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We do need to break the silence and speak what we dare not say about race, but probably not on Twitter, say Judith February.
Pretoria - The immediacy of news is something we have come to live with and so perhaps we should not have been surprised when City Press editor Ferial Haffajee took to the Twittersphere to express her frustration after the newspaper’s internal staff forum.
Unsurprisingly, it would appear that there are challenges at City Press about transformation in the newsroom and about who truly can call themselves “black”.
After Haffajee’s initial tweet, a flurry of tweeting activity followed with everyone from Chester Missing to Julius Malema “weighing in” on the “debate” and taking sides. It seems from further media reports that grievance procedures are in place between Haffajee and certain staff members. A letter that Haffajee wrote to staff has now come into the public domain.
What was curious about the sequencing of events was Haffajee’s initial cryptic tweet, which set the cat among the pigeons. These are no times to be a Luddite but one is compelled to question whether Twitter was the best forum for a discussion about race and transformation in the media and the internal management issues at City Press? How much sense can one really make in 150 characters?
In addition, many fellow “tweeters” were coming out in support of Haffajee when they had very little idea of what precisely the context of the debate and discussion at City Press was. Haffajee may well be right to be furious at the labelling which she has claimed to be subjected to. Yet we also cannot assume that she is right with no factual basis other than a set of selective tweets.
It would seem, however, that at the bottom of it all is a common tale of institutions in South Africa. Change is hard and affirmative action and black economic empowerment have often not worked the way they ought to. Despite the passage of nearly 20 years of democracy, we remain stuck in the racial prisms of “them” and “us”. This has multi-faceted manifestations. In some cases, staff are not promoted and battle to have their voices heard because they are black, white staff feel marginalised or there is the even uglier face of affirmative action in both the private and public sector – the token black face with no real power but a decent enough bank balance not to rock the boat. Or worse still, there is the degree of unthinking loyalty and deference which marks so many of our institutions, where speaking out against the status quo will surely ruin career prospects.
This merits a discussion and debate purely because its negative effects stymie our progress on all fronts. It creates an inability to develop our institutions in diverse ways, creating “yes” men and women and less accountability. So we do need to break the silence and speak what we dare not say about race, identity and the culture of kowtowing to those in power. But that will take more than 150-character exchanges and unthinking replies on Twitter unfortunately. When the medium becomes the message, it undermines the cause.
Yet the discussion is topical if only that it came in the week when the SABC decided to cancel The Big Debate show which was due to be flighted last week. Its topic was the cost of communication and rising secrecy in government. At first, no reasons were given for the programme’s withdrawal. Later, the SABC said it had been “incorrectly commissioned” and that news and current affairs programmes ought never to be “out-sourced”. That seems rather unconvincing and has been a standard response from the SABC in the past.
Could it not rather be that the SABC simply pulled the programme because the topic inevitably veered towards the so-called Secrecy Bill? That seems to be the inevitable conclusion one might draw. It is tantamount to banning and censorship. Who made this decision and on what basis and will they be held to account by the SABC Board or Parliament for the latest debacle? Has the time not come for the SABC to understand that its mandate as a public broadcaster means that it is accountable to the public and not to the ruling party?
But as if to indicate precisely how ambiguous the “new” South Africa is, the satirical Late Night News and Loyiso Gola have been nominated for an Emmy. There are spaces for independence, irreverence and for shining a light on the corrupt, the unworthy and the downright absurd in South Africa. We simply need more of them and more people within institutions who are brave enough to push the boundaries of free speech and who are unwilling to serve the fickle interests of those in power.
* Judith February is the executive director of the Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery Research Programme at the Human Sciences Research Council.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.