Many people don’t understand where Eric Miyeni’s veiled racial references towards Ferial Haffajee, editor of the City Press, stem from, but I do. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before a black African writer took a swipe against one the country’s top black editors.
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not plodding through my black Africaness to pledge solidarity to Miyeni. Certainly, Haffajee is a victim to the tribal-based wrath that still pervades the South African society. Miyeni’s attempt to discount the role Haffajee has played in journalism and society was both selfish and reprehensible.
However, Miyeni’s sucker punches, baseless and vile, is a sign of frustration about the lack of authentic and autonomous black voices in the South African mainstream press.
It might have been comforting for the Sowetan to simply consign Miyeni’s column into oblivion as if it was just another blast of blissfully ignorant black noise. It wasn’t. The appointment of a few black journalists to senior editorial positions in our country’s newsrooms was undoubtedly an undeniable sign of progress. Freedom and democracy had granted these black editors a huge opportunity to establish their own image, to reinvent their own identity, and to combat stereotypes that were perpetuated for years by the white press.
But the sad irony is that some of these black editors have turned this triumph on its head by behaving like coconuts, adding to the consolidation of white voices in the process. As a result, the local mainstream print media has been further drained of diverse perspectives, raising the spectre of a retreat to the old days where white voices reigned supreme. Anger, resentment and bitter sarcasm towards the ANC-led government (a black government) have become the hallmark of the black journalism’s style in South Africa.
Former President Nelson Mandela once warned against the tendency by some black journalists to abuse the sacred editorial pages they now enjoy undermining their own government. “They seem to regret that we destroyed white supremacy, and are very hostile to us,” Mandela said.
Certainly, black journalism should not be devoid of critical examination of the ANC government in delivering against its promises to the people. But it ought to chart a new way of reportage that conveys a sense of balance between government achievement and government failure, especially in an age when the government is no longer the enemy. The advancement of a few black editors, many of whom are enjoying the trappings of the power of the media, has not yielded much as the white media continues to define the black experience.
Miyeni’s frustration with black journalism in the country illuminates the agonising dilemmas many black journalists face when reporting through borrowed white lens. His jibe also raises pertinent questions about the relationship between black journalism and a black government, and the role of black journalism ought to play in advancing the cause for transformation in the South African society, including the media sector.
The resurfacing of the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ) in 2009 was indicative that black journalists are caught in the crux of defining themselves within the South African media landscape. Many black writers had hoped that the FBJ would finally tackle and resolve the frustrations and challenges exclusively confronting black journalists daily in our newsrooms. But sadly, it soon disappeared under the clouds of the “secrecy bill” shortly after it pulled a great publicity stunt when it barred white journalists from its inaugural launch, preferring to kowtow with President Jacob Zuma alone.
Some talented black writers have left the journalism profession because they have given up hope that the local print media sector will ever transform. Others have remained, retorting to grudgingly grind out copy before deadline, caring very little about what they write.
The question that has to be asked is what happened to the role black journalists played so admirably during the struggle era? Quite frankly, the merry bands of these white assimilators have killed the pride of black journalism. With a few exceptions, black journalism in South Africa is so dull, tepid and banal.
SA media houses swallow up new black voices each year without achieving any real diversity in voices and viewpoints because the so-called “independence culture” in the mainstream press is incredibly poisonous. Quite often, these new black voices lose their originality and authenticity and their egos are piqued by thoughts of becoming irrelevant if they don’t take a hardline against the government. In essence, this “independence culture” has removed black writers from the sociality of their black connections within which they are embedded, forcing them to reconstitute themselves as black writers armed with white voices.
Most newspapers drop the ball when it comes to reporting stories on government achievement because this “independence culture” is underlined, unfortunately, by anti-government sentiments. Our vindictive black editors spend more time attacking the government than they do worrying about the deteriorating quality of black journalism. They delight in tearing down and looking for the worst in any black person who’s a public figure no matter the truth.
So, are we ushering in a journalism era where authentic black journalistic voices are reigning supreme in the local press? Sadly, no. It should be no wonder then that voices of black journalists in the local media have never been as irrelevant as they are today.
The context of the exchange between Miyeni and Haffajee is very important, especially at a time when the local press is trying to safeguard press freedom in the light of the ANC’s plans to introduce a Media Appeals Tribunal and to enact the Protection of Information Bill.
We need to strive for a free media environment whereby newspaper columnists must be able to use the written word without the fear of reprisal. Many of these black editors have such a stranglehold on the local media landscape that many black journalists fear speaking out against them in case they have trouble in finding journalism work again.
Miyeni’s stoic refusal to apologise to Haffajee is indicative that there are some black writers out there who have a view about black journalism that is tinged with distaste. Unless black journalism becomes distinguishable from that of their white counterparts, some of these coconut editors will continue to show an unwillingness to assimilate into the larger black society.
The SA print media is sanctified principally by its aura of secretiveness. It’ll be when black writers start exposing what’s really happening inside our country’s mainstream newsrooms in order for the public to get a deeper and more disturbing problem within our newspapers: the increasing consolidation of the white voice.