Media, Politics

Sowetan plays safe by saying sorry

By Ferial Haffajee 4 August 2011

Sowetan big bosses have published an unreserved apology to City Press editor Ferial Haffajee and “to all South Africans” over its disgraced ex-columnist Eric Miyeni’s necklacing piece four days ago, but will this douse the flames? CARIEN DU PLESSIS is not so sure.

The saying goes that a week is a long time in politics, but in the media things seem to happen even more quickly. At Avusa Media efforts to contain the fall-out following Eric Miyeni’s column on Monday, in which he called City Press editor Ferial Haffajee a “black snake” and said she would have been necklaced in the 1980s, seem to have started at the bottom, working their way steadily up the group’s food chain.

Miyeni was the first to go – by Monday afternoon he was fired. On Tuesday morning Sunday Times operations manager Herbert Mabuza was seconded to Sowetan and Sunday World “to assist the editors as managing editor”, and former Sunday World editor Charles Mogale was brought back to Sowetan as associate editor.

By Wednesday morning Len Maseko, acting editor of Sowetan since earlier this year, fell on his sword, even though he took a long weekend last week and was perhaps unlikely not to have seen Miyeni’s offending column before it slipped through the system and into the paper’s opinion pages on Monday.

But he’s not out on the street – simply back at his old position of deputy editor.

In a statement by Avusa late on Wednesday night, the company said Miyeni has “taken full responsibility for the offending column” and “accepts the consequences in the lapse of the paper’s judgement, which allowed the column to appear in one of the country’s finest publications”.

Avusa in the same statement announced, with immediate effect, that Mpumelelo Mkhabela, after only a few months at the Daily Dispatch, would move back to Gauteng to become Sowetan’s new editor. Mkhabela is regarded as a bright star in journalism circles and Avusa believes, “he will continue the journalistic excellence of the Sowetan”.

Avusa also gives a brief CV for him: “Mkhabela, who cut his teeth as a reporter at City Press, holds a journalism Honours degree from Stellenbosch University and also holds honours degrees in Political Science and International Politics from the University of Limpopo and Unisa respectively.”

Before he moved to East London to edit the Dispatch, Mkhabela was deputy editor of the Sunday Independent, and before that, a political reporter at the Sunday Times.

“Mkhabela is one of the country’s most respected journalists and political commentators and we are incredibly pleased that he will be at the helm of Sowetan,” Avusa Media editor-in-chief, Mondli Makhanya said in the statement. “Mkhabela believes in strong debate and editorial integrity, while also embracing the synergy between print and digital media.”
Mkhabela’s phone was off when approached for comment.

He’s replaced by his former parliamentary colleague and veteran journalist Brendan Boyle, currently Avusa Media parliamentary bureau chief who runs the politics section of TimesLIVE and who has a weekly column in The Times.

Makhanya again: “Brendan has seen it all. He knows nearly everything there is to know about the functioning of South African society and is undoubtedly an authority on political and economic issues.”

Mkhabela is the first permanent editor at Sowetan in more than a year, following former editor Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya’s move to The Witness in April 2010 (he is now deputy editor at City Press). Moya was replaced by a string of acting editors: Bongani Keswa, editor-in-chief of Sowetan and Sunday World, who was suspended by the group earlier this year (he was said to have been frequently absent from work) and replaced by Avusa public editor Thabo Leshilo, who has subsequently resigned from the group, and was then replaced by Maseko.
Sowetan and Sunday World publisher Justice Malala told Daily Maverick the permanent appointment meant the paper could make the changes needed to strengthen its systems and processes, but he denied charges that Sowetan had been the step-child of the Avusa group.

A source close to the group charged that Sowetan, the second highest-earning newspaper title in the group, was subsidising The Times, which has been struggling to sell advertising, and subsequently investment in the Sowetan has suffered.

Malala, however, denied this. “It is facing the same (financial) challenges as any of the other newspapers, but I don’t think there is a deliberate policy at Avusa to stymie Sowetan. I don’t think Sowetan is subsidising The Times,” he said. “The Times’ budgets were done for it and it is performing as far as I know to budget, so there is no need to take money from Sowetan or any other title to subsidise The Times. We are all in a recession. I wouldn’t say Sowetan is particularly targeted,” he said.

It is understood that a revamp of the Sowetan had been in the offing for a while, but the storm in the past three days has forced the paper’s bosses to bring these plans forward much more swiftly.

Critics, including Miyeni, on Wednesday night said Maseko was the wrong man to take the fall. Fingers have pointed to Makhanya as the common denominator in the sacking of David Bullard from the Sunday Times in 2008 and Kuli Roberts from the Sunday World a few months ago after their racist columns appeared in the papers.

Makhanya’s phone battery died as he attempted to return the Daily Maverick’s call.

Others reckon Malala should take responsibility. It is unclear as yet how Malala’s apology is going to affect Haffajee’s decision to sue (which was likely to be on the grounds of hate speech or incitement to violence).

Either way, this week’s saga has not only dented Avusa’s reputation, but has given critics of the media – especially in political circles – a fresh supply of ammunition. The ANC Youth League has already slammed Avusa for firing Miyeni, blaming it on the “white capitalists” running the group. It is as yet unclear whether Avusa bosses would grant the League’s wish for an “urgent” meeting on the matter – or whether they, too, would be out even before the young ones can say “bleddie agents”. DM

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