The home of critical, open debate

Some years ago the Cape Town Press Club hosted then-axed deputy president Jacob Zuma. It was 2006, if I remember correctly. I was told by his spin doctors that they were most impressed that we had invited him at a time when no organisation — affiliated to the ANC or independent – would touch him with a bargepole. I also invited him to the business and professional Cape Town Club of which I was deputy chair at the time.

We had robust sessions at both events. They gave him a hearing and he was gentlemanly in his replies, taking each question seriously – as his predecessor, president Nelson Mandela, would have done. I remember that he took careful trouble, as Mandela always did, to greet all the support staff, black and white. It was the sort of dignified behaviour of which the imperious Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson clearly is not capable.

The Cape Town Press Club has never made any bones about its membership. It is not only a club of journalists, but includes businesspeople, some politicians – who come from all the major political parties, including the ANC – media liaison officers, public relations officers and party-political media personnel. There have also been objections to the fact that we have as members public relations personnel who represent companies in the fishing industry. We do, indeed. Yet we must point out that we do not receive funding, as suggested, from any of these companies. We do, however, receive other business funding, mainly for bursary and internship programmes that almost entirely benefit emerging black journalists. These are run by volunteer members of the committee.

In her stride
Just recently we hosted Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu. Once again a group of pro-hydraulic fracturing lobbyists were present, led by former ANC Western Cape provincial leader Chris Nissen, who happens to be a guest speaker on the fracking topic on May 23. He has insisted that his nemesis, Peter Marais, be there. The anti-fracking group was led by Jonathan Deal, chairperson of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group. Outside, demonstrators made their opposition to fracking known. Some of the posters bordered on being rude. The minister appeared to be in her element. Questions were fired from all sides of the debate. She also took questions from a lobbyist who opposed tungsten mining on the West Coast. She took it in her stride, as one would expect any politician – who, after all, is a servant of the electorate – worth her salt to do.

In terms of trying to claim that the press club had misrepresented itself, it is just remarkable. It speaks more of an intention to stifle debate. At present, public debate and freedom of speech and association are concepts still entrenched in our national Constitution.

In terms of the suggestion that politicians should not be members, we will be reviewing our membership policies. We wish to point out, however, that members of the club are welcome to bring guests to our functions. They may choose to include a politician or a lobbyist. They may choose to bring an opposition politician, as one guest recently did when Ebrahim Patel, the minister of economic development, spoke. Independent Democrats MP Lance Greyling was there as a guest and asked questions. Patel, to his credit, looked entirely unruffled. He appeared to enjoy the rigorous engagement, something I would have thought a press club should encourage. Politics is not for sissies, surely.

The club is 36 years old. In his day, prime minister BJ Vorster called the Cape Town Press Club a hotbed of communists and thus not a forum for the National Party’s policies to have a fair hearing.

Struggle for free speech
Nevertheless, we will be considering whether we should return to a system in which journalists are the principal members of the press club and no other professions and trades fall into a secondary category. At present the chairperson referees the discussion and does not allow political speeches to be made by the audience. Pieter van Dalen, DA spokesperson on agriculture, forestry and fisheries, was requested not to ask a question on the Joemat-Pettersson occasion. The minister did not accept that compromise.

My committee (which, incidentally, is nonracial) and I are proud of the work that we do – voluntarily – for the Cape Town Press Club. We have hosted Mandela, Trevor Manuel, Morgan Tsvangirai, Iraj Abedian, Evita Bezuidenhout, Blade Nzimande, Tokyo Sexwale, Zuma and many, many more over the years. Not only have we had ANC politicians as our guests, but also DA, African Christian Democratic Party, National Party and Inkatha Freedom Party leaders have been hosted in recent years. We also have the minister of social development coming up within two weeks.

The struggle for free speech and tolerance of open debate continues.

Donwald Pressly is the chairperson of the Cape Town Press Club and a parliamentary journalist

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Donwald Pressly
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