Race: let’s be rational

2008-04-24 00:00

A Human Rights Commission (HRC) ruling that the Forum for Black Journalists’ (FBJ) policy of racial exclusivity is unjustifiable and unconstitutional has come and gone — and it has produced both winners and losers.

White journalists generally feel vindicated that they were right in challenging the race-based policy, while the FBJ — as represented by its interim chairperson Abbey Makoe — expressed disappointment at the HRC’s ruling.

In Makoe’s view, the HRC judgment is tantamount to finding the FBJ “guilty of being black” — an interpretation the HRC quickly dismissed. Given our past, it is not surprising that Makoe was quick to trigger the “black” impulse. His response suggests that he would have expected most, if not all, black people to come to his defence. It would also not be far-fetched to expect most, if not all, white people to agree with the HRC in dismissing Makoe.

What both whites and blacks in our country seem incapable of, however, is to subject racial questions to rational thought. And unfortunately, this failure leads to an automatic expectation of racial solidarity in approaches to issues of race.

It’s this kind of approach that has made blacks who dared to raise critical questions about the FBJ’s racial policy quickly be labelled “coconuts”. In the same vein, a white person expressing sympathy with black people is generally interpreted as a buyer of favour. Is there nothing like a race-neutral mind? Do all human beings think as Indian, Chinese, white, black, green, yellow and so on? Are we all inherently incapable of rationality?

Not being a journalist, I would be the last to accuse Makoe and his black colleagues of lying when they claim that they face peculiar challenges in the newsroom. However, if these claims are true, I still struggle to see why white journalists could justifiably be excluded from a forum specifically formed to address injustice.

The HRC’s argument that there could be journalists other than black who may find injustice perpetrated against their black colleagues unacceptable makes sense. Should the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress have denied Joe Slovo space in their organisations to fight against apartheid injustice simply because he was white? If the answer is “no”, Makoe should then welcome the HRC’s ruling that the FBJ’s racial policy is unjustifiable.

That black editors today lead major newspapers and other media in our country is an open secret, although some black journalists would suggest that these editors are only tokens at the top without influence in the newsroom. While I have no evidence to refute this claim, I find it difficult to believe that the columns and stories we read and see bylined by black editors are camouflages of white writers. If I’m right, could it be the case of black editors keeping independence of thought only for themselves while allowing their black subordinates to be dictated to by their white colleagues?

In his autobiography Let My People Go, Albert Luthuli declares: “I love the impact of mind upon mind”. Could it be that, unlike Luthuli, members of the FBJ only love the impact of black mind upon black mind? Why do they corral themselves into a black laager of ideas? Surely, both black and white journalists would benefit from a cross-pollination of ideas in a forum involving journalists from all races?

That the storm leading to the HRC’s judgment arose from the FBJ’s meeting with Jacob Zuma shouldn’t be forgotten. Off the record as this meeting was, it’s difficult to imagine that members of the FBJ gave Zuma a list of problems facing black journalists and apologised for the manner in which they’ve been covering him. It’s also improbable that these journalists pleaded with Zuma and assured him that they would, henceforth, project him from a black perspective. Is there something we can call “black journalism”? If yes, in which newspaper or media house is this phenomenon best expressed?

An observation of news reports in our country doesn’t suggest a marked difference in the manner in which black and white journalists cover stories. Cases of black politicians complaining about black journalists are as ubiquitous as are their quarrels against white journalists. Could it be that we are yet to hear or read a well-substantiated exposé of the hitherto nebulous concept of black journalism?

Then there is the HRC’s judgment that the racially exclusive membership policy of the FBJ is unconstitutional. Again, the FBJ vowed to challenge this ruling, even if it means going to the Constitutional Court.

While the HRC may be excused for making a legalistic determination, the FBJ should first address the substantive issues raised above before worrying about narrow legal questions. At issue is not a legal matter, but philosophical and political questions that call for a more convincing argument than what the interim leadership of the FBJ has so far told South Africa.

— News 24.

• Prince Mashele is head of the Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute for Security Studies.

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