“Head of News and Current Affairs: Primedia Broadcasting. Chairperson National Press Club. Lead SA. Head of Crime Line. Director – Crime Stoppers International,” is how he describes himself in his bio on Twitter. (I wonder how he finds the time to do the job he’s paid to do at Primedia.)
He’s also set himself up as the moral conscience of South Africa, regularly spouting ad agency-created calls to arms on radio, in print, online and on social media, for people “To stand up, do the right thing and lead by example”, all in the name of Lead SA.
But what I discovered is that Abramjee doesn’t take perceived criticism very well and is not shy to launch personal attacks on anyone who dares criticise him, or to abuse his access to the airwaves to trash his critics.
My interaction with Abramjee began when I commented late last week on one of his tweets asking his more than 9,000 Twitter followers whether the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) should act against the window washers who ply their trade in the traffic at the Grayston Road onramp to the M1 highway in Sandton.
He added a Lead South Africa hash tag to his tweet, effectively claiming this as a campaign endorsed by the organisation. I upset him by asking what playing policemen by taking on poor people had to do with LSA.
To be clear, I agree that aggressive and threatening behaviour by some window washers is a serious issue that needs to be urgently addressed. But as someone who has been involved for over 15 years with a very successful job creation project in Cape Town, I know too that there are many more honest, hard working vendors trying to earn a living selling their wares at the lights.
I saw first-hand how heavy-handed enforcement by Cape Town’s Metro police failed to resolve the traffic light vendor issue. It was resolved by negotiation and cool heads. Today, protocols have developed at lights in Cape Town where honest vendors effectively police their intersections and keep out any criminal elements that try to move in.
Abramjee’s tweet tapped into some genuine fear and anger, particularly from women, about the window washers. But it also set off some of the worst anti-poor rhetoric I have seen in a long time, with calls following to remove all traffic light vendors. One person even called for poverty stricken people who survive by collecting and selling cardboard to be removed from Joburg’s streets. Another of his Twitter followers joked about a friend who had gone after a window washer with a baseball bat.
Attempts by me and others to engage Abramjee in a debate that sought solutions rather than one that whipped up anti-poor sentiments, were met with an unwavering response: they are breaking the law so there is nothing to discuss.
As Daily Maverick columnists Ivo Vegter and Jacques Rousseau discovered when they had the temerity to raise issues about LSA’s saccharine Bill of Responsibilities, Abramjee does not like being challenged.
“We have many problems in our country and if the culture of just finding fault and becoming armchair critics is going to continue, it is not going to hold our country in good stead,” was one of his pious responses to the issues they raised.
In my case, when I suggested that part of the problem poor people face is bylaws that effectively criminalise poverty, he was far blunter. Dismissing my point of view out of hand, he tweeted: “You are condoning crime and lawlessness! That's clear...”
Other who disagreed with him weighed in with contributions, but it didn’t stop him retweeting – rebroadcasting – some of the more extreme contributions of his followers. Or tweeting about a phone call he’d allegedly received from an unnamed person claiming that window washers often urinate in the containers they use to hold water to clean motorists’ windows. “If true, it's disgusting. Sies!” Abramjee tweeted with no attempt whatsoever to even verify what sounds like an urban legend – and strange coming from a trained journalist (which he is) who should know better than passing on rumour without even the most rudimentary of fact checking.
He eventually agreed to debate the issue with me on 702, but arranged for it to take place just after 5.30am, a time when most people are still tucked up in bed. Nevertheless I agreed and at the end of the debate, I genuinely believed that we had both been able to put across our arguments.
So imagine my shock when listening to Kay Sexwale’s prime time show a day later I heard Abramjee in his regular “polish my marbles” – er, sorry, Lead SA – slot on 702 and 567, ranting about window washers and “a certain individual” and “one or two others” who just didn’t understand the issue.
I had to fight to get a right of reply, eventually achieving this by tweeting Sexwale who, to her credit, put me on the air – although bizarrely she put me up against a caller whose solution to poor vendors was to ship them off to a kibbutz-style farm to learn useful skills. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this suggestion, but how do we do it I asked? What about people who are not interested? Do we round up people for being poor and ship them off to the farm, out of sight of better offs whose sensibilities are offended by poverty?
The irony of the person putting across this view coming from the so-called Justice Project South Africa just made his views even more bizarre.
Abramjee’s abuse of his access to the air at 702 (and 567, if he’s on air at a time when the two sister stations are sharing shows), raises another issue: with all his access and fingers in so many pies, he appears to also act as a tip-off service for the stations.
This is fine. Until he launches into yet another campaign that ends up with Primedia reporters on hand to report the reaction to his call for action. Like when the JMPD cracked down on all the vendors at the Grayston Road M1 onramps the day after he began his “window washer” campaign, Radio 702 was on hand to report it, as they were there for the Soweto schools latecomers crackdown.
So at this stage, I’d like to pose a journalistic ethical question: is it OK to be part of causing a story to happen – and then covering it. Or are lines being crossed?
What it does do is harm the integrity of Eye Witness News (EWN), which has a hard-won reputation as a trustworthy news source, and is staffed by some of the country’s top journalists. In fact, I am reliably informed there has been some tension within EWN at his attempts to get coverage for his causes, especially Lead SA. Private messages to me from some of the EWN staff also confirmed that some are often uncomfortable with some of the things he gets up to.
No-one’s safe from Abramjee’s ubiquitous tweeting and facebooking: this week, for example, he was busy dispensing advice to the sports minister on how to deal with the crisis in Cricket South Africa (CSA). And for good measure he posted a public tweet to Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela calling on him to send in the Hawks to sort out CSA.
All too often his advice is dispensed in the name of Lead South Africa, a marketing campaign run by Primedia and Independent Newspapers that seemed a great idea at first, but increasingly appears to often push Abramjee’s own values. Also, since Abramjee has made it clear that the law should apply equally to all, I wonder what his partners at Indy will have to say if the JMPD turns on traffic light newspaper vendors too?
Not that long ago Abramjee led the charge against late-coming students and teachers in Soweto, once again under the banner of Lead SA. There he was, our super hero, waiting outside schools with Gauteng education MEC Barbara Creecy and a police contingent, ready to nab latecomers. Also on hand were a 702 reporter and a freelance photographer, apparently commissioned by Abramjee to record the event.
What happened with these photographs lies at the heart of criticisms that too often it’s all about Abramjee polishing his own marbles: pictures of him interrogating a teacher, a 702 reporter holding a tape recorder in the face of a teacher who had arrived late, plus an “opinion piece” on the issue by Abramjee, was mailed to newspapers for publication.
And when Carte Blanche ran an insert on illegal drag racing, there he was at it again, saying that they had broken the law and the show should hand over racers’ details so police could act against them. The contradictions of a one-time journalist and a vocal critic in the fight to head off the most draconic clauses of the Protection of State Information Bill calling for journalists to shop their sources clearly didn’t even enter into his thinking.
I have watched his often self-serving actions (he often retweets Twitter messages from his supporters saying how wonderful he is) from the sidelines, with an equal measure of irritation and amusement.
But when he unleashed the police on the poor in the name of law and order without even being prepared to consider finding solutions to what is a real problem, I could no longer remain silent.
I predict – and I’m happy to offer odds on it – that based on his actions, Abramjee will end up in a top job in the police force, or in politics.
1) I am a board member of The Big Issue South Africa, a successful job creation project that has helps homeless and long-term unemployed people escape the poverty trap, by earning an honest and dignified living.
2) I drive with my lights on. DM