Ferial Haffajee
Ferial Haffajee

Of ivory towers and diseased black men

Here is why people are so afraid to “debate” Ronald Suresh Roberts. After last week’s post in which I objected to Ronald’s name-calling, I called him and explained why he’d really pissed me off. I know him and believe that he has a great mind that should be applied to weightier matters than personal attack.

To prove the point, he sends me the following SMS: “Am writing something called ‘mondli in my bedroom’. Need comment: in paul [my husband] are you fleeing diseased black men? (still my heroine, incidentally).”

Talk about playing the woman and not the ball. He tells me the missive is going into the new media magazine, Empire, and not on to Thought Leader. I can’t wait.

Robert Brand’s blog is, as usual, thought-provoking and professorial. I fear that in criticising Tim du Plessis’s decision to can the columnist Deon Maas who penned a piece pleading for the tolerance of satanists, he writes from the ivory tower. It’s one thing to sit in the town soon not to be called Grahamstown and pontificate on what should have been done.

It’s entirely another to receive chain emails and SMSs and have your newspaper’s viability threatened by irate Christians — all this was Tim’s personal hell this past week.

Robert’s argument paints the saga as the easy capitulation to the capitalist bosses at Media24. The reality was probably more complex and scary than that.

Personally, I think Tim should have opened the newspaper to debate and kept Deon on as a columnist. Sales may have hurt for the first weekend but Rapport‘s a compelling Sunday read and it would not have gone on forever. If the suits wanted to fire Deon, they should have been made to do so themselves in order to protect editorial from allegations of interference.

When the M&G was so threatened last year after we published one of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, numerous Muslim shop owners cancelled their orders. Men whispered hell and damnation into my cellphone and chain-mailed the newspaper as Rapport‘s detractors have done. It’s a hard place to be in and there are no easy exits.

I apologised for the offence caused as it was completely unanticipated — some readers appreciated this; others thought it capitulation.

You grow through these things. Some shopkeepers still refuse to stock the newspaper but it has not hurt us as we engaged the enraged. The big freedom of expression issues of the 21st century are not going to be fought on the political terrain, but around religion.

The big debates we should have are about the relative weightings we give to religious freedoms versus freedom of expression. And often we cannot have them because of the rush to bully and to boycott instead of to debate and to differ.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/llewellynkriel Llewellyn Kriel

    Exquisitely succinct, Ferial, and I agree, the losers are us all. Though the Flat-Earth Society has become a nonentity, the debate started with Darwin still rages. Ask Richard Dawkins.

    These are extraordinary topics to discuss because there always comes a point where rational, reasonable, empirical argument falters at the edge of the chasm – unable to make the irrational, unreasonable, metaphysical “leap of faith”. It was an issue Godfrey Ashby and our Bib Studs classes debated to frustration at Rhodes.

    But I believe religious debate has much to learn from psychology when it comes to talking about things “you wouldn’t understand unless you’d been there”. Schizophrenics, depressives, bipolars, OCD – the whole gamut of us – are beginning to build dialogue by reaching out across the chasm of understanding between subjective experience and objective analysis.

    As I said in my latest blog, if it’s the truth, it’ll stand up to any amount of interrogation.

    In our land of remote and isolated islands in an archipelago of people (as opposed to the Tutuesque chimera of a united rainbow nation), bridges and even “trade routes” must be created and sustained. And that doesn’t happen through blockades, embargoes and trade sanctions. It happens by listening to Deon, RSR, Jimmy Manyi, Gwede Mantashe, Dali and all the others so many of us find repulsive (the Afrikaans word “aanstootlik” describes my feelings better).

    There are, sadly, too many editors who choose the road well-trodden. Maybe Tim did that. I don’t know. But I do know that the well-trodden road is invariably the one that gets washed away and made into a donga when the really heavy rains come. And they always do, don’t they?

  • Ronald Suresh Roberts

    Ronald Suresh Roberts Replies:

    Ferial, the SMS to which I referred was sent to You on Sunday after the Sunday Times entered my bedroom in an article published that day. When they called me for comment at 16:30 on Saturday, one of the points I made was that I did not understand why they felt that it was in the public interest to enter my bedroom. You have not addressed that issue. Was it in the public interest?

    What you do raise is something I had deliberately stayed away from, but now you raise it, so I will have to reply reply. This is the issue of your husband.

    Nowhere in all of your comments and your newspapers comments attacking Essop Pahad, Koni Media and others while defending the Sunday Times and Mondli Makhanya in particular, have you informed readers that your husband is the editor of the Sunday Times business section, Business Times.

    As Joel Mervis points out in The Fourth Estate, Business Times (founded by Steve Mulholland) has long been the magnificent cash cow of the Sunday Times. It is precisely the part of the newspaper where vast portions of the much-discussed Sunday Times advertising revenues mostly come from. Ferial, your husband edits it! When Pahad threatens that advertising, he is threatening your husbands revenue streams and implicitly your household income. When were you going to share that with readers?

    And please stop pretending to dislike me just in order to please my detractors. When you called me on Friday I was having lunch with Bheki Khumalo in Cape Town and he heard the whole very friendly conversation and he knows anyway, as you know he knows, that you like me and I like you. A lot.

    So why the phony “wrestling match” theatrics meant to pretend that you are a signed up subscriber (which you are not) to the Sunday Times propaganda stereotype of “Unlikeable Mr Roberts”? Are you protecting the Business Times job? Stop stereotyping me, Ferial. It’s as phony as televised wrestling. Honesty matters in this.

    You are still my free speech heroine, however.

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za Ferial

    How sexist, Ronald! That I should forever hold my peace because my husband edits the Business Times. That as an independent journalist I dare raise no concern about Koni Media or the unwarranted attacks on a fellow editor because my husband happens to work there. What happened to independent agency? To having my own brain? My own thoughts? Heaven knows, my own values and principles.

    All I’m doing according to you is protecting my household income and therefore all I write is sullied and somehow discredited. Imagine if we had applied such a logic to your book, “Fit to Govern” which was written on a grant arranged by the Presidency?

    And, no, I’m not the nom de plume of Mondli Makhanya — these are my own original thoughts and that from a girl, nogal.

  • http://blogs.thetimes.co.za/britten/ Sarah Britten

    in light of the comment about “diseased black men”, the following quotation from Brink via the Sunday Times is interesting:

    “Worse, Brink suggests that Roberts will sleep only with white women because he sincerely believes black women are infected with the “sex- death” virus.

    As he puts it: “Like nearly all whites who read the newspapers and watch TV, Roberts fervently believes that you can die about a decade after making love with a woman without a condom, especially an African woman, because he thinks women, particularly African women, harbour death in the form of miniature invisible demons in the place most guys like being most.

    “Roberts really believes this.

    “Indeed, at lunch with a lady friend of mine earlier this year, he blurted neurotically when she mentioned me: ‘He doesn’t use condoms!’ As if that was the ultimate token of my lunacy.

    “It seems likely that Roberts’s alarm was heightened by the fact that she’s black, because he doesn’t believe white women spread Aids; it’s all the blacks who do.

  • Scorekeeper

    How cute! Roberts and Ferial are bossom friends, after all? See, for the past few days, I’d tossed various versions of this question in my mind:

    If Ferial saw Roberts drowning and she could either save him or photograph the event… what kind of camera would she use?

    Turns out I was oh sooo wrong! I tripped onto the thing that Jefferson described thusly (oh yes thusly):

    The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

    And so of this glorious friendship, I somehow now feel like a loser who watched the two of you stabbing each other in the front.

    May you two spare us the gory details henceforth… or I will upgrade my literacy by boycotting your blogs.

  • Kevin Roberts

    Ferial is a hypocrite. On the one hand she says the man is a liar who deals in gossip, on the other she continues to give him space to lie about her friends, like Mondli Makhanya. If she says he is a liar, why does she allow him to peddle his lies on her platforms?

    Roberts is a liar. A judge said so. The judge also said he is a lunatic.(http://www.armsdeal-vpo.co.za/articles10/mr_roberts.html).
    It is only people like Ferial, chained to their belief that this is about free speech, who continue to be Roberts’ useful idiots.
    Of course, we know where this is going. I give Ferial a few weeks and she will be whimpering like the many other Roberts victims whose legitimate cries she seems so oblivious to. By the way, the man is allegedly a plagiarist, too. Is Ferial going to fire him for that or is her vaunted love for freedom of speech so strong that alleged plagiarists are now welcome too?

  • Ronald Suresh Roberts


    You are well aware that I was not requiring silence but disclosure. I asked: when are you going to tell readers of the link? You haven’t answered.

    Sara Britten is kinda my cyber-stalker and will recieve further comment in the Empire Magazine “Mondli in My bedroom” piece. So I won’t say too much here, except to point out that she works at the Sunday Times and, typically, censored the reply that I gave, which appeared in the Sunday Times, to what she quotes from Brink.

    the Sunday Times article continued, quoting me as follows:

    “Roberts said it was important to note that Brink was not purporting to quote him and was making his own false assumptions.
    ‘This is completely mad. It’s most outrageous. It makes me out as a racist in a personal aspect of my life. It’s a breach of my privacy. I have gone out with a long string of black women.
    ‘Because I said Aids is in part due to poverty, he deduc ed that it means Roberts is saying it’s more risky to sleep with poor women and because most poor women are black, he deduced that I didn’t want to sleep with black women. That’s not what I said. ‘It’s comical and false. What’s the public interest in this?'”

    So I repeat the question for Ferial with which I began, and which triggered the SMS: where was the public interest in this. Why did Mondli go into my bedroom?

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/colloquy Riaan Wolmarans

    Kevin Roberts: I’d like to point out that Thought Leader is not “Ferial’s platform”. It is a blogging platform launched and operated by the Mail & Guardian Online. Ferial, though editor-in-chief of the M&G, won’t be “firing” any bloggers. The idea of Thought Leader is to give voice to opinions and voices that lead to debate, however heated. If you disagree so vehemently with Roberts’s views and writing, you need not read his blog on here.

  • Afrodite

    Good grief! For someone who obviously regards himself as an intellectual of some stature, Suresh, you are really trawling the bottom of the barrell here. What does it matter where Ferial’s husband works? He used to work for the Mail and Guardian. So what? This has nothing to do with the issues Ferial raised about you. Diseased black men? Must you stoop so low?

  • Ronald Suresh Roberts

    Hey Kevin

    Are we related? You seem kinda likeable.

  • http://blogs.thetimes.co.za/britten/ Sarah Britten

    Ooh, I’m RSR’s cyber-stalker!!! I wondered when he’d get irritated enough to notice me. Fred Khumalo is going to be so jealous. I haven’t stalked anyone in years, at least not since my ex-boyfriend the psychic, whom I stalked for about ten minutes before I got bored.

    For the record, Ronald, since you’re interested in the facts: I don’t work for the Sunday Times. I’m a freelancer. I have a day job. They don’t pay me to blog for them, so they have pretty much no hold over me, financially speaking. As for the “censorship”, my bad. It happened to be the one part of that article I remember, and it seemed germane to the argument at hand.

    I do hope, when you submit your piece to Empire, that you get the spelling of my name right.

  • Scorekeeper

    How cute! Roberts and Ferial are bossom friends, after all? See, for the past few days, I’d tossed various versions of this question in my mind:

    If Ferial saw Roberts drowning and she could either save him or photograph the event… what kind of camera would she use?

    Turns out I was oh sooo wrong! I tripped onto the thing that Jefferson described thusly (oh yes thusly):

    The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

    And so of this glorious friendship, I somehow now feel like a loser who watched the two of you joyour friends stabbing each other in the front.

    May you two spare us the gory details henceforth… or I will upgrade my literacy by boycotting your blogs.

  • Ndumiso Ngcobo

    I have been sufficiently moved by this riveting debate to actually write a piece about it.

    Not to pre-empt my own blog but would somebody please answer this question;

    How did we end up in Suresh and Ferial’s respective bedrooms? I thought this was about the poultry-hawk genetic mutants in the media.

    Or have I missed something again…

  • Doctor Cithi

    Now let us pause and really think about this: If Ferial husband works as an editor of the business times, What should we make of her views in defence of the editor of the same newspaper, Mondli Makhanye (cauched as a defence of free speech and the media)? Furthermore, her views about Koni take over of Johnnic, which owned the Sunday times.

  • MidaFo

    Scorekeeper be more direct.
    Stuff off Sarah Britten, FH and RSR! Don’t come near each other in print! It is disgustingly pornographic.
    And to be very honest the ones who dragged the pornography in were the women. RSR initially made cogent statements that are to the benefit of SA. Some famous name scion dragged drivel into the picture and now we have this tawdry imbroglio. There is value in the disagreement as long as you keep the cock, hen, cow and bull out of it!

  • John Bond

    On the left we have the little Ms R500 (Half-a-Gee, sorry it’s a bit weak), She’s out to fight for free press, at all costs. She’ll sacrifice all her ideals on the alter of freedom of expression.
    And on the right we have the grandiose Lord Roberts, related to Lord FREDERICK ROBERTS of Kandahar, last British Commander in Chief to fight a colonial war in Africa, the Anglo Boer war. The young Lord Roberts is out to help Thabo re-colonise South Africa, this time for the Xhosa people…

    Hey Guys

    Yes, I know that this topic has a lot in common with WWR but let’s focus on the issues rather than getting personal with the contestants.

    Put forward reasoned arguments, discuss the various scenarios using the free speech enshrined in out constitution. This may eventually save our good country. Show us that those people who would deny the problems of our country are wrong. Give us a well thought out argument why it was wrong to justifying someone’s stance on the AIDS genocide or whether a free press, at all costs is desirable, or even fair.

    What ever your views, try to argue the issues, not the people. To be honest, discussing the limitations of some members of this forum just detract from the garbage kites they are flying. Forget that someone is arrogant, discuss rather that the courts have found him dishonest and libellous on the important issues we are discussing….

    …or we can stay as we are for the rest of our lives.

  • Siviwe Xegwana

    John Bond, do you honestly believe that Thabo Mbeki is out to “re-colonise South Africa, this time for the Xhosa people…” or you are being cynical??

  • http://www.unisa.ac.za Reuben Maphutha

    At the risk of being labelled Roberts bull-dog, all his I thought that journalism is about delivering quality news but the previous Sunday that belief was challenged when I read about how Roberts doesn’t want to mingle with Black women because they are the carriers of killer disease. This line to me sounds like bad journalism if not visible crap. Indeed the Sunday Times went in Roberts’s bedroom and fabricated stories about him and him preferences. Given Roberts’s level education and assuming that the Sunday time was correct in its assertions:

    –we must then also assume that Roberts years of education at oxford and Harvard haven’t effected any changes in his thinking on this issues. Which ST version becomes untruthful and falsity because Roberts admitted in fit to govern that HIV/AIDS is a disease that affects us all black brown white etc.

    –We must also ask ourselves what did Anthony Brink did after realising that Roberts actually holds incorrect view on this issue? Did he agree? Did he corrected Roberts?

    –What actually motivated Brink to tell us this now? Wasn’t it in the public interest to tell us “then and there” that Roberts’s believes the things they say he believes?

    I find hypocritical of journalists to tell us one side of the story and leaves the other deliberately. Mondli published stories about Manto and say that it is in the publics interest to do that but failed to tell us were and how he found the sources and manto’s medical records. This is one side of the story as the public must be informed if its heroes who nailed Manto as the Sunday Times alleged.

    Farreial needs to sharpen up if he is going to join the band-wagon of Suresh detractors.

  • http://www.unisa.ac.za Reuben Maphutha

    Pardon few mistakes there.

  • Robert Brand

    Hi Ferial

    May I change the subject?

    It wasn’t my intention to depict the Tim du PLessis/Deon Maas saga as the “easy capitulation to the capitalist bosses at Media24″. I’ve worked for newspapers long enough to know that it isn’t easy to be an editor (and I have a lot of respect for Tim as a journalist and editor – but that doesn’t make him immune to criticism). My take on the issue is exactly the same as yours: having appointed Maas as a columnist, and run that particular column, Tim should have rode the storm. Giving in to the suits damages editorial independence. Why is that “pontificating” from the “ivory tower”?

  • Robert Brand

    I forgot to add: in Sunday’s Rapport, Tim denied that he was ordered by management to fire Maas. It was his own decision.

  • Native

    Ferial raises something interesting: using Suresh’s logic that if Ferial’s hubby edits the Business Times then her objectivity wrt matters affecting the Sunday Times is compromised, then why should we take Fit to Govern seriously considering the fact that it saw the day of light thanks to the efforts of someone in the presidency? In the chicken-hawk article, Suresh committed a similar outrage accusing Mondli of evading the courts when he himself did the same earlier this year.

    Suresh is not only a hypocrite but also a stupid one because he points a finger without realizing that three other fingers from the same hand are pointing back at him. Please Suresh, if you have to find faulty with others then make sure that you are not also accused of the same crime, otherwise you come across as a buffoon.

  • http://www.unisa.ac.za Reuben Maphutha

    The question should rather be whether ferial has anything to lose if she publicly criticised Mondli or rather the Sunday Times publicly? No doubt that the conduct of the Sunday Times in various occasions has appear extremely despicable as they recently demonstrated by entering into Suresh private life and impose opinions on him which Suresh publicly denounced as false.
    I have never heard anything from ferial after the mantophobia drama from Sunday times entering into meaningful debates about the limits of free speech. Now they have violated Suresh private life and she has not taken a critical view on that issue but a sympathetic one because it is the hand that feeds her.

    It was asked whether is it in the public’s interest that Sunday Times should enter Suresh bedroom and the profound answer from ferial has been her silence, or is she manufacturing an answer like her hero Mondli?

    The words “Public interests” needs to be explored against privacy and free speech. Perhaps the MG and Sunday Times editors need to be educated about that.

  • http://Webmail Mischa & Mvulane

    This is the most exciting forum ever!

  • Sandra

    Robert – If by having the Sunday Times in your bedroom means you have Mondli in your bedroom you must also have Paul in your bedroom and if Paul is in your bedroom where’s his wife? Y’all sound so chumbly I think she could be their too? And the deseased black men? Are they all there too? If I bring a box a condoms can I come too?

  • Robert Brand

    Dear Sandra – please don’t confuse Ronald with Robert. I don’t mind the Sunday Times in my bedroom – as a matter of fact I quite enjoy it.

  • http://Webmail Mugabe

    …hope this question is not inappropriate. God knows we are serious when asking it: Is it true that Suresh is Negrophobic?

  • Sandra

    Sorry sorry sorry – you are right I meant Ronald S Roberts not Robert per se. But you can come too unless you would rather be alone in your bedroom with the Sunday Times

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za Musa

    Ferial has previously indicated that Koni Media is too close to the President, therefore buying out Johnnic is questionable.That was the nexus, ‘too close’.
    Secondly, it has been widely argued that various business women who happen to have spouses in cabinet,government or the ANC succeed because of these connection.They are, the argument goes, too ‘close’ to the action.
    Suprisingly,no one suggests that they too have their own ambitions, are independent, have their own thoughts, values and principles.
    Such is only accorded to the likes of Fareil, who cannot be influenced by the fact that her husband works for Sunday Times.In this instance it is ‘sexist’ to say she is ‘too close’ to the action.
    I do think she is independent, has her own principles and values but in the same breath I must say they same applies with regards to various men and women who have friends and spouses in influencial position in government or the private sector.
    Independence, values and principles of their own must be accorded to them as well or shall we say indicating that they are ‘too close’ to the action is ‘sexist’ as Ferial has argued her case.?I think not.

  • http://www.unisa.ac.za Reuben Maphutha

    Musa you nailed it where it hurts. Using ferial logic you kicked bud boy. she can’t bite the hand that feeds her. Period.

  • http://salma-gundi.blogspot.com/ Juno

    Bit of an irony deficiency there, Roberts – calling the sainted Sarah Britten a cyber-stalker when you’ve just sent Ferial a creepy, stalkerish SMS.