The ANC caucus in the Northern Cape provincial legislature has accused the media of racism and sexism in its reporting of allegations that Northern Cape Premier Sylvia Lucas spent over R50 000 on fast food in her first 10 weeks in office, using her government credit card.
Lucas's spending habits were revealed in the Sunday Times on September 15. Her office told the Mail & Guardian this was "not excessive" as she had not broken any law, and had to feed herself while out performing her official duties.
In a statement issued on Friday, the office of the chief whip in the legislature said not only had the media "demeaned" Lucas’s reputation, but "it does so by relying on racist and sexist tropes and innuendo that disfigures black people in general and black women more specifically".
It said the reporting raised "serious questions" about the South African media's commitment to reporting that is sensitive to race and gender issues.
It said Lucas could complain to the Human Rights Commission.
"Notwithstanding the assurance from the premier's office that Lucas had not contravened any regulations or the subsequent reassurance from the political leadership of the ANC in the Northern Cape could stop the sensational spin of the story. In effect, the allegations raised by the Sunday Times took on a less than newsworthy life of its own.
"A later opinion piece by a male reporter went so far as to demean the premier as a 'clueless aunty unleashed on an unsuspecting populace'. The obvious sexist language used by this reporter is decidedly abusive and even imperial in its mistaken patriarchal assumption that the citizens of the Northern Cape were caught unaware by the appointment of a woman as premier. Online comments posted below the coverage took the cue and added more debasing racist and sexist commentaries aimed at humiliating the premier and all black South Africans in general."
'Indulged her greed and appetite'
The caucus said there was an "unfounded inference" that Lucas had "indulged her greed and appetite".
"To add injury to insult, the coverage painted a picture of a cartoon-like premier with untoward references to her body type and her state of health. In disfiguring the premier in this way, the innuendo and black stereotypes that were used became the story itself. In so doing, a larger historical narrative of black dysfunction became the driving undercurrent and background to the story.
"It is clear that the overall purpose of demeaning the premier was made possible by relying on the assumed dysfunction of black people and black ANC leaders in the main. The stories that appeared across the media did not have to specifically employ the notion that Premier Lucas was part of a greedy class of incompetent black leaders because it was unmistakably implied. This kind of sensationalised reporting obviously sells copy and it does so by relying on and replicating racist notions of blackness that reflect the mindset of the apartheid past," the caucus said.
Worse still, the caucus said, were the "unflattering pictures" of Lucas used in some of the coverage. The caucus used the M&G's report, that Lucas's eating habits reflected a larger, society-wide problem, as an example.
"One particular article in the Mail & Guardian on September 20 even went so far as to add a cartoon-like chef's hat to a picture of Lucas on her cell phone. The article then went to pains to draw unwarranted inferences about the example the premier was setting in terms of her eating habits. This contrived rendering of the story was particularly unfounded in its deceptive assumption that the allegations raised by the original Sunday Times article was proof that Lucas was at odds with guidelines on healthy eating in both the private and public sectors."
In "caricaturing" Lucas, the media had exposed itself as being unwilling to distance itself from stereotyping blackness, the caucus said. This was much like the 1913 film, Birth of a Nation, it said.
"The undercurrent of the film was the question of what to do with freed black slaves who demanded political participation and representation after the Civil War."
'Tired racist stereotype'
And by emphasising chicken purchased at KFC and Nandos, the media had played into the "tired racist stereotype of black people and their appetite for chicken".
"This stereotype is amended to include other fast foods to suggest blacks, particularly those in leadership positions like Lucas, are genetically driven to eat as much as they can because they are fat, lazy and incompetent.
"These are serious allegations even when the narrative is conveyed through innuendo. The truth is that the narrative is drawn from a long and arduous history that knowingly depicts black people as unworthy and untrustworthy. The sensationalised allegations that surround Lucas cannot, therefore, just easily be set aside because they are serious and disconcerting. Nonetheless, as of this writing, no-one inside the media industry or elsewhere has raised a cautioning word let alone a reprimanding one. This is so even though the disfigurement that has occurred is purposeful and consequently derides the very social and political fabric of our post-1994 ideals that confirm the humane need for us to build and respect the diversity of our nation."
Additionally, Lucas is committed to democracy, the caucus pointed out. She is also a "loving mother and grandmother".
"Those among us who are committed to the nonracial and nonsexist nation that emerged in 1994 will recognise quite clearly that Lucas is anything but the stereotypical caricature that is being used to besmirch her personal integrity and her leadership in the Northern Cape," the caucus said.