Racism in the media

The report of the HRC and the recent national conference on racism may be preparing the way for an attack on the media.

THREAD OF ambiguity runs through the 100-page report of the Human Rights Commission on its investigation into racism in the media, raising doubts anew about whether the investigation has justified its huge costs to the taxpayer.

The most glaring ambiguity is contained in the first - and presumably the most important - of the HRC's observations and findings. It states that "to the extent that expressions in the South African media 'reflect a persistent pattern of racist expressions' and content of writing that could have been avoided, and given . . . that such expressions cause or have the effect of causing hurt and pain, South African media can be characterised as racist institutions."

Imprecision about the "extent" to which racist expressions occur in "the media" leads inexorably to the conclusion that the HRC's finding means everything and nothing. To paraphrase Lewis Caroll's Humpty Dumpty, it means whatever the reader chooses it to mean. If that is so, then it is not unfair to suspect that the HRC investigators have been reading Machiavelli's The Prince as well as Alice in Wonderland.

In an apparent exercise in masochism, most media reports have ignored that qualifying subclause and summarised the finding as an unconditional verdict of guilty of racism, as charged by the Black Lawyers' Association, the Association of Black Accountants of South Africa and, of course, the black editors who testified about their experience of anti-black racism in the media.

The black lawyers and accountants famously accused two newspapers, the Mail & Guardian and the Sunday Times of "subliminal racism". That vague accusation has not been finally nailed, rather it has been transmuted into a generalised view that "the media" is racist. Judging by the remarks of HRC chairman Barney Pityana at a press conference held to introduce the report, this includes those components which have black owners and black editors.

Ambiguity characterises another major finding in the HRC report: the recommendation that a single "regulatory authority" should be established for the media as a whole, irrespective of the differences between print media, which do not have to be allocated air waves, and the electronic media, which do. The HRC report envisages that the regulatory authority should be controlled and funded by the media and recommends that its power should be strengthened by legislation. The idea of the authority deriving its power from legislation brings the notion of government control one step closer, as it will be the government that enacts the proposed legislation.

The attitude of the black editors may be significant here. During the subpoena saga which preceded the hearings in March and April the black editors took the position that the question of racism in the media was more important than the threat to media freedom posed by the subpoenas. They were therefore willing to appear before the HRC even if the subpoenas were not withdrawn. Ideally they said they would prefer to avoid choosing between these conflicting imperatives, but if they had to choose then they sincerely believed that combating racism took precedence over defence of media freedom. If the perception grows that the media is a racist institution - and in another of its observations the HRC report states that "much racism occurs at the institutional and structural levels" - the cry for government intervention against racism may be raised.

The national conference on racism, hosted by the HRC and held in Sandton from August 30 to September 2, has added to the belief that racism is a pervasive and sinister menace in post-apartheid South Africa. Whether by intention or not, the scene may have been set psychologically for an assault on the "racist media". That deduction is reinforced by President Thabo Mbeki's warning that "sectors of our society" saw the objections of editors to the subpoenas as evidence that they were "beneficiaries of white minority rule . . . unwilling to contribute to the process of national reconciliation."

Three intertwining themes stand out when the national conference on racism is reviewed in retrospect:

  • the conviction that whites are primarily responsible for South Africa's legacy of racism. ("Black people have been the victims of racism rather than the perpetrators" - Mbeki);
  • the associated contention that whites are thus primarily responsible for eradicating it. ("We must treat racism as a problem that challenges white people" - Mbeki);
  • the belief that more often than not the white reaction to these "historical facts" has been one of denial and "collective amnesia", comparable to the intellectual dishonesty of holocaust deniers - (ANC frontbencher, Pallo Jordan).

Such judgements raise the spectre of further legislative action against racism that would go beyond its prohibition in the Constitution and in the Prevention of Unfair Discrimination and Promotion of Equality Act. As noted in an earlier article (Focus 18, June 2000), media observers are watching keenly to see how the HRC handles a formal complaint by two senior journalists, one white and one black, against Jeff Radebe of the African National Congress. In the ANC submission to the HRC media hearings, which Radebe presented, the ANC charges that Mail & Guardian editor Philip van Niekerk wrote an article attacking Mbeki but published it under the name of Lizeka Mda, then a journalist on the Mail & Guardian and now a senior editor on The Star. Van Niekerk and Mda have minced no words in dismissing the charge as absolutely untrue.

HRC spokesman Siceko Njobeni confirms that it is an offence under the HRC Act to lie under oath to the commission. But he says that the decision on whether to prosecute or not lies with the national director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, not the HRC. Affidavits have been obtained from Van Niekerk and Mda and a formal reply to their complaints from Radebe. These documents will be forwarded to Ngcuka, Njobeni states. Whatever his decision, Mail & Guardian lawyers, Jacobson, Rosin and Wright, are pressing ahead with court action.

Patrick Laurence is an assistant editor on
the Financial Mail.