An open letter to Karima Brown.
It is early summer. I am in the SABC studio. My memory says the host is Xolani Gwala. This is South Africa, in December 2007. ANC politicians are doing their last push for their preferred presidential candidates, taking media interviews and criss-crossing the country, on the “Road to Polokwane”.
You and I are in the middle of this epoch making political moment in South Africa. To be sure, I am neither a politician nor associated with either of the camps. But I am a South African and like many people, I know that the outcomes of the conference in Polokwane will have a long-lasting impact on South Africa. I am heavily invested in this campaign. I am among the few who are pushing for a “third way”. I see Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as a possible compromise. I am at the studio to explain why I do not think Zuma should lead the ANC and the option I support. Despite your attempt to represent yourself as being “objective”, you participate in this debate (via the telephone) in order to convince us that Zuma is the best man to lead the ANC and the country.
In December 2007, when we debated this issue, we had known each other for twenty years. We had both been in the Cape Youth Congress, (CAYCO). In Cape Town, we did not form a strong bond. But we had great admiration and mutual respect for each other. It was in Johannesburg, in 1992, that we drew closer.
I moved to Johannesburg in pursuit of a dream. Mine was simple. I wanted to work for the ANC and to work on gender policy issues in the ANC and for the country. I did not know how I was going to achieve this. But I was certain that this was what I was going to do. My journey to Johannesburg and my stay was very difficult. I did not get work for three months. In the meantime, my parents had to support my stay in Johannesburg and pay rental for a flat in Hillbrow and a telephone line, which they insisted I needed to have, for emergencies.
As you know, at that time, I was in a relationship with an abusive alcholic who lied about almost everything. When he was sober, he was charming, gentle and kind. He had a good mind and we shared deep appreciation of jazz and the ANC. Of course, that is not enough reason to stay in a toxic relationship.
Eventually, as you know, I got work in the ANC and it was the job I dreamt of and more. On Wednesday of that week, I travelled home to tell my parents the good news.
On Sunday, I returned with pumpkin, mielies, chicken and all the goodies from home. In the early hours of the morning, I tried to open my flat. My key did not work. I had been locked out of the flat. It took about 30 minutes for this reality to register.
I turned to you, Karima, and your ex-husband for support. In the early hours of a Sunday morning, you gave me a cup of hot tea, an ear and a place to sit and re-orientate myself.
Later that morning, I went to the flat and found it deserted. My clothes were torn, my mother’s pots dirty. LPs scratched, including five LPs which belonged to a friend. You and another friend helped me salvage what I could and I moved out. I went to stay – surreptitiously – with an aunt who worked as a domestic worker in Melville.
A month later, you came to my rescue, again. A mutual connection was looking for a flatmate for her boyfriend. I left the back room in Melville, where I had to sneak in and out, like a thief, so that my aunt’s employer did not see me, and moved to a spacious flat in Yeoville. That move was also a step towards reclaiming my dignity. We lived next door to each other. In that period, we grew close and shared our joys, fears and successes. We were a small community of women from CAYCO days, sisters who were trying to cut their teeth in the adult world of work and obligations.
As you know, I moved out of the flat to live with Raymond Suttner, whom I later married. We reconnected in the early 2000s when you visited me at home. You were working at the SABC at the time. I watched your progress with joy and pride. You were making your mark as an independent thinker. However, that visit was not successful. I found it strained and superficial. We talked politics a lot. Yet, I could not quite make out what you really thought. You asked me a lot of questions about what I thought of this and that politician? What did I plan to do? As always, I was very open. I found it hard to ask you about your plans and I did not.
I “knew” that what you really wanted to do was to tell me that you did not know that your ex-husband was a spy for military intelligence of the apartheid regime, as had been revealed to the TRC in 1998. I listened. As you told me the story about your ex, you forgot that I knew and remembered that the ANC Youth League met with Dr Niel Barnard and other key intelligence heads and agents, in 1992.
These meetings, according to your ex and Peter Mokaba, were organised through him (your ex husband).
On that Saturday at my house, I understood your anxiety. I understood that you must have felt terribly betrayed by him. However, I was struck by your focus not on your choices but how, according to you, “my comrades did not tell me he was a spy?” I thought surely you remember that according to your ex, he knew Dr Niel Barnard well enough to ask for financial assistance to cover his rent and other expenses in times of trouble. I wondered, “How did you think your ex knew people (in) apartheid military intelligence?” As your sister came to fetch you, I was relieved to say goodbye. The issue was not your ex-husband’s spying activites. There was this huge thing that presented itself and we could not speak of it – money, taking responsibility and integrity.
That day, I had planned to give you a gift. Hunger’s Table – women, politics and food by Margaret Randall. You and me shared precious moments about food and of course, politics. I was deeply uncomfortable and embarrassed to give that gift. Later, I wrote above the inscription, “This book, I found, was difficult to give to Karima Brown….”
I followed your career with mixed feelings. I was proud and happy for your achievements. I was also, deeply uncomfortable. I could not fully explain my discomfort with your journalism, Karima. At least, not whilst you were still at the SABC.
In 2007, we disagreed about Zuma’s presidential bid. Like many people who supported Zuma’s candidacy, your focus was on what Mbeki did wrong. My focus was on Zuma and what he represented. Incest was uppermost in my conscious mind and statements. I threw an open challenge. “I want to know what you think of an ANC President who committed incest (in the cultural milieu that President Zuma spoke of in Court, sleeping with his comrade and friend’s daughter is incest)? Are you supporting a man whose sexual predatory extended to someone who called him uncle? Is incest not a problem in this equation, Karima?”
You did not answer this question. You stuck to your arguments that Mbeki was overbearing, divisive and authoritarian. The debate ended.
After I left the studio, I called you. You did not answer. I left a voice message and requested that we should meet and talk. After a number of times of trying to call you, I realised that you did not want to take my call.
I called because I did not want our disagreement to destroy whatever little connection we had. I also wanted to find some form of closure.
After Polokwane, I watched your progress. Your success was staggering. I was still proud. I was still uncomfortable.
By the time you took a senior position at the Independent Media Group, I had lost respect for you. You had written too many articles in defence of the indefensible. In 2006, you wrote an article, ‘Bank on Patronage and not Principle’, about Mbeki. Yet, later you used your pen to defend Zuma and an administration which is accused of oligarchical use of patronage.
You wrote a piece about Zapiro and the shower head. Your voice, strident and admonishing, told him to drop the shower head. But, the most damaging aspect of this was not admonishment of Zapiro. In asking for the removal of the showerhead, you were asking for erasure of a symbol associated with Zuma’s incest and predatory behaviour. Your push to clean Zuma’s image was at the expense of Khwezi. You were erasing evidence of Khwezi’s existence.
Your term at the Independent Group has not been without controversy. Some say you used your position to promote journalists and columnists you preferred. I don’t know if this is true. Most important, during your term, a number of journalists and columnists left the group. To be sure, I do not suggest that you are responsible for the firing of journalists. I do not know enough about the details. Here is what I know. Some of those journalists were accused of racism and of being anti-transformation. This is something I would like to revisit one day. I certainly want to understand your race discourse, your use of race frames and your own relations with others. Included in this is something that is extremely delicate but fundamentally important, ethnicity and Coloured identity.
You and I have travelled together but separately for almost 30 years. We have been through Western Cape politics of race, African chauvinism and Colouredism. We have witnessed bullying, exclusion and patronage on all sides. In the Western Cape politics we were often on the same side against chauvinism. But, in recent years I have often wondered about the assumptions I made back then and now.
Today, in December 2016, I am intrigued to see that you are Zuma’s most fierce critic. There is nothing wrong there. If you have now come to see Zuma as a flawed leader, you have the right to change your mind. But I wonder about two things.
I recall one of your articles which turned my stomach “2016 election, wake up call for ANC”. Really? You spent a significant period defending, justifying and selling this Zuma-led ANC and the problematic ways in which it represents itself. At the first sign of weakness, yours was among the first articles that warned of ANC decline. Nowhere in your article and subsequent commentary do you problematise your location. Nowhere do you take responsibility for your own contribution.
In your criticism of President Zuma, you do not look at the ways in which you and many others contributed to his sense of impunity and infallibility. By this, I do not mean you are responsible. However, I believe it is important to reflect on the Zuma phenomenon and how we have enabled this decadent political culture to emerge and consolidate.
The implications of this go far beyond you. Countries fall not only because good people are silent. They fall not only because governments are repressive. Democracies fall because there are too many decent people who are willing to sell the rotten deal. This is what you have done for more than a decade, if not longer, Karima.
These troubled times have been defined by self-interest, sycophancy and self-positioning for maximum benefit. In my view, and I have ample evidence to support this, from your columns which contradict some of your positions, you are driven by self-interest. All else is in service of that, the interest of the self. You have perfected the art of aligning yourself with masculinist politics and those who wield power, without regard for cost or implication for others.
That you command so much space in some media platforms is a fascinating example of patronage and the power of self-branding which underpins the political culture of our times. Regrettably, this system is damaging to our society. If we expect government to be circumspect in how it uses power and influence, why don’t we do the same?
Secondly, and most importantly, I wonder what this lack of introspection means for someone who often writes about the legacy of apartheid and racism? Nowadays, it seems we can’t find any white (and black people) who supported apartheid.
As if that level of denialism were not enough, now we find those who supported South Africa’s negotiated settlement are in short supply. Many people of our generation misrepresent that history in order to curry favour with the younger generation, whom they mislead and miseducate. We have not quite figured out how to handle this dangerous trend. And now there is another, people who beat talking drums for Zuma are now fleeing from him and are silent about their own history and roles.
I write this because I believe we have to get to a place in which we interrogate ourselves with as much vigour as we interrogate others. We must evaluate each other on the basis of integrity and principle. If we do not do this, long after Zuma has gone, his legacy will remain. DM
Nomboniso Gasa is researcher and analyst on land, gender, politics and cultural issues. Her Twitter handle is @nombonisogasa
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Nomboniso Gasa is Adjunct Professor at School of Public Law at University of Cape. She is Senior Research Associate at UCT. Her work focussed on Land, Politics, Gender and Cultural issues. Prof. Gasa has a long history in political and womens rights activism extending before the dawn of democracy in South Africa. She has published widely, in newspapers & academic journals. (Photo by Marta Garrich)
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