The battle for the soul of the City Press

By Pinky Khoabane

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.

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.

Pinky Khoabane is a writer, social commentator, radio anchor on Ubuntu-Radio and the author of Taming the Corporate Beast: The Intellectual Property Battle between Nkosana Makate and Vodacom over Please Call Me. Follow her on @pinkykhoabane