Ed Herbst: Jonathan Jansen on how Fallist media reporting warped real events

It doesn’t take the respected Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State, Professor Jonathan Jansen to convince a swathe of disaffected older journalists that professional ethics as displayed by today’s version of Independent Newspapers no longer exist. But it helps. Here one of their number, Ed Herbst, examines what Jansen says in his new book, As By Fire, about Iqbal Surve’s Independent Media. Its journalists pursued Jansen and his counterparts in an open vendetta. By highlighting what wasn’t reported or angled in on; the cynical violence, looting, arson and damage to buildings, vehicle and property amounting to millions of rand, Jansen exposes just how one-sided and pro-Fallist the reporting was. The lewd, crude, and highly personal side of the campaign was ignored. You may have seen on social media clips how, for example, UCT’s Vice Chancellor Max Price was taunted, sworn at, interrupted, shouted down and manhandled by loutish youths. Lies and distortions mixed freely with what was accurate and true. And Independent backed the Fallists. When Surve’ read Jansen’s book, he accused him of lacking integrity. It’s hard to think of two more varying world views. Herbst has his own take on why that is. – Chris Bateman

Professor Jonathan Jansen sits in the library at Stanford’s Institute for Advanced Study. (Image: Barry Wood)

By Ed Herbst*

‘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 6/5/2016

‘What appears to be a highly personalised pursuit of a university vice-chancellor by the owner of a newspaper and his editors and reporters is unusual even by the erratic standards of political reporting in South Africa.’

Jonathan Jansen As by Fire – The end of the South African University (Tafelberg 2017)

We are, as a country and a nation, indebted to Jonathan Jansen for his new book, which, with typical academic rigour and research looks at the causes, the costs and the consequences of the attack by the RMF protestors on our universities.

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

Within days of its publication its dramatic impact became obvious when Dr Iqbal Survé accused Jansen of lacking integrity and The Times newspaper responded with an editorial.

Is Survé’s claim about Jansen lacking integrity not ironic coming from a man who,  by his own admission and on the record,  seems to have acknowledged that he was a conduit who enabled Brett Kebble to use his stolen money to buy political influence, sought to partner with the Guptas,  made a range of claims that subsequently proved to be devoid of truth and promised to use his ‘billions’ to destroy the reputation and future employment prospects of a distinguished editor ?

That aside, Jansen’s book provides a sobering assessment of the media’s role in the Fallist protests.  The protests, fuelled by ethnic hatred,  saw a man die, another beaten to a bloody pulp and a third critically injured at UCT when a rock was dropped on his head from an upper floor of a building, an attempt to burn security guards to death, university staff and reporters assaulted, countrywide arson which saw the Sanlam Auditorium  and libraries set alight, computer laboratories flooded, pervasive looting,  destruction of private property, the memories of those who died in battle desecrated and the studies of tens of thousands of students disrupted. This has resulted in significant reputational damage to the country and harmed our ability to attract the brightest and best of foreign students.

Jansen sets out the media role on pages 208 – 209 of his book and I have transcribed that section in Chapter 9: University Leaders and the Anti-social media:

The dark and dangerous side of the student protests

What received only fleeting attention in the media was the angry and violent turn the student protests took near the end of 2015 and in the course of the 2016 academic year. This is not to say that 2015 was completely non-violent and that protests ‘suddenly’ became violent. What was different was the sheer ubiquity of violence, its deadly intensity, and the accumulating costs — amounting to millions of rands — in damage to university property.

Petrol bombs were found in offices and residences on campuses.

Buildings and vehicles were torched. A vice-chancellor’s office was petrol-bombed. A staff member was held hostage. A worker died. The social media were loaded with racist and violent postings against other students, staff, university leaders, opposition parties, and, of course, the government. Firm statements were made against those who dared to continue classes, with threats of disruption, violence, and worse. It was lewd, crude, and personal. Lies and distortions mixed freely with what was accurate and true. An activist declared himself to be taken hostage only to be exposed as a liar. What went unreported was the protestors constant provocation of campus security and their unfounded allegations of being threatened with sexual assault by armed guards; this catastrophising the crisis at its best.

Of course the media reported on the violence, but without a hint of condemnation. Journalists were attracted to the spectacular events, and images of smoking tyres and burning buildings appeared online and in print in daily media reports. In much of the journalistic narration, the violence depicted how angry the students were, not how deadly the protests had become. The death of a university worker as a consequence student protests received passing coverage compared with images of topless women protestors or tear-gassed students. Even the torching of a building in which three security guards were trapped (on CPUT’s Bellville campus) was given relatively short shrift:

        ‘Three security guards, feeling threatened by protesting students
         who had surrounded the building, were trapped in the burning
         office and left for dead in the early hours . . . A supervisor came to
         their rescue, pulling them free. One of the guards had lacerations
         on his head after being struck by a stone. All three were treated for
         smoke inhalation.’

There was another narrative that the students sold to the media and the public: the protests were peaceful until campus security was expanded.

This, of course, was an open-faced lie. Protestors had been dragging students from classes, attacking and insulting non-protestors, threatening lecturers in their classrooms, launching water bottles at vice-chancellors, and burning buildings. It was only then, and under duress, that university leaders called for reinforcements to protect life and property on their campuses. But in the student account, happily parroted by the media, it was security that instigated the violence. To vice-chancellors on site, it was a media battle they were losing no matter what was said, and what took the media control out of their hands was the new platform called social media.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.