“It later turned out that Zikalala himself had pushed for my dismissal. He explained to senior black colleagues, who in turn told me, that it was ‘symbolically important’ for the ‘Africanisation of the SABC’ to ‘crush’ the most senior white journalist at the corporation ‘as an example’ to other whites.’”Max du Preez, Pale Native – Memories of a Renegade Reporter (Zebra Press, 2010)
“But how on earth will this process be assisted by the suspension of Terry Bell, one of the most committed advocates of the transformation of the media and indeed society as a whole? No-one has spoken our more consistently and courageously against ‘small but very privileged and racially definable minority’ who dominate our economy, and has campaigned more passionately in support of the workers and the poor.”
The purge of white news reporters and commentators at the SABC under Christine Qunta and Snuki Zikalala a decade ago is now being eerily echoed at Newspaper House in Cape Town under Dr Iqbal Survê, Karima Brown and Vukani Mde. Yesterday, the media rumour mill went into overdrive, claiming Ann Crotty, editor-at-large of the Independent Group’s Business Report and a trustee of the workers’ trust, the Independent Trust for Media Freedom, had resigned – the fifth highly respected journalist to either leave or be forced out of the company.
In Cape Town, Newspaper House is a house divided and nothing illustrated this more clearly than a self-serving, forelock-tugging column by the newly promoted deputy editor, Aneez Salie. It touted his Struggle heritage, the unbreakable bond between himself and Nelson Mandela and denigrated his colleagues who had produced the newspaper’s 7 December Mandela memorial cover, which was judged by TIME to be one of the best in the world.
What was outrageous about this column was that it is common cause in Cape Town’s news-gathering circles that Salie was so dazed by Mandela’s death and its implications that he effectively took no part in putting together the Mandela memorial issue of the Cape Times which was lavishly and so justifiably praised by TIME. Unsurprisingly, dismissed editor Alide Dasnois’ acerbic responding letter suggested that if Salie had spent more time working on the night in question and less time drinking tea then the final product would, in however small a measure, have carried his noble imprimatur.
The catalyst for what has proved to be a deliberate and progressively-implemented destruction of an outstanding news team was Iqbal Survé’s bizarre but cynical assertion that Dasnois’ dismissal was justified because she had produced a front page wraparound tribute to Nelson Mandela that won world acclaim rather than that the same issue carried a story on the public protector’s draft report on his Sekunjalo Consortium.
If anyone doubts my assertion that what is happening at Newspaper House replicates what happened at the state broadcaster under Christine Qunta and Snuki Zikalala a decade ago then examine the chronology of this still unfolding and sordid saga and connect the dots.
Someone who figured prominently at the disruption of the Right2Know picket outside Newspaper House against the dismissal of Alide Dasnois and in the subsequent anti-R2K tweets was the “policy, investor relations and research officer” in the office of Survé, Leanne Neethling.
Could this be the same person described by Dr Julie Reid in a Daily Maverick article about the disruption of the Right2Know protest?
The social media comments from the pro-Survé group that tried to disrupt the R2K picket were less than subtle and specifically targeted whites even though the picket did not consist only of white people.
Within a few weeks of the call by our Survé-connected Media Mata Hari with the bright red, skyscraper heels to fire “racist reporters” like Tony Weaver – just coincidentally – the group executive editor Chris Whitfield has, like Dasnois, left Newspaper House and Terry Bell, a columnist with the company on labour matters for the past 18 years had his column terminated for joining the R2K picket – something which has distressed Cosatu.
Hardly had the services of Bell been terminated then the newspaper started carrying a column by Jeremy Cronin who by astonishing consonance happens to be closer to the ANC than Bell. Cronin’s ‘Left Turn’ column, has not unexpectedly become a vehicle for trashing opposition parties – i.e. his column on 29 January was headlined ‘Zille marches to Luthuli House as Malema went to Nkandla’.
ANC’s de facto approach
And as an encore, group executive editor Karima Brown suspended Donwald Pressly, Cape Town bureau chief for the company’s Business Report. All are white and in terms of the ANC’s de facto approach – which does not exactly accord with the founding edicts of the Freedom Charter – their disappearance from the scene will significantly “transform” Newspaper House.
Pressly acknowledged that he had applied for employment with the DA and there is no law against applying for a job or being a member of a political party – if he had got it, though, he would have resigned as John Scott of the Cape Times did when he stood for the PFP against the NP Incumbent, John Wiley in the Simon’s Town constituency in the 1987 election and as Dianne Kohler Barnard did in 2004 when she left the SABC because of “increasing state interference” and became a DA MP.
It was obvious that Bell’s days as a columnist with the Independent Group were numbered the moment he joined and started writing about the disruption of R2K picket outside Newspaper House and the connection between this and Survé. Similarly, in announcing Pressly’s suspension, Brown said that it was due to his applying for a job with the DA and other “unrelated issues”. The “unrelated issues” seems strange given his apparently unblemished career up to now but, when one considers the new environment in which he is now no longer working, authoring a book on a prominent and rising young black star in the DA will definitely not have helped his career prospects at the new, “heart-on-the-sleeve”, ANC-aligned Independent Newspapers.
And, within a few weeks of the call by our Media Mata Hari to have “racist” reporters fired and the effective departure of people who were an integral part of the Cape Times brand like Dasnois, Whitfield, Bell and Pressly, an appalling, racially-premised attack on senior journalists – who have devoted much of their adult lives to the Cape Times and have served it and the people of the Western Cape with journalism of distinction – was launched by Brown and the opinion and analysis editor, Vukani Mde, with the full support of the newly-appointed deputy editor, Salie.
Unsurprisingly and justifiably, Heard and Weaver have described the statement as false, defamatory and “injurious to our professional reputation and standing”, and have lodged grievance procedures and sought legal advice.
That Heard and Weaver should be subjected to such racially-charged invective is outrageous and, above all, frightening. Heard’s father Tony, was a brave and principled previous editor of the Cape Times and she was a Nieman Fellow, spending 2009 at Harvard University thus following in the footsteps of other South African Nieman fellows like Donald Woods, Percy Qoboza and Barney Mthombothi. Weaver played a singular role in exposing the Vlakplaas-engineered murder of the Gugulethu Seven, something that the apartheid regime was unsuccessful in prosecuting him for and something that Trevor Manuel has, in condemning what is happening at Newspaper House, acknowledged and praised.
Given Survé’s close links with the ANC one has to ask: How different, in principle, are the sentiments expressed by Brown, Mde, Douglas and Neethling from those expressed by Snuki Zikalala, who also had close links with the ANC? In a letter (‘Making patriotism a virtue’) published in Business Day on 31 July 2001, he wrote: “The white liberal media will defend and shower with praise any black journalist who passionately hates government. This is called freedom of expression.”
Zikalala, who in an interview (‘Snuki-sikelel-iafrika) with Angella Johnson carried in the Mail&Guardian on 17 October 1997, openly acknowledged his life-long hatred of whites and who constantly walked around the SABC newsrooms saying that he saw “too many white faces” had, like Brown and Mde, a very clear vision of the news organisation he wanted to create. His formula and business plan was simple and set out in his Business Day letter. Get rid of SABC employees whose mindset was that of the “white liberal media” and replace them with cadres capable of being ‘nurtured’, cadres that would be part of a “press corps that can work with government”.
Whatever the intentions of Survé, Brown, Mde and those who support them such as Salie and the Transformation of the Media in South Africa’s (MTMSA) Wesley Douglas, the impact of the current purge of whites – in line with the placard carried by Leanne Neethling – on the Cape Times brand and on newsroom morale has been devastating.
Not only has there been a massive loss of institutional memory and more than a century of news-gathering expertise but the corridors at Newspaper House are now filled with trepidation – just as they were at Auckland Park in April 2004 when, at the behest of the ANC-aligned board members Eddie Funde and Qunta, Zikalala was brought back from his government post having received a severance package of R2 million from the SABC only two years before.
Edwin Naidu, in a story headlined ‘Top reporters flee SABC’s newsroom’ (Sunday Independent 27/11/2005) wrote: “Several SABC staffers told the Sunday Independent on condition of anonymity they too would leave if given the opportunity because as journalists they were expected to present exclusively positive stories about government activities.”
Zikalala’s message then was no different in principle to what Brown and Mde have now articulated in the last sentence of their 27 January statement: “In the final analysis, no one is shackled to Independent or any of its titles. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to accept its new owner or its direction under him, must as a matter of principle leave, and give the rest of us space to build the company we want to work for.”
The principled Chris Whitfield has now left Newspaper House making it clear that the company that Brown, Mde and Salie are so hurriedly building is not one that he wants to be associated with.
This replicates the departure from the state broadcaster a decade ago of equally principled newsmen – Charles Leonard, Jacques Pauw and John Perlman to name just three – taking with them their credibility, their expertise and their institutional knowledge. The corridors they left were accurately described by Chris Barron in the Sunday Times of 25 July 2004: “To say that the SABC is not a happy place is putting it mildly. Fear and discontent stalk the newsroom at Auckland Park as former ANC political commissar Snuki Zikalala forces his underlings to toe the government line.”
The SABC reporters and producers who remained because they could not find other employment opportunities were shackled by that fear – and those that remain at Newspaper House will be similarly shackled and this, however subliminally, will be reflected in their reporting.
It did not then augur well for media freedom in this country and neither does the current purge at the Cape Times of the “privileged and racially definable minority” do so now.
There is nothing new in the terminology used by Brown and Mde to threaten the staff at Newspaper House and those working for the rest of the group’s publications. It is the sort of terminology which is constantly and consistently used in the Western Cape by ANC members like Tony Ehrenreich and Marius Fransman, both of whom clearly hold the racial inclusiveness to which Nelson Mandela dedicated his life in contempt.
The ballot box and the sales of the Cape Times and the Cape Argus will be the final arbiters of how successful this racially divisive strategy is but Rhoda Kadalie succinctly summed up the situation in a recent article published in Die Burger and on Politicsweb: “In similar mode, Survé has started the great purge, ridding his media company of its senior editorial team. Bringing in the once respected Karima Brown from Gauteng, she has to replace the ‘purged’ with politically
The problem that Survé, Brown, Mde and Salie have with Kadalie’s article is that she does not fit their racially-divisive template. She was a prominent member of the UDF during the Struggle and she is not part of a “very privileged and racially definable minority”.
Furthermore, it would be absurd to suggest that she is opposed to “… black control of any significant media asset”. When has she, and the people who are the victims of the purge at Newspaper House in Cape Town, ever indicated that they are opposed to Trevor Ncube’s ownership of the Mail&Guardian?
All it took was the quote from Craven’s press release on Bell’s demise as an Independent Newspapers labour columnist which anchors this article to expose the so-called “transformation” agenda of Brown and Mde for what it really is.
Just as Zikalala told his SABC cronies that it was, in the service of the new order “transformation”, symbolically important to “crush” senior white reporters, so his modus operandi is being implemented at Newspaper House in Cape Town – to the similar detriment of morale throughout all the publications in the group.
How quickly those who were oppressed have become Orwellian oppressors.
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