South Africa: Reorganising Power - Telling Meaningful Black Stories in the Public Square
18 September 2013
Black stories are in the form of service delivery protests, which are characterized by angry mobs stealing electricity, invading lands and tossing poo. Such stories don't engage Black politics in any meaningful way - they are not written nor seen through Black people's experiences .
A few months ago, unsurprisingly ignored by other media outlets, the Mail & Guardian (M&G) did a facelift by changing the guard. Without much media hype, Nic Dawes, outgoing editor-in-chief of Mail & Guardian, was replaced with the papers outgoing online editor, Chris Roper.
Furthermore, outgoing online deputy editor, Verashni Pillay, was promoted to associate editor while Alistair Fairweather, head of digital platforms, was promoted to chief technology officer.The cream de la cream, in my reading of the papers celebration, was that of Angela Quintal who left her position as editor of the Witness to take up the position of editor of the Mail & Guardian.
With all these new developments, indicative of the direction the paper is taking, the deputy editor-in-chief, Rapule Tabane, must have been left dripping in surprise. Or not.
Not surprisingly, Angela Quintal's celebration, though she has extensive journalism experience, is part of the on-going gender debate which is currently taking place outside the general Black emancipation debate. As such, while Black males are left out of the picture, white females assume and are (uncritically) allowed to represent a progressive agenda - which leads to the displacement of the Black debate and its disfigurement.
On this note, it is equally not surprising that the M&G's changes did not attract much public debate - at least from other media houses, unlike the news that Dr Iqbal Survé, the man behind JSE-listed Sekunjalo Investments, had bought Independent News and Media South Africa (INMSA) from its Irish owners for R2 billion.
There are obvious issues of institutional culture that still need to be addressed and which are both gendered and racial - with Whiteness associated with objectivity which Black people have to adopt in order to be taken seriously in the media. These issues must be confronted. But they can only be confronted when black experiences and voices have both validated themselves and are validated by others.
In a July 2013 Guardian article titled Race equality in academia: Time to establish Black studies in the UK by Deborah Gabriel, Cecily Jonas, an independent researcher in the UK, says that 'cultural bias lies at the heart of the institutionalized racism limiting recruitment and the progression of Black skill, 'it is not enough to bring in more black faces, the knowledge that we bring in must be validated'.
Indeed, full racial equality within the public space will not be reached until we see stories that are relevant and pertinent to our lives; seen through our context, our histories and our communities; reported and analyzed as valid, credible news!
As it stands, Black stories are in the form of service delivery protests, which are characterized by angry mobs stealing electricity, invading lands and tossing poo. While in labour reporting you read about Black people consulting sangomas, using muti or carrying knobkerrie without much cultural context given.
Though across racial divides, South Africa has now come to understand that the sharpening unequal material conditions are unsustainable, the debate has shifted and responsibility placed on the ANC government's corruption, alleged and real, factional battles, and the party's ineffectiveness in delivering services.
While evidently true, there are voices, at least if you read the comments section of many online articles, which reveal racial undertones in criticism of the government. But in other spheres, there are critical but objective voices emerging, albeit small - the spirited debates sparked by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng's address at Advocates for Transformation function are telling.
In other stories, you read of black rage in the shape of Bikoists and now EFF representatives like Julius Malema. With such framing, which rouse fear, some forget that the Constitution is rooted in addressing the colonial-apartheid legacy and does not only espouse universally applicable values and principles. Or Jullie Reid's Daily Maverick article unfortunately titled Why can't African democracies just grow up? Not to demean these stories, but why are such stories still carried through a colonial-apartheid prism?
It is in this context that you then also read, falsely, of attacks and marginalization of white males in the Judiciary or of the alleged secret war against white farm owners - fortunately myth busters AfricaCheck, and a host of other media persons and houses, refuted this claim. Such stories don't engage Black politics in any meaningful way - they are not written nor seen through Black people's experiences. Any meaningful engagement is left to artists like Simphiwe Dana, Thandiswa Mazwai and critical theatre performances which are relegated to cultural spaces while the content of their work is not adequately engaged in mainstream debates - a space which Black experiences have yet to stand on their own without being viewed as radical or angry, also as if primitive forms of expression are the only mediums through Black people channel their dissatisfaction with the system!
Even when mainstream, they occupy obscure spaces; as alternative ways of thinking or as part of the chorus discrediting the ANC government for their 'incompetence' as opposed to their abandonment of selfless struggle. Andile Mngxitama, though he brings a much needed voice, comes off as a critical but lone voice which is hardly considered on its own right.
Mainstream media recognizes their diagnosis of South Africa, as with other Black voices, but does not consider from them any solutions. However, analysts like Eusebius McKaiser have traction among media spaces because while they may speak about change, their change is only limited to what bourgeoisie liberal paradigms espouse.
Sonia Davis, senior lecturer in education at De Montfort University, says that Black people could begin by 'raising their presence and impact' of their contribution to society. But in South Africa, raising the presence and impact of Black people cannot happen without the simultaneous withdrawal of white people in those very same spaces. Otherwise, as one sees with the gender question, which has been shifted to accommodate elements of whiteness, such spaces can be captured by those who want to hold on to power.
In Davis, one can find echoes of Rhodes University's academic, Samantha Vice, who argued the balancing inverse that for whites to be morally successful, 'a certain restraint, in terms of humility and silence', must be exercised. 'That Black people must be left to remake the country in their own way. Whites have too long had influence and a public voice'. This, she did not quite mean withdrawing from the public space, but she meant a certain 'inward-directed' reflection.
The staff changes at the M&G demonstrate an unwillingness, on the part of whiteness, to confront this legacy with honesty and with the will to change the status quo. The digital-first strategy aside, this has to be a snub for Tabane and for the idea of a black editor at the M&G.
This unwillingness is sharply reflected in a recent twitter exchange between Adrian Basson, former City Press assistant editor but now recently appointed Beeld editor, and Frans Cronje from the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR). In this exchange, pointing the reader to the racial and gender composition of the JSE's top 40 companies, Basson then comments that people should not be surprised why the EFF gets traction.
In response, remarking that the media also needs to be transformed, Cronje asks the question whether Basson is willing to step out of his job to help the economy 'reflect the people', to which Basson self-interestedly responds by saying that there is no need for white men to be defensive but rather to be concerned and be reflective - quite a duplicitous response to transformation, one would say.
The reality is that Black experiences in the mainstream public space are not seen to be valid unless they are expressed through white voices; the toilet saga in Cape Town where rejected portable flush loos in June, the debates about our legal culture or about the country's political culture. The debates broadly around transformation, about black and white talent/expertise, all bear marks of a country still struggling to confront its legacy. Much like what Tyler Perry is doing in the US cinema circuit; South Africa needs more Black editors and writers to bring in more Black stories. Be it corporate or non-profit sector, management simply have to be willing to open up space for a diversity of views.
Black voices and experiences, bar bourgeoisie liberal voices, will not find validation in the contemporary unless our history is considered. Ours is a legacy sharply moulded by racial superiority, racial inferiority and class oppression. It must be confronted! South Africa's problems are accordingly not a post-1994 phenomenon.
Consequently, there is something sinister about de-historicising contemporary problems because it neglects the reality that race was the medium through which oppression was exercised. But it also neglects to open up space for critical Black reflections with the post-1994 reality.
Original article by Thapelo Tselapedi .
Thapelo Tselapedi is a Research and Advocacy Officer for the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) but he writes this article in his personal capacity.