The Franschhoek Literary Festival concluded last weekend. From what I could observe, it was a success. I don’t have access to the data, but on the surface, it seemed clear that the festival was well supported.
What remains befuddling is how relatively prolific a writing community there is in South Africa when compared with just how low actual readership is, and the way a “bestseller” is presented. As it goes, it is often quite easily manipulated. Having just written a book, I don’t particularly care nor do I obsess over being a bestseller. As long as the publishers break even, I would be satisfied (this would mean I could write and publish a second book).
However, as a columnist and essayist – which puts food on the table – what is especially disturbing is just how shallow the understanding of day-to-day journalism is; the limited appreciation of the importance of criticism; and (in particular) how identity politics and notions of “cultural exception” and exclusivity can lead to censorship and notions of exceptionalism.
It would be disingenuous to gloss over the fact that there are issues which, as a writer, I would usually defer to others. The best example is summed up in the line “no uterus, no opinion”. The best I could do in this case is to write in defence of a woman’s choice and ownership of her body. What a woman does with her body is her choice. While I am at it, it really is also none of my business what happens in the bedrooms of other people…
What I cannot understand is the canard that only black/white people can and should write about black/white people, and only Africans/Europeans/Asians can and should write about Africa/Europe/Asia. I have been “studying” this issue since the early 1990s when there was an issue doing the rounds along the Wall Street-Washington Axis that newspapers (it might have been a specific reference to The New York Times), should send only African-Americans as foreign correspondents to Africa, and white journalists to Europe.
My immediate reaction was that this was an insult to African-Americans in the sense that it suggested they could not be trusted or relied upon – or have sufficient insight and understanding – to write about Europe in an intellectually honest way. It also suggests that “white” foreign correspondents would better understand Europe, and could not be trusted or relied upon to write about Africa. In other words: go and write about your own people…
It’s ironic that this issue was raised in the US, where there is an obsession with objectivity – but no one is quite able to provide a definitive definition of how “objective journalism” is actually done. A general postulate or assumption is that objectivity is an ideal which is simultaneously absolute, impossible and incomprehensible, a value-free state of being, and (here’s the doozy) it resides outside all physical, cognitive, psychological and social contexts, where reality is perceived without distortions of any kind.
Journalistic “objectivity” emphasises contextual independence in terms of which the journalist merely gathers interpretations of reality (whether they are true or false) from discrete contexts and presents them accurately to news consumers as the most objective truth that the broad readership can agree on – while remaining in line with the publication’s “position”.
Yes, newspapers typically have a “position” – even if it is not formally expressed. It is hard to imagine that the Wall Street Journal would write favourably of the Communist Party, or that the British Morning Star would publish glowing reports about the FTSE 100.
When I worked on Sowetan with Aggrey Klaaste all those years ago, the newspaper promoted “nation building” – never mind my arguments with Aggrey over definitional issues and the insider/outsider problem. It is this insider/outsider problem that is so pervasive and toxic in South Africa. It is not just with respect to race. It is also thematic, or based on class and sometimes location. In each context there may be a sliver of validity, but insufficient for censorship.
For instance, I live in a small village about 80km from Cape Town. I have lived in the Western Cape for only five years. By some accounts, I should be criticised for writing about, say, the Cape Flats or Khayelitsha – because I don’t live there. Does this mean that I have to write only about the flora and fauna of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve where I live in my pondok? I come from a piss-poor family of nine. Does this mean I have no right to write about the middle class, the wealthy, or inequality in Franschhoek?
In an exchange with a member of the nomenklatura last year, after I suggested that the National School of Government was preparing a new generation of cadres (not unlike the obsession of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at its XVIth Congress with training new cadres) loyal to the ANC. My criticism was not about communism or capitalism, it was about fealty to the ruling alliance of the ANC, South African Communist Party and Cosatu.
The implication – I guess I presented it too subtly – was that we have an understanding, now, of the maladministration and lack of a professional ethic in the public service, with the main qualification being fealty to the liberation movement, and preparing a new nomenklatura or cadre loyal to the party (the ruling alliance), who may find themselves at a loss if, say, the Economic Freedom Fighters or the Democratic Alliance were to be the next government.
While it may be terribly idealistic to imagine an incoming government not placing some of its people in key positions, there has to be a break in the interface between the public service and political parties that come and go.
It was suggested that my remarks were like criticising a book that I hadn’t read. I responded by saying that I had neither read Mein Kampf nor the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but I have no problem criticising either one of them – heavily.
I can take this further. There is also a belief that neither I, nor any serious academic, thinker or scholar, for that matter, can write about war because we have never (ourselves) been at war. While it gets tedious to respond to this, it is dangerous.
When all these are factored in, we have a situation where you cannot be critical of the powerful or the wealthy or any specific person without being accused of being against (fill in anyone or anything). The point of journalism, if I may be so bold, is to get as close to the truth as possible, expose and defend it, while retaining a strong sense of humility – bearing in mind we can get facts wrong. Interpretations, commentary and analyses are open to a multiplicity of contexts, and (at least in my case) heavily influenced by historical and philosophical thinking.
Having said that, a general rule I follow is that if you present a statement of fact, provide evidence to support your statement. If you make a theoretical, speculative or interpretive claim, make sure it hangs together logically and coherently and be prepared to defend it.
There can be no limitations on what may be thought, discussed or written – unless you’re promoting offensive sexist, homophobic, racist or anti-Semitic rubbish. At the same time, and this is clichéd: people in positions of power, the power to affect people’s lives, usually come under greater scrutiny than civilians. Also, focusing on a subject, a “beat”, as it were, is not a “fixation” – it simply means you are doing your job thoroughly.
There is also a difference between journalists who do actual reportage and wildly popular radio and TV personalities and commentators, like the late radio host Rush Limbaugh, the TV host Sean Hannity (who is not a journalist) or our own JJ Tabane – who seems to be more of a shock jock than anything else.
Having said all that, context matters, though not to the point of censorship or exclusion. News and reportage, in general, cannot be stripped from context. It would be a good thing if an isiXhosa-speaking person would report on Xhosa matters. It would be good if a black person reported on black matters.
There is, however, a hidden danger in all of this: we clear a path for ethnic or racial exclusivity, and taken to the extreme it can lead to a retreat into the perceived safety of ethnic communities. Evidence from around the world, from Donald Trump’s United States to Pakistan, has shown that ethnonationalism and imaginaries of racial or ethnic purity can provide the kindling to an inferno for which nobody is prepared.
These dangers are precisely why journalism is important and criticism has an important role in society. DM