Race is largely an artificial construction. Around the 18th Century,
European scientists tried to categorise various kinds of human beings
according to essential attributes that were held to belong inescapably
to every member of a particular “race”. A pseudo-scientific argument
was built to show that whites were superior – and this helped justify
the European conquest and colonisation of the rest of the world.
Even though genetics and a host of other disciplines
debunked these ideas several generations ago, they retain extraordinary
power. Apartheid, as a system of institutionalised racism, may have
been removed, but the ideas on which it was based are still widespread.
What’s more, many areas of our society remain shaped by their history
of racism: party support, residential areas, the division between poor
and rich and many others still reflect racial divisions.
that sense, racism is much more than a question of stereotyping.
Rhodes University academic Lynette Steenveld defines it as “the system
of beliefs and practices that people can be classified into groups on
the basis of presumed differences which justifies the unequal
allocation of power and privilege.” (my emphasis) In other words, it’s
about what is in people’s heads, but it is also importantly about what
they do. Her definition also indicates the connection between racism
and power. In their submission to the HRC inquiry into racism in the
media, political analyst Dumisane Hlophe and lawyer Christine Qunta
make the connection even more explicit: “Racism is constituted when
racial prejudices are matched with power to act on such prejudices.”
It should be noted that power is not just political. In modern
societies, many institutions outside of government have power of
various kinds. Companies have economic power, for instance, and even an
insult thrown out during a bar-room argument involves the exercise of
power: the power to hurt.
Why is racism an issue of ethics?
contravenes several basic principles of journalistic ethics. It is
unfair to the group being stigmatised. Stereotypes distort the reality
of individuals and of society as a whole, and are therefore both
inaccurate and harmful. Racist writing is simply bad journalism.
the HRC inquiry into racism in the media, there was much debate about
whether particular instances of racism found in print or on the air
could be explained away as mistakes or errors of journalistic
judgment. In its final report, Faultlines, the commission emphatically
rejected this view. “We are concerned that a too easy resort to an
explanation of bad journalism might be another form of evasion and
denial of racism.”
That is not the argument
being made here. Rather, I am arguing that racism is inimical to the
principles of good journalism. Some instances of racist reporting may
indeed be the result of slipshod work, but that is not enough to
explain the phenomenon as a whole. Sometimes a bad decision made in
haste reflects stereotypical assumptions that the journalist or editor
may not be fully aware of.
More heat than light
In a class
at Wits University, students were asked whether the South African media
were still racist. The responses fell neatly into racial categories.
Black students generally said yes, they were. White students said no,
they weren’t. Significantly, though, both sides struggled to move
beyond the mere assertion of the view by finding real arguments to back
The discussion about race in the media is a very emotional
one, and rarely moves beyond attack and defence. “You are a racist!”
is countered with “You’re playing the race card!” The HRC inquiry did
not help much in moving the discussion along. The hearings were marked
by bitter arguments that generated more heat than light, and after the
Faultlines report appeared, the issue dropped from public view.
has been hardly any attempt at identifying the areas in which racism
may occur, in a way that would be useful to working journalists. There
has been a considerable amount of academic work in the field, but it
often remains dense and inaccessible.
One would expect the
industry codes to provide some useful signposts, but they also reflect
South African journalism’s inability to engage with the issue.
the Code of Conduct for Broadcasters says almost nothing about race.
In its preamble, it refers to the constitutional guarantee of free
speech and the provision that excludes hate speech from protection. It
rules out material which approves or promotes violence based on race,
gender, religion or the like. And that is all. The section on news
makes no mention of race at all.
The press code goes a little
further: it says the press “should avoid discriminatory or denigratory”
references to race, colour and other characteristics, and should only
refer to race when it is strictly relevant. Finally, it emphasises
the right “and indeed the duty to report and comment on all matters of
public interest”, but – borrowing from the Bill of Rights – it says
this must be balanced “against the obligation not to promote racial
hatred or discord in such a way as to create the likelihood of imminent
Although it remains at a very general level, the SA
Union of Journalists code goes furthest with its provision that
journalists should not “originate material which encourages
discrimination” (see box).
Potential problem areas
on interviews conducted with editors, written commentary and
international experience, I will in the following try to identify some
areas in which racism may emerge in journalism. Rather than remain
with the endless discussion of whether the South African media are
racist or not, the intention here is to seek to develop some categories
that can be useful in discussing concrete stories and situations that
newsrooms may confront.
In general, one has to go to the small
right-wing media to find examples of explicitly racist reporting. The
head of news at e.tv, Joe Thloloe, says race is no longer such an
obvious issue in the mainstream media. “The days of very overt
references to race are gone,” he says. But he says it hasn’t
disappeared, it’s simply become more subtle.
Issues of racism are
bound up with belief systems that can be quite unconscious. We all
operate with deeply held systems of value and belief, and it would
strain credibility to expect such powerful ideas and preconceptions as
those surrounding race not to play some part in the world view of all
journalists, white and black. (Of course, the present text and its
author are not immune from these either.)
Racism is a subject
that evokes strong emotional responses, and it is very difficult to
scrutinise and discuss. Nevertheless, we need to be prepared to
discuss particular stories and situations, and particularly the
perceptions they may evoke. It seems a more productive approach than
to stay in the mode of attack versus defence, or to shy away from the
This is an easy issue to
address. Conventional practice is to limit racial identifiers to cases
where they are important to understand the story. Where a white man
gets onto a bus full of black commuters in order to shoot as many as he
can, the race of both perpetrator and victims is clearly important to
the story. Leaving that detail out would distort it.
worth remembering the background to this aversion to labels. In a
frequently reprinted column , the Poynter Institute’s Keith Woods says
they were used to tell white readers that a particular story wasn’t
about them. If nothing was said, the subject of the story was assumed
to be white. He writes: “Racial identifiers were used to selectively
support beliefs in white supremacy. They were used to call attention to
the criminal, immoral, or threatening acts of other racial and ethnic
groups to demonstrate that the stereotypes about those groups were
The use of racial labels in this sense is now uncommon.
They have been driven underground. If you read about “an 18-year-old
suspect from Atteridgeville”, you will immediately understand the
person to be black, unless you don’t know that Atteridgeville is a
black township in Pretoria. Of course, it would be ludicrous to suggest
that areas should no longer be named on the grounds that people will
associate them with particular groups. It simply shows how deeply race
has entered into language.
There is a danger in developing such
a nervousness about labels that we end up hiding an important factor in
our society. Woods writes: “…the mangled language of race is punctuated
with descriptions that underscore ethnicity but describe nothing. It is
mired in euphemisms and the tortured, convoluted syntax that betray
America’s pathological avoidance of straight talk about race
relations.” If race is a factor, write as clearly and directly as you
Most media organisations now have a
deliberate policy to reflect the diversity of the society in their
sourcing. Of course, there are many instances in which journalists
have no control over which source to use. If the Minister of Trade and
Industries makes an announcement, then that is who gets quoted. But
there is discretion when it comes to the selection of experts and
commentators or the compilation of vox pops. Thloloe says: “When you
look at things like comments on the economy, you will always get white
columnists giving their version.” E.tv and most other groups have a
policy to seek out black and women commentators.
efforts are made to ensure that images used with stories do not reflect
racial bias. It is too easy to have articles on management always
illustrated with pictures of white men, for instance, and it requires
only a little effort to break that particular habit.
the criticism is often made that Aids is portrayed as a black disease –
feeding damaging prejudices. The editor of the Sowetan, John Dludlu,
says it has become a “clubbing stick” against blacks. Although simple
demographic realities determine that most people with Aids are black,
it doesn’t mean that all are. Accuracy demands that the full range of
people with Aids is reflected in pictures and stories.
of the biggest criticisms of the mainstream media under apartheid was
that it did not tell the story of black people. In the early 1980s,
East London was an important centre of resistance to apartheid, with an
active and powerful union movement flexing its muscles. The city’s only
daily paper, the Daily Dispatch, paid scant attention to this
development. On one memorable occasion, a mass stayaway that emptied
the city of black people was relegated to a blob paragraph on the end
of another story.
This kind of deliberate suppression of news
is no longer possible. No news medium today can ignore the concerns of
black people and the new black elite is reported extensively. But
there are still silences in the reporting of township concerns and
developments. Referring to the growth of People Against Gangsterism
and Drugs (Pagad), the editor of The Star, Moegsien Williams, says “the
Pagad phenomenon” in the Western Cape surprised the media. He says: “If
were doing our job well, if we were in tune with what was happening on
the ground, maybe we would have picked up there was a rising tide of
unhappiness and dissatisfaction.”
The editor of City Press,
Mathatha Tsedu, says economic constraints on most media cause such
silences. To attract advertising, they have to show they are read by
the wealthy end of the market. And that means dealing with their
issues. “It's not about whether there is water in Zola today, it's
about whether there's water in Blairgowrie where I live. And so the
issues of Zola are getting relegated, not because Zola is a black area,
but because Zola is a poor area.” Also, many black journalists have
moved out of the townships, and now report as outsiders. These trends
have meant less coverage for poorer areas than before, says Tsedu.
Journalists have an ethical duty to see beyond their back yards, to seek out stories from the other side of town.
South African journalists have become very cautious about identifying
people’s race, the use of national labels is still common. Often
taking a cue from the police, crime reports often refer to Nigerians
being arrested, or Chinese abalone smugglers, or Zimbabwean illegal
immigrants. And yet the function of this kind of labelling is exactly
the same as racial labelling. It feeds off and into a stereotype of
foreigners as being criminals. “…Crime is not only ‘racialised’, it is
also ‘Africanised’,” write Ransford Danso and David McDonald of the
Institute for Democracy in SA. Labels of this kind only have a place
in reports if they add significantly to the story.
the growing African immigrant communities in Johannesburg constitute a
blind spot in reporting. He says: “I'm worried about our inability to
get into the immigrant community. We like to speak about the Nigerians
in Hillbrow, (but) I'm worried that we're not covering them.”
Value and authority
the most significant area of concern involves giving different weight
to members of different groups. White victims of crime or other mishap
still often seem to matter more than black ones. Dludlu says this kind
of bias shows in the coverage of Zimbabwe. “We always talk about the
victims of the misrule in Zimbabwe and those victims are always white
but more people who have died and are continuing to die are black
people,” he says.
On similar lines, the editor of the Sunday
Tribune, Barney Mthombothi, says newspapers are quick to run pictures
of dead black people, but much more cautious about intruding on the
grief of white people in this way. He says there were no pictures of
bodies after the 9/11 attack, for instance.
parliamentary editor of the Independent Group, Zubeida Jaffer, says she
saw related prejudices played out when the then Minister of Safety and
Security, Steve Tshwete, announced a moratorium on the release of crime
statistics. She says he was given a very hard time by journalists, but
then called a white civil servant, whose explanation was accepted by
the media corps. “I felt so humiliated because I thought, here he has
to bring some junior civil servant to come and explain and everybody
accepts it, but when the minister explains, it must be pulled to
One may argue with particular examples given, but
it is difficult to dispute that stories are sometimes handled
differently because of the race of the people involved. As working
journalists, we should get into the habit of asking ourselves a simple
question: would we run the story differently if the racial picture was
different? If in doubt, the best solution is to discuss the issue with
colleagues – particularly with those who have a different background to
“Fishers of corrupt men”
Coverage of corruption
has become a major theme in the accusation that South African media are
racist. Even President Thabo Mbeki has said that the reporting of
corruption is driven by a racist desire to prove that blacks can’t run
South Africa. Some journalists had become “fishers of corrupt men”, he
wrote in his online column, Letter from the President, in June 2003.
There were “insulting campaigns further to entrench a stereotype that
has, for centuries, sought to portray Africans as a people that are
corrupt, given to telling lies, prone to theft and self-enrichment by
immoral means …”
Most editors reject the accusation. In an
editorial comment, the Mail&Guardian wrote: “The simple fact is
that this country is run by black people … It is, therefore,
demographically logical that its successes are directly attributable to
black people at the helm. And it is also demographically logical that
when wrongdoing takes place in the ranks of government, the
probabilities are that it will be the black people running the show who
will be fingered.”
Mthombothi rejects the argument that there
is racism in the fact that the media uncovered less corruption by the
previous government. “Corruption is corruption,” he says, “The fact
that it wasn’t discovered before doesn’t mean that we should turn a
blind eye when it is discovered now.”
Reporting race and racism
remains a major story in South Africa. Whether it manifests itself
around black economic empowerment or tensions between children at newly
integrated schools, it needs to be told fully and honestly.
African media do a reasonable job in covering racist attacks, like when
a young shoplifter is painted white, or policemen set dogs on
immigrants as a training exercise. Those are easy stories, but many of
the subtle complexities of shifting race relations remain unexplored.
Journalist Jonny Steinberg has written about the refusal of white
farmers to participate in an agricultural census, for fear the
government will use the information to expropriate their land. This
act mirrored a 1904 census in Natal, which laid the basis for the
imposition of poll tax on black peasant families and which is still
remembered with bitterness. Reporting like this contributes to our
understanding of the rich texture of the story of race in South Africa.
It is very rare.
In reporting racism, journalists will
sometimes have to deal with racist slurs or even hate speech. In South
Africa, racist vocabulary is usually treated like four-letter words.
Reference might be made to “the k-word”, for instance. Hate speech is
of course prohibited by the constitution. Nevertheless, there may be
situations when accuracy demands that highly offensive statements
should be reported fully.
past, audiences were defined by race. And editors tailored their
content according to the perceived interests and preferences of those
audiences. Black newspaper readers were given “extra” editions that
concentrated on sex, soccer and pictures of black models, leaving the
rest of the paper largely white. Some of these extra editions – notably
those of the Sunday Times – survived long into the new South Africa,
since they were often highly profitable.
In general, the
practice is dying out. Williams says when he arrived at The Star,
there was a tendency to change the sports lead for the paper’s
different editions, depending on whether it was bought mainly by white
or black readers. Soccer was preferred for black readers, rugby and
cricket for white. But he says he put a stop to it. Now, “it’s purely
a news judgment on what in our view is the strongest story to lead the
page,” he says.
He says making assumptions about buying
patterns is dangerous. Just because an edition goes mainly to Sandton,
does not mean it is mainly bought by whites, he says.
days when newsrooms were overwhelmingly white are long gone. The
Soweto revolt of 1976 has been identified as a key impetus in bringing
black reporters into mainstream newsrooms: white editors suddenly found
themselves unable to cover a major story properly, since their white
reporters had all sorts of difficulties in gaining access to the scene
of the story.
But until the 1990s, the senior levels of the
profession remained overwhelmingly white. The ranks of editors began
changing in complexion with the coming of democracy, but a key element
of the complaints that led to the HRC inquiry were that there were
still too few black people in positions of authority. And even those
black journalists who had been appointed to senior posts felt unable to
change a dominant white worldview. The then editor of the Sowetan, Mike
Siluma, told the HRC: “I think we need to understand that as a black
editor or in particular as an African editor, you can either be
assimilated and become part of the whole system or you can try to
introduce that diversity and bring into play your own thing, your own
experience and try to introduce that into the mainstream but that is a
difficult thing because if you play along you will be fine.”
then, the picture has changed further. Tsedu points out that in
Gauteng, the country’s media powerhouse, a clear majority of editors at
major news organisations are black. The newer generation of editors
doesn’t share the view that they have been appointed as mere tokens,
unable to make real changes. Tsedu says editors do have power: “If you
don't exercise it, don't blame it on somebody else.”
benefit of a diverse newsroom is that a range of different perspectives
is brought to bear on the reporting of news. There are sharp racial
divisions in journalists’ own attitudes to many issues. Tsedu
highlights differences about the reporting of Zimbabwe, and there are
many others. Differences in attitude must lead to differences in
approach to reporting.
If different viewpoints can be
discussed openly, then a diverse newsroom is a huge asset. But if those
differences are left undiscussed and become sources of tension and
conflict, then real problems arise. Few South African newsrooms have
the maturity to use their diversity in the most productive way.
The value of a life still needs weighing
By Justice Malala
On May 7 2004 I came under fire, on the pages of my newspaper, ThisDay, from one of my reporters.
du Plessis, a young, feisty reporter working out of our Cape Town
office, had never written anything that cried out for an answer as much
as the piece she produced that day. And what did she get in response?
My shameful silence, and the silence of all the editors she fingered.
had recently covered two court cases and had found my treatment of the
stories appalling, to say the least. My colleagues at other newspapers
did not come off lightly either. This is how she described the two
cases and the stories that appeared in the newspapers over time: “The
first was the celebrated Sizzlers trial. Two men were convicted of
killing nine (white) men execution-style, attempting to kill another,
and robbing them in a gay massage parlour last year.
second case a young man named Asanda Baninzi got 19 life sentences
(regarded by some as a record for this high court division) for killing
14 (black) people, raping four others, and committing 33 other crimes
over a three-month period in 2001. In these cases, all the victims were
young, not particularly rich and not particularly well known.
were the accused wealthy or high-profile individuals. Court reporters
talked about the Sizzlers trial weeks before it started and wrote
previews in gory detail. On the first day of the trial, and throughout,
we sat like sardines in the press benches, lapping up each tear. We
irritated the relatives of the victims and invaded their privacy in an
attempt to get the best story.
“No such problem with the
Baninzi trial. Even when journalists eventually caught on, and editors
in Cape Town began placing the story on page one, there was still
enough arm space in the press benches to take notes comfortably. The
families of the victims approached any journalist who bothered to
listen to get their stories told.”
As a young reporter on The
Star in the early 1990s I used to point out these injustices often. I
would rail against the wanton usage of dead black bodies and the strict
refusal to show dead white bodies; the assumption that it is fine to
show black breasts but indecent to show white ones.
What I was
railing against was really the surface of the problem. The heart of it
was mindsets and changing them. It was a push to acknowledge all
humanity instead of just white humanity. It was a cry to change the
colour of newsrooms and newsroom leadership. And here I am, ten years
after our uhuru, accused – rightly – of the same thing.
black, at the time of covering these trials our news editor was black,
and we are a black-owned newspaper. In a black country. What went
As I write a South Korean hostage has just been
beheaded by alleged Iraqi militants. He is not the first – two
Americans met the same fate recently. Their stories were on the front
pages of newspapers across the world. The South Korean man’s story was
on page seven of my newspaper and his name was in the second paragraph.
What is a life worth? It is as valuable as its skin colour or
its nationality, as du Plessis claims. What do I, an editor of a
newspaper that was launched specifically to get out of the rut of this
crass, tired, offensive kind of journalism, have to say in reply? I
look at my newspaper and say we have tried to do away with the “swart
gevaar” mentality where everything that was a black initiative was
immediately regarded with suspicion.
I feel that many of our
competitors are trying to do things better and differently. But in
general we have failed. I say the battle to be vigilant and stay
vigilant has to be fought every day. In every management meeting and
and at every news conference.
I know. As du Plessis’ piece
showed, I lose it every day. But I have not lost hope yet. Although
sometimes it feels like we are moving backwards, in ten years we will
hopefully not even recognise the quagmire we find ourselves in today
with regards to reporting race. Ten years ago many would not recognise
that the media has problems; today we fail to rectify the problems we
openly admit to.
That is a victory in itself.
(Justice Malala is editor of ThisDay)
Case study 11
Sing a song of prejudice
Oh men! Oh virulent men! We need a courageous man to delegate to the Indians
For this matter is complicated and now needs to be reported to men
Indians don’t want to change, even Mandela has failed to convince them
It was better with whites, we knew then it was a racial conflict
Even our leadership is not keen to get involved in this situation
Your buds are watering for roti and bettlenuts
Indians are not interested to cast their vote but when they do so they vote for whites
And their numbers fill up the Parliament and in the Government mould.
What do you say, Buthelezi, you’re so quiet yet the children of (your) Ngqengelele kaMnyamana (Buthelezi’s clan hierarchy)
Being turned into clowns by Indians
Zulus do not have money and are squatting in shacks as chattels of Indians.
Beginning of AmaNdiya,
in the translation used by the BCCSA
early 2002, playwright and musician Mbongeni Ngema released a CD with
the song AmaNdiya – The Indians. Its Zulu lyrics were a litany of
complaints against Indians. “We struggle so much here in Durban, as we
have been dispossessed by Indians who in turn are suppressing our
people,” said one line. Some saw a few references as disguised calls
to action against Indians as a group.
The song drew strong
reaction, which showed how deep tensions between Indians and Africans
still ran. Sociologist Fatima Meer called it hate speech, and accused
Ngema of making money from people’s emotions. Meanwhile, the CD sold
very well, and thousands of people attended a Durban meeting in Ngema’s
support, according to City Press.
Several initiatives were
launched to have the song stopped. A filmmaker, Ramesh Jethalal,
obtained an interim interdict preventing the sale and distribution of
the CD. He argued that the song constituted hate speech. Ironically,
his argument was itself racist. In his court papers, Jethalal said
Africans were criminals, carriers of HIV and uneducated. The
interdict was later lifted, although the Film and Publications Board
ruled it could only be distributed to people over 18.
Rights Commission lodged a complaint with the Broadcasting Complaints
Commission of SA (BCCSA), on the grounds that it contravened the
constitutional ban on hate speech, and therefore fell foul of the
Broadcasting Code. The specific broadcast cited in the HRC complaint
occurred in an evening current affairs programme on Ukhozi FM, the
SABC’s Zulu language radio station, and was used to start a discussion
of the issue.
The BCCSA took a different view from the Durban High Court. The BCCSA tribunal:
• accepted Ngema’s bona fide intention to begin a debate;
• but found that the song demeaned Indians;
• ruled that the song’s language went further than allowed in the Constitution and Broadcasting Code since it
o “promoted hate in sweeping, emotive language against Indians as a race”;
o “constituted incitement to fear for their safety”; and
o violated Indians’ right to dignity, as protected in the Constitution; and
that the song’s use by Ukhozi to start a discussion did not contravene
the code, since it was done to “inform the debate”.
decision was widely reported as constituting a ban on the broadcast of
the song, even though the BCCSA has no such powers. Ngema denounced
the BCCSA’s hearing as a kangaroo court, but later gloated that all
the controversy had given him millions of rands worth of free
There is no question that AmaNdiya is a deeply
offensive song. But as the various hearings highlighted, that is not
enough to bring it within the constitutional provisions around hate
speech. That requires “incitement to cause harm”. The Durban Supreme
Court said there had been no incidents of violence between Africans and
Indians as a result of the song, and therefore allowed the song’s
But the BCCSA took a different view. Taking its
cue from some Canadian and German precedents on hate speech, it said a
legal limit should be placed on sweeping racial slurs in “our young
democracy, where we are still building unity amongst diverse
groupings”. The BCCSA also found it was irrelevant whether there was a
likelihood of real attack. It was enough that there was a likelihood
As heated as it was, the debate around Ngema’s song did
not settle the question of where the South African courts will draw the
line between offensive, but not illegal statements, and
constitutionally proscribed hate speech. Dealing with the CD’s
distribution, the Durban Supreme Court initially took one view.
Dealing with the song’s broadcast, the BCCSA took another view. But
from the point of view of journalism ethics, the last finding by the
BCCSA is the most significant.
The commission said that for
purposes of journalism and stimulating debate, it was acceptable to
play the song – even though it deemed it to be hate speech, which is
several degrees worse than simple racist speech. The BCCSA also found
that Ukhozi’s use of the song was bona fide, and not “a veil”.
is indeed important to write clearly about racism, and that may include
repeating offensive material. Of course, each case should be judged
on its merits. Such material should not lightly be repeated, but it is
justified if it is necessary for audiences to understand the story
properly. In this case, there was no question: much of the sentiments
of Ngema’s song were tucked into fairly subtle language, which needed
to be seen or heard in full in order to be understood.
Case study 12
Hey there, big spender!
Pityana has had several clashes with the media. As chair of the HRC,
he presided over its fractious inquiry into racism in the media. After
leaving the commission, he took over as the vice-chancellor of the
troubled University of South Africa, the giant distance learning
institution. In May 2002, the Mail&Guardian published a report
containing a litany of allegations of overspending against Pityana.
The report was headlined “Barney’s binge spending”, and the front page
was turned into a poster with the headline “Hey there, big spender!”
The most important claims were that:
university had spent R1.7 million to reverse the sale of Cloghereen,
the official residence of the vice-chancellor, and was planning to
spend millions more to refurbish it so that Pityana could move in;
• R1.5 million was to be spent on refurbishing his offices;
• Unisa was flying top management and council members to Mauritius to hold a graduation ceremony;
The report also said Pityana had refused to answer questions on the issue.
few days after the report appeared, Pityana called a media conference.
He claimed the Mail&Guardian had allowed itself to be used by
dissatisfied members of the university to further a “not-so-veiled
racist plot”. He singled out the paper’s reporter at the media
conference, and accused him of behaving like the old security police by
using anonymous sources. “I will expose him for the fraud he is,”
He defended the decision to cancel the sale of
Cloghereen as it had been sold on unfavourable terms. The university
would not have been able to replace it for the money its sale had
brought, he said. He also defended the refurbishment of his offices,
saying Unisa needed to be given an “ubuntu feel” and confirmed that a
graduation ceremony would be held in Mauritius. He also said that it
was “a lie” to say he had refused to answer questions on the claims,
saying he had asked for further clarification before responding.
It later emerged that the return fax to the Mail&Guardian had not been sent off before the publication’s deadline.
was the report a racist plot, as Pityana alleged, or was it legitimate
exposure of corruption? Of course, the paper rejected the accusation
out of hand. Under the headline “Pityana won’t trump us with race
card”, it argued: “Underlying Pityana’s behaviour is the same
assumption that underpinned the Human Rights Commission’s notorious
probe into media racism, Pityana’s baby. It is that the dignity (read
immunity from harsh criticism) of black public figures is sacrosanct
and that white critics should keep their traps shut.”
Pityana’s personal attack on the reporter was outrageous, and he needs
to take responsibility for his organisation’s failure to get his
answering fax off in time. But the paper’s statement that he had
“refused” to answer the questions was not accurate either. It would
have been better to set out in more detail what efforts had been made
to get his comment.
The report relies almost entirely on
unnamed sources. In the light of the notoriously bitter infighting
raging at Unisa at the time, it seems likely that at least some of
those sources were pursuing their own agendas. That is not enough on
its own to disqualify the information, but it does increase the need to
corroborate the information. While this may have been done, the report
does not demonstrate clearly enough what steps were taken to check the
Pityana did afterwards acknowledge several of the most
important claims, but his core defence was that they constituted
justified spending. The paper did not do enough to establish whether
the spending was reasonable or not. Certainly the claim that Cloghereen
had been sold for too little seems to justify the decision to cancel
the sale. Local estate agents would most likely have been able to
corroborate or dispute the property’s valuation.
The tone of
the report attracted criticism. Particularly the front-page headline,
“Hey there, big spender!” seemed to stray into gotcha journalism.
Thloloe, says it was “the tone of the writing that was offensive to
many people, not the facts. Exposing the facts isn’t the issue, but if
we adopt a tone that seems to say that the new leadership, the new
elite (can’t be trusted), somehow it smacks of racism.” And Mondli
Makhanya, who took over editorship of the paper later, said that
although the facts were true, they did not necessarily justify
characterising Pityana as a spendthrift.
Weaknesses in the
report and its handling can be identified, but do they support
Pityana’s charge of a racist agenda? Because it is so hard to prove
racism, judgments of cases like this remain subjective. Some people
will see no other possible explanation for the tone of the
Mail&Guardian report than a deep desire to prove the corruption and
inability of the new black elite. Others will see it as journalists
doing their job.
Perhaps the most definitive statement one can
make is that race can never be a reason to cover up real cases of
corruption. But where race is a factor, there is a particular duty to
be careful with the facts and the tone of the report.
Case study 13
Minister of Defence, Joe Modise, was furious. He was setting off to the
Middle East to try and rescue a R7-billion arms deal. “My chances are
very, very, very slim. I'm going to go down on my knees to try to
persuade them. But I am doubtful the deal will be signed.” He had
promised confidentiality to the country involved, Saudi Arabia, but
details had been published in overseas media and then, in July 1997, in
The Sunday Independent and its sister newspapers.
An angry Modise
said: “We were placed in this humiliating position because of our own
press, which is supposed to be working in the interest of the South
African public.” The leak had been a deliberate ploy to undermine the
government’s business. Modise rejected the argument that the public had
a right to know who South Africa was selling arms to. “I don't think
our people want to know. Not at that price. I don't think our people
want to see thousands of people jobless in the streets just because we
could not meet the conditions of the deal.”
manufacturer Denel had made concerted attempts to block publication,
obtaining a court interdict and even laying criminal charges under an
apartheid-era secrecy law that was still on the statute book. But these
had failed. The newspaper justified its decision to publish on the
basis of public interest. The editor, John Battersby, said in reference
to the court interdict: “We will abide by the decisions of the court,
but we will do everything in our power to defend the public’s right to
The issue quickly turned into a wider row about race and
the role of the media. Support of the government’s position came from
two prominent black journalists, the publisher of Mafube Publishing,
Thami Mazwai, and the veteran journalist Jon Qwelane, at the time
editor of Enterprise, one of Mafube’s titles.
Calling for a
patriotic media, Mazwai suggested in various columns that the national
interest – in this case the benefit in terms of investment and jobs –
should take precedence over the public’s right to know. “That no black
editor has come out in support of disclosure of Saudi Arabia as the
destination for South African arms speaks volumes. It is not surprising
that we are not caught in an identity crisis in which we have to be
South African, Irish, American and European all at the same time.”
Elsewhere, he said the case showed up the problem of continuing foreign
and white ownership. The decision to identify Saudi Arabia “did not
take our national interest into account, it looked at British national
There they were, the big issues of the
post-apartheid media, all on the table because of an arms deal:
transformation, role, and race. For our purpose, we should first
consider whether The Sunday Independent was justified in publishing
details of the deal.
Selling arms is a profoundly political
matter, and has to take into account where and how those weapons are
likely to be used. Even aside from the moral questions that arise,
supplying weapons to a particular country is a gesture of support, and
is used in this way in international diplomacy. Presenting the
potential deal with Saudi Arabia as simply a matter of business and
jobs, as Modise did, was disingenuous.
The deal could have had
major implications for South Africa’s foreign relations. This is not
the place to assess them, or to suggest that the deal would have been a
bad one for the country. Perhaps it would have been a very good thing.
But negative or positive, such matters deserve full public scrutiny in
a democracy. In any event, the fact that the deal was being reported
abroad made it just silly to try to keep it secret within the country.
The Sunday Independent was quite right to run the story.
debate served as a particularly neat illustration of why the media
prefer to think of themselves as serving the public rather than the
national interest, as discussed in chapter two. The case showed how
those with political power also have the power to define the national
interest. The minister defined the deal as being about commercial and
employment benefits, ignoring all the other ramifications. In the
concept of public interest, on the other hand, citizens are the
starting point. When we use this idea, it becomes much harder to find
good reasons to keep things secret and out of the public domain. If
citizens matter most, as they should in a democracy, there can’t be
many situations when it’s better for them to be kept in the dark.
what about race? Mazwai cast the dispute as one between the new,
democratic government and white journalists who had difficulty in
accepting its authority. Sean Jacobs says Mazwai’s “developmentalist”
view of the media’s role was set against a “liberal-humanist” view,
articulated mainly by white editors and journalists.
undeniable that there are different traditions in the South African
media, which often – but not always – coincide with racial divisions.
But the row needs to be understood in the context of its time. In 1997,
tensions around race and the media were high. Then President Nelson
Mandela had launched several attacks on an industry where white
interests were still dominant. Soon afterwards – in late 1998 – the HRC
launched its inquiry into racism, discussed in Chapter two.
industry was undergoing massive change in those years. By 2004, black
editors were no longer a rarity. Mazwai was later appointed to the
SABC board, and continued to argue for a patriotic media. But his
position was an isolated one. The mainstream view among white and
black editors was that a healthy independence of government should be
maintained. This could be done while still embracing the new South
Africa and its values and projects: non-racism, democracy, the fight
against poverty and others. Loyalty to the constitution as the
expression of the national compact was fine, but appeals to patriotism
should be treated with caution.