Ferial Haffajee
Ferial Haffajee

How dare he?

Ronald Suresh Roberts tests my commitment to freedom of expression. When I read his blog calling Mondli Makhanya a chicken, I wanted it taken down off Thought Leader.

But to do that would be to abuse the space as he has abused it. Abused it by parading attack as debate; innuendo as critical thought. Bile is his style.

He really belongs on a lesser blogging platform.

How dare he? How dare he call Mondli Makhanya an askari, as he has? How dare he call him a chicken? And how dare he get away with it wearing the cloak of the iconoclast free-speaker? He may once have been, but he is now anything but. He is a peddler of lies and of tiny bits of gossip, usually incorrect, gleaned from coffee-shop chit-chat.

That is the currency of his book on the intellectual traditions of President Mbeki, which should really be retitled Inside My Bitter Heart: A Guide to My Tortured Soul, a biography of Ronald Suresh Roberts. Many might be impressed by his turn of phrase, but you’ll soon tire of it; there is nothing beyond the bitter heart; little but inane point-scoring; personal puffery rather than a clever take on society.

Take the Cheney post — he compares Mondli to Dick Cheney. Makhanya, he says, is absent from the battlefield of media freedom. He has not, claims Ronald, defended his newspaper’s decision to publish the details of our health minister’s ineptitude and her drunken sprees.

What rubbish! Bravery lies in publishing that which has been well-known in political circles forever: that the health minister has a serious drinking problem; that she has been an abysmal steward of national health; that ANC-linked political office-bearers now want to take over the Sunday Times.

And Mondli has defended his decisions in court, debated publicly both in his newspaper columns and on Sanef platforms. I know; I was there.

So what if he didn’t attend the Sanef meeting commemorating the October 1977 bannings? He was on deadline and very few title editors can get away to attend all-day conferences or meetings. Not all of us have the luxury of bottomless writing grants arranged via our contacts in the Presidency to swan around conferences and “think” all day. Fat lot of good all that thinking time seems to be doing if all it results in are cheap insults like “Yellow Pimpernel”. He writes of Mondli’s cancellation of a Sanef panel discussion and says that he had an “apparently” good excuse, suggesting that this was a lie. He should check his facts: Mondli’s mother-in-law died that week.

Ronald’s style is innuendo and, of late, blue lies. He has defended President Mbeki’s oddball Aids views as the work of a man ahead of his time. His book denies that Mbeki was ever a dissident; all he was, according to Ronald, was a very clever pharmacologist who predicted the side effects of ARVs. Well, that lie has been blown out of the water by the better biography, Mark Gevisser’s A Dream Deferred. In it, Mbeki himself confirms that he is still a dissident.

At some point this year, I won Ronald’s admiration for an article I wrote in the Media questioning those who sought to shut down his views instead of debating him. He is fond of the following quote from the article and uses it often: “Commitment to principles of freedom of expression will always be tested by your tolerance for views that run counter to your own.”

The crux of the argument was that Ronald risked becoming journalism’s Jacob Zuma: the more the media shut him out, the more heroic he would become. Do not, I said, make heroes of people who are not. Funny how selectively he quotes from that column.

Mondli is a much-loved former editor of the Mail & Guardian; he is a highly respected South African and a revolutionary to boot. I would prefer that Thought Leader is not used to malign and insult him, but if he is maligned and insulted, know that we, his former colleagues, will not sit shivering silently in fear of the wrath of Ronald. He is a paper tiger.