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Is Thought Leader a ‘white thing’?

When I looked at the wide variety of responses to Vincent Maher’s posting on the state of Thought Leader — in response to Dominic Tweedie’s criticisms of it on the Debate list serve last week — I decided that it would be best to write a piece that responds directly to his criticisms. This was partly also done because I noticed that respondents had either not read or chose not respond to some of his criticisms, which in fact demanded a response.

The Mail & Guardian rightly prides itself on being probably the most critical, open, forthright and progressive newspaper in this country, with all its limitations. Therefore, in the spirit of such qualities we need to discuss and debate this important matter.

Tweedie makes some serious allegations and criticisms of the paper and the bloggers, which requires a constructive discussion and debate. To ignore the criticisms and fail or refuse to respond will certainly not be in keeping with the qualities the paper has championed over the years, which is why the editorial decision to respond to Tweedie was correct. A former editor of the paper, Phillip van Niekerk, argued that we must have the right to be wrong. This was said in a spirit of self-criticism that I certainly think we have little of today generally. Instead a trenchant defensiveness and self-righteousness pervades many “debates”.

Tweedie states that in contrast to Mark Gevisser’s description of a paper as the “house organ of the white left there is nothing ‘left’ about the average young white ‘entrepreneur'”, whom he claims “is the typical Thought Leader blogger”. I think he is right in this regard. But he furthermore appears to say that this contradicts the description of the paper as leftist.

There are two things that we need to discuss here. One, is the racial and gender composition of the bloggers. If Tweedie’s statistics are correct — and they appear to be — the question that arises is this: What significance do these facts have for both the paper and Thought Leader, and does it not deserve our serious attention, especially against our historical background, what the paper stands for and within the broader media transformative context? It certainly does warrant serious attention.

However, he goes on to say that “the Mail & Guardian is an anti-communist rag, but they used to have enough savvy to disguise themselves behind black anti-communists. With these blogs they have thrown caution to the winds.” Firstly, I wish to strongly take issue with him. The description of the paper as an “anti-communist rag” is a flagrantly false and I believe deliberate misrepresentation. Partly, this is because the SACP has had and shown much disdain for the paper, probably because it doesn’t like the many criticisms it has had to face in the M&G‘s pages over the years.

And because Tweedie is always terribly defensive about the party he belongs to, I was not surprised by his criticism. What Tweedie gets fundamentally wrong is that he interprets the space the paper has given to criticism of the party as being tantamount to being itself “anti-communist”. Had the SACP received more favourable coverage he certainly would not have levelled such criticism at it.

Besides, I have pointed out many times in this paper that the SACP has in fact never really played the role of a true communist party, which requires that it provide strong and independent leadership to working-class struggles and not play second fiddle to a ruling party to which it has been subordinated for decades (and a ruling party that has itself become increasingly anti-communist in its policies and action since 1994). In fact, the ANC has been far more anti-communist than the paper could ever be. That is why it is with great relief that we have seen the party play a more assertive role of late.

Secondly, from a political and ideological standpoint, the fact that the paper has given me much space over the years to espouse a leftist perspective is itself a sold refutation of Tweedie’s anti-communist characterisation of it. On the whole the paper is rather best described as “social democratic”, though many who use this description these days fail to analyse the wide-ranging negative impact neo-liberalism has had on “social democracy” around the world over the past two to three decades.

Thirdly, Tweedie’s claim that the paper has disguised itself with “black anti-communists” is another serious problem. This is a wrongful attack on both black journalists and commentators for the paper. I don’t see anti-communism at all but a mixture of liberal, social democratic and even sometimes left-leaning views coming from them. But certainly not what I would call “anti-communist”.

Even at times when I strongly differ with editorials of the paper and the views of some of its journalists and commentators, I cannot simply describe them as anti-communist. Tweedie’s approach is less politically scientific and much more influenced by the strong dislike the SACP has had for the paper.

He seems to lack in his criticisms the important element of proportionate balance, meaning he displays a one-sided and blatantly biased approach to the paper, and thereby totally ignores the many positive contributions it has made to the South African media scene. That is the reason why, alongside the Sunday Times, it is the most cited newspaper in the country. He also totally ignores many important and interesting articles bloggers — black and white — have posted on Thought Leader.

But I think we need to be more careful because we cannot lump the bloggers and the paper together. This is a fundamental mistake. In fact, I have much stronger differences with many bloggers than I have had with both editorials and columnists — black and white — of the paper. This is precisely because bloggers come from very different backgrounds and political-ideological standpoints. Interestingly, in this regard I have had some very strong differences with some black bloggers on their understandings and views of racism in this country.

The question that may then arise for the editors to consider is this: Should bloggers not become more representative of the population and society and the struggles within it, and therefore should they not invite clear, strong and articulate voices — of which there are many — from important constituencies in this country, such as the trade unions and social movements? They clearly should.

In conclusion, it is no surprise that white males dominate Thought Leader. They also dominate scholarship and every academic discipline in the country and intellectual production generally. The real historical roots of these enduring realities go back centuries.

But despite these realities, since 1994 we have seen the clear ascendancy of class over race, to the extent where today I have much more in common with much of the “white left” than hundreds of my former fellow black comrades whose only interest today is how big their bank balance is. That is why, in the final analysis, it is the nature of the ideas, views and values of people that have come to matter much more than whether they are white or black.

We should approach Thought Leader in a similar fashion, with the one proviso that there be a conscious and concerted editorial move to draw in other black thinkers in civil society. There is no contradiction in this approach. But it would be ridiculous to exclude other white thinkers/intellectuals who have a meaningful contribution to make. However, I do think that the editors should not invite any further “voices” — white or black — from the business/commercial world, because there seems to be enough “entrepreneurial” interests already.