The day South African news media ate crow

How South Africa's media report on the doings within the official parliamentary opposition, the Democratic Alliance.

Mamphele Ramphele and Helen Zille at a press conference.

South Africa’s official opposition the Democratic Alliance (DA) wasn’t the only one left exposed and scrambling to save face when Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele decided to withdraw from a proposed deal that would have seen her pack up her new, barely-opened-yet-already-flagging political enterprise to throw in her lot with and become the ‘presidential candidate’ of the larger party.  Many South African journalists and publications, too, were left eating crow, because some had followed Ramphele into the DA while others, who were already in the DA’s camp, welcomed her with open arms, in the same way party members did.

On Sunday night, hardly a week after the hastily put-together deal was announced amid much fanfare as “news of national importance” and a “game changer” and sealed with a kiss, the whole thing was called off. That same night, DA leader Helen Zille mounted a scurrilous attack on Ramphele, her supposed personal friend who she’s known since the 1980s. In Zille’s mind, Ramphele went within the span of five days from being “a principled, fiercely determined person” to someone who “has demonstrated – once and for all – that she cannot be trusted to see any project through to its conclusion.” The attacks on Ramphele became more feverish as senior party leaders and party members took to social media to take back the previous week’s declarations of love for their now former ‘presidential candidate’. This while Zille on Monday did the radio and TV talk show circuit, where she repeated the previous day’s venomous remarks.

To be clear, for the DA, the deal by Zille’s own admission was primarily about having a black face with ‘Struggle credentials’ lead the party, which, beneath the surface, would remain unchanged. She admitted in an interview on Monday night that she believes–rather patronisingly and based on the results of a questionable social media survey–that black voters think her party will bring back apartheid, which is why she’s worked frenetically to have Ramphele as her party’s black face. In the business world in South Africa, such a deal might have been called BEE fronting, a practice that last week became a criminal offence carrying a possible 10-year prison sentence.

So, yes, Zille’s attacks were about saving her own skin after she rode roughshod over the due process her party claims to value so much just to give the party a black face. But what excuse do South African news publications and journalists have for parroting party positions?

Ignoring that the ANC and its partners had already begun their campaign to call the deal “window dressing” and that the DA itself was making their choice of Ramphele about race, Stephen Grootes, Talk Radio 702 host and Daily Maverick columnist, wrote an analysis last week in which he said the deal would make race less important in politics. There were other clues, too, that it would do no such thing. For example, the DA’s parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko is black, which has done nothing to diminish the importance of race or the prevalence of racial rhetoric in this country’s politics. Why would Grootes ignore these details in favor of saying just about verbatim what Zille had said the previous day?

And after the deal was called off, Grootes, like Zille, went after Ramphele, writing a rather scornful column where he decried Ramphele’s ego and the “sort of crap” that comes with it.

In a soaring editorial on the day after the initial announcement, Business Day declared that the opposition had a brave new face.

“It is truly amazing,” the editorial crowed, “that a political landscape that seemed so moribund a matter of months ago, trapped in the structures, mind-sets and prejudices of the past despite the democratic revolution that turned South Africa on its head in 1994, is now so full of potential and open to constructive change.”

Presumably, now that the deal is off, the political landscape is once again moribund, and with it the quality of political commentary.

Now a shadow of the thoughtful, progressive publication it once was, the Mail & Guardian last week repeated the simplistic idea that a black leader of Ramphele’s stature would sure up Zille’s efforts to make the DA more acceptable to black voters. Never mind that the party’s actual policies, in a country where black people are represented in the highest proportions among the poor and in the lower quintiles of income and wealth, attempt to be pro-poor and pro-equality by being pro-business. No, the easiest thing to assume is that black voters, for whatever reason, do not know that such a position is inherently contradictory unlikely to resolve itself in their favour. Instead, this simplistic story says black people want to vote for someone who looks like them.

And, fighting back the ANC’s claims that Zille bringing Ramphele into the DA was a case of “rent-a-black”, the Mail & Guardian’s politics editor Rapule Tabane said the deal was not entirely a charade and that it lays the groundwork for a time when the “race card”–whatever that is–cannot be deployed against the DA.

As for the international publications, some either reported on the deal from afar while others repeated many of the same tired ideas from the same tired analysts about race, this country’s politics and what it will take to make it less of a factor at the polls. The Guardian’s David Smith reported from Johannesburg, and to his credit solicited sufficiently skeptical comments from Nomboniso Gasa, radio host Eusebius McKaizer (“If they were confident, why would they need to court the leader of another party?”) and a few others. Meanwhile, the FT’s Andrew England also reported from Johannesburg, but got William Gumede to go on about how this could be the start of something good. But probably the worst offender was the New York Times. Yes, you, New York Times, currently reporting on South Africa from London and New York and repeating DA talking points. (The outgoing correspondent Lydia Polgreen explained on Twitter that the new correspondent hasn’t arrived yet.)

Much of this was before the deal was called off–so one only wonders what position the papers and analysts will take now. Whatever it is, I, for one, hope they will make attempts at some deeper analysis on race and politics, or face another blue Monday, where there’s nothing to eat but your own overblown words.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.