a “shame trial” instead of an opportunity to consider different points of view, and said the FBJ was invited to the hearings “under the guise that it was an open discussion on the question of racism”.
“The FBJ hereby wishes to state that the conclusion arrived by the SAHRC represents nothing more than a judicial ambush,” he said.
The commission’s understanding of racism was “dubious”, Makoe said, “since the primary focus of its concern is the absence of white journalists in the black organisation”.
Kollapen denied that the FBJ was “banned” and said the SAHRC’s findings were simply a recommendation. “Clearly the Human Rights Commission has nowhere embarked on a process of banning,” he said.
“Their [the FBJ’s] statement suggesting we have banned them is misleading. The FBJ clearly has a right to exist. They run the risk of giving any group the licence to be exclusive. These findings are only recommendations and should be taken as such.”
An angry Tseliso Thipanyane, SAHRC CEO, commented: “We made a finding and it is our responsibility to ensure that it is respected. I will suggest to the commission that they take this matter to court to ensure that our findings are respected.”
Talk Radio 702’s Katopodis welcomed the commission’s findings and said she had “no qualm about the organisation of the FBJ”, adding: “I hope in future we do not have issues like this.”
A second finding released on Tuesday related to a complaint by Primedia head of news and talk programming Yusuf Abramjee and talk-show host Kienno Kammies about newspaper columnist Jon Qwelane, who called them “coconuts” (meaning black on the outside and white on the inside) when they walked out of the FBJ meeting in solidarity with their white colleagues.
However, the SAHRC said the term “coconut” did not amount to hate speech, but evoked feelings of indignity. It discouraged the use of the term, saying the public must refrain from making “undesirable remarks which allude in a disparaging manner to race, gender and sexual orientation”.
Abramjee and Kammies accepted the findings and asked that people now move forward from this and implement the various SAHRC recommendations.
“I am very relieved that the commission did not find me guilty of hate speech by referring to tropical fruit,” said Qwelane during the SAHRC press conference.
At the public forum in March, he had refused to apologise for using the term “coconut”.
Qwelane also said on Tuesday he was disappointed that the commission had not yet looked into a complaint laid by him that Talk Radio 702 was “manufacturing news and that it cheats to people, lies to people and is immoral”.
“The commission is looking into this matter,” said Kollapen.
In February, the South African National Editors’ Forum strongly condemned the exclusion of white reporters, saying this “has no place in South Africa today”, adding in a statement: “Our democracy came after a hard-fought struggle at several levels, including the media, and every effort should be made to protect it.”