The F-word – Democratic debate demands all deliver

2011-10-15 07:49

Cabinet spokesperson and Black Management Forum president Jimmy Manyi has decried what he calls the absence of black editors’ voices in social discourse.

Some have dismissed Manyi for expecting that black editors will think alike to other black editors and differently from their white colleagues.

It would obviously be silly to expect all editors to think alike because they have a certain level of melanin that is higher than that of their colleagues.

But such thinking is, I contend, an oversimplification of the issue Manyi was raising. A discourse framed through paradigms that take into account an acquired outlook borne of lived experiences, rather than pretending to be the natural order of things, is bound to make less sense to those who do not share that reality.

In a country riven by an institutional racial segregation the residues of which remain to this day, it would be denialist to say there is no such thing as a “black” or “white” perspective. Neither perspective is in itself right or wrong, good or bad. Both are merely products of our history in the same way that there is such a thing as men and women who have lived in a patriarchal society.

Working class and middle class communities in a class-based world will see things differently. Marketers, radio station managers and everyone else not trying to be politically correct understand this.

So Manyi is fully entitled to expect that black editors would bring their own lived experiences to the spaces they manage. Where I take issue with Manyi is in the continued over-reliance on media practitioners, black and white, to champion one cause or another while interested parties remain on the sidelines. Thought leadership is not the preserve of journalists or editors, and thankfully so.

Political, business and civil society leaders have the same responsibility as editors and journalists to ensure that their voices and perspectives feed into the national discourse. There is no point complaining that the media reflect only a certain point of view when you have not done your bit to get yours heard.

While a few Cabinet ministers and senior technocrats do dabble in social network spaces, you hardly find ministers or other senior government officials engaging the public on matters that do not necessarily relate to their offices.

It cannot be left to a handful of individuals like Pallo Jordan and ANC MP Ben Turok to enter into lively engagements in forums such as radio or newspaper opinion pages, where everyone can engage.

The point is that the voices that Manyi is not hearing are the voices of the black intelligentsia and professional classes.
When last did anyone read what organised black business thinks of the New Growth Plan? Black lawyer organisations sat on their hands as the country had its fiercest debate over who should be the new chief justice.

With the exception of Dr Kgosi Letlape you would think the only thing black doctors know is how to diagnose and treat ailments – which is why they could not be bothered by irritants such as the National Health Insurance.

Sending a media statement welcoming a new government programme does not count as effective engagement. Unlike trade unions, the professional classes have no organised voices except when they suddenly feel their material interests are being eroded by their white colleagues.

The excuse that editors only publish what “their handlers” want does not wash any more. Anybody can start a blog and get like-minded individuals to write what they like and stop complaining that there are no articles supporting their views.

The South African social discourse can only benefit from black professionals – not just editors – sharing their lived experiences with their colleagues and from being willing to adapt their thinking as they acquire worthy world views they were previously not aware of.

We owe South Africa that much.

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