By Pinky Khoabane
SIX years ago Ferial Haffajee got Eric Myeni fired from his columnist job at the Sowetan for a column under the headline “Haffajee does it for white masters”, nothing has changed writes Pinky Khoabane…
FERIAL HAFFAJEE, Huffington Post Editor-At-Large, has defended Western Cape Premier Helen Zille against calls to fire her for the racist and offensive tweets on colonialism. Haffajee’s hypocrisy in her defence of Zille is not lost to us but a closer look at how she oversaw an exodus of senior black journalists at City Press and how she treated six black junior staff who complained about the lack of transformation at the same paper explains why she would not necessarily be offended by Zille’s remarks. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/ferial-haffajee/why-helen-zille-should-not-be-fired_a_21905152/
In protecting racist Zille’s tweets, she whitewashes the tweets as simply stupid and maintains to fire her would be tantamount to censorship.
Hypocrisy on censorship
This is the same woman whose outcry in 2011 over two columns written by Kuli Roberts and Eric Myeni in the Sunday World and Sowetan, respectively, got them fired from their jobs as columnists. In fact, so incensed she was by both columnists, she called for both to be fired and not before she threatened to sue Myeni. An entire “proponent” of freedom of speech did not recognise the right of columnists to say what they wanted and called for them to be fired. Today, she defends Zille’s right to spew her bile on black people on the principle of freedom of speech.
Roberts had written a tongue-in-cheek piece headlined – “Jou Ma Se Kinders”. Roberts remarked that coloured girls were the future “for various reasons. You will never run out of cigarettes,” she said. “You will always be assured of a large family as many of these girls breed as if Allan Boesak sent them on a mission to increase the coloured race.
“They are the closest thing to being a white woman and we know you black men love them as they look like they’ve popped out of an Usher music video.”
“They have no front teeth and eat fish like they are trying to deplete the ocean” and that “they love to fight in public and most are very violent,” she continued.
At the time, an angry Haffajee tweeted: “If Bullard was fired for racism then so must Avusa fire Kuli Roberts. Sunda Wworld column on coloureds. Racist, vile, disgusting”.
She was quoted in newspapers as having said: “I nearly fainted when I read it….I thought we were well past that kind of racist, sexist writing. That kind of blatant racism and sexism is so yesterday….
“If I was the editor of the newspaper, I’d read the column and make sure it did not get printed”.
Myeni had written an opinion piece headlined “Haffajee does it for white masters” in which he accused the then City Press editor of being an agent for white capitalists. He said she was a “black snake in the grass, deployed by white capital to sow discord among blacks”.
Haffajee said the piece had made her cry. “It was horrendous to read the column. It made me cry. I can endure criticism about our journalism, but this is hate speech about me as a person,” Haffajee told Beeld.
How ironic then that today, Hafajee defends Zille’s right to offend when Roberts’ right to do the same was “so yesterday” and was the kind of thinking she thought we’d long gone past. In contrast to her view in 2011, where racism and sexism had no place in our society, she defends it today because Zille is an otherwise “astute student of history who chronicled so well the murder of Bantu Steve Biko”. Doesn’t this sound much like what Zille is saying in her colonialism tweets? Colonialism wasn’t all bad because it brought with it some level of development even if it killed millions of blacks in the process. Likewise, Haffajee wants us to believe that Zille’s remarks aren’t that bad because after all she did write about Biko’s murder. What an insult! Many black people will feel extremely let-down and hurt by her views but unlike her, their tears and pain won’t be chronicled in newspaper articles and dominate headlines.
In diffusing the harm done by Zille’s comments, she belittles the outcry of the majority of decent South Africans – black and white – who found she had crossed the line. She calls it a hissi-fit. The question Hafajee must answer is whether Zille would dare write about Hitler’s Nazism and it’s positive contributions to the world. We already know that Hafajee is not so stupid as to defend Zille were she to praise Hitler – Jews would annihilate her. Incidentally, she condemned former Wits SRC leader Mcebo Dlamini when he said he admired Hitler. Another example of her hypocrisy.
In her desperate attempt to defend Zille, she looks to the Constitution and pulls out the limitation of freedom of speech to explain why Madam Premier’s tweets are not so bad. They were not hateful she contends, since they didn’t incite war. Another example of hypocrisy from our distinguished journalist. Did Roberts and Myeni call for the killing of anyone in their columns? Is that why our editor-at-large called for them to be fired way back in 2011?
Haffajee’s views on freedom of speech are inconsistent, are dependant on the perpetrator and to whom they are directed. Myeni and Roberts’ views were well protected under the Constitution until they were directed at her. Zille can say what she likes for as long as she doesn’t hurt Ferial Haffajee.
Exodus of Senior Black Journalists at City Press and her Twitter – This is what I wrote in 2013
The exodus of senior black journalists at the City Press since the arrival of editor-in-chief, Ferial Haffajee, in 2009, and their replacement by a steady stream of white journalists culminated in the spat that spilled into the public domain last week, in what has now been dubbed “Ferial’s line in the sand” or “Ferial’s skop, take it or lump it,” letter.
Lizeka Mda, Makhudu Sefara, Japhet Ncube, Gail Smith, Lumka Oliphant, Fikile Ntsikelelo Moya, Lucas Ledwaba, all seasoned journalists, are just some of the journalists whose departures raised eyebrows and were seen as a break from a newspaper that prided itself as “Distinctly African”, in its slogan, editorial policy and newsroom make up.
“It was the only newspaper where we wrote for us and felt proud to be able to bring an African perspective and an understanding of who we are as a people,” explained Oliphant, a former journalist at the paper who worked under the erstwhile editor, Mathatha Tsedu and Haffajee, albeit for a short time, explained.
Rumours of the reasons behind their departure abound and range from those who followed Tsedu to the Independent Newspapers and those who were pushed out in what is believed to be Haffajee’s or News24’s bid to change the face of City Press.
“This glaring change in editorial policy,” Oliphant contends “ is at the heart of the battle for a much loved newspaper which Africans, who, until Tsedu’s stint at City Press, felt alienated from many other titles”.
Tsedu, whose Pan Africanist approach has often put him at loggerheads with peers, instructed his subordinates to reflect stories from an African perspective: “There are many black intellectuals out there. Go out and find them instead of using the same old white voices, explain our cultural practices,” Oliphant explained further what the perspective meant.
It is this perspective, which the South African Human Rights Commission’s report of 2000 into Racism in the Media, identified, among others, as lacking in South Africa’s newsrooms. It is the African perspective which industry stakeholders, supposedly committed to espousing as part of their commitment to transforming newsrooms.
While the details of the internal strategy meeting which degenerated into accusations of racism between Haffajee and a group of black journalists are vague, the battleground for transformation in the media must be understood within the context of a media which is bound by both the Constitution and commercial considerations to properly reflect black lives.
This must be done in content, composition and language and give assistance to Africans, as it does to Afrikaaners who, due to language barriers, battle to express themselves in English.
But alas, cultural practices of ukuthwala, circumcision, and polygamy, among others, have been relegated to the rubbish heap of scandalous events associated only with the criminal activities of people who have hijacked the practices for financial gain and resultant deaths, specifically in the case of circumcision.
Haffajee’s abhorrence of these practices is captured succinctly in her letter to the staff: “And no, I have no respect for and neither am I ever going to bow to patriarchy, ukuthwala, or praise-sing and protect the circumcision that results in death….”.
In the absence of the other side of this saga one is left with no choice but to speculate. However, it is highly improbable that the journalists would have been asking their editor to endorse the deaths resulting from circumcision. To demonise ukuthwala and African culture, which are protected in South Africa’s Constitution, as “cultural imperialism” or a display of “cultural superiority”, reflects her ignorance of the practice and arrogance.
Racism masked as Constitutionalism?
In a tweet, Haffajee described the battle as that between herself, as a constitutionalist and tribalists. The notion that constitutionalists and tribalists are at odds is flawed. Both are protected under our Constitution.
On the contrary, it is unconstitutional to deny the tribalists the protection which Haffajee enjoys under our Constitution and to want to impose her views on everyone else to the point of allowing these views to influence the editorial content of the newspaper.
While it is not clear what lies ahead for Haffajee and the City Press Six, the editor would do well to contain debates to the issues at hand. The choices of skop for lunch or the lifestyles of the journalists have no relevance to issues of racism and transformation. To vilify those who dare to question her on transformation at City Press as she did the six, whose work she said was so poor that she couldn’t find them work at other titles, and a former journalist at the paper, whom she described as a “mediocre journalist” is not helpful.
The letter contains issues which breach some provisions of the Constitution and South Africa’s labour laws. While within her right to “draw a line in the sand”, the “take it or lump it” approach will come to haunt her if the staff take her up on her threat and use constructive dismissal as the basis of their departure. Any disciplinary hearing into any charge she puts before these staffers cannot be fair given that the letter is now in the public domain. As one not au fait with the law, I cant even begin to imagine issues of defamation that arise from publicly calling people racists if they are not. Let’s not even address Haffajee’s intolerance of racists when her bosses openly allow racist vitriol on their News24 website.