Twitter was alive last night with a debate about whether black people can be racist after City Press editor, Ferial Haffajee, posted a comment: “I don’t tolerate white racists, so what makes black racists any different? Today, I drew a line in that sand. Two sides: one awful coin.”
And then she followed up: “So easily does the oppressed become the oppressor. Not under my watch. Sorry.”
The tweets aroused a storm of responses, with everyone from Julius Malema, Andile Mngxitama and Chris McEvoy to Chester Missing asking what the hell had gone down at the newspaper. “Is it true that u charged 6 of ur journalist for questioning city press on transformation in a workshop?” asked Malema.
Chester Missing, responding to Haffajee’s “line in the sand” comment, said, “It makes the fight against Eurocentrism that much harder.”
Haffajee responded: “Not really, puppet, the ability to say that liberated for me a new Afrocentrism free of race and cultural superiority.”
Just what inspired the respected editor to take to Twitter about internal politics at her newspaper, one that featured prominently in Wits Journalism’s State of the Newsroom report?
A letter to employees explains her actions. City Press newsroom staff took part in a meeting that was designed to “future-proof us, to have a discussion about a genuine future, to find ways of altering your work patterns, to do wonderful journalism”.
Instead, Haffajee says the outcome of the strategy session was “dated and small-minded. I don’t work with dated and small-minded people”, she wrote. She clarified what she meant. “On allowances, they are what they are.” And she refers staff to someone who could make an “easy fix”.
Then she stops playing nice. “But if you have an overdraft problem, it’s your problem, not mine. And it’s certainly not racism, it’s bad personal financial management, even though many of you are running a business on the side to which I turn a blind eye because I know how tough times are”.
Then came the kicker, the issue that exposed bare bones of racism in a newspaper that is touted – by its readers and internally – as being post liberation, post affirmative action; in other words, a newspaper that is transformed and which speaks to a modern South Africa. “Mostly, I object to the naked racism on display yesterday. I object to the racist mauling that Tash (news editor Natasha Joseph) and Nicki (deputy editor Nicki Gules) came in for. They are a transformative desk – the very best of the desks I have ever appointed in my editing years,” Haffajee wrote in her letter.
“I object loudly to the racist view that only a black editor can get political stories through calls from black African politicians. For one, I am black and African and will not live under your imposed identity on me. As to your views of our political connection, it is insulting and rubbish. I’ve disproved that many times in my reporting life as do our colleagues almost every week when they get scoops. I don’t buy into this racism and never will.
“Yes, we erred on the R800 lease, but I make no apologies for covering the administration of President Jacob Zuma well and with attention. I edited a title to which he gave his first ever-exclusive interview ahead of winning Polokwane and generally maintain good relationships. Paddy, black I know, has an open line to what he calls the Commander-in-Chief. Counted his scoops lately?
“You will have noticed our partnership on an authoritative book on his Presidency? If not, try and buy it. Everyone’s reading it,” she wrote.
Haffajee and her news management team clearly came in for flak over the newspaper’s coverage of President Jacob Zuma. Equally clearly, certain reporters believe it is racist. And Haffajee, in no uncertain terms, says it’s not. She says South Africa is a “presidency-centric” country. That Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki “received exactly the same attention and prescient detail”.
“President Zuma favours his family. I point here to the likes of his nephew Khulubuse, his cousin Deebo Mzobe and his twins Duduzile and Duduzane. We will continue to cover this trend. It’s not racism, it’s journalism and the coverage of cronyism,” she wrote.
And she throws down a challenge. “If you don’t like it, lump it. Perhaps, too, you are misplaced at an investigative title? If you think you are, let me know and I will try and put in a call for you to another title, though some of you who engage in workplace politics so much, reflect work that is so bad I don’t know how successful my call will be.”
Haffajee pointed out that the ANC is the majority party, with four times the clout of the Democratic Alliance. She says most of City Press’ readers are ANC members and that they like the newspaper’s coverage of the party as “we keep it on its toes”.
“You should read the research available to you because you really don’t know your readers,” she says. “If you don’t like it, lump it. I am not going to falsely get interested in the DA’s succession battle in pursuit of a fake even-handedness. Perhaps you are misplaced at City Press, which has always been interested in the liberation movements?”
Apparently, some journalists objected to stories reporting on the “first black” and “first woman” stories of aspiration. “I will continue to do it whether you like it or not,” Haffajee says in the letter. “I’ve been doing it for years in my Little Black Book (Financial Mail) the Women’s Book, 200 young South Africans (Mail&Guardian) World Class (City Press). I track the pioneer generation and I track cool South Africans. If you don’t like it, lump it. Perhaps you are in the wrong place because celebrating the good side of freedom is a leitmotif of my life and I make no apologies for continuing to do it.”
Haffajee then takes on cultural attitudes, with no apology. “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; and I have no respect for people who burn newspapers under the guise of protecting culture. I have never kow-towed to cultural imperialists and I am not going to do so now,” she says.
Once more she throws down the gauntlet. “So, leave if you like, but that is my line in the sand. I am not going to walk on eggshells or edit around false perceptions and real racism. For that is what I saw yesterday! Real racism at work. Destructiveness and cultural superiority. I will have none of it. I will not work with racists.”
Haffajee and the newspaper’s human resources department are due to meet today [Thursday]. She says she has spoken to the ringleaders of this “this destructive racism and unhappiness”.
She has laid out her vision for the newspaper, and has told staff to either join her on the journey, or leave.
“We sail this ship by Constitutional values from now on and in the spirit of unity. I’m the captain and I choose my sailors. Let me refresh your minds on what this means. I am a practitioner of non-racialism and a public supporter of equity and black empowerment to reach that non-racial future. I am non-sexist and anti-patriarchy. I don’t think anyone ‘s culture or religion is better than any other.
“Every week, I get about 10 applications from people who want to come and work with us because they love City Press’s values, journalism and vision. I would like the opportunity to work with people who want to be here. If you don’t like it, be brave and make the space for them and go and work somewhere where racism, superiority and reverse baaskap are allowed and revered.
“This is not your place.”
The letter, she says, has been written the “spirit of frankness and fairness”.
Asked whether she had charged the six to eight reporters mentioned in various tweets, Haffajee said, “Not true yet, shaking their racist comfort zones.
In her concluding tweet, Haffajee says, “Lovely old guy once said: ‘I have fought against white domination and I will fight against black domination for a cherished ideal.’ Indeed.”
To follow the Twitter action, check out @ferialhaffajee timeline.