The BBC report on crime in SA that has drawn such a furious response from the ANC was indeed over the top, writes Anton Harber on his blog. But it is up to SA to see it comes across better in the international media.

Anton Harber writes on his blog, The Harbinger:

The furious attack on the BBC by ANC representative Smuts Ngonyama has been replaced on the ruling party’s website by a full text of the BBC’s response and a much more conciliatory statement by Ngonyama. Perhaps someone told Ngonyama that he had overstepped the mark.

The BBC piece on crime in South Africa, put together by senior correspondent and veteran South Africa-hand John Simpson on the eve of President Thabo Mbeki’s state of the nation speech, was open to criticism. (You can view it here and form your own view). It was overly dramatic, pictured our country as one that sometimes “rivals Iraq” for violence, with pictures of Simpson in a helicopter flying over the city centre as if he can’t walk the streets. It seems our country is overun by “as many as 12-million illegal immigrants”, most from the rest of Africa. It fails to differentiate between Hillbrow and other parts of the city and left one with a crude impression of a place “at war with itself”.

Having said that, Ngonyama was ill-considered in saying a “racist” BBC was making a “deliberate attempt … to insert itself as a player in the determination of our future as a people”. (See full statement here .)

The BBC responded with traditional restraint: “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.

Ngonyana’s comeback this week was notably more considered than his initial outburst: “We have the greatest respect for John Simpson, and understand that it would be wrong to attribute specifically to him an assessment about our country that he would never be able to make, in his own name, unless he had spent time in South Africa today, and not yesterday, personally to understand our reality. We do indeed hope that the BBC will continue ‘to cover South African news and business stories on BBC World accurately and in-depth’. We will continue to respect the BBC if it keeps to its word in this regard, even in the context of the occasional instances when we may publicly or privately disagree with its conclusions.”

That’s a relief. Ngonyama’s first outburst was unworthy of him or his party, and destructive of any relationship with a respected international voice like the BBC. Criticise them, please, but let’s not go totally over the top.

The bottom line is that South Africa looked foolish in the report for three very important reasons:

– President Mbeki was dismissing the suggestion that crime was running out of control

– Simpson 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?)

– Simpson said the government had refused to appear in his report. Ngonyama says it wasn’t that they refused, but they were not given enough time and were misled about the subject of the report, when senior leadership was tied up in the Adelaide Tambo funeral and then the opening of Parliament. In fact, they were given about four days to produce someone to speak to Simpson.

The truth is that if we are always going to come off looking bad if our President says such foolish things, if the ANC is not prepared to admit and face up to the fact that there is something very wrong with a chief of police who is friendly with alleged leaders of organised crime and if we can’t produce some senior person to talk to the BBC within, say, 24 hours.

We can blame Simpson nd the BBC as much as we like, but we have a lot of our own work to do to ensure that we come across better in the international media.