City Press says it stands by its decision to publish a controversial column described by some as "dripping with anti-Indian hatred".
The column, written by Phumlani Mfeka, expressing anti-Indian sentiment, sparked outrage on social networks this week. News that the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) had been approached to investigate the author and publisher of the column, spurred criticism into overdrive on Thursday.
The column was directed at the mayor of Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, Afzul Rehman, who reportedly laid a complaint against a traffic officer, who mistook him for a member of the Gupta family.
Mfeka wrote: "I penned this letter to you in the interests of educating, liberating and giving you a free, but stern, warning not to grandstand against an African person in the way you did to the traffic official who innocently mistook you for one of the Gupta brothers.
"Such an action is certain to attract severe African contempt. First and foremost, you are an Indian and, contrary to what you believe and what you perhaps have been taught, South Africa is an African country with its land in its totality and proportion rightfully belonging to its indigenous African people."
In the weeks leading up to the column, Mfeka tweeted that land must be returned to Africans, and that Indians must lose their BEE status.
On May 19, he tweeted that African people have expressed their desire for "self-determination" without "alien interference".
City Press told the Mail & Guardian it was after these tweets that the paper realised that a debate on racism towards Indians was "already happening". This prompted the decision to publish the column.
Complaints to SAHRC about Mfeka
The SAHRC on Thursday confirmed that it had received four separate complaints about the column.
The commission's spokesperson, Isaac Mangena, said he could not disclose who the complainants were, but that they had asked the SAHRC to investigate allegations of hate speech.
"The complainants believe that City Press newspaper, its editor, and the author of the story violated the right to equality. A press statement by a non-governmental organisation in KwaZulu-Natal expressing sentiments of a similar nature, has also been complained about. The article and press release by the NGO are alleged to perpetuate racism against people of Indian origin.
"The SAHRC is considering the complaints and notes an increase in complaints which relate to inequality, intolerance and racism," Mangena said.
"Racism and related intolerance is of particular concern in South Africa and there is particular need for us to be guided in this regard, by respect for the rule of law and our Constitution."
City Press editor 'dropped the ball'
Political analyst Eusebius McKaiser, on his Facebook page, said the piece was "dripping with anti-Indian hatred". He added that, "both the author, and Ferial, as editor, dropped the ball".
"My view is that this piece drips with anti-Indian hatred. It spews generalisations that are prejudicial, fails to advance any interesting or serious view on a delicate racist incident where someone was called a 'Gupta' just because he is Indian, and uncritically parades the naked anti-Indian prejudice of the writer by labelling the piece 'debate'.
"Further, the editor has a more serious burden than simply labelling material 'debate'. If I advocate hatred, nakedly, and do not advance a debate, am I worthy of appearing in one of the top newspapers in the country?
"Even in a liberal democracy like ours there are moral limits to speech. Unjustified hate-filled bile against Indians are as pointless as anti-black African racism," McKaiser said.
Richard Pithouse, a politics lecturer at Rhodes University, told the M&G that "credible" newspapers don't give a platform to "ravings" like Mfeka's.
'Lunatic ethnic chauvinism?'
"People have every right to be angry about the perverse sentiment expressed in the column. But they also have a right to be angry at City Press. Credible newspapers simply don't give a platform to those ravings.
"What I don't think is helpful is that whenever there is an attempt to talk about underlying racism, you get intellectuals rushing in to shut down the debate and not acknowledging that the racism exists. But that's a different thing.
"Nothing can be gained from giving a platform to that kind of lunatic ethnic chauvinism. Certainly, the debate would benefit from a reasoned discussion and credible people engaging in a serious way.
"I'm not saying the issue should be swept under the carpet – there are issues to discuss. But this is not that. It's dishonest, it's perverse and it's outrageous that it was published," Pithouse said.
Frans Cronje, deputy chief executive of the South African Institute for Race Relations, felt City Press was justified in publishing the column. Cronje tweeted:
@ferialhaffajee Its a major emerging trend that Indians become the "new whites". Correct to publish. Worse to pretend this view is not held.
— Frans Cronje (@FCronje_SAIRR)
Haffajee could not be reached telephonically on Thursday morning.
Why City Press published it
But in response to another tweet from @AmandlaMedia, who asked why City Press published the "anti-Indian" column, Haffajee said: "I did it to expose a surprisingly common and popular trend in neo-racism."
Dumisani Lubisi, executive editor at City Press, told the M&G that the decision to publish the column was not taken lightly and that the mayor of Newcastle was offered the right to write a responding column. He turned down the offer, and told City Press the ANC would engage Mfeka separately.
Lubisi said the newspaper did not source the piece; Mfeka volunteered that it be published in the City Press on May 13.
The published version was edited by City Press. Lubisi said further editing would have stripped the piece of Mfeka's views entirely and would have amounted to watering down the piece.
When the Newcastle mayor declined the right to reply, City Press then asked commentator Kay Sexwale to write a responding column which was published with equal prominence, Lubisi said.
Despite City Press saying that it published the column because "the debate was already happening" on Twitter, Lubisi agreed that Twitter was not necessarily a fair barometer for whether a debate on racism towards Indians was happening on the ground.
?However, he said: "If it's happening on Twitter, there's a possibility that it's happening elsewhere."
'Where to draw that line'
"For us it's about stimulating debate. We are hoping that this debate has helped us to look at ourselves as a nation and move forward as a country."
Asked whether or not the debate had taken the country forward or if Mfeka's piece was incitement, Lubisi said that this was a tough distinction to make.
"It's a debate that we have constantly, about where to draw that line. The decision to publish was not taken by an individual. We sat down and discussed it at length. We asked ourselves what would come out of the debate.
"We then took precautionary steps by going to the person, Mfeka wrote about [the mayor]. And when he did not want to respond, we tried to balance Mfeka's views with another columnist. And I don't believe we were one-sided," he said.
Ultimately, Lubisi said, the piece was published in the public interest and a debate has indeed ensued.
City Press said it will ask the complainants who wrote to the Human Rights Commission to write a column for the paper on his decision to do so.
Written by: Sarah Evans
Picture credit: Mail & Guardian
- This article was published on Mail & Guardian.