A year of learning

2011-02-24 00:00

I OFTEN get stopped and asked if I'm the editor of The Witness. I have not always known how to respond to this question.

It is incredible how woven into the lives of local people The Witness is.

When I accepted the assignment to be editor of this paper, I thought I knew what I was up for. Here was a rare privilege of editing South Africa's oldest and one of its most respected newspaper titles. It is not easy to find the right words to express how humbled I was by this privilege. Hence the difficulty of answering what should be a simple question.

For some readers, my blackness was a factor. While for others it marked progress, for some it meant the fall of standards.

My colleague Busi Zulu has taken many calls from readers who specifically mentioned race when complaining about the increase in the number of errors in the paper. Some were subtler in their playing of the race card. Like the reader who wrote a letter complaining about "the editor from the Sowetan having abandoned the British Broadcasting Corporation standards" because I insisted that we shall no longer use mankind to refer to members of the human race, but rather call ourselves humankind. I honestly do not believe that any woman would be happy to be called a spokesman, and if the British are happy with it, it is their business.

We in this country fought a struggle against racial and gender chauvinism and the right to think for ourselves as adults. It would be a sad day if we decided that if it is right for the British then it should be right for us.

I am grateful to the reader who saw through this thinly veiled racism and confronted the "BBC standards" letter writer.

It was not all doom and gloom though. I also got words of encouragement from black readers who were happy that someone they regarded as one of their own had been appointed to head the paper.

While my heroes include the likes of Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe, I have never seen myself as a representative of blackness.

My time here has given me a glimpse of what is wrong with our country's majority. I have been disappointed with the black readers who have become too comfortable with having someone to blame, but have not used the opportunity to engage on our letters page by writing what they had been happy to tell me in private.

Instead of writing their own letters they complain about how whites dominate the letters page. It is a reflection of how many of us engage with national issues. Instead of these beautiful and articulate minds using space available to make their voices heard, they have thrown their hands up in despair. They have carried on as if it is still 1977 when they were powerless and voiceless.

All is not lost though. Newspapers have and will always be contested spaces. The Witness with its multicultural readership is well placed to ensure that such engagement does not degenerate into a barroom shouting match.

Instead of complaining about how affirmative action has given you a lousy editor who doesn't seem to show adequate respect for BBC standards or about whites who don't want to change, Witness readers have the space to engage in a manner that deepens their understanding of what their neighbour is about without resorting to the easy street of slogans and ingrained prejudices about each other.

There is just no wishing each other away. We are in this together.

Narrow, racialised thinking can only create a racialised Afghanistan, where members of one group stupidly think that the colour of their skin or their numbers mean they have a divine right and revealed wisdom to impose their thoughts on all society.

The Witness's letter and opinion pages must reflect the garden in which 1 000 flowers, each carrying its own ideas, continue to bloom.

Economist John Maynard Keynes is said to have warned of the foolish things that people can come to believe when thinking by themselves. I suspect that opinion pages of newspapers must have been created with this in mind.

All of us, not least editors of newspapers, are prone to think and go on to believe these things if we never get an opportunity to test our thoughts against those of our fellow citizens.

As for me, I am going to have to unlearn that staying 20 kilometres from work is living "far from work".

I am grateful to the members of the business and political communities for making me feel welcome here.

Most of all, I am deeply indebted to the staff, especially the talented and hard-working editorial staff at The Witness, for making this sojourn a truly memorable and enriching one. Thank you, dankie, enkosi, ke a leboga for being my companions on this journey of personal and professional growth.

• This is Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya's last column as editor of 'The Witness'.

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