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The chicken-hawks of the media wars

The most prominent chicken-hawks of recent times are those — such as United States Vice-President Dick Cheney — who, while pushing for war, also push with great finesse for personal exemption from its risks. Thus Cheney, the two-time warmonger of Iraq (1991 and 2003), famously dodged combat in Vietnam, pleading that he had “other priorities”; George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were at various times enrolled in the military but — like the local Tony Leon — artfully evaded any hint of dangerous duties.

In the recent South African media wars, chicken-hawks abound. Leading journalists seem to clamour for robust debates — but some have then sometimes ducked those same debates. This inglorious roster includes Wits journalism professor Anton Harber, the gentle ex-columnist John Matshikiza, and the administrator of several ladies’ magazines, Justice Malala, who moonlights as a foodie columnist in the rear pages of the Financial Mail.

But the Dick Cheney of the lot has to be Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya. He has invited rather extravagant comparisons between his own ho-hum legal difficulties and the draconian apartheid press clampdown of Wednesday October 19 1977 — and then he has systematically evaded relevant public debates, electing instead to give safe interviews to such fawning right-wing crackpots such as RW Johnson and Rian Malan.

While personally absent from the battlefield of discourse, Makhanya can be found hurling cruise missiles, in time-honoured chicken-hawk fashion, from his Rosebank offices. Hence the barrage of self-serving and self-obsessed headlines: “Editor, journalist to be arrested” (October 14); “Mbeki men in R7bn bid to own Sunday Times” (November 4).

The recent self-obsession of the newspaper marks the tragicomic collapse of the mission that Makhanya had set himself upon taking up the Sunday Times editorship: “I was aware that I was walking into an environment that would need strength. We needed to be the newspaper that was breaking the news, not the newspaper that was the news,” he told Kevin Bloom of The Media in September 2004.

Now the paper is the news more than ever before, while its fast-growing rival City Press breaks the news more than ever before. In these testing circumstances, it is perhaps no surprise that the “courageous” Makhanya is ducking most of the serious debates that have been generated by his newspaper’s supposed defence of robust debate.

If the plight of Percy Qoboza and so many of those banned and jailed in 1977 was a tragedy, Makhanya has brought those times back as farce. While the South African National Editors’ Forum commemorated the Black Wednesday bannings with a restrained and moving function in Midrand, Makhanya opted to attend the lavish Sandton banquet of the Black Management Forum.

I certainly have nothing against the BMF. I actually spoke at the conference. But you would think that, in assessing the diary clash between the BMF glitz and the Sanef free-speech commemoration, Makhanya would have favoured Sanef as I did. But he didn’t. He also chicken-hawked out of the Sanef panel discussion at the Sandton Convention Centre the following week. The week after that came a panel at the Human Rights Commission and again Makhanya was absent, albeit this time with an apparently good excuse: minutes before he was to appear, he cited a family bereavement.

During the famous court case in which the high court ordered the return of stolen medical records that were in Makhanya’s newspaper’s possession, the judge wondered aloud why Makhanya had chicken-hawked the court. As Sapa reported on August 24: “The judge said that Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya had not submitted an affidavit in response to how the paper obtained the minister’s medical records. The judge said: ‘We don’t even know if he [Makhanya] is in the country.'”

Was this the famous heroic journalism? If the heroic Nelson Mandela was dubbed the “Black Pimpernel” during his evasion of the apartheid authorities in the pre-Rivonia Trial era; if Ronnie Kasrils was the “Red Pimpernel” during his own revolutionary exploits of the early 1990s transition, then perhaps people will grow to know the elusive Mr Makhanya as the “Yellow Pimpernel”. His is hardly the colour of courage.

But it is when one turns to the vastly more substantial figure of Nadine Gordimer that the ironies deepen dramatically. Six decades ago, Gordimer recalled a dramatic scene from her childhood holidays, in which an apparent tragedy turned out to be farce: a brave old soldier wrestled with a monster in a river and finally subdued it, only to find that the beast was not hazardous, after all. It was a large but harmless lagoon lizard, or leguaan. “He was a great hero for half-an-hour … the man had done battle with the most reluctant of dragons.”

Now, in the wake of the Makhanya matter, Gordimer — momentarily discarding her otherwise deep appreciation of the country’s tragic past — farcically signed a paid Mail & Guardian advertisement that warned: “Dear President Mbeki: We support freedom of expression. Do not suppress the media.” Gordimer and her co-signatories (such evidently sober-minded souls as Xolela Mangcu, Rhoda Kadalie and Zackie Achmat) never explained how Mbeki was supposed to have suppressed, or threatened to suppress, media freedom.

Gordimer’s phony heroism in trading on the supposed parallels between 1977 and 2007 raises a fascinating question: Just what did Gordimer actually do in 1977, during the truly tragic clampdown of those days? To put the matter bluntly: Was she herself more heroine than chicken-hawk? As it happens, this was one of the matters I covered in my biography of Gordimer, No Cold Kitchen (pages 395 to 399), which Gordimer then tried to suppress.

The truth is that although Gordimer was, both before and after the October 19 1977 bannings, a strong and principled supporter of the armed anti-apartheid struggle, she momentarily bobbed and weaved to keep herself clear of the dangers that encircled her during the week of October 19 1977. She wilfully mischaracterised her true position on the armed struggle in order to keep herself safe from the arrest and detention that had been suffered by her fellow writers, black and white, including the publisher Peter Randall.

Two days before the October 19 1977 crackdown, the Sunday Times published an article popularising a recent book by Professor Humphrey du Randt, who was then the head of the Afrikaans department at the University of Port Elizabeth. Gordimer herself summarised both the problem and the solution in a letter to Anthony Sampson:

[Du Randt] has stated in a set work for Afrikaans university students of literature that I (and Fugard and André Brink) have advocated violent revolution in my books. George Bizos says I can’t just treat that sort of statement with contempt, as things are at present. So I find myself wasting hours with lawyers and preparing to demand R12 000 in damages for defamation.

Having proudly and correctly advocated armed revolution in numerous books, essays and private letters since at least 1957, Gordimer pretended, during the October 19 1977 crisis, that she hadn’t done that at all. Fortunately Du Randt had no stomach for the test: he phoned up Gordimer’s lawyer to beg for an amicable settlement. The lawyer said Du Randt must publish an apology. Du Randt agreed. Gordimer then personally drafted the text that she required Du Randt to publish in his own name, falsely clearing her of the revolutionary sympathies that would have exposed her to arrest during the October 19 1977 crackdown.

In the statement that herself Gordimer drafted to go out under Du Randt’s name, Gordimer required Du Randt to reject as “untrue and entirely baseless” any suggestion that she had ever advocated the violent overthrow of apartheid. “I apologise to Nadine Gordimer for the calumny I perpetrated against her as a writer, an individual, and a South African,” Du Randt wrote, parroting the words that Gordimer herself had placed in his mouth.

Two years later, Gordimer looked back with her trademark and searing honesty, indicting herself for this lapse: “I should think that at the end of my life I shall say, as Jean-Paul Sartre does, that my regret will probably be that I have not been brave enough. I know that already.” Having been, by her own admission, less brave than the circumstances required in the truly tragic week of October 19 1977, Gordimer has in October 2007 — and farcically — been very much braver than the circumstances have required.

This is the final and exquisite irony of the recent free-expression debate: Gordimer, the supposed champion of free expression, attempted to censor my biography of her and thus acted like the stereotype of Thabo Mbeki, the authoritarian control freak. Meanwhile, Gordimer accuses Mbeki — who, unlike her, did not attempt to mess with my work on him — of constituting a threat to free expression!

Rather than protecting free expression for us all, the chicken-hawks in the Great Media Debate just want to preserve their personal and longstanding stranglehold on public discourse. Thus George Bizos, who so legalistically urged Gordimer to duck the risks of October 19 1977, could be found bullying the press during his recent dispute with Ismail Ayob.

“It’s not for me to suggest what is responsible journalism, but perhaps the time has come that you shut the door to this guy,” Bizos said as quoted by the Weekend Argus of March, 3 this year. I neither know nor necessarily like Ayob, and I do not approve of what he allegedly did in the conduct of the Nelson Mandela’s business affairs. But he most certainly has a right to be heard.

In the same month as Bizos not-so-subtly sought to censor Ayob, Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee pronounced herself “flabbergasted” by how many champions of free speech seek to shut down certain voices. She reminded these pseudo-liberals that: “Commitment to principles like freedom of expression will always be tested by your tolerance for views that run counter to your own.”

Just as the military chicken-hawks in Washington are hardly fighting for democracy in the Iraq war, the Jo’burg chicken-hawks of the media know nothing of the functioning of free speech.


  • Ronald Suresh Roberts is the author of Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd: Counterfeit Heroes and Unhappy Truths (New York University Press, 1995), Reconciliation Through Truth: A Reckoning of Apartheid's Criminal Governance (with Kader and Louise Asmal; preface by Nelson Mandela, 1996); No Cold Kitchen: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer (2005) and Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki (2007). He is a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, and of Harvard Law School.


  1. Jazzmine Jazzmine 13 November 2007

    We should first try and understand why this Brink guy is saying this. Or maybe Gavisser hired him.

  2. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten 13 November 2007

    Brink appears to be on his own admittedly Quixotic mission.

  3. jason jason 13 November 2007

    Anthony Brink may have his own issues, but those of you – like Jazzmine – who keep demanding that Ronald’s arguments be engaged SHOULD READ BRINK. It is brilliantly damning – it includes 1) evidence that RSR PLAGIARISED his two chapters on Aids from Brink ; 2) explains how RSR actually sides with Achmat and Cameron in following Aids Orthodoxy and thereby distorts Mbeki’s views, while settling for the same stereotypes of African sexuality he accuses others of ; 3) shows how RSR loved Brink’s work until they had a fall-out; 4) shows that RSR is elitist, rude, racist … based on two years of personal friendship….

    Remeber, Brink HATES the “illiberal media” and pretty much hates White South Africa… he is NOT a friend of people like Achmat by any strecth of the imagination. He is anti-establisment. So it will be interesting to see how RSR’s blind followers on here will respond to this very substantive – and funny and *angry* – book.


  4. Juno Juno 13 November 2007

    After skipping through Brink’s diatribe, reading only the juicy bits (and, my goodness, there are some toothsome nuggets in there) I have two things to say.

    One, if only to spare you having to read it yourself, I can sum it up in ten words.

    ‘Ronald Suresh Roberts is a right tosser. So am I.’

    Two, I was immediately reminded of a (no doubt apocryphal) story my late father once told me about his own father’s boyhood. ‘Two mangy old tomcats in the neighbourhood were fighting incessantly,’ went the story, ‘and grandpa had had enough. He tied the tales of the tomcats together in a knot, and flung them over the washing line. All night, terrible howls and screeches filled the air. In the morning, when my dad went out for a look, all that remained were a pair of tails, still tied together and hooked over the line, and still twitching.’

  5. Miscah & Mvulane Miscah & Mvulane 14 November 2007

    Silla Grobbelar; you know as well as we do that more people than would care to admitt suffer from Sureshitis. Otherwise, why do some repeatedly visit this bog|? More than that, the issue discussed above are relevant.Not?

  6. Sipho Mazibuko Sipho Mazibuko 16 November 2007

    Suresh’s assertions of chicken-hawks are condescending if not absurd. I have read a few chapters of his book “The Native intelligence” and I must admit that this man is an intellectual, I was blinded and yes I did confuse innuendo for critical thought, as he romances your school of thought with his lamentations and sweet nothings about how Mbeki is misunderstood and Mkhanya is an enemy to press objectivity and a subject of flimsy reporting. His innuendo amounts to nothing more than “praise-singing” . I’m getting the distinct impression that it is not the government in retrospect he is defending but individuals, not policy but personalities, and it is not the Chicken-hawks but rather the Chicken-fleers, who are apparently so afraid of his intellectual scorn that they are a no show at panel discussions when he is present. The arrogance of the man is astounding, is he has himself declared the highest intellectual-hawk in the media wars.

    Certainly Mondli Makhanya has made critical makes in his current tenure as Editor of the Sunday, but one must admit he done more good than bad. He has built the paper into a formidable first-grade publication, without fear or favour, he is worthy of the title “the green pimpernel”, a colour of virtue. Suresh’s article is self-serving, self-opinionated, spewing of bile and malcontent, for the entire media fraternity at large.

    He is pursuant in his bid to discredit Makhanya, that he is becoming bitter and oblivious to all that’s happening around him. I wonder when the sensation, that is Makhanya, dissolves who will be his next victim. Haffajee’s article “How dare he”, hits the nail on the head, but I doubt Suresh is licking his wounds at this very moment, as he seems to be living a world that is his, and his alone.

    He is parading himself as the sentinel and the universal remedy to this media world littered with chicken-hawks.

    Maybe we should designate him, “Chief Editor-South African Media”, and let him alone. But as he said in his Book “ Do not, I said, make heroes of people who are not”.

    So let’s not hail him a hero, at all…

  7. MidaFo MidaFo 16 November 2007

    It is clear from RSR’s additional posts that the man is not altogether balanced.

    It is clear from the posts of others that his dislocations have effectively disturbed a good number of people, for those castigating him are not altogether balanced either. If they are justifiably disturbed by the antagonism of one man surely he can be justifiably disturbed by the preponderance of bourgeois antagonism directed at him in SA.

    What is true for him is true for Mbeki.

    We have to remember that Dostoyevski (the spell check is illiterate here) or Nietzsche or Jesus were in their times all easily madder than RSR. And, for those who do not know the name, Dostoyevski is possibly the greatest novelist of all time.

    This observation is inspired by the stickily cloned responses to RSR’s article.

    If the responses are representative of the intelligentsia of SA I would say we must burn the the sources and return to the peasants.

    AAh—- figuratively you know; I mean in terms of burning.

    And Makhanya? Well go for it pally! But get rid of the parasites hanging on to you as evidenced by many of the posts here. They are not your friends! They have a smelly selfish agenda. You better know that besides the posts by the idiot MidaFo, those sympathetic to RSR are clearly of a higher quality.

    And yes Ndumiso, this is a fist fight! Bare knuckles and all!

    We also have to remember that the bourgeoisies drove Apartheid.

  8. Emma Mpontseng Matela Emma Mpontseng Matela 18 November 2007

    I do see elements of fantasy and artificial chunking together of elusive vignettes here and there.. I find it fundamentally disturbing that someone who barely stepped into South Africa in the late 90’s from Malaysian and West Indian environs, can accurately capture the true essence of Mr. Mbeki. It is actually a challenge that should have been met by a native South African close enough to the president to give us the spirit of the man in this book. I think because politics are so closely linked to the culture and the soul of the people, that to declare “The Native Intelligence” in any man, one should not strive to put together literary and journalistic pieces and blow them up as being fit to depict a man who is held in esteem in his own land. The book does not read very well. Suresh is most probably qualified to do just that…write journalistic pieces…. somewhere else. He certainly sounds anxious to be regarded as part of the cultural political fabric of South Africa, but there is no depth and hardly any substatiated facts that would distinguish him as an authentic writer in this book. He may even want to cry martyrdom circa Oscar Wilde, but Oscar he is not…….This is one that you read and want to march back to get your money. My one rand’s worth.

  9. Reuben Maphutha Reuben Maphutha 19 November 2007

    It seems like is some what a fashionable thing to do to hate or rather dislike Roberts. I check brink allegations, and are remarkebly weak if not neurotic.

  10. Gerrie Hugo Gerrie Hugo 20 November 2007

    How can anyone dislike Ronald?
    I love the man.
    I read a page from Fit to Govern every night to help me fall asleep.
    A quick line or two in the morning whilst on the loo helps to keep me regular as well.

  11. Richard Richard 18 December 2007

    How can Mr Roberts say that Mondli Makhanya the editor of the Sunday Times, left the battlefield and accuse such an individual of not fighting for Freedom of Expression and objectivity when he was not even in court during his court case against the Sunday Times, Roberts should stop wiping Mr. Mbeki’s backside and learn to be a bit more mature about what he is actually doing, after all what does Roberts actually really know about mbeki ?

  12. Observer Observer 25 October 2008

    For the record on a point never brought into focus (“ignoratio elenchi”): It is ironic that the reference to Gordimer, Fugard and Sestigers was, as a fact now well documented, never written by Du Randt but used as a quote photocopied in a study guide for first year students from an anonymous source later identified as part of a Broederbond circular.
    The rationale was to illustrate and question the artist’s claim a la Camus and others to promote and practise political engagement in art.
    The true author of the Broederbon document confessed later, in an ex post facto fashion when it was safe to do so, and this was widely reported in Rapport and other newspapers, presumingly as an act of great valour and courage in terms of Roberts’s moral code, that he had in fact written the document from which the quotation was taken!
    The question is whether Roberts in accusing Du Randt of not having the stomach to take Gordimer on would stand by his point when realizing that having been called in and encouraged by the Security Police to take the Sestigers, Fugard and Gordimer on–with a blank cheque and free legal assistance offered– he rejected this proposal wih contempt and sacrificed his good name and reputation preferring to rather be humiliated even more and sign Gordimer’s apology as the lesser evil which affected himself and his family only rather than “sleeping with the real enemy”
    Moreover, why should — in terms of Roberts’s record of events–he have had any desire or feel a responsibility to show support for a despicable order of censorship, persecution and negation of all civilized norms and take Gordimer and company on in Court?
    His choice to sign the apology was in fact made in spite of people he respected and admired being prepared to join the maddening and vicious crowd who shouted: Crucify him! of whom some continued to subvert his career with impunity until this day!

  13. Rina Breed Rina Breed 9 April 2011

    I found the article enlightening and am sure that Gordimer betrayed much more than herself. But fear during those years was so intense.I was just a young white student then and remember the fear when seen traveling with my so-called non-white friends.I did not grow up in a culture of fear and it took years of training to become brave (fearless I never reached).

    Why did Humphries (the correct spelling) agree to publish the apology? I know it was not the money because I knew my uncle. Which other powers were involved?

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