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Coconuts, racism and SABC politics

Since the debate about the (re)launch of the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ) refuses to die and since it will be given new life on Wednesday at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), I thought I would add my own little bit of noise into the cacophony that already exists. No doubt the SAHRC public meeting will raise new issues that will revive the debate and emotion.

This is becoming a tired line but it requires repetition: people in South Africa do have the constitutional right to organise along various lines — including “racial” lines. There are often very good reasons for organising in these ways, particularly for black people. Black lawyers, for example, argue that the entrenchment of white networks and white perspectives in the legal fraternity and in the judiciary makes it necessary for black legal professionals to organise as blacks.

Anyone who believes that such “race-based” organising has no place in the “new South Africa” either has no clue, at best, about what apartheid did to black people or, at worst, wants to ignore the persistent aspects of apartheid and move on as if life really has substantially changed for black people. The latter attitude serves only to entrench white privilege.

The argument that I have heard repeatedly over the past few weeks, therefore, that “there is no place for race-based organisations in a democratic South Africa”, is nonsense. As long as black people feel that they are marginalised or alienated in our workplaces, in the areas where we live, or in the schools and universities our children attend, we have a right to (and should) organise as black people in order to address such marginalisation or alienation.

I know that many people will say that black journalists do not have a similar gripe to black lawyers; after all, the majority of newspaper editors in this country are black, the top management of the public broadcaster is black and so forth. Hence, the argument goes, even if black lawyers have a reason to organise as blacks, black journalists do not. It might be a comforting thought to some of those in the journalism profession. But it is not necessarily true. Ferial Haffajee’s article in the latest M&G, “Change starts at home“, is a good illustration. Here is a newspaper with a black owner, black editor, black news editor, majority black staff — and yet some of the black journalists feel that they might have reason to be unhappy as black journalists.

“There is too much history and too much geography,” wrote Ferial, “to make … me believe that we have reached a non-racial idyll.” If the newsroom of the M&G is anything to go by, then there still is a need for a space that black journalists can call their own.

And, by the way, this is not racism; and there is no such thing as “reverse racism”. How does one understand “reverse racism”? Well, let’s see: if racism means white people crushing black faces into the dirt, then reverse racism should mean black faces rising out of the dirt and standing eyeball to eyeball with their white tormentors (or former tormentors). If that’s what we understand “reverse racism” to be, I’m all for it! But those who use the term these days (and it is used often), as it has been in reference to the FBJ, take it to mean that blacks are being racist — against whites.

There’s a problem with this reasoning: racism is not about “race” (there are those of us who believe that “race” does not even exist, but let us leave that for another debate); racism is about power relationships. Those who are powerless cannot be racists. Racists are those who have power over another group of people (let us, for a brief moment, call them people of another “race”) and who wield that power in a manner that is detrimental to the latter and which privileges the former. New South Africa or not, you have to be blind to believe that power in niches like the legal, journalist or academic fraternities is controlled by black people.

But does a group like the FBJ have a right to exclude people (read: white journalists) from its meetings or briefings? Actually, yes, it does. Is it a smart thing to do? Probably not. But hardly anyone is saying that the FBJ is stupid; most critics are calling its action of excluding white journalists racist. If it were smart, the FBJ would have opened up its briefing to all journalists. Alternately, it could have had two briefings: one for its members (or black journalists whom it would like to recruit as members) and a second for journalists in general.

My final point on the “race” question regards the complaint by Talk Radio 702’s Yusuf Abramjee. Firstly, I think it is a sad day when journalists run off to a statutory body like the SAHRC to complain about what other journalists have said about them. I thought journalists were thicker-skinned than that. Evidently, some are not.

Journalists make a big deal about the right to free media and the right to free expression — as they should. They also (along with groups like the Freedom of Expression Institute) complain bitterly about how the courts are becoming the first resort for people who want to silence the media. And so they should complain. But call a journo a “coconut” and he gets so upset that he complains to the SAHRC.

Perhaps some journalists are happy dishing out criticism but less happy when it is dished out to them? Besides, what is Abramjee complaining about? It does not seem like he even accepts the notion of a “black journalist”. He told the M&G: “I don’t have a problem per se with the existence of a FBJ, because there might be issues that affect so-called ‘black journalists’.”

“So-called ‘black journalists'”? Are these creatures not real? Are they only the figment of someone’s imagination? And, if they don’t exist, then Abramjee himself is not a black journalist. And if he is not, then his complaint about the “coconut” comment is meaningless.

Let me now move from issues of “race”. From this incident, an important realisation for many has been that South Africa does not have a single journalists’ association. The argument — which has been made by one or two people — that the South African National Editors’ Forum serves the interests of journalists is nonsense. Sanef serves the interests of editors, and editors — in the newsroom — constitute management. Journalists need a broad and representative body that will properly represent their interests and grievances. Such a body should include the journalists that belong to the FBJ but cannot imply that an FBJ should not exist.

There have also been complaints that the FBJ had organised an “off-the-record” briefing. In a well-argued piece, Guy Berger expresses his concern about this too. I believe if journalists were obligated to pass on all information they had at their disposal to the public, our newspapers would be voluminous tomes. Every day of their lives, journalists choose what information to share with the public and what not to. Editors guard their right to do so even more jealously.

Thus, the notion that an off-the-record briefing prevents the free flow of information is correct, but the conclusion that there therefore should not be any such briefings is not. If the conclusion were correct, journalists should not be allowed to talk to any sources unless they were committed to publishing everything that all sources said. That is how ridiculous it could get.

Furthermore, one of the big problems with journalism in this country is the dearth of real investigative journalism. What passes for investigative journalism these days is often a collection of comments from analysts. Off-the-record briefings can be useful sources for journalists who don’t necessarily want to quote what the briefer is saying but want to use that information to enhance the investigation into a story. Picture Zuma saying to the FBJ briefing, for example, that the ANC under his presidency will ensure a pro-poor agenda by pursuing policies that include X, Y and Z elements. A good journalist would take notes so that s/he can watch out for the realisation of these elements as Zuma’s policies unfold.

Finally, I want to turn back to the FBJ. It is true that there has been no coherent articulation of why the FBJ is being relaunched now. Surely the FBJ owes it to its supporters, at least, to answer that question? But it is not a criticism I want to make. Nevertheless, I do want to ask why the people who have decided to revive the forum have done so. In particular, why is the SABC’s political editor, Abbey Makoe, in the front line of this initiative? Firstly, Makoe is an editor. I think he should be trying to find a place for himself in Sanef rather than reviving a journalists’ organisation. I made the point earlier and will repeat it here: I do not see how an editor can claim to represent the interests of journalists. So why is Makoe driving this?

I’m wondering whether it has anything to do with the politics within the SABC and in the ANC. It is hardly a secret that the current leadership of the SABC — both board and management — has been tainted by the Mbeki brush. Who doubts that SABC GCEO Dali Mpofu, wearing a tag that said “Deployed cadre” when he was at the ANC’s Polokwane conference and its earlier policy conference, was actually a “Deployed Mbeki cadre”? And what about the director of news and current affairs, Snuki Zikalala?

Post-Polokwane, there was a little unease in the top floors of Radio Park as management pondered its future with a Zuma presidency of the ANC. Remember, these were the same people who canned a Zuma interview for no good reason, repeatedly refused to screen a documentary on Mbeki because they thought it was a tad too critical, and pulled a pro-Zuma song off the airwaves. Perhaps they have cause for concern. And, I suppose, they also have reason to start blowing their own trumpets.

Is that why we increasingly hear (and see) Snuki being interviewed on SABC stations, giving commentary on political matters, while the voice of the political editor, Abbey Makoe, seems to be a little more muted than a few months ago? And, consequently, is Makoe — who was not placed in any particular ANC camp in the run-up to Polokwane — trying to carve out his own little niche, one that will be able to be favourably looked upon by the new ANC leadership? What better way to do that than to revive a dead organisation and try to cultivate support for it in a particular sector of media workers?

Is that why Makoe ensured that the launch of the FBJ would be addressed by the new president of the ANC, so that he could — from the get-go — show where his loyalties lie and thus set himself up for the new SABC management?

Too many questions.