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Why Thought Leader is early on at the crossroads

It is the unprecedented flux and ferment within the ruling ANC and its alliance partners that must encourage us to break new ground in our critical thinking and intellectual courage, tear into inflated egos, pull down the high and mighty from their pedestals and even take the bull by the horns.

The recent robust debates about the racial composition of both the editors and bloggers of Thought Leader and, as a result, some critical commentary of the Mail & Guardian must be welcomed and seen within the context of this particularly vibrant, challenging and tumultuous juncture in post-apartheid history.

Today — as we have dramatically seen in Polokwane — we happily no longer have any holy cows to which we obsequiously and uncritically pay homage. Nobody and nothing. At the risk of sounding iconoclastic, this is the best thing that could happen to a moribund democracy that has left much to be desired after 1994. We are all well poised for some unequivocal and deserving straight-talking.

The very discourse and forums of critical thinking the M&G has been hosting must now be robustly turned inwards, and in the process nobody must be spared. In fact, what is very interesting is that a few important questions about what has been happening with the M&G over the past few years have for the first time been critically aired, not in the paper itself, but here on Thought Leader.

The initiative the editors of Thought Leader took to bring these debates forward was a courageous move we all welcomed. I believe Dominic Tweedie did us all a favour by raising these issues on the Debate list serve, even if some of his criticisms lack balance and proportion. But even that is dwarfed by the much bigger concern: where really is both the paper and Thought Leader heading?

The M&G cannot be actively promoting critical thinking about the rest of society and not expect that it will and must itself be subjected to critical scrutiny. That is my deep concern: that the paper likes to dish it out critically to others but seems not to always welcome robust critical scrutiny of itself.

In fact, besides Polokwane, if we follow closely the sustained protests in communities across the country, growing militancy at universities and a more engaged civil society recently, then it is clear that a wider and deeper rigour is at work, which can only have positive consequences for this democracy.

In this spirit I also would like to know how it is possible that the editor of the paper did not foresee that there would inevitably be a problem from both a racial and gender perspective if the entire editorial team of Thought Leader was white and male. Even if Thought Leader is editorially independent of the M&G, the fact is that in the final analysis the editor of the paper has editorial oversight over it. Why otherwise did the editor angrily say in her response to an article by Ronald Suresh Roberts last year, “I wanted to take it down off Thought Leader“, if she does not have editorial oversight and power over it?

This also makes me now realise that although we cannot lump the paper and Thought Leader together, the latter is clearly a project of the former and as such we cannot over-emphasise its editorial independence from the paper. This does not necessarily mean there is or will be editorial interference, but that the editor of the paper has the right and power to challenge and change what she disapproves of on Thought Leader.

Besides, what exacerbates the whites-only character of the editorial team of Thought Leader is that the M&G‘s deputy editor, opinion editor and the editor of its Monitor section are also all white. Surely, this seems to suggest strongly some serious editorial problems in a post-apartheid South Africa and specifically for media transformation, or must those who point this out be resented and targeted? Come on, for a paper that has said so much about speaking truth to power, this is a real test of such commitment.

About having bloggers who are more representative of our society and the struggles within it, there are various people the editors could have contacted to get some suggestions about who to invite, especially from important constituencies such as the trade unions and social movements. Besides, the M&G knows who the leading figures are in these movements.

Dominic’s criticisms and the responses to Maher’s piece thereafter exposed some facts and figures — even if there was a bit of inaccuracy — many of us did not know. Many of us were too busy with other commitments to have had the time to examine closely what was happening until this debate that Dominic’s criticisms opened up.

Finally, while I still consider the M&G — relatively — the best read around, I think many of the criticisms that have been made are correct. Whereas within the mainstream print media it certainly was seen as the home of the left — not just the white left — in the 1990s, what has happened over the past few years has already seriously undermined that reputation.

But not even this makes the paper or, in fact, Thought Leader “anti-communist”. That is putting the point far too strongly and inaccurately, I think, but for both some serious introspection and retrospection is necessary now. Bloggers and readers will constructively be assisting these processes.