It’s business unusual in South Africa, to borrow from the former president. Former comrades are at each others’ throats as members of the ANC and the breakaway Congress of the People (COPE) exchange fisticuffs. Unfortunately, this is not just figurative – in the build-up to the launch of COPE, there were physical exchanges between members of the two warring sides in the Western Cape and Soweto, mainly.
In addition to the physical exchanges, verbal sparring has also been the hallmark of post-Polokwane politics.
Members of the two parties have been calling each other snakes, dogs, and all other manner of colourful language.
It’s juicy stuff, at the immediate, unthinking level. But it is actually serious. Some members respond seriously to these jibes and insults. When a leader tells his supporters, through the media, to kill the snakes, he is potentially calling for the literal death of members of the opposition.
When the Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa got disappointed with traditional chiefs from his Ogoniland, who were giving oil prospecting rights to overseas oil companies but failing to plough back the profits into the local populace, he likened the chiefs to vultures. He didn’t stop there; he added that the vultures had to be killed. This sparked the killing of a number of chiefs by local youth who had taken Saro-Wiwa literally. Saro-Wiwa was found guilty of instigating the killings and sentenced to death. Such is the gravity of colourful language used at the spur of the moment.
The unfortunate reality is that we as journalists are caught in the crossfire. In fact, we are part of the incendiary atmosphere itself. We can get used unwittingly, stoking the flames.
Yes, I know, this may seem unfair. Many would say journalists only report what they see and hear; they are messengers. True. But it is also important to note that we are not just robotic conduits of information. We are intelligent enough to analyse and interpret.
Let me illustrate this by making a potentially controversial statement. At the funeral service of ANC stalwart Billy Nair, Jacob Zuma was so taken away that he told those in attendance that Nair was such a good comrade of his, they used to share zol while they were still prisoners on Robben Island.
Ah, the feeding frenzy that followed. How can such a top public figure admit to having smoked dagga? It didn’t help that Zuma later explained that, on Robben Island, rolled tobacco was known as zol. No one was listening anymore.
In all fairness, Zuma’s definition of zol within the Robben Island context was spot on. I have listened to and read many accounts of life on Robben Island. The raconteurs in these accounts, which were told before Zuma’s Billy Nair funeral service speech, have always described zol as “rolled tobacco”.
But the reporter who wrote the first zol story got too excited to corner Zuma after his speech and seek clarity from him: “Wait a minute, Mr Zuma, how did you get hold of dagga while you were on Robben Island? Wasn’t security stringent?” The reporter would have then been given the context. Zuma’s version of zol is there in Robben Island folklore. Is it not in Indres Naidoo’s account of life on Robben Island, “Island in Chains”? In Zulu, the zol of rolled tobacco was called “imboza” on Robben Island. Unfortunately, the reporter failed in his or her duty to double-check.
In this particular case, the lack of context or lack of caution on the part of the reporter seems minor. Imagine if this lack of contextual understanding had been reported on a matter of a graver nature, in these fluid political times.
So, as we venture out there to cover these stories of national import, we should pause to double-check. We live in a multi-lingual country after all, but many of our journalists still speak one or two languages only – English and/or Afrikaans. Many of our public leaders, on the other hand, speak a multiplicity of languages, moving from one language to the next within the same paragraph. In such situations, there’s always danger to misunderstand something, at best, or to completely miss out on something, at worst. Double-checking never hurts.
Let’s rise to the challenge of being as vigilant and accurate as possible in our reading of the election that is unfolding. We owe that to this democracy.
Fred Khumalo is a Sunday Times columnist and award-winning novelist.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (February 2009).