Strong words fly at change of editor
THE removal of Alide Dasnois as the Cape Times editor has been met with shock by many who knew and worked with her.
She was relieved of her duty the same day the Cape Times published a report on findings by the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, that Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister, Tina Joemat-Petterson, had been guilty of maladministration and improper and unethical conduct in the irregular awarding of a R800 million contract to the Sekunjalo consortium to manage the state’s fishery vessels.
Her removal on the same day that the report came out was only a coincidence, if we go along with the logic of the man who fired her, Dr Iqbal Survé, the chairman of Sekunjalo. Dasnois was not “fired” but was “offered various other positions in the company”.
Taking note of reactions to Dasnois’s removal, Dr Survé has sought to set the record straight, saying that attributing his move to the newspaper report was peddling a “distorted picture”, making it “necessary to remind everyone of the wholly unsatisfactory sales performance of that title over the last few years”. Under the circumstances of declining sales figures, “the new owners of the paper have every right and an obligation to make changes aimed at arresting the situation”.
Had this been the only case, this issue would have been left where it was because it is the prerogative of media owners to hire and fire editors as they see fit.
But what raises eyebrows is the observation by Cape Times assistant editor Tony Weaver in his Man Friday column, “How we made newspaper history at the Cape Times the night Madiba died” (Cape Times, December 13) that Dr Survé informed the Cape Times staff that it was his “considered view, and that of the senior executive team of Independent … that the failure of the Cape Times to lead with such a momentous event, was an affront to the dignity of Madiba and a disservice to our readers”.
But record has it that under the pressure of printing deadlines, Dasnois and her team produced a wraparound that paid tribute to Nelson Mandela on the occasion of his passing on, and that this coverage was voted as one of the 14 best front pages in the world. So, we are left puzzled by the suggestion that Dasnois and her team were disrespectful to Madiba.
In the midst of all this, the Movement for the Transformation of Media in South Africa (MTMSA) picketed the Cape Times offices in support of Dr Survé and called for “all racist reporters” to be fired along with Weaver. It would be wrong to assume the MTMSA regarded Dasnois and Weaver as racists, but within the context of what is happening, such an assumption can easily be made.
I have known and worked with Dasnois for more than six years and Weaver for about five, and I have never detected any sign of racism. As one whose political staple diet has been Black Consciousness since the age of 10, and pan-Africanism since the age of 15, I grew up hostile to any manifestation of white superiority, and that includes patronising and condescending attitudes by whites.
When I went for an interview for my job at Stellenbosch University, I made it clear that I did not regard transformation as a cosmetic or window-dressing exercise. If I were to be employed, I expected to be given space to make interventions that would reflect the culture and philosophy of indigenous Africans in the curriculum.
In this respect I have not betrayed my ancestors. So, whatever I write here about Dasnois and Weaver must be understood in that context.
All this needs to be emphasised considering the observation of the provincial chairwoman of the Progressive Professional Forum Western Cape, Dr Waheeda Amien: “When one considers the reactions by those intent on maintaining the status quo against the deployment of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois… it is easier to see how liberal rhetoric of individual rights protection packaged as journalistic independence and press freedom bury the larger transformation issues of our constitutional democracy.”
Mine is not the piece of an overgrateful black man for having been given space by whites. I have indeed been grateful for this space, but had always requested and been assured by Dasnois and Weaver that it was given on merit.
On two occasions articles I wrote for the Cape Times were rejected for what the two believed was below standard. I was not happy, but preferred that rejection to being shown favours because of a need to have a black byline.
I came to know Dasnois in 2007 when I submitted an opinion piece celebrating Black Wednesday, now Press Freedom Day, on October 19. To my pleasant surprise, I received an acknowledgement of the contribution in less than 10 minutes, and a commitment, within the same day, to publish the piece.
I was impressed by such lightning speed and efficiency. Subsequently, Dasnois took the trouble to travel all the way to visit me in Stellenbosch. That kind of humility and sensitivity are rare among those who wield power, as Dasnois did in her position as an editor.
Dasnois often called on me to write pieces on contentious issues affecting black people, politically or culturally. Among them was the relaunch of the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ), which received a negative reception from many white journalists because of its refusal to grant membership to white journalists.
I wrote my piece, and true to my Black Consciousness and pan-Africanistic upbringing, defended the FBJ’s stance. The piece was the lead that day on the Insight page. Predictably the piece caused shockwaves, and my then-boss, who had attended a funeral that day, came to work asking for the piece because she had been asked if she had seen what one of her staff members had written! I was curious to hear her views. Tactful as ever, she told me that the FBJ should not be a forum “of” black journalists but a forum “for”. What this meant was that she supported black journalists’ quest for self-development, but that this body should not be exclusively black.
What many white people do not understand is that after years of black people being made to feel inferior, incapable of doing anything without white assistance, there is a burning desire among some to prove not just to whites but to themselves that they can do anything and everything on their own. Whether Dasnois agreed with my Black Consciousness sentiments is neither here nor there, but she respected my right to my views.
It was the same thing with African culture. Unlike many who live outside the cultural community of Africans, but have the audacity to pronounce on African culture without making an attempt to study it, Dasnois was ever willing to be a student of African culture. Once she wrote to me asking that I write about the concept of the maternal uncle (umalume in Xhosa) who is regarded as a “male mother” in African culture.
When I went on a sabbatical and worked on and off for the Cape Times for six months, I was given an open invitation to attend editorial meetings which decided on editorial content. Several times I was asked to write the Cape Times editorial comment.
An editorial comment is a binding statement of a newspaper – and Dasnois gave me that vote of confidence. I accepted the invitation twice, writing about how best to honour the late African nationalist, Anton Lembede, and the significance of names in African culture, with particular reference to a debate that was raging at the time about the correct spelling of “Gugulethu”.
When Weaver took over responsibility for the opinion page, I received no less enthusiasm and support. These two may be accused of anything and everything, but not racism. It was Dasnois a year or two ago who, when the media in this country were protesting against government censorship, told the South African National Editors’ Forum that journalists should not ignore the threat of censorship emanating from media owners. She took this stance, acclaimed as bold and courageous, long before Sekunjalo took over.
The truth must and will prevail in the end.
l Dr Sesanti is a senior lecturer in Stellenbosch University’s Department of Journalism. He writes in his personal capacity.