Ferial Haffajee: Has Vodacom lost its marbles?

Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)
Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

I wondered this as I saw images of the CEO of the country’s most powerful telecommunications company, Shameel Joosub, sitting meekly before EFF president Julius Malema and his deputy Floyd Shivambu at the party’s headquarters in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. 

Look at the images to see where power resided in that meeting and who had the upper hand. This was the day after the weekend when EFF members trashed and looted stores in three cities, because the Corruption Watch chairperson Mavuso Msimang put up a slide in his presentation which suggested that the EFF leadership may be "abusers of democracy".

Msimang was speaking at the annual Vodacom Journalist of the year awards last Friday. The awards are the country’s most prestigious, truly national and cross-platform awards. They are a testament to Vodacom’s long-standing support for free expression and independent, high-quality journalism.

Whether the EFF are abusers of democracy is neither here nor there, but what is clear is that Msimang’s speech is covered as "free" by any definition of the constitutional protections of free speech. 

Not for the EFF. 

Within hours, its deputy secretary-general Hlengiwe Mkhalipi threatened the company on social media, as did other leaders. The party’s online trolling army picked up the thread of threat, and the language was amplified until the violence emerged out of the digital ether into the analogue and very real world.

By Monday morning, Vodacom franchisees were counting the costs; by Monday afternoon, Joosub and his team were kowtowing to the EFF and issuing a four-part statement on Twitter that is so Orwellian, it would make George proud.

Vodacom has clammed up and will not give details of what transpired in the meeting with the EFF, but one tweet from its four-part social media statement reads as follows: "Vodacom and EFF appreciate that the matter could have been handled differently to avoid the misunderstanding that occurred. Vodacom and EFF encourage the right to freedom of speech and the free circulation of ideas."

This statement is classic doublespeak because the outcome of the meeting meant that Vodacom settled on an agreement that did the opposite of encouraging free speech and the free circulation of ideas.

By its inaction, thuggery and violence have now been endorsed by both the leadership of the EFF and of Vodacom as acceptable responses to ideas or speech that you don’t like. Vodacom has lost its marbles. As I lost mine some years ago.

Facing extreme political pressure and violence can make you go a little gaga on the commitment to free speech front. While editing City Press, we published an art review of an exhibition by the artist Brett Murray. One of the images we used to illustrate the review was of President Jacob Zuma styled as Lenin, but with his penis exposed – The Spear. It was Murray’s take on the Naked Emperor, the cautionary tale of what happens to leaders who lose their morals to power but whose populaces are so cowed they tell the naked emperor that his robes are beautiful. South Africa went mad.

The image focused black pain and rage back at the epicentre of national discussion. The ANC’s spokesman Jackson Mthembu started a chant of "Don’t buy City Press, Don’t Buy"; my colleagues like then-Business Day editor Peter Bruce and my hero columnist Justice Malala entreated me to take it down off the City Press website as digital recompense; the first lady, MaNtuli (Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma) led a march in the streets of Durban where copies of City Press were burnt. The SACP secretary-general Blade Nzimande and the ANC general-secretary Gwede Mantashe linked arms and marched on the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg where Murray’s exhibition was being held. 

Then a madman painted over the Spear painting. Then I wrote a heartfelt letter to President Jacob Zuma’s daughter Duduzile Zuma (after she also wept at the review and publication of the image in a black newspaper) and I pulled it down off the website. That’s what political pressure feels like, so I get why Vodacom has lost its marbles and caved to the bullies of the EFF. 

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A company with a rich history of supporting free media gave up and betrayed free speech and the free circulation of ideas when the rubber hit the road. Like I did all those years ago. Extreme political pressure and violence can make you notch down your support for free speech to below the need to protect people, brands and bottom lines.

Taking down that image was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done, and one I am still not sure was the right thing to do, especially now that everybody who marched and turned violent know the emperor was naked. Hell, MaNtuli even tried to poison her husband, as we now know; and Jackson "Don’t Buy City Press" Mthembu has said things far worse about Zuma than Brett Murray ever painted. The twin siblings Duduzane and Duduzile Zuma are the intermediaries of their father’s brokerage of the Gupta patronage mafia. 

My regret is born from the retrospective knowledge that I didn’t stand firm for a principle that defines us as a country. Being bullied; having your staff threatened; seeing the flames of violence; being marched upon; suffering the opprobrium of your peers were too hard. 

I get why Vodacom lost its marbles and failed its long-standing support for free speech, the free circulation of ideas and for journalism. I wish it hadn’t, just as I wish I hadn’t.

Vodacom is big, rich and powerful, unlike City Press was at the time we suffered The Spear moment. Vodacom could have withstood the EFF’s campaigning which turned to violence and looting – and staked a claim as a constitutional protector of a vital right. Instead, by caving in, Vodacom has left free speech and ideas vulnerable to bullies and looters, as I did six years ago. 

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