Words for the music.
5 December 2016 10:20 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ferial Haffajee

White Internet? WTF?

  • Ferial Haffajee
    ferial-bw.jpg
    Ferial Haffajee
To suggest that the only honest option for journalists is to choose between an ANC Panama hat, an EFF beret or DA blue lacks imagination or an understanding of new media and political zeitgeist.

Imagine that, upon disagreeing with Vukani Mde's long, long, long letter, published here on Thursday, you diss and dismiss it as being the rambling of the Black Internet by adding supporting quotes from black writers like Eusebius McKaiser and Karima Brown.

Throughout the critique, refer to an opposing school of thought sneeringly and dismissively as the Black Internet.

Do that and you would have your arse whipped to the Human Rights Commission before you could say Hendrik Verwoerd. There's a word for dismissing the arguments of people based on their melanin content - it's called racism.

But when a cool black dude dismisses the views of colleagues as the collective rantings of the White Internet, it's fine? Nobody says anything because that's okay?

It was a cheap trick in a time of cheapened discourse.

Downhill

From here, it’s a short downhill to dismissing ideas you don't like as the Pan-Africanist or Zulu or Xhosa or coloured or socialist or feminist Internet. Pick a pigeonhole for your prejudice. Then dismiss the argument.

Instead of properly engaging the ideas of colleagues Marianne Thamm, Adriaan Basson and Gill Moodie, you can lump them together as hegemonic white thought to stick to your ill-considered decision to don party colours while holding the august position of being the most powerful opinion editor in the country?

It wasn't too long ago when minds as different as Nelson Mandela's, Robert Sobukwe's and Neville Alexander's were lumped together by apartheid's mad men as Black Terrorist propaganda. (Mandela was of the Congress tradition; Sobukwe was Pan-Africanist and Alexander was a socialist. They were all brilliant but very, very different.) Does Mde see the problem with slipping into easy racial shorthand? I guess not. It's true that those who do not know the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.

Views like those of Mde, Brown and McKaiser will usher us straight back to an era where journalism was compromised for political ideology (Naspers and the SABC) and where self-censorship became the norm (the White English press, with notable exceptions, of course).

The White Internet theme is also at odds with Independent Media’s recent trumpeting of its non-racial values.

And when the Black Internet disagrees with you? Ignore them

The other problem with believing that the opposition to partisan journalism is White Internet hysteria, is you don't hear black voices. Your race card makes us invisible. As far as I can read, there are many black people like me who do not get an airing in Mde's article, but who believe that partisan journalism harms our profession.

By framing his critique with the idea of a hegemonic White Internet, you don't have to deal with the substantive issues of journalism your black colleagues raise in our era of easy race-labelling.

We are not automatons without beliefs and politics (we come from somewhere and many were activists; many vote for the ANC) but independent journalism requires an independent mind. I think Mde yielded his a long time ago; many of the examples of supposed independence he cited yesterday were written like ANC strategy documents – the tone is “here’s what you need to fix, my party”.

For what it's worth, independence is not the impossible construct and the unreachable goal that Mde, McKaiser and Brown set it up as in their various writings. When you say it's an impossible idea, then you offer partisanship as the only alternative. It's not, in my experience and practice.

Yes, we can be independent and non-partisan

Many journalists are neither party hacks nor ciphers without beliefs.

The Constitution offers a set of non-partisan values that can guide journalists’ hands. In its system of equal but competing rights, it offers a torchlight on how to create debates on class, socioeconomic rights, labour and business. The multi-party model and our system of proportional representation give further guidance.

In covering politics, you can emulate the principle of proportional representation in how you allocate space for competing political ideas. From the rules governing the SABC, we can take lessons in how to amplify the various manifestos of different political formations in equitable ways.

Political coverage is not an either/or business as current pundits suggest - if you are genuinely democratic, there are numerous ways of covering the full spectrum of ideas and ideologies regardless of your own. The best media gives readers a taste of the entire political edifice not only the bits you think they should be reading.

The digital world of engagement has infinite possibilities to democratise our media spaces by giving space to new voices and it offers layered new ways of holding power to account. We need be neither stenographers nor phonographs for any political formation.

To suggest, as I've been reading, that the only honest option for journalists is to choose between an ANC Panama hat, an EFF beret or DA blue lacks imagination or an understanding of new media and political zeitgeist.

In that, it's almost as impotent as the critique of an amorphous White Internet: it gets a few populist hoorahs, but in the end is deeply dissatisfying. DM

  • Ferial Haffajee
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    Ferial Haffajee

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