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

  • Maswabi Legwale

    I cancelled my subscription of City Press a few months into Haffajee’s appointment when I noted that bylines were increasingly those of white scribes, while those of the black journos I was used to inexplicably disappeared from the publication. My gripe with the white journalists was not because of their skin colour, but rather that their content was of a substance that I did not identify with.

    However, if those who left did so because of the change in editorial policy (which also affects the reader), their silent departure is a disappointment to me, but of course those who know me will tell you that I hold journalists in low regard as I deem a majority of them not to possess any integrity at all. Now that the six had the guts to go public with the problems of racism at the paper, we shouldn’t be surprised if those who left earlier suddenly emerge to add their ‘enraged’ voices to the saga.

    Haffajee was a huge liability to City Press and it will take some serious changes and commitment by the owners for the paper to recover. Much as I fully support the black journalists in their fight against racism in the newsroom, I don’t on the other hand sympathise with them. I mean, how many of them and those who left, and others in other publications can claim that they are TOTALLY objective in their reporting?

  • rams

    This is a very poignant take on the shenanigans at City Press. Great piece indeed Pinky.
    I have two issues that I want to tackle.
    1. How is it that no one seems bothered that Ferial seems to have taken an internal debate to a public forum (twitter)? If indeed she asked for her colleagues’ views, why then react with so much rage and irrationality when it would appear all she needed to do was argue her point to them and win them over?
    2. This addresses at large the points raised by Maswabi and in general the issue of transformation of the media. I find it strange and almost silly that black South Africans expect the (white) media to voluntarily opt to throw out its old skin. It won’t happen, at least not fully and not without resistance.
    The transformation of the media landscape in my view depends ONLY on introduction of new players. We cannot enter the coop as invitees of current players and expect to drive the change of agenda. It is a pity that the BEE type rushed for mining, IT and other low hanging fruit upon freedom and neglected this space, and thus relinquishing the influence of minds and setting of the agenda to the same people who have done so over the years.
    Anyway, thanks Pinky for gracing my blog with your incisive and beautiful work. I hope this is just the beginning of greater collaboration in future

  • Pinky Khoabane

    Maswabi, the silence by journalists – past and present – on all titles is not only disappointing but it is scary. It tells you that the notion of a fourth estate where freedom of speech is promoted is just a fallacy. I have asked some journalists who left City Press why they did so and none would be willing to say why except to say that they had left. Some have no work to go to and have decided to rather stay without salaries. But this exodus is not only confined to City Press. We saw what happened at SundayTimes when Phylicia Oppelt took the reigns. And serious questions which I dont want to bring into the debate for now will have to be asked.

  • sandile ngidi

    read the piece this morning Rams. Now I realise more and more just how dear City Press is to so many of us. Sundays were incomplete without City Press in those mzabalazo days. It’s where I cut my teeth, in a sense, after Umafrika and Echo in the late80s. Met the likes of Sbu Mngadi, Khulu Sibiya, Sandile Memela as a freelancer.When a dear comrade and friend Socrates Makhaye died under strange circumstances in the early 90s, City Press allowed me to publish a brief, “perhaps insignificant” tribute. No other newspaper covered Socrates’s death. To see Ferial pitted against colleagues as it seems is pretty sad, knowing (albeit at a distance) her super qualities etc. Allegetions that some of our finest journos have been subjected to racial prejudice is just too disturbing. And must be tackled head-on. May this saga soon come to pass. City Press is an institution and deserves to focus on its core job – fearless, courageous and incisive journalism.

  • Mtheth’unzima

    With all due respect, Lumka Oliphant is not in that league. Strangely, one other person mentioned in this article is among the main reasons black journalists abandoned City Press and at least one other Media24 publication. The struggle of black journos is not only frustrated by editors of different races and/or outlook but, in many instances, very senior black journalists themselves.

  • Domza

    City Press fell 12% to 121,137 (from 135,148) in the latest quarter.

  • Dissident

    Lumka Oliphant’s contribution to this piece shows clearly why she did not make it at City Press. Poor writing. I can’t figure out what she’s trying to say.

    This is what I know about them leaving:

    Lizeka Mda – left to become executive editor of The Star
    Makhudu Sefara – editor of The Star
    Japhet Ncube – wasn’t he City Press news editor? Appears to be a serial job-hopper
    Gail Smith – fell prey to the main temptation of PR – much more money – along with Lumka Oliphant
    Lucas Ledwaba – investigations and features journalist at Sowetan. Yes, it’s a demotion from his previous job at City Press, but Times Media titles generally offer more competitive salaries than Media24.

    I am not sure about Fikile Ntsikelelo Moya. But I believe it’s worth looking into the lure of lucre before publicising conspiracy theories about Ferial being racist.