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Johannesburg - A group of black City Press reporters have decided to lay charges of racism, defamation and sowing division in the newsroom against editor-in-chief Ferial Haffajee.
According to insiders, the racism storm started at a staff meeting on Tuesday when the six employees accused the paper of not transforming.
They accused Haffajee of failing to appoint a senior black news editor with political contacts to help tell stories from a “black perspective” and of targeting President Jacob Zuma and the ANC for “racist” reasons while ignoring the DA’s succession battle.
They also suggested that the paper’s recent story about disgraced former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi buying a newspaper while supposedly sick had been written by people other than reporter Xolani Mbanjwa.
In a leaked email, Haffajee said the complainants are divisive and suffer from “racism and cultural superiority”.
She acknowledged City Press had erred when it reported that Zuma was paying R800 a month to lease the 8.9 hectares of land on which his Nkandla homestead is built.
She said she was unrepentant about the newspaper covering the Zuma administration and not many matters involving the DA.
“Yes, we erred on the R800 lease, but I make no apologies for covering the administration of President Jacob Zuma well and with attention,” Haffajee wrote.
“The ANC is a party with a huge majority. Its majority is four times the DA’s. Most of our readers are ANC members - they like our coverage of the party and they like that we keep it on its toes… 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.”
Haffajee also responded to accusations that her failure to appoint a senior black editor had compromised the paper’s ability to generate more political stories. “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.”
Defending her editorial decisions, Haffajee said City Press had covered the governments of Zuma’s predecessors - Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela - with the same “prescient detail”.
She suggested that Zuma courted the media through his alleged corrupt practices.
“Moreover, since apartheid’s ended, we live in a country that is Presidency-centric… 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.”
Mbanjwa had a final say on the Selebi story, Haffajee said.
She was more resolute about exposing corruption. “We will continue to cover this trend. It’s not racism, its journalism and the coverage of cronyism.”
Asked to comment, Haffajee said: “A really helpful rule of thumb I learnt at the SABC when I joined ahead of the historic first election… was to cover each party according to its size - that is, proportionally. I still operate that way.
“I’ve regularly been ripped by the DA, most notably recently by leader Helen Zille, who wrote quite an excoriating letter against a column of mine on public toilets.
“Dumi (executive editor Dumisani Lubisi) and I also count columns to ensure we are giving equitable space to all political formations on our opinion pages. I’ve also recently had an angry text message from the Agang leader, Mamphela Ramphele. Either I succeed at my independent stance or I am a roundly unpopular journalist.”
Haffajee then threw down the gauntlet, telling the aggrieved staffers: “So, leave if you like, but that is my line in the sand. I am not going to walk on egg shells or edit around false perceptions and real racism…
“I will not work with racists. If you don’t like it, be brave… go and work somewhere where racism, superiority and reverse baasskap are allowed and revered.”
Insiders said on Thursday that the six reporters had resolved to take legal action against Haffajee after a failed reconciliation meeting between them, Haffajee and the paper’s human resources department (HR) at the Joburg head office.
“They don’t see this as racism because they were debating transformation.They are going to lay counter-charges of defamation, racism and sowing division in the newsroom against her,” said an insider.
Another source added: “HR has given them until Tuesday to come up with a way forward. They have agreed that they will lay a formal complaint of racism against her.”
* In the above story, we alleged that an article published under reporter Xolani Mbanjwa's byline might have been written by people other than Mbanjwa. We did not give him the right of reply. We wish to unreservedly apologise to Mbanjwa.