Notes on a theme: functional illiteracy in the media responses to fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki Donald Gordon Auditorium Wits Business School



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NOTES ON A THEME: FUNCTIONAL ILLITERACY IN THE MEDIA RESPONSES TO Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki

Donald Gordon Auditorium

Wits Business School

6 August, 2007


Director of the Business School

Ladies and Gentlemen

All Protocol observed. That is the phrase that people in the movement use as the most polite way to hurry to past the opening salutations in favour of the main event: All protocol observed. And in a sense what I want to address tonight is the matter of protocols in a far stronger sense: not just the matter of preliminary courtesies and formalities, but rather the public protocols that properly bind healthy democratic discourse in a liberal democracy; the principles and procedures that separate liberalism from illiberalism and that help us to tell good journalism from bad. I will submit in some detail that these protocols are widely and systematically flouted by many media leaders today.

What are some of these protocols? Solid facts. Coherent logic. Accurate quotation. If you are going to write about a book, take the trouble to read it first. Respect the intelligence of the public: therefore do not seek to censor or obstruct or re-write the opposing view. Be happy for both views to be aired, so that the public can decide. Try to stay awake during the events that you intend to report upon. Do not plagiarise the work of others. These seem to me to be not only some good rules for journalism or intellectualism or scholarship, but also of common sense in any collective endavour.

And yet, as I began to work on Fit to Govern, I quickly realized that these basic principles have been very visibly and blatantly violated in the reporting on Mbeki and in the critical responses to my book, Fit to Govern. I give many detailed examples of such lapses throughout the book.

I was therefore rather alarmed to see tonight’s event billed as a “deeper” discussion of Fit to Govern, because this implied that a deep discussion had already happened somewhere, that I had somehow missed it, and that I would therefore be particularly ill-equipped to offer keynote comments on the “deeper” discussion that you seem to want.

As I worked on Fit to Govern, I realized that the story of Thabo Mbeki and the story of media portrayal of Thabo Mbeki were in fact separate and starkly different stories, each at war with the other and therefore inextricably interlinked. It was impossible to address the substance of Mbeki without at the same time addressing the media distortions of Mbeki. This insight shaped the book, as I explain on the back cover: “Instead of soul-searching, enigma-breaking of ‘biography’, call this book a displacement of certain fictions—an engagement with many of the myths that have piled themselves high around Thabo Mbeki.”

Early on in the book itself, I point out that Fit to Govern is about an individual and representative figure, Thabo Mbeki, whom the Financial Times described as “one of our age’s most fascinating and contradictory political figures.”i If Mbeki is indeed “contradictory” that is in no small part because of how far the media contradicts itself upon him. Thabo Mbeki has been labeled Socratic, stubborn, pragmatic, Machiavellian, Africanist, a “Rainbow President,” “angry,” diplomatic, vindictive, an instinctive conciliator, an outright bully, the clubbable confidant of captains of industry, a “Afro-Bolshevik,” a dangerous Marxist (even “Stalinist”), a centralizer, a dictator and a powerless lame duck, a pro-market “neo-liberal” but an unreconstructed statist, an “imperial President” while also a man of the people, aloof, a distant rationalist but also far too emotional, a “womanizer,” aggressively anti-Western but also aggressively pro-Western, a surly nationalist, a cultural pluralist, a credible Nobel Peace Prize candidate, overly intellectual (on AIDS), anti-intellectual (again on AIDS) and a man heading for a genocide trial (yet again on AIDS)—or just plain mad. Mbeki “may be suffering the nervous breakdown that some suspect,” wrote RW Johnson, the self-confessed neocolonialist and former head of the Helen Suzman Foundation. “Crudely put, many now believe that Mbeki is no longer playing with a full pack—that he’s off his rocker.” ii

Mbeki’s alleged craziness was, for Johnson, part of the more broadly presumed insanity of black people in general. On 17 October 1996, discussing South Africa in the London Review of Books, Johnson wrote that the “relaxed acceptance of things that are crazy, macabre or wildly alarming is very African.” On 22 June 1995 he wrote in the same organ that “South Africa is often less susceptible to frontal logic than it is to a sort of magic realism.” So when I speak of Fit to Govern I am not referring only to the personal fitness or otherwise of one man, Thabo Mbeki, but rather the presumed unfitness of whole categories of people.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly, required “genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage”.iii But the South African illiberal, Helen Suzman opposed this landmark in international human rights norms. She attended her first international human rights conference in London in June 1947 as the official representative of the South African Institute of Race Relations. Upon her return, she complained. The delegates from fifteen other countries, portraying South Africa’s pre-apartheid voting and other laws as classic infringements of human rights simply did not, Suzman said, “realize the South African rural Native’s extreme primitiveness, both in his mentality and his living conditions, and the difficulty at this juncture of allowing him to vote and the responsibility that went with it, without previously subjecting him to some kind of literacy test to determine his capability of voting.” Writing in a Harlem newspaper, People’s Voice, in October 1947, WEB Du Bois referred to South Africa as a “a medieval slave-ridden oligarchy” that was absurdly "placed in the front ranks of the ‘democracies’ of the world". It is important to emphasise that Du Bois was referring to pre-apartheid Smutsian colonial South Africa. iv

Because so much local and international journalism still departs from inherited prejudices and assumptions of the colonial and apartheid pasts, there is a vast divide between the anti-colonial reality of Thabo Mbeki and the distorted colonial reporting of him: Between the tradition of Suzman and the tradition of Du Bois. The hope of the old order, Mbeki explained to me in a letter that I quote in the book, is that people in South Africa and abroad “will be condemned to absorb our historical and contemporary reality through refracted images created by media-prominent right wing master sergeants such as RW Johnson, James Myburgh and Mervin Gumede, and their reportable shadows, the ones who also serve because they only stand and wait.”v

Critics of the book, in responding to the book, have ironically repeated and deepened the very failings in Mbeki discourse to which I drew attention in the book. Therefore what I want to take up tonight are not mere details of interpretation or clashes of values—the ordinary back and forth of debate. Instead of any such quibbles, I will confine myself solely to what I call functional illiteracy in the responses to the book: the more crass and clear-cut incompetence and distortion that has been fairly widespread in the reception of the book. In the panel discussion and questions that follow, there will be ample time to deal more squarely with the content of the book. In any event I would prefer that you read the book that that I should summarise it. Kader Asmal, used to say that he loved the long and detailed book review essays in the New York Review of Books because, after you had read these handsomely detailed reviews, you didn’t need to bother to read the books! I had to disagree. Call me old fashioned in these days of proliferating “Executive Summaries” but I still believe that in order to know a book it is necessary to read that book. There are no shortcuts.

I have some fun in the book with a much-misquoted dictum of Lord

Acton, a phrase you will all have heard because the illiberals love to hurl it at the ANC in support of what the falsely call a one-party state. “Power corrupts”, they like to say, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. As I point out in the book, Acton never said any such thing and he was, ironically, a great supporter of the most hideous forms of absolute power, including the enslavement of Negroes. The illiberals, when they rely on him, are demonstrating their own functional illiteracy. They ought to have read Acton’s essays instead of relying on Executive summaries, book reviews, Dictionaries of quotations, or power point summaries in bullet point form. What Acton ought to have said therefore is while power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely. And the discourse of Mbeki has been corrupted by what one might call Powerpoint journalism—a lazy, functionally illiterate dull drone of unexamined truisms.


Functional illiteracy defined

Functional illiteracy means, according to my dictionary, “lacking the literacy necessary for coping with most jobs and many everyday situations.” The literate critic is able to recite the alphabet, spell a few words and even string sentences together so that, with or without a little assistance from a sub-editor, things look OK at a glance—like the Potemkin villages that were hastlily put up before the Tsar came touring—cardboard cut-outs that hid the reality of squalour from the casually passing eye.

If literacy is the window-dressing of thought, functional literacy represents it main struts and foundations. Functional illiteracy means, in the journalistic context, that although you possess the basic window dressing of literacy skills, you do not understand the need for solid facts, coherent logic or accurate quotation. You do not understand that if you are going to write credibly about a book, you really ought to take the trouble to read it first. If an intellectual culture has internalized functional illiteracy, critics will be quite unashamed to be caught out expressing strong opinions on books without reading these books. In a media culture that has internalized functional illiteracy, journalism professors will be found making excuses for plagiarism or trying to win arguments bureaucratically—by excluding competing voices—rather than in the expected manner of intellectual contestation: by superior force of fact and logic. In the reporting on President Mbeki and in the reception of Fit to Govern, it is easy to demonstrate that sections of the South African media have indeed internalized entire aspects of functional illiteracy.

Functional Illiteracy I: Lack of solid facts

As an community committed to intellectual excellence in the business sector, this audience clearly has a strong interest in a healthy and fact-filled financial press. We all want journalists to be wide awake, literally and metaphorically, when reporting on anything, including the President. In his book, Understanding Power, the radical intellectual, Noam Chomsky, comments on the Wall Street Journal. It is obvious that Chomsky, a great anti-capitalist, would castigate the Journal, that unabashed house-journal of American capitalism and neo-conservatism. Less predictable was the credit Chomsky was able to give the Journal for accurate fact-gathering. He said:

[T]he editorial pages are just comic tantrums, but the news coverage is often quite interesting and well done, they have the best reporting in the country, in fact. And I think the reason for that is pretty clear. On the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, the editors can scream and yell and foam at the mouth and nobody cares very much, but people in the business world have to have a realistic picture of what’s happening in the world if they’re going to make sane decisions about their money. (28).

Therefore, according to Chomsky, the ideological tantrums of the opinion-pages were not allowed to cloud the factual reporting of the Wall Street Journal, partly because there is a separation between the tantrum-throwers on the opinion page and the serious factual reporting of the news sections. But in South Africa the tantrum throwers all too often do double duty as the supposed reporters of fact. There are no Chinese Walls between fact and opinion. Thus in any given issue of Business Day, Karima Brown’s “factual” reporting on Mbeki might be on the front page while her tantrums enliven the opinion page. In one notorious instance, Business Day reported in a front page lead story on 23 August, 2005 under a headline suggesting that “Mbeki fuels ANC feud, faces down Zuma allies.” Business Day reported that Mbeki "came down hard on key backers of ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma" during a meeting of the ANC’s National Working Committee (NWC) the previous day. Business Day also confidently reported that Mbeki “demanded that [ANC] youth league president Fikile Mbalula explain statements attributed to him that Mbeki had ‘acted unfairly’ and abused his powers in dealing with Zuma".

Then it turned that President Mbeki was not even present at the meeting, but was rather on holiday. In a media culture that expected functional literacy from a journalist, such a major gaffe on a major and sensitive story would be a firing offence. But instead the tantrums just roll on, because Business Day has internalized functional illiteracy and does not expect factual journalism from its reporters and writers.

Similarly the media reported, in a herd mentality, that the judge in the Schabir Shaik trial found as fact that there was a “generally corrupt relationship” between Shaik and Zuma. After ten months of functionally illiterate inaccuracy over the content of his published judgment, Judge Hilary Squires himself had to rouse himself and point out, in a letter to Business Day, that he never decided any such thing or expressed any such finding.

The chapters on AIDS and Zimbabwe in Fit to Govern demonstrate a similar pattern of radical incompetence and ideological fog, instead of factual reporting, on what Mbeki is supposed to have done and said in AIDS and Zimbabwe policy: the proverbial “black spots” upon his Presidency. Far from being a “denialist”, for instance, I point out at page 187 of Fit to Govern that it was Mbeki who broke the silence on AIDS in the mid-1990s, while figures such as Edwin Cameron were, by their own admission, in denial. Those of you who believe that Mbeki’s “denialism” is proven by the notorious June 2000 Pretoria AIDS panel will likewise be startled to read the speech that Mbeki actually made on that day, which I summarise at pages 191-194 of Fit to Govern. Mbeki’s speech to the AIDS panel is and was widely available—and widely ignored—on the internet. Just as the findings of judge Squires were available and ignored. This is because, in a functionally illiterate media culture, it is enough to read and regurgitate what others SAY that Mbeki said, or Squires said, rather than going to the source. Powerpoint corrupts absolutely. The regurgitation of hearsay becomes an acceptable substitute for the investigation of facts.

Let me take another example, one that also appears in Fit to Govern. As we know, Jacob Zuma was acquitted of rape after a trial during which, however, he made a range of alarmingly sexist and patriarchal comments, as well as propounding the curious AIDS prevention strategy of the post-coital shower. He also admitted to having unprotected sex with a woman known to be HIV positive. Of this last lapse in particular, Karima Brown and Vukani Mde offered the following tantrum in Business Day:

[T]he bigger tragedy of Zuma’s lapse last November is that it is wholly in keeping with the general behaviour of most South African men. Our anti-AIDS messages do not address the politics of sexuality and the dynamics of desire that fuel our pandemic. Most men who find themselves without a condom at the precise moment it is needed, go right ahead anyway, placing themselves and their partners in danger. They cannot conceive of the possibility that such actions could have devastating consequences for them . . . Those opposed to Zuma’s succession should and can state openly what their objections are. If they are about criminality, then they should naturally fall away, as and when he is criminally absolved. If they are about judgment and personal wisdom, it is doubtful many in the ANC’s leadership would make the grade.vi

So the example of Zuma was supposed to confirm, for the purpose of this particular tantrum, the broader truths of native unfitness to govern. Zuma was supposed to demonstrate that the natives were wholly unfit to administer their own urges, let alone fit to govern a large and fractious country. On what facts was it based? The piece was co-authored by Karima Brown and Vukani Mde, in that order. But they don’t say which of them has had the key factual experiences relied upon as the premise of the piece, viz: “Most men who find themselves without a condom at the precise moment it is needed, go right ahead anyway, placing themselves and their partners in danger.” Was this Brown’s experience with men? Or Mde’s with women? Or was it their joint experience, together? Or is AIDS journalism about “facts” rather than facts?

A final example: instead of covering the substance of the President’s State of the Nation speech in February 2006 for the benefit of Business Day’s readers, Vukani Mde described the President as personally “desperate” and faulted him for a “silly” quotation of Shakespeare, before confessing to his Business Day readership that “I just fell asleep in the end” and “in hindsight I just shouldn’t have come.” It is bad enough to fall asleep on the job, but then to boast about it in the column in full view of his editor and readers! Could you for one minute imagine any Wall Street Journal reporter behaving in this way after attending the State of the Union address? It shows not only a contempt for a democratically elected President and those who elected him. More to our purpose here tonight it shows a contempt for Business Day’s own paying readership and for what ought to be the noble craft of journalism, the lifeblood of any true democracy. It is unrepentant functional illiteracy: a crass indifference to the protocols of competent journalism. Mde boldly gave his opinion of the very address he had literally slept through. The speech was, Business Day’s readers learned, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”vii Why do key business constituencies accept such illiteracy as competent reporting?

Functional Illiteracy II: coherent logic and accurate quotation:
In response to my AIDS chapters, which make many points including the obvious one that Mbeki never denied that HIV causes AIDS, a few Mbeki critics have assembled unpersuasive anthologies with which they seek to imply, through various convolutions, that Mbeki has indeed denied that HIV causes AIDS. One could argue the back and forth of that, but I will not do that here.

Instead, focus on what the critics themselves admit and thus place beyond dispute. Despite smearing Mbeki as “AIDS denialist”, the AIDS drug lobby itself quietly admits, in its own more serious moments, that Mbeki never denied that HIV causes AIDS! They themselves deny in the fine print, or on the sly, what they themselves continue to proclaim in the headlines. For example the AIDS populist, Edwin Cameron, concedes in his memoir, Witness to AIDS, that “President Mbeki has never publicly stated that his view is that HIV does not cause AIDS” (p117). In Mortal Combat: AIDS Denialism and the Fight for Antiretrovirals in South Africa the AIDS-drug activist, Niccoli Nattrass, concludes at pages 49 and 61: “Mbeki may not, of course, have gone as far as ‘converting’ to the denialist view . . . Such commentary on what Mbeki actually thought remains speculative.” So in her peer-reviewed academic text she is admitting that she does not know and cannot say for certain that Mbeki is a denialist.

But then watch what Nattrass herself then does in the media debate, relying upon the functional illiteracy of media discourse. For the purpose of her attack on Fit to Govern in the Mail & Guardian (“Now in Fiction”, 20 July, 2007), Nattrass pretended to know what her book itself denies. She pretended to know that indeed Mbeki was a denialist. She claimed to see nothing less than “Stalinism” in what she terms my “attempts to airbrush Mbeki’s denialism from the historical record”. Presumably this is the same denialism that she herself admitted was speculative in her own book!

This is the kind of stunt that justifies the suggestion by Mail & Guardian journalist, Vicki Robinson, that Fit to Govern “builds a convincing argument for how Mbeki’s stance on HIV/Aids has been misunderstood and in turn capitalised on by powerful individuals such as Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Edwin Cameron” (Mail & Guardian, 15 June, 2007). This is functional illiteracy combined with ideological opportunism. The agenda is not the pursuit of truth but simply the bashing of Mbeki and the immobilization of the African National Congress.

In a wonderful sentence, Nattrass writes: “Claiming that Mbeki was not a denialist because he ‘never said that HIV does not cause AIDS’ is a red herring. Aids denialists routinely pose as questioning Aids science, while in practice denying it.” Let me re-read those sentences very slowly. What Nattrass is saying is that Mbeki is an AIDS denialist, whether or not he denied that HIV causes AIDS, because you can be a denialist without in fact denying that HIV causes AIDS. Functional illiteracy is a polite term for this, from a supposedly senior academic. It is plain propaganda. It is a wholesale indifference to the language, fact and logic. And it is on this basis that Nattrass accuses Mbeki of committing nothing less than genocide against black South Africans. It is on this basis that she places a Zapiro cartoon on the cover of her book in which Hector Petersen is portrayed as being killed all over again, not this time by the Boer guns but by none other than Thabo Mbeki. It is on this flimsy basis that Edwin Cameron, who is supposed to be a senior judge in this country, obscenely equates President Mbeki with the pro-Nazi historian, David Irving, who is literally in jail in Austria for holocaust denial. Cameron is substantially responsible for a degradation of democratic discourse in this country. Within the culture of functional illiteracy that AIDS activists have sponsored, people prefer to argue in the currency of Zapiro cartoons and hyperbole rather than in the more usual and literate contest of facts, values and logic.

[There are other examples. Xolela Mangcu, a native assistant at Business Day, wrote on 21 June, 2007: “At some point, Roberts argues that Alex Callinicos could not have been a socialist because his great-grandfather, Lord Acton, was a liberal racist. Not even a Sociology 101 student would make such analysis.” As you might guess from Mangcu’s vague page reference (“at some point Roberts argues…”) he ignored what I actually wrote in favour of convenient misquotation. Three weeks later Ken Owen picked up the same stompie in the Financial Mail: “In his obsessive search for the taint of original sin [Roberts] discovers, damningly, that the "ultra-left" Alex Callinicos, who has dared to criticise Mbeki, is a great-grandson of Lord Acton. (Financial Mail, 13 July, 2007).

My point, at page 47 of Fit to Govern, had nothing to do with alleged hereditary taint nor with the supposed impossibility of Callinicos being a socialist. In fact my point was that, despite indeed being a socialist, Callinicos and many of the self-styled global social movements shared an unlikely consensus with Lord Acton in their dismissal and disparagement, from their superficially different positions of left and right, of the will of the South African electorate. In this context I wrote: “In a spectacularly appropriate coincidence, Alex Callinicos is in fact the great grandson of Lord Acton, the grand patron of the ‘liberal’ imperialist tradition in South Africa.” Where does this amount to a suggestion that Callinicos “could not have been a socialist” as Mangcu suggests? Where does it amount to a suggestion of “original sin” as per Owen? This is functional illiteracy.

Xolela Mangcu’s adventures with Bheki over Fit to Govern provide an extended further instance of how a functionally illiterate commentator deals with inconvenient evidence. After Xolela’s initial attack on my book, Bheki Khumalo wrote a letter that was published in Business Day under the headline “envious Mangcu is not neutral”:

Xolela Mangcu enjoys valuable space in Business Day. His role as “analyst” must imply at least a degree of responsibility if not absolute neutrality, but both elude him with exponential regularity. His is a column with a cause . . .[I]n his two-cents-worth contribution to the Roberts book debate, Mangcu fails to disclose that he is not a neutral observer of Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki, Roberts’ shallow ode reflects obsessions of the age of Mbeki (June 21). Nor does he disclose the material fact that he is himself a subject of the book and is criticised in it. . . . According to Mangcu, Roberts does not know anything about our movements. But really it is Mangcu who lacks this knowledge. As Mbeki’s spokesman, I was forever having to correct Mangcu’s distortions of our thinking as a movement . . . Roberts knows Mbeki and his thought, while Mangcu clearly does not . . . Revealingly, Mangcu fails to meet the defence Roberts mounts of Mbeki’s positions on HIV/AIDS policy. Nor can Mangcu fault Roberts’ defence of Mbeki’s logic on Zimbabwe. Ordinarily unfriendly commentators have described the case Roberts makes as persuasive.

Bheki spoke at the launch of Fit to Govern at the Presidential Guest House in Pretoria. He appeared on SAFM defending both the book and my right to write what I like. He appeared on an academic panel discussion in Durban, again defending the book snd my right of free expression. One might have thought that Bheki Khumalo’s views on the author and the book were tolerably clear. Instead of accepting that reality and resorting to better facts and logic that either Bheki Khumalo or I could muster, Xolela adopted a strange and functionally illiterate strategy. He objected to the fact that Khumalo had defended the book. He wrote:

I actually like Bheki. I think he would have written a far better book than Roberts. There is no hint of malice or vitriol in Bheki’s voice or demeanour. It’s a pity he lets himself down this way. . . . I have been told that the Roberts book was assembled at Mahlambandlopfu, and part of the agenda was to deal with me. I refuse to believe that. First, in the greater scheme of things, I am not that important. Second, the last time such vitriol was issued from a leader’s home it was from the Richard Nixon White House. (BD, 28 June, 2007).

The vulgarity and irrelevance of this is, I assume, sufficiently clear without further comment from me. But now here comes the punchline. Having decided on Bheki Khumalo’s behalf that Bheki Khumalo ought not to have defended my book, Mangcu proceeded to put precisely those words in Khumalo’s mouth. An irate Khumalo called me on 28 July 2007 having just read the Weekender, where Mangcu had written: “I swear I am not making this up. Bheki Khumalo, the esteemed presidential adviser at large (when he is not at his desk at Sasol) told someone the following: ‘We all know that Ronald Suresh Roberts is a nut. It’s just that he is on our side.’ Now, I would be very upset if I were Roberts, and would demand an explanation from Bheki. I certainly know how such a matter would be resolved in the township. Someone would gently ask the other guy to come outside with him and settle the matter once and for all. But we’re not in the townships anymore. . . . I certainly think there’s enough material for a catfight here.”

Set aside Xolela’s obvious contempt for truth and for proper journalistic procedure, a contempt that attributes to Khumalo what Khumalo never said, without bothering to call Khumalo because Khumalo, had he been called, would have spoiled moment by clarifying that he never said what somebody said he said. Whatever Mangcu is practicing as Peter Bruce’s native assistant at Business Day, it is hardly a functionally literate contribution to the craft of journalism, with respect for the going protocols of the craft. Such conduct helps to explain why so many people have a healthy contempt for sections of the media.

And that’s not all. After Thami Mazwai, who is likewise here tonight, praised the book as “a splendid job” in the Star, Xolela decided to do a Bheki on Thami. He decided to re-write Mazwai’s again inconvenient views. He decided that Dr Mazwai’s comment was “probably the most important put-down of Roberts’s book by someone in the inner sanctums of power.” Mangcu convinced himself that, although seeming to praise Fit to Govern, what Mazwai really meant to say was: “In short, skip this book for the real deal next time.”

Mangcu’s status as Peter Bruce’s native assistant is the key to understanding his peculiar journalistic practice. Within his appointed posture as the bringer of authoritative news and attitudes from “the township” to the naïve white readership of Business Day, Xolela cannot afford to see his own construction of Black Opinion contradicted by more credible black voices. Hence he must rewrite those voices, lest the whites who are his true constituency realize that they are wasting their money on him. Hence his practice of commentary is functionally illiterate in that he cannot permit himself to give coherent and accurate airtime to native opinion at odds with his own.]

Functional Illiteracy III: Read the book before writing about it
Similarly, if you comment on Fit to Govern without reading it—and you are content to admit and even boast about that fact, you are functionally illiterate. In his Thick Edge of the Wedge column for 10 July, 2006, Business Day Editor Peter Bruce, blissfully announced: “I don’t read books written by people younger than me. I hate successful youth, except in sport.” This is defiant and self-confessed illiteracy from the editor of a major business newspaper. I have what I had previously regarded as the good fortune to be considerably younger than Mr Bruce, therefore this comment implicitly placed me on notice not to expect a literate response to Fit to Govern from him. I was still however naïve enough to expect that and editor who pledges in advance not to read a book would refrain from editorializing about it. But in fact Bruce’s open refusal to read Fit to Govern did not at all dissuade his newspaper from editorializing on it, any more than Business Day journalist Vukani Mde was dissuaded from commenting upon the President’s State of the Nation Address by the mere fact that he had admittedly fallen asleep during the address.

In a properly functioning media culture, is it acceptable for a serious editor to decide arbitrarily that he will refuse to read a book, even while conceding that the book is a matter of great public interest? The ANC wrote on its website last Friday that the media “has determined that it falls outside any obligation to submit itself to any practical process of social accountability.” While some of us might want to believe that the role of the media is to serve as a mirror for the debates ongoing in society, the reception of Fit to Govern shows an insistence, by Business Day for instance, on the right to suppress entire debates that are not to its liking.

In his Thick End of the Wedge column for 19 February, 2007, Bruce’s illiterate rule about not reading books by author’s younger than himself came under visible pressure, because of the anticipated public interest in Fit to Govern. Bruce himself now wrote:

Mbeki is on something of a comeback trail. . . Highlights along the way for Mbeki will be the publication of Ronald Roberts’ book on his political ideas, some time in June, perhaps before an important ANC policy conference which precedes the December gathering. Mbeki’s intellect will be celebrated and his critics excoriated.

Bruce did not indicate, despite the acknowledged public interest of the book, that he would now waive his willfully illiterate rule and read the book—despite his own suggestion that the book would, in his opinion, be a “highlight” of the political year. As consumers of financial journalism, I leave it to you to assess whether it is acceptable conduct when an editor, who owes a duty to you as readers, defiantly refuses to read what he himself concedes is a highlight of the political year. I also remind you that in the context of the HIV/AIDS debate, President Mbeki asked: What do you do when senior academics and journalists refuse to read? This points to a systematic and deliberate degradation of public discourse.

In yet another reference to Fit to Govern, yet again in advance of its publication, on 24 April, 2007, Bruce wrote:

“GET ready for the political story of the year! No, I don’t mean the ANC presidential succession. I mean the launch, within weeks if not days of each other, of two almost rival books on President Thabo Mbeki. In the one corner is Mark Gevisser, who seems to have been writing his Mbeki biography for so long you could be forgiven for thinking you read it ages ago. Gevisser had unprecedented access to Mbeki some time back but is said to have been cut off of late. His book is likely to be, in part, an attempt to “explain” Mbeki to the rest of us. I hope he succeeds. Gevisser’s book, I understand, has already gone to print with Jonathan Ball. In the other corner is Nadine Gordimer’s combative biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, who has been quoted saying his book (titled, I think, “Fit to rule — the Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki”) would be published on June 16. . . . It will be (in part at least) a defence of Mbeki’s thinking as a political leader and, probably, contain some colourful swipes at his critics.

Fit to Govern was then duly published on 15 June, 2007 while Gevisser’s book, which has been due since 2002 remains unpublished to this date. Three weeks later, on 9 July, 2007 Bruce again returned to write about the book of great public interest that he was defiantly committed not to read. He confirmed that he had carried out his boycott threat: “I have not read Ronald Roberts’ sponsored book on Thabo Mbeki. I was sent a copy and tried to find myself in it but there’s not an index. Roberts promised to put me in though and people tell me I am. Ho hum. Good reason for you not to buy it.” This is, again, functional illiteracy of a defiant and unrepentant form. I ask again: is this what business schools expect from business journalism? In healthy intellectual cultures it is normally a bit of a joke to say that people look themselves up in the index of a widely anticipated book, instead of reading the whole book, as might more responsibly be expected. But Bruce shamelessly concedes such behaviour.

Then it gets worse. Business Day proceeded to editorialise over a book that its editor had defiantly not read. In the lofty arena of the Business Day editorial column for 20 July, 2007, came the following comment:

Poor Mbeki. It seems it will be almost impossible for anyone to write about him without some drama surrounding the work. First an apparently perfectly ordinary TV documentary is hidden away from the public. Then a gushing book, a rave review as it were, by presidential lickspittle Ronald Roberts is treated by the SABC as if it were holy. We will have to wait for a real book by a real biographer before making our minds up about Mbeki. Fortunately, a brilliant South African writer, Mark Gevisser, is about to produce just such a work. Wait for it. But we digress.

Now I need to emphasize that what I have just quoted is not Peter Bruce’s personal weekly column, Thick Edge of the Wedge. It is the lofty space of the Business Day editorial column, traditionally regarded as the most considered and solemn forum for the expression of the official opinion of a newspaper. Yet this comment betrayed at least two plain forms of functional illiteracy. Most obviously, without reading my book, the editor had associated his newspaper with a considered (not to mention intemperate and personalised) editorial column comment on the book and indeed its author. More spectacularly, the same editorial column commits the newspaper to a positive comment over a non-existent book which another author, Mark Gevisser, is said to be “about to produce.” Business Day trashes the book that is available, which the editor admittedly hasn’t read. And it praises a book that is not yet published, which it cannot have read! This is the George W. Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attack on my book, combined with a further doctrine of pre-emptive praise of a perceived competing narrative. This is hardly credible journalism. It would be amusing except that it again highlights why sections of the media are justifiably held in contempt within the ANC.

As you would expect, Peter Bruce’s native assistant, Xolela Mangcu, joined his boss in the illiterate bashing of a book he admittedly—and I emphasise admittedly—had not read. In his initial attack on Fit to Govern, Mangcu regurgitated an error initially made by Max Du Preez in the Star. Du Preez had wrongly suggested that I had not defined the word “native”, a considerable failing, if true, in a book subtitled “The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki.” But of course I had defined the term. It’s just that Du Preez, another functional illiterate, had not read that far into the book.

Bheki Khumalo pointed out in a letter to Business Day that Mangcu “plainly ha[d] not read page 267 of the book, nor the footnotes” where the very extensive definition and discussion of the term “native” indeed appeared. Mangcu responded as follows:

I SEE Bheki Khumalo has been recalled from the corporate world to join the Presidential Rehabilitation Effort under the leadership of Ronald Suresh Roberts. Bheki has always been very good with this stuff. The first thing he did back on the job was to point out a fault in one of my Business Day columns. I incorrectly said Roberts had failed to define the word “native”. Bheki suggested I should go to page 267. Damn, there it was! I confess I had not reached page 267 yet. It just did not occur to me that it would take 267 pages to define a term so central to this whole enterprise. I also suppose these are the hazards of reading a book with no references or index. But anyway, my bad! (30 June, 2007).

This is unrepentant and defiant incompetence. Xolela’s suggestion that the book has no references is yet a further instance of functional illiteracy, suggesting as it does that he had not consulted the 129 pages of online footnotes to which the reader is directed on the last page of the book. The footnotes were placed online precisely in order to avoid the demands of commerce, which would have required me to drastically shorten those footnotes if I wanted them to be bound into the printed book. In the interest of thorough and uncompromising referencing, I chose the online alternative.

Nor is that the end of the illiteracy. Khumalo’s letter also noted that Xolela “fails to meet the defence Roberts mounts of Mbeki’s positions on HIV/AIDS policy.” So Xolela now wrote a third column, admitting, yet again with no evident embarrassment, that he had not read the book before attacking it!: “I have finally caught up with Bheki on the HIV/AIDS chapters in the book. So what’s new here? Roberts argues that Mbeki was ahead of the curve on the toxicity of drugs.” (28 June, 2007). I must wearily add that, as you will see in reading the AIDS chapters for yourself, I argue a lot more than the point (itself extremely important) that President Mbeki was ahead of the curve on the toxicity of anti-retrovirals, which indeed he was.

Khumalo added: “Nor can Mangcu fault Roberts’ defence of Mbeki’s logic on Zimbabwe. Ordinarily unfriendly commentators have described the case Roberts makes as persuasive.” Suffice it to say that since Bheki wrote this, Mangcu has commented in dribs and drabs on the Zimbabwe issue, mentioning my name very frequently, but not once accurately reflecting the substance of my argument on any point. Again, I would urge you to read what I wrote on that issue.



Functional Illiteracy IV: Censorship.
In a functionally illiterate media culture those who control media space do not need to read books because they do not seek to win arguments by superior deployment of facts and logic. They prefer the stark alternative of censorship. Bruce has not published any opinion piece by me since 2004. He has also censored Bheki Khumalo. Why? Bruce explained on 9 July, 2007: “If Khumalo or anyone else ever called me up with an interesting and original thought and expressed a wish to write it, I would encourage him to do so. But the writing must be interesting, which in Khumalo’s case can’t always be guaranteed, and principled, which, in my experience, is occasionally a bridge too far for Roberts.” The shrewd among us will note that these criteria of “interesting” and “principled” are fatally subjective and allow Bruce to proceed as he likes in excluding any and all voices that depart from the shrill Xolela Mangcu/Rhoda Kadalie Mbeki bashing bandwagon. What, for instance, is “principled” about Mangcu’s undisclosed Batho Bonke shares which make him a paid stooge, in excess of R5 million of a perceived Mbeki rival, Tokyo Sexwale? Bruce is entitled to enforce ideological filters under the guise of subjective criteria, but a serious business school constituency will naturally ask itself whether this is serious journalism.

Last Thursday I was invited by Kaya FM to debate a strange piece that Justice Malala had written in The Times, which is the daily version of the Sunday Times. Malala had exercised his free speech rights to attack Mbeki as a man who cared nothing for blacks and whose contempt for black people was demonstrated by his supposed indifference to the suffering of black people in Zimbabwe and Khutsong. Malala is entitled to his opinion. Nobody has sought or would seek to shut him down. The producer of the Kaya FM talkshow asked me to come on air and debate the point. I agreed. In these days where people seem to be switching away from Telkom land lines in alarming numbers, I managed to find one above a bar on Long Street. I waited for the call to come in at the appointed hour, 18:00. But then, as the clock ticked towards 18:05, the phone simply failed to ring. Eventually, at 18:05 the producer called sheepishly to say that Malala had demanded my removal from the programme, failing which he would himself withdraw. In other words, having viciously attacked the President in the privileged space he enjoys by gift of the Sunday Times , Malala was rather remarkably insisting on the right to name or exclude alternative opinion from the further discussion of the views he had expressed. He insisted not only upon contributing to the debate around Mbeki. He insisted on shaping the debate about his opinion to his own liking. And he succeeded. Ironically this was John Perlman’s talk show although I hasten to add that Perlman was not on duty on this night. Perlman is of course the journalist in whom some people see a hero because he took a brave stand against alleged blacklisting of certain commentators by the SABC. Now these events had unfolded within his own space.

I hasten to add that Perlman has called me and said he would have made a different decision last Thursday. He promised that I will have my say. But the problem I am focusing on is this: what on earth is going on in the minds of journalists such as Justice Malala who believe that free speech means that their views and their views alone are entitled to go, in grand and unchallenged procession, out among the populace. They insist not only on the right to suggest that Mbeki is a callous barbarian, as is indeed their right. They also appear to believe that it is legitimate to shut down those with a different view of Mbeki.

Nor was Malala eccentric in this attitude. Anton Harber, who purports to teach journalism within the humanities Department at Wits has behaved in the identical manner, in an even more ironic context. Recall the notorious “Mbeki documentary” which the SABC has supposedly banned. In the interest of freedom of expression the Mail & Guardian arranged a Critical Thinking Forum two weeks ago in which they showed the documentary and followed the showing with a panel discussion. The editor of the Mail & Guardian invited me to participate in that panel discussion. She also invited Adjunct Professor Anton Harber. She also invited John Matshikiza, a man who has published almost compulsively harsh and personalised attacks on me in the Mail & Guardian. He has a right to attack me. I was given adequate opportunities to reply. Free and open debate tends to sort the wheat from the chaff and Matshikiza has indeed since gone on sabbatical from his column, after repeatedly offending people with his racialised attacks upon, among others, Jewish people, Indians, Afrikaners, the Chinese, the Irish and Forest Whitaker who played Idi Amin in the recent film, The Last King of Scotland. Whitaker “just looks like a fat black man from the Louisiana plantations” Matshikiza wrote (5 March, 2007). Whitaker subsequently won an Oscar for this performance. So you see: free and open debate sorts the wheat from the chaff—unless the chaff can shut down free and open debate in order to prop up its own intellectually bankrupt interests.

And so it was that as the great and the good anticipated a triumph of free speech at the Mail & Guardian’s Critical Thinking Forum, Anton Harber and John Matshikiza, who have signally failed to see me off in open debate, instead decided to push their views through bureaucratically. After the event had been advertised to include Matshikiza as Chair, Harber and Matshikiza shamefully attempted to place the editor of the Mail & Guardian under duress: they demanded that I should be removed from the panel discussion, failing which they would themselves refuse to participate. To her credit, the editor of the Mail & Guardian, Ferial Haffajee, told Anton Harber, the founder of the Mail & Guardian, to go and jump in a lake and to take Matshikiza with him. Actually Ferial is far too polite to talk that way, but the point is she filled the panel with others, including Jane Duncan of the Freedom of Expression Institute, whose advocacy of free speech is less tainted by anti-Mbeki hypocrisy. As SAPA reported on 19 July, 2007, I made this point openly on the night of the panel discussion: “The newspaper's editor Ferial Haffajee replied: "It's true, Anton and John didn't want to share a panel with Ronald.’” The facts are therefore already a matter of public record and are beyond dispute.

I can provide numerous other examples of anti-Mbeki censorship but I think my point is made. Even before the above incidents had occurred Ferial, writing as chairperson of the South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) on 24 March 2007, had said: “I am flabbergasted by the numbers of freedom of speech disciples who believe that Ronald Suresh Roberts, author and articulate pain in the butt, should not be allowed in print. Numerous liberals of varied hue have told me, with growing irritation, that I'm selling out the side by letting him onto our pages . . . It's an odd quirk coming from people at the forefront of the ranks of advocates of free expression. Freedom of expression's fine, they seem to say, as long as we can determine who gets it and who doesn't.”viii It is a grave danger for media freedom and the culture of open debate when we have as you do at Wits a Professor of Journalism, Anton Harber, who believes that free speech is the special entitlement of the few. It brings journalism into disrepute.


Functional Illiteracy V: Making Excuses for Plagiarism

In a properly functioning literary culture, plagiarism is the cardinal sin, for obvious reasons. It is a theft from another writer and it is a fraud upon readers. It defeats the orderly circulation of ideas. It spells a lack of integrity. But if the plagiarist happens to target Thabo Mbeki, all is forgiven. Thus Anton Harber, whose contempt for the anti-censorship values of free expression I have already canvassed, is predictably to be found making light of the plagiarism of William Gumede, in an attempt to defend Gumede’s plagiaristic attack on Mbeki.

In Fit to Govern I point out Gumede had stolen whole phrases, paragraphs, facts and concepts from a whites-only panel of journalists including Sunday Times journalist Brendan Boyle, Mark Gevisser, Charlene Smith, London Guardian reporter Rory Carroll, the journalist John Ryan, Business Day columnist Stephen Friedman and New Yorker scribe Samantha Power, who teaches at Harvard. In “defending” himself during the subsequent uproar, Gumede further disclosed that he relied for his chronology of developments in the AIDS debate upon the AIDS lobby mouthpiece, Kerry Cullinan, whom he said had shared her work with him prior to publication. Cullinan is also white. Gumede did not, apparently, steal work from any black journalist.

Gumede “independently” recycled the existing white liberal discourse on Mbeki, giving it a semblance of blackness. In the anxious scramble to defend him from the plagiarism charge, Gumede’s supporters openly made this more fundamental concession: ideologically and in his research methods and materials, Gumede was indeed a mere recycler of established liberal discourse surrounding Mbeki. Adjunct Professor of Journalism, Anton Harber forgivingly assessed an instance of Gumede’s plagiarism. Susan Sontag might criticize the “dull drone” of media consensus, but for Harber this same dull drone was acceptable in itself and—more remarkably—served to excuse Gumede’s plagiarism:

It is true that they both use some of the same quotes, but these were common quotes doing the rounds at the time. There can be no great surprise that they both, for example, quote the same key phrase from an Mbeki letter to Edwin Cameron. So would most people writing about the issue.ix

Clearly, the bigger question raised by this case is what constitutes plagiarism and not just bad referencing. In my view, some of the evidence presented is pretty thin. But there are a couple of instances where some of Gumede’s material does bear a resemblance to other people’s earlier work.

This is no great surprise, since the book is largely a pull-together of a great deal of work, research and writing about Mbeki. Its strength lies not so much in the presentation of new material, but in the garnering of a rich pool of available evidence to support what is a strong and important argument.x

Further comment on Adjunct Professor Harber would be superfluous.


Functional Illiteracy: Conclusion

We often hear South Africa described as an infant democracy. It is a habit that began in the shaky economic and political era of the 1990 to 1994 transition and it is a habit we have failed to break out of even as the economic health and political stability of the country have exceeded all expectations in the period since 1994. The truth is that, having seen the violence drop to nothing in kwaZulu Natal, having seen the threat of the white right military coup defused, having seen the Boerestaat crowd talked into oblivion and embarking now on apartheid era-prosecutions of human rights abusers, where such trials would have shaken democracy to its core even five years ago, what we need to face is that we are not an infant democracy.

We have become a great democracy—but one served by an infant media, a media that has precious little impact on public opinion because the public is not so silly as to take this media seriously. Thus in Fit To Govern I quote the finding of an ANC Gauteng membership survey, published this year, which found that the majority of ANC members do not trust any media, especially print media and 80% would like the ANC to have its own newspaper. “Nothing better expresses the low standing of the Fourth Estate in the eyes of the Democratic Estate than the fact that a dreary party newspaper is so widely wanted.”

We have Women’s Day approaching and no women on this panel tonight. Is that perhaps because we have internalized a media culture that treats gender issues lightly.

Last year the “Insider” column of Business Day on 11 August marked Women’s Day with a mocking attack upon one of the few women editors in the country: “It is the glass ceiling that is traditionally blamed for keeping good women down, but Mail & Guardian editor and newly elected South African National Editors Forum chairwoman Ferial Haffajee said at a meeting of the International Women’s Media Foundation earlier this week that it was in fact a “concrete ceiling” that was preventing female hacks — other than herself, presumably — from reaching their lofty potential.”
For further amusement, the same edition of Business Day next mocked Wits Professor Sindiwe Magona in a manner that I will not dignify through repetition. The same edition of Business Day then joked: “It is not only women whose eruptions can sometimes be linked to the lunar cycle”, before discussing a volcano that was linked to the lunar cycle. Business Day is half-owned by Pearson, a British company that owns the Economist and the Financial Times. The Chief Executive of Pearson is herself a woman, Marjorie Scardino, and it is inconceivable that any of the London editors in the group would indulge in this kind of shameful schoolboy woman-bashing. In the very same issue of Business Day, commemorating woman’s day last year, Insider offered the following Groucho Marx witticism as a parting shot: “How do I feel about women’s rights ? I like either side of them.” Presumably all of us gathered here tonight are meant to find that very funny. But I am not so sure.

A few weeks earlier, in his Thick End of the Wedge column for 10 July, 2006 Bruce wrote an extended and unrepentant account of his admitted prejudices which, he admitted in yet more boyish fun, included a hatred of “women with hairy armpits”. Bruce concluded: “How can you be alive, or at least awake, without being prejudiced? That’s why I love it here in SA. I’m not trying to “deal” with my prejudices. I’m going to hold on to them. In SA, prejudice may be the one thing that makes us interesting.” Presumably Peter Bruce, editor of Business Day, believes that well agree with him about what fun prejudices are. But again, I am not so sure.



Those of us who seek a healthy democracy cannot be happy with an infantile press. It should give us no satisfaction that the media can be safely ignored. In the long term the low regard in which the media is held is itself a threat to democracy, because the government can safely ignore a media that so utterly lacks credibility.



i John Reed, “Online, but not in line with the populists”, Financial Times, 19 March, 2005.

ii RW Johnson, “The New Apartheid,” Spectator, 26 August, 2000.

iii See Articles 2 and 21(3) in particular.

iv WEB Du Bois, 14 October 1947, cited by Herb Aptheker, “WEB Du Bois and the Struggle Against Racism in the World” (1983), available at http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/solidarity/dubois-0783.html. Xolela Mangcu gives this as Du Bois’s characterization of “apartheid” whereas in fact Du Bois was speaking of pre-apartheid Smutsian colonial and mining house South Africa. See, Du Bois, quoted by Xolela Mangcu, The Meaning of Mandela, xxii.

v TM to RSR, 1 January, 2006.

vi Karima Brown and Vukani Mde, Business Day, 10 May, 2006.

vii Vukani Mde, Business Day, 22 February, 2006

viii Ferial Haffajee, “Press Freedom: Some More Equal than Others?” The Media Online, 24 March, 2007.

ix Harber, blog, 29 April, 2003.

x Harber blog, 8 May, 2006.





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