Vusi Zulu vs. South Coast Herald


Tue, Jul 4, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

4 July 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Vusi Zulu and those of Bevis Fairbrother of the South Coast Herald newspaper.

Zulu is complaining about a column in South Coast Herald of 23 June 2017, headlined John and Jabulani chew the gristle.

Complaint                                            

Zulu complains that the column was racist, offensive, demeaning, and perpetuated white supremacy, because black people were portrayed as:

·         beings “of lesser intelligence”, bolstering the belief held by many whites that black people are stupid;

·         messy and living with rubbish in shacks;

·         people who relieve themselves anywhere, anytime – even while swimming; and

·         paying for nothing, but expecting things for free.

The text

The column, called Butthead’s Beat and penned by Fairbrother, portrayed two fictional people – Jabulani and John – conversing about general living conditions in the area, seen from a black as well as a white perspective.

The arguments

Fairbrother says the text was satire, and took a swipe at the whining privileged class (and not those living in shacks).

He submits that:

·         many people (mostly whites) constantly moaned about mundane things like potholes, etc., while the vast majority of the population (mostly black) lived in squalor, many of them in shacks (which was factual);

·         many of the coast’s lagoons and rivers were polluted with human waste and that much of it reportedly originated from squatter areas and new RDP housing estates – the column said nothing about “black people relieving themselves anywhere anytime, but instead pointed to inadequate sanitation facilities at these settlements (again factual);

·         his column did not portray black people as less intelligent or stupid – on the contrary, “Jabulani” actually won the fictitious debate and puts “John in the “stupid” category;

·         any reasonable person would understand from the introduction to the column that it was a generalisation about “haves” and “have-nots”, “wealth vs. poverty” – the intention was to shame the wealthy (unfortunately, mostly white) into thinking before complaining constantly about minor issues while their fellow, poor South Africans (unfortunately, mostly black) were still suffering from high unemployment rates, poor living conditions, etc.;

·         the fictitious debate was, sadly, a reflection of the realities on the South Coast and, possibly, the rest of South Africa; it made wealthy whiners look stupid, selfish and uncaring; the intent is not to perpetuate white supremacy, but to shame people who think they are superior; and

·         just as a Zapiro cartoon, it was written to stimulate debate and make people think about the realities of the country.

The columnist adds that, if Zulu found the column “racist and offensive”, he apologises. “However, I suggest they read it again, taking my comments above into consideration. I am confident they will reach another conclusion, unless, of course, this has been instigated by Vusi Mthalane, editor of our opposition newspaper, the South Coast Fever.”

To put the latter statement into context: Fairbrother mentions that the name at the top of the original complaint e-mailed to this office was “Vusi Mthalane” (vusi011@yahoo.com). He notes that the editor of the opposition newspaper is also Vusi Mthalane, and asks whether the complaint was possibly instigated by the editor – in which case he would “really appreciate an opinion from the Ombudsman as well”.

Zulu replies that Fairbrother’s statement about the similarity in names serves to explain “the thinly veiled racism in the article”.

He reiterates his complaint and concludes, “that [the column] was in very bad taste and the insinuations made against the fictitious black person in it are deplorable. Using thinly veiled racism in an article to entertain the paper's readers then comparing to a Zapiro cartoon is unfortunate because it is not the same.”

Analysis

I have read the column before perusing either Zulu’s complaint or Fairbrother’s defense. My initial impression is also my second (and lasting one): The shame is on people who take things for granted, who live in relative luxury while not even contemplating what life must be for people living in shacks or, even worse, who are callous about it. That is what the text honed on – and on the hopelessness of the poor.

Here are some examples from the column which, I believe, substantiate my argument:

John: “I’m so fed-up with potholes on the South Coast. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to replace my tyres!”

Jabulani: “Hawu! You have roads … and you’ve got a car?”

John: “Ja, but you’ve got taxis.”

Jabulani: ‘Hawu! I’d rather have a car, potholes and a tyre problem.”

and

John: “Why can’t Ugu District Municipality get its act together? My taps have been dry for days!”

Jabulani: “Hawu! You’ve got water … and taps?”

and

John: “What about the mess on the beaches? Why can’t people party where they live?”

Jabulani: “Hawu! Have you seen where we live, bru?”

There are more similar examples.

Even where it comes to human waste in rivers (which seems to be factual), John’s question was why the municipality did not provide proper sanitation facilities – to which Jabulani responded that all the money was spent on fixing potholes. 

A column is comment (indeed materially the same as cartoons), and the writer enjoys huge freedom. That is why Section 7.1 and 7.2 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct, headlined Protected Comment, state as follows: “The media shall be entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of public interest. Comment or criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it expresses an honestly-held opinion, is without malice, is on a matter of public interest, has taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true, and is presented in such manner that it appears clearly to be comment.”

This is in line with the following statement by Judge Edwin Cameron in the judgment of the Constitutional Court in The Citizen 1978 (Pty) Ltd and Others v McBride: “Criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it expresses an honestly held opinion, without malice, on a matter of public interest on facts that are true.” (April 2011)

Given both of the above quotations, as well as my belief that the text was not demeaning towards black people (if anything, rather towards whites), I cannot uphold this complaint.

I need to add that, even if the text was in bad taste (a statement with which I do not agree), that in itself would not per definition mean that it was in breach of the Code.

Lastly, I am not going to speculate on who Mr Vusi Mthalane is, or why his name was on the e-mail. If it becomes an issue between the newspapers, I am willing to play a conciliatory role between them.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud