Media, Politics

Sowetan columnist spiked: Miyeni’s attack on Haffajee gets him booted

By Ferial Haffajee 2 August 2011

Infamous for his poisonous pen, Eric Miyeni was finally sacked as Sowetan columnist yesterday after verbally necklacing City Press editor Ferial Haffajee for her paper’s exposés on Julius Malema’s finances. CARIEN DU PLESSIS went to find out what started the fire.

Eric Miyeni’s Women’s Month started with a blue Monday. His regular column was axed from Sowetan on Monday night after a storm erupted about the vicious way in which he attacked City Press editor Ferial Haffajee for the stories her paper recently carried on ANC Youth League boss Julius Malema’s family trust fund.

The fact that he might soon have to face Haffajee in court – although she hadn’t spoken to her lawyers yet, she was intent on suing him for something like defamation, hate speech or incitement to violence – did not deter him from asking her for a job last night on Kaya FM.

Haffajee was, understandably, non-committal about employing him, although she admitted that she disagreed with Sowetan’s decision to sack him, rather than take editorial responsibility for what was published.

She didn’t take too long to reach her decision to sue – and she shared her decision-making process with the twitterverse. Yesterday morning she tweeted a challenge to debate Miyeni on Kaya FM and Talk Radio 702 – she got her wish last night. She also asked whether Miyeni is a “twit(terer)”. Turns out he’s not. 

Then she tweeted: “To ignore or not to ignore, that is the internal dialogue. My coloured tjatjarag instinct is, I think going to win..” and soon after: “Decided: am going to sue, possibly win and put proceeds into bursary for talented young opinionistas. Good end to sorry saga.”

Of Miyeni’s column, entitled “Haffajee does it for white masters”, the City Press editor said: “I am quite shocked because he’s someone I looked up to and admired since the 80s. He’s always been a thought leader.” She took issue with him, not for criticising her paper and her work, but for the way he did it.

Haffajee, who has a struggle background, is known for her efforts to balance good news stories but also to keep the ANC government to account, because South Africans should be able to expect moral behaviour from leaders.

Miyeni in his column on Monday in strong language questioned Haffajee’s motives for outing the finances of a “private” citizen like Malema. “Who the devil is she anyway if not a black snake in the grass, deployed by white capital to sow discord among blacks? In the 80s she’d probably have had a burning tyre around her neck. We know where she comes from,” he wrote.

These are loaded words, coming as they do from a 45-year-old male who would have witnessed that horrible period in the 80s during the struggle when black people gruesomely executed other black people they considered traitors (or impimpis) to the anti-apartheid cause by putting petrol-filled tyres around their necks and setting fire to them. Miyeni goes on to imply that Haffajee allowed her paper to carry anti-Malema stories because she secretly loathed her blackness and believed that successful black people must somehow be crooked.
A debate erupted on Twitter after veteran journalist Max du Preez, clearly disgusted, tweeted a link to Miyeni’s column. Soon everyone weighed in. Poet, actress and presenter Lebo Mashile, who suffered under Miyeni’s pen last year for being “fat”, reopened the debate on women’s appearances when she tweeted: “Eric Miyeni is a bitter misogynist and also clearly a masochist. He has problems with successful people. Especially when they have breasts.” She also tweeted she’s glad Miyeni’s “public toxicity” was exposed “for what it is. But it has taken FAR too long. The public let it go this far.”

The handsome Miyeni’s attacks are, however, not confined to women. A few months ago he slated, on race grounds, Jacob Dlamini’s “Native Nostalgia” and Anton Harber’s “Diepsloot” without reading either book.

Predictably, the ANC Youth League stuck up for him and condemned Sowetan and Avusa for firing him “for speaking his mind openly and frankly”.

“The Sowetan, like all the reactionary newspapers is showing a level of inconsistency on their application of freedom of speech as enshrined in the Constitution,” the League said in a statement last night.

Echoing parts of Miyeni’s column yesterday, the League said the decision to terminate his contract “is clearly not an independent decision, but influenced by the right-wing elements who determine the direction of the Sowetan”. It questioned why the column was published in the first place if it was inappropriate – a point that Sowetan will have difficulties defending.

“Why is it that when its leaders of the ANC who are questioned by anti-ANC, racist and narrow analysts, the Sowetan does not terminate their columns?”  The League said it would ask for a meeting with Avusa bosses to get an explanation “because they are simply out of line and abominable”.

Miyeni also received messages of support in the comments section below his column on Sowetan’s website, as well as from callers to the Kaya FM show last night which featured him and Haffajee as guests.

A defiant Miyeni, who has previously expressed disappointment about corruption among African leaders, yesterday told Daily Maverick he wrote the column because he was tired of opening the papers to “constantly read that we are stepping in rubbish”. City Press, he said “is at the forefront of a demonisation of South African black politicians”. He wanted to give Haffajee some of her own medicine.

Miyeni questioned whether the paper had any proof for writing that a black businessman paid R200,000 into Malema’s trust to get the well-connected youth firebrand to help him secure a tender.

On the same score, however, Miyeni admitted that he had no proof for claiming in his column that “the white DA receives money largely from white business, which is the main economic beneficiary of the government’s tender system”.

He told DM “the DA has proof for that”.

Miyeni further complained that South African business was white-dominated and it was almost impossible for black businesspeople to make a living from anything else but government tenders. But he admitted that he, although “technically unemployed” and black, managed to survive on income from the private sector. “I am one of the lucky ones,” he said.
Among his planned projects is a film about four people who find themselves quarantined in a house – a “risky” project for which he said he was yet to secure funding. This has led to speculation that was hoping to curry favour, through his column, with the National Youth Development Agency – dominated by Youth Leaguers – to secure funding for his film. Films are currently not funded by the NYDA, but chairman Andile Lungisa confirmed this was on the cards. But he said he knew nothing about any plans by Miyeni to apply for such funds, while Miyeni also denied it, saying his age disqualifies him for youth grants.

Asked whether he would defend his latest column in court should Haffajee sue him, Miyeni answered in the affirmative. But he didn’t think her case would succeed. “Good luck to her,” he said. Haffajee might just have the same to say for him. DM


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