Perverted patriotism

2008-03-18 00:00

I agree with the sentiments of Ferial Haffajee, Katy Katopodis and Jusuf Abramjee regarding the Forum for Black Journalists (FBJ) (Mail and Guardian, February 29 to March 6).

As a freelance journalist, political science teacher, former activist and mother of two “coloured” children, I feel the forum smells rather fishy. Fishy or ratty it doesn’t matter: I smell a rat.

Three questions need to be asked. Firstly, what does it mean to be a journalist (and the sub-question, therefore, is what is the difference between a white journalist and a black journalist) and the second important question is what does it mean to be South African and what was the struggle about and for? The third, and perhaps most important, question relates to the timing of the forum. Why now? Why in the context of the Jacob Zuma saga?

It is fully understandable that some black journalists may have the need to come together to discuss issues away from the domain of certain white journalists. There may still be some white journalists who are unenlightened and secretly harbour feelings of racial supremacy. It is indeed infuriating if someone is treated patronisingly by a white colleague or is misunderstood because of language and cultural issues. But I would hope such incidents are rare today.

Precisely because the very nature of a journalist is to be intellectual, open-minded, creative and critical, it would seem to me that these characteristics transcend race.

The very word journalist conjures up for me the image of a cadre of professional intellectuals, not bound by any social conformities, able to rise above the mundane existence of living in any box: able to see society through an objective lens. But maybe I am asking for too much. Maybe I am assuming that journalists are writers and poets. Could it be that, for some people, journalists are reporters who write about events. I think such people should be given a new title, because just to write about events does not require any specific character traits. Even a robot can do that. Journalists by definition are free thinkers.

During the struggle, white and black comrades shared a sense of common humanity and a desire to forge a new South Africa where our humanity meant more than the colour of our skin. The 1994 victory was the culmination of this desire and ushered in a new era which was premised on the Freedom Charter. The ANC Manifesto stood for non-racism and non-sexism. This sense of comradeship was a powerful and beautiful thing. I miss it.

We seem to be going back to a state of racism in the sense that our whiteness or blackness has now resumed importance. I feel it in the streets, I feel it on the university campus. I am looked at first and foremost as an mlungu. It takes time to assure people that I am more than that, that I am actually Sarah Lucy Kearney, mother of Khethiwe, mother of Kamania, a fully-fledged human being.

It is often only when they see my black husband and brown children that they are convinced I really am worthy of being a human being and not merely an mlungu.

There are some young black women who have mastered the look of absolute condescension and dismissiveness. “You are nothing,” they say without saying a word. Of course this is not just about race, it’s about class and status, and they give that very same look to their less trendy sisters. It’s all about what you wear, what cellphone you use and the car you or your boyfriend drive.

Now we live in an age of post-apartheid materialism. It is disappointing that the fight for liberation has led to this state where one is so very unliberated and bound by matters of class and status. Bob Marley sang that we must “emancipate ourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds”. But in our so-called liberated nation I see more and more young men and women being completely bound by the norms of advertising, Generations and the very worst of the capitalist ethic. What a tragedy and perversion of genuine liberation which is to celebrate our humanity in a manner that is free and open.

The Forum for Black Journalists does precisely this: it binds us again into notions of us versus them. White versus black. Mlungu versus muntu. Colour defines who you are, it defines your worth, it defines your ability to be a certain type of citizen and a certain calibre of journalist. Simply because of your pigmentation and with no reference to your character, beliefs, values, morals, lifestyle or history you are deemed unworthy of joining the esteemed gathering. Blackness equates with the stamp of approval. I think it is painfully sad and alarming that

we are at such a standpoint in our history.

It is certainly very odd that the founding members of this forum are not even journalists. And the fact that the first meeting of the forum was to meet with Zuma immediately rings little alarm bells. Is this forum going to be a protect-Zuma front? Are white journalists excluded because they are deemed to be too critical of Zuma? We have seen how etv presenters like Debora Patta show no qualms in grilling leaders such as Zuma. What about those black journalists who are critical of Zuma or indeed of the government? Will they be deemed not black enough? Labelled sell outs? Coconuts?

It starts to smell like the Soviet Union under communism. Anyone critical of the regime is anti the revolution and must be expelled to Siberia. In South Africa under apartheid if you criticised the regime you were a communist and expelled into detention without trial. In Zimbabwe if you criticise the regime you are accused of being in the hands of Britain and journalists have to sign a government code of conduct before they are allowed to work, which immediately disqualifies them from being professional journalists.

Is the word “black” losing its meaning, so that it no longer actually refers to the pigmentation of one’s skin but to the so-called level of patriotism to one’s country, a perverted and false patriotism that calls for unliberated souls to be uncritical of the government and to sing songs of happiness and freedom regardless of the truth? To be critical of the government is to be a white or a coconut. To be pro-government and uncritical is now what it means to be black. Which is why all those critical black journalists and writers will be pooh-poohed as unworthy of being black. The Justice Malalas and his like are now mlungus like myself. At least I am not alone.

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