This week there’s been a huge debacle in the South African media world after Helen Zille, the Democratic Alliance (DA) party federal leader and Western-Cape Premier, publicly announced that the Western Cape government will not renew its subscription to the Cape Times. Her reason for doing so: It’s clear that the Cape Times not only plagiarised another article, but she implies that they may have even made a whole story up, given that they absolutely refused to provide her any details of their sources and confirm the story.
Read her thoughts here. Then compare the Cape Times article and the article it is said to be plagiarised from here.
The South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) kicked up a fuss about it, saying that it finds it “appalling that the executive committee of the Western Cape government, led by a former journalist, Ms Helen Zille, interferes at this level in the affairs of provincial department heads, who should have the freedom to choose which news mediums they find useful or not.”
Mediaonline.co.za has a nice summary as well as The Daily Vox. All sorts of commentators have had their say. And, to be quite honest, as a journalist (these days I focus more on my books and ghostwriting, but I still do journalism when the opportunity is right) I can’t say I’m very happy with the way others in my profession have slated Zille and completely ignored the plagiarism issue. This is a serious issue of professionalism and the media is shouting about apparent affronts to “media freedom” and saying zip about the Cape Times publishing something that may not have even happened?
Unfortunately, this is not a case of media freedom but a case of media impropriety. Perhaps SANEF have a point that Zille can’t tell everyone else in her government what they must subscribe to, but is she doing so? They’re welcome to subscribe in their personal capacity, of course, but the government has decided not to subscribe. Would anyone be complaining if the government had a subscription to some other lesser-known publication (or even my blog?) and then decided to cancel it? I’m pretty sure SANEF wouldn’t care. I suspect the real problem is that Zille publicly showed that the Cape Times plagiarised without lodging a complaint with the newspaper and / or SANEF first, and for some reason that’s a problem for an organisation that supports an “open society”.
Also see the irony in this statement from Independent Media’s Lutfia Vayej:
“All the editors in the Independent Media stable are open to engagement with its readers and subscribers. It is a pity that Helen Zille and her officials did not use this opportunity before embarking on their decision, which we believe goes against the promotion of a free press.” (Source: City Press.)
In other words: why didn’t we talk behind closed doors first?
Unfortunately, I’ve been even more disappointed by the way others in my profession have reacted to all this. Verashni Pillay of the Mail & Guardian, who I respect, published Eight times Helen Zille made journalists’ lives hell – an emotional and rather personal response to the debacle that I felt was out of place for the platform. Had she published it at her own blog or blog-like site, I would have had no problem with it, but having it published at the Mail & Guardian is too sensationalist-like for me.
I’ve no doubt that Zille has probably snubbed Pillay and other journalists and treated them (very) badly at times, as I know they have treated her badly at times. But I’m asking: So what? This comes with the territory of being a journalist. Sometimes journalists feel as if they’re meant to be untouchable – everyone else can be scrutinised to the nth degree, but journalists must be left alone because they’re doing their job and are squeeky clean, because they defend the public and ensure we have an open society. Sure, journalists should be treated with respect – I have been treated badly myself. I’d like to see more respect in every profession. But I expect people to be defensive when I’m about to publicly publish their lives. I’ve been watching how some journalists have been responding on Twitter and they’re not looking defensive about society but more about themselves. In fact, some are just looking arrogant and even overly-dramatic, not professional.
I also disagree with Eusebius McKaiser’s analysis who calls the plagiarism issue a “red herring”. No, it’s a critical issue. He asks: “If I am wrong, can anyone sympathetic to this DA decision explain why they did not take the newspaper to the industry watchdog?” I ask: So the plagiarism should have been dealt with behind closed doors? I’m not convinced, given the state of our media in general, that our watchdog is doing its job properly either, to be quite honest.
I expect to hear someone (or two) at the Cape Times got fired. But I suspect we’ll hear nothing of it. Plagiarism is an unpardonable offense in this profession. I’ve had to be part of firing someone once for doing it. There is no excuse for it and the Cape Times, at its level, should pay a fine.
I suppose I need to put in a disclaimer: I don’t support the DA as they’re too liberal for me. I like Mmusi Maimane though.
So much of our discussion on race in South Africa misses the point. We focus on the effects all the time but not the cause. Why is that? Because when we look at the cause we have to look at our own hearts – white, black, coloured, indian, chinese, or whoever else. This is because it’s our own hearts that are the problem.
The brilliant writer G.K. Chesterton once touched on this when he was invited by The Times to write on the topic, “What’s wrong with the world?” His alleged response to the paper was simple: “I am.”
Human nature always deviates towards self-righteousness. We all believe we’re better, more righteous, more clued-up, more something-or-other than someone else. It’s my opinion that much of our modern day activism is really an exercise in self-righteousness. It’s my opinion that much of our discussion on race in South Africa is also just an exercise in self-righteousness.
I’m not advocating the usual response of “move on” that white South Africans frequently assert. I’m not in denial about facts, such as those brought up by Verashni Pillay in her opinion piece Six things white people have that black people don’t. Her follow-up White work does not negate white privilege kind-of gets to what I think we need to get to: that this is about being human. And if it’s about being human then let’s realise something about ourselves: whether we’re the victim or we’re the perpetrator, we think we’re better than the other person. And that kind of thinking is what creates the cycle of history we see again and again, where victims become new perpetrators.
So let’s not just “move on”, let’s talk about it – for the sake of building our country, not for the sake of puffing ourselves up. Let’s talk about how I think I’m better than you and how you think you’re better than me. Let’s actually realise just how self-righteous this conversation gets from all sides, because then maybe we can start giving this conversation exactly what it needs: some humility and some vision for the future. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about injustice or facts or the past because we’re afraid of being self-righteous, but I am saying that we need to start realising that we need different answers than those we are currently popularising. From politics to the pulpit to the private and the personal, we’re not thinking about an answer to our self-righteousness but are just perpetuating the same problem.
I believe there’s good news. There’s a way we can die to our self-righteousness and live a new life. But I don’t want to preach here. All I want to say is this: let’s start looking at ourselves more closely and start asking hard questions of ourselves, rather than always looking at someone else (and whole groups of people) and demanding they answer hard questions, or demanding they look past the questions, all the while ignoring our own hearts. For after all, “Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own? You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” This goes for all, regardless of how inconvenient it may be. For if our discussions and articles and debates are without love, we’re simply resounding gongs and clashing cymbals, and nothing good will result. We must do love, even when it’s painful. Not to be self-righteous, but to actually love.
Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader has published a post of mine on the Media and objectivity. Thanks Thought Leader!
The media continues to be under the spotlight, not just locally but also in the US where questions about objectivity are moving to the forefront. Perhaps if there is anywhere in the world where these questions must be asked it’s in the US where, in my opinion, so much of the media has become immature, sensationalist and polarising.
But is the media like this because it’s reflecting society, or is American society (especially in the realm of politics) becoming more polarising because it’s reflecting the media? I’m beginning to think the latter is more the case. And what does this mean for SA?
It seems obvious that South Africa has significant challenges when it comes to justice in the country, with our justice system often showing itself susceptible to the corruption that seems to rear its ugly head everywhere.
But one thing people are never good at all over the world, South African or not, is seeing the plank in their own eye. While people like to talk about justice for all, equality, compassion and fairness etc., they very often don’t show these same attributes in their personal lives. And often, culture is used as an excuse to overlook an opportunity to practice justice.
This thought of how culture rules over justice in our country in many ways came to me when I was talking to friends about something deeply ingrained in our South African culture. The mere mention of it stirs up emotions amongst many of our people. And it’s a very good example of proving my point. I’m talking about the labolla.
While I realise this topic is highly controversial, there is the reality of saying that the (present) culture of labolla has had negative consequences on the institution of marriage in South Africa, especially within the youth. People can’t afford the unreasonable bride-prices they need to pay and so they just don’t get married. Sure, they live with each other, and have kids, but marriage is just not possible.
I personally know many cases where people have been untreated unfairly because of the (so-called) cultural demands of labolla. Marriage is a good thing that helps to build family in any nation, and ultimately family is the core of a nation, but because many are using the labolla as an occasion to take advantage of others we’re seeing a degradation of the institution of marriage in our country. And so we’re seeing a degradation of family. Effectively, some are playing the ‘culture card’ as an occasion to be unjust to another. Is culture so important that, even if it is unjust, it should still be practiced? Surely there comes a point when culture, regardless of what it is, should take a back seat to the greater issue of justice.
Perhaps it’s true that the labolla is meant to cultivate family ties in unique ways, but it’s also true that it’s often used as a means to control others. I think one of our biggest problems in South Africa is that culture has become such a ‘holy cow’ that it is elevated above the things that should guide it – things such as justice, compassion, mercy, and love. These are just some universal principles that are to guide ANY culture, regardless of the age or background of that culture.
Every culture has points that seem to support these universal principles and other points which miss them completely. Those points that miss the mark ought to be jettisoned. It stands to reason. If not, then pro-apartheid South Africans can simply say that apartheid is a part of their culture. None of us will accept that. So should we accept injustice in other areas of our cultures when they show up?
I’m also using labolla to show how many of us in South Africa don’t live with justice in mind, but are quick to criticise our leaders for not living justly, or leading justly. Corruption needs to be addressed at its core in the mind, as well as practically. What is it that guides others to use labolla as an occasion to take advantage of another? Why is it that South Africa seems to have this problem with money; that it rules us whether we are rich or poor? Everything seems to revolve around money.
The problem isn’t capitalism. Socialists have historically shown their equal obsession with money in the past. Think of Ghana and everything that happened there, for instance.
Things start at home. When we talk about the corruption in our government, we better make sure we’re not corrupt in our business dealings and in our family relationships or any other areas of our lives. We better not use culture as a way to take advantage of others, either. The evidence shows that, as a whole, money not only rules our leadership in an unhealthy way but rules the way the ordinary man on the street lives, regardless of whether they are rich and poor. When the poor take advantage of the poor through something like labolla we have to ask questions about the general worldview of our country, and we have to ask questions about ourselves and how we live our lives.
We should look at our own planks in our eyes before we criticise others. South Africa needs to decide what is more important: Culture or Justice; my needs or Justice. The decision will help us all know how to build our nation’s future.