By Ed Herbst*
“RMF ended with self-immolation. A whimper. The Cape Times has lost its cause celebre and will have to return to the parameters of acceptable human behaviour — perhaps even explain to its Chinese shareholders why it is so fond of grammatical errors. RMF didn’t fail just because it was the most confusing, divisive and xenophobic campaign to have featured since 1994, but because it was executed by vile personalities.” Simon Lincoln Reader, Business Day 7/5/2016.
The tipping point came in 9 – 11 November last year when Rhodes Must Fall ratcheted up the attacks on Dr Max Price and the campus vandalism across the country increased exponentially after that.
No longer content to verbally abuse Price or to restrict themselves to damaging property, RMF switched to assault, then moved on to arson.
On 9 November they triggered a fire extinguisher in the face of Price and pelted him with food and with full bottles of water. As is now a matter or record this new approach was escalated to burning vehicles, “whiteness” and then buildings causing damage estimated at more than R300 million at 13 universities. This disrupted the exam preparations of tens of thousands of students throughout the country.
The first two points (with my emphases) of the South African Press Council’s Code of Conduct for newspapers read:
1.1. The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.
1.2. News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarisation.
I monitored the news coverage in the Cape Times of the attacks on Price in November last year with specific reference to whether the newspaper would, as required by the Press Council’s Code of Conduct, report on this new phase in RMF’s campaign in a fair and balanced manner without resort to ‘material omissions’. Would it, I wondered, through censorship by omission, withhold from its readers the truth of what was happening on the UCT campus given the statements by Dr Iqbal Survé, owner of the newspaper at an earlier meeting on the campus?
At a meeting of the UCT Association of Black Alumni (UCTABA) hosted in the Kramer Building at the university on 7 April last year, Survé made the following statements as reflected on a YouTube clip:
- At 50 minutes and 11 seconds he says that UCT “… does not respect me as a black man.”
- At 52:37 he says: “Frankly speaking it is a racist institution.”
- At 56:40 he says: “If you want real change, I suggest you change the leadership of this institution, change it in its entirety.”
Thereafter the Cape Times fully endorsed, supported and promoted the RMF cause. Questions are being asked about who is funding the extremely expensive High Court campaign against UCT by RMF leader Chumani Maxwele, a student who has no known income.
Here is what I found about how the newspaper reported on a critical new phase of the RMF campaign in mid-November last year.
Cape Times editor Aneez Salie and reporter Carlo Petersen are both on the email list of the media department at UCT. Shortly before noon on 9 November last year they received an emailed press release from the University of Cape Town senate. It was headlined “Behaviour of protesters outrageous – UCT Senate”.
The condemnatory statement, signed by more than 100 senate members revealed that the university’s vice chancellor, Dr Max Price, had been assaulted and verbally abused by a group of protesters who had invaded an emergency meeting of the senate a few hours earlier. The email would have been read by Salie and Petersen about 10 hours before the newspaper’s deadline – ample time in which to do a follow up article, interview Price and publish screen grabs from the available cellphone footage of the assault.
A second press release on the same matter, this time from the University’s media department, was sent to Salie and Petersen shortly afterwards. This is how it ended: “It is worrying that these protesters seem to have no interest in discussion or any form of debate or negotiation. They do not allow for any conversation, but seem to be simply interested in disruption. This is deeply regrettable.”
Later that same day GroundUp posted online a statement from UCT’s Dean of Humanities, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, which provided more details: “Some of them surrounded the Vice Chancellor and started screaming at him. Water, water bottles and other objects were thrown at Senate members and members of the Executives. The leaders of the group verbally abused the Vice Chancellor and some in the group threw water and full water bottles directly at Dr Price. They followed him outside and continued with the threats and verbal abuse.”
So what did the Cape Times publish the next day, Tuesday 10 November, about the assault on Price?
Not a word…
Not a photograph…
Above all there was no interview with Dr Max Price, the victim of the assault, the victim of an appalling Cape Times campaign of calumny by Carlo Petersen which included deliberately accusing of him of male fides based on a deliberate falsehood for which there has been no apology.
The media department at UCT has, upon inquiry, informed me that Carlo Petersen has never requested a one-on-one, face-to-face interview with the man who he has assiduously sought to demonise for close on a year since Dr Iqbal Survé, his employer, effectively called for a purge of senior UCT white staff at the above-mentioned meeting on the campus on 7 April last year.
But the pressure on the Cape Times to disclose to its readers the truth was building.
Later on 10 November a YouTube clip was posted – cellphone footage showing how Price was verbally abused after an invasion of the UCT senate building and then assaulted.
That day, 10 November, another media release, the third on the subject, was issued by UCT’s media department. It quoted Gerda Kruger, Executive Director of the Communication and Marketing Department, and Salie and Petersen are on UCT’s mailing list. What was particularly disturbing was this sentence from Kruger: “In the run-up to the meeting we saw protesters setting tires alight. Some buses had their tires slashed, and fire extinguishers were stolen, and, in one case, set off in the face of the Vice-Chancellor.” (My emphasis.)
On the same day, shortly before noon the Daily Maverick’s writer and production editor, Marelise van der Merwe, posted an article on the website: Its opening paragraph read: “The fallout from the disruption of the University of Cape Town’s Senate meeting on 9 November, continued in dramatic fashion on Tuesday, as condemnation poured in from one quarter after the other, for what essentially amounted to assault on the Vice-Chancellor, Max Price.”
Similar condemnation featured prominently on local and national radio stations and so, finally, belatedly, editor Salie blinked – the Cape Times could remain silent no longer about the assault on Max Price, could no longer deliberately withhold this truth from its readers.
The following day, Wednesday 11 November, the Cape Times published a small article by Petersen not much bigger than your hand, in the middle of the page in the middle of the newspaper.
What does the rest of the world make of this?
After Ntokozo Qwabe, the leader of the #Rhodes must fall movement at Oxford University bragged on social media recently about how he had racially baited and humiliated Ashleigh Schultz, a white woman who works as a waitress to support her mother who is suffering from terminal cancer, donations to her poured in from all over the world and by 2 May had reached R100 000.
On 2 May Die Burger, the Afrikaans morning newspaper in Cape Town, made this story its front page lead.
On 2 May the Cape Times, the English morning newspaper in Cape Town, carried a brief article by Carlo Petersen at the bottom of page 3. Much of the article was devoted to social media comments in support of Qwabe and what he had done.
In January last year the senior news executives at Sekunjalo, Karima Brown and Vukani Mde, attended an ANC rally clad in ANC regalia.
On May 5 this year they took the logical next step and, for the first time in its 146 year history, the Cape Times was entirely cloaked in the colours of a political party – a wraparound promoting the ANC Women’s League.
Over the next few days the Labour Court in Cape Town will hear evidence being led about how Sekunjalo treats it staff.
Portents of the coming denouement have been obvious from the start.
- Ed Herbst is a pensioner and former reporter who writes in his own capacity