|Writing race: chapter 7 of Black, white and grey|
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.
In 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?
Racism 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.”
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 it.
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.
There 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.
Astonishingly, 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
Potential problem areas
Drawing 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 discussion entirely.
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.
It is 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 true.”
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 can.
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.
Similarly, 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.
Conversely, 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.
One 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.
While 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.
Williams says 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
Possibly 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.
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 our own.
“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
Race 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.
South 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.
In the 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.
The 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.”
Since 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.”
The 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.
On May 7 2004 I came under fire, on the pages of my newspaper, ThisDay, from one of my reporters.
Carien 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.
She 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.
“In the 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.
“Nor 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.
I am 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 wrong, then?
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
Oh men! Oh virulent men! We need a courageous man to delegate to the Indians
In 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.
The Human 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:
The 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 publicity.
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 distribution.
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 of fear.
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”.
It 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.
Barney 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:
A 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,” Pityana said.
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.
So 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.”
Certainly, 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 claims.
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.
The 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.”
The arms 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 know.”
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 interest”.
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.
The 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.
But 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.
It is 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.
The 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.
Franz Kruger's book on journalism ethics has been published by Double Storey Books. The book has been endorsed by the South African National Editors' Forum.
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|Contents of Black, white and grey|
Foreword, by Henry Jeffreys
Ch 1) First questions
2) The South African media landscape
3) Accountability and practical decisionmaking
4) Getting it right: accuracy
5) Getting all sides: fairness
6) Keeping your distance: independence
7) Writing race
8) The next frontier: gender
9) Stepping on toes: public sensitivities
11) My home is (not always) my castle: privacy
12) The dark side: Reporting death, Aids and trauma
13) Flying a false flag: deception
Appendix 1: An ethics roadmap
Appendix 2: Discussions and exercises
Appendix 3: Icasa code for broadcasters
Appendix 4: Press code of conduct
Appendix 5: Sunday Times accuracy check