The ANC has introduced individual by-lines on its website and, more particularly, in its weekly newsletter, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. It was a small, but significant, shift in their practice.
Previously, they offered a signed letter from the president and then a series of anonymous pieces on a wide range of unpredictable subjects.

Now almost all of these pieces are labeled “Viewpoint” and have names attached to them, often those of a cabinet minister.

The change came after their recent clash with the BBC. When the newsletter contained a bitter and rancorous attack on a BBC piece on crime, it led to speculation about whether this was the President Thabo Mbeki writing anonymously. But ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama claimed “credit” for the bitter, ad hominem attack.

Ngonyama had accused a “racist” BBC of making a “deliberate attempt … to insert itself as a player in the determination of our future as a people” and feeding “the deeply embedded stereotype that Africans are less than human, or, at least, genetically inferior”.

It was unfortunate that he went so far, because the BBC piece was open to straightforward criticism on journalistic grounds. It was overly dramatic, pictured our country as one that sometimes “rivals Iraq” for violence, with pictures of correspondent John Simpson in a helicopter flying over the city centre like a scene from Apocalypse Now, pointing out empty buildings and ignoring the full ones. It seems our country is over-run by “as many as 12-million illegal immigrants”, most from the rest of Africa.

The BBC responded to Ngonyama with the traditional restraint absent from its original piece: “We do not accept the ANC’s comments or analysis of our coverage, and will continue to cover South African news and business stories on BBC World accurately and in-depth.” The BBC pointed out that this was just one isolated example of a full range of coverage, reports, interviews, and other material it had done about South African in recent weeks. Indeed, they have a full documentary on the subject coming up shortly.

Besides, it was not Simpson’s fault that we looked foolish in the piece. He showed Mbeki dismissing the suggestion that crime was running out of control; he said our commissioner of police had been “found to have close links to the mafia” (Ngonyama took umbrage at this, saying rather foolishly that it was the first he had heard of it. Okay, Smuts, it wasn’t literally the Italian mafia, but it was someone currently on trial for murder and drug dealing. Would you have been happier if the BBC had said that?); and Ngonyama had failed to produce a government representative to put their point of view.

The bottom line is that if we want to clean up our international image, we have to stop the president saying silly things, it would be helpful not to have a chief of police who admits to hanging out with slimeballs and we need to produce someone senior to speak to the BCC within, say, 24 hours. It might help, too, if we reduced crime.

The ANC by-line was introduced for the first time when Ngonyama gave a notably more considered comeback a week later. “We have the greatest respect for John Simpson … We do indeed hope that the BBC will continue to cover South African news and business stories on BBC World accurately and in-depth.’

That was better. Someone must have told Ngonyama that he had followed the BBC over the top. But now we have ANC by-lines. And one can already see how this means individuals take responsibility for such pieces, bringing a much more considered tone. It indicates a recognition that there can be a difference between the view of an individual ANC figure and the collective view.

We even also recently saw an apology on the ANC site, when the president withdrew “any unwarranted or mistaken negative remarks that were made both about Beeld and its journalists”. He had accused them of not covering Africa properly.

Somebody in the ANC media department, it seems, is reading the media’s code of conduct. Next thing, they will have an ombudsman.

And at the BBC? Their Africa chief, Milton Nkosi, a child of the ’76 uprising who started as a guide and translator for the international media during the 1980s and who would have had a hand in Simpson’s piece, was promoted to chief of the important South Asia bureau.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, 14 March 2007