Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Famous Grouse: March 5

Yesterday's Weekend Argus column -- as submitted. -- AD

BACK in the dark days of apartheid, a young woman wrote a weekly column for an Afrikaans newspaper, a column that dwelt on everyday matters that may or may not have been important to people like herself.

On one particular occasion as she prepared to share her thoughts with the world, she found that something was bothering her. It was the light. Directly above her desk, deep in that monolith on the Foreshore, a neon tube buzzed and flickered. It was irritating -- but it also gave her inspiration.

“Except for blind people,” she wrote, “light is very important.”

Her readers were used to such insights. Once, and perhaps more memorably, she had boldly declared that she did not walk in her father’s shadow -- but rather his light.

The comment attracted a great deal of scorn, for the columnist was Rozanne Botha, daughter of PW Botha, the country’s president and a man who was then declaring to his government’s critics, “We have a laager with open doors,” and, more darkly, “I try to be a man of peace, but if people tempt me I can become a Thunderbird.” Clearly the aphorisms were something of a family trait.

Rozanne Botha’s columns were duly collected and published in a book. Shortly afterwards, I was fortunate enough to be a guest at a dinner party where the novelist Andre Brink tore into the collection with some gusto. It was hilarious -- but at the same time a bit unsettling. True, everything about the book was dreadful, and deserved a critical hammering, but watching someone of Brink’s stature doing so was rather like seeing the architect Frank Lloyd Wright kick over children’s sandcastles.

All of which was perhaps nothing compared to the pasting that Kuli Roberts has taken over the column she penned for Sunday World last weekend, and there are several aspects to this controversy which have troubled me.

Firstly, the contents of the column -- the crass and derogatory generalisations about coloured people. Here it has been suggested, by Roberts herself, among others, that this was a failed attempt at satire. One commentator, the Mail & Guardian’s Chris Roper, even claimed that “with a bit of editing it would have been funny”, but frankly, it probably needed something altogether more radical than that. Her editors should have simply spiked it.

But, alleged humour aside, Roberts’ comments about “naai masjiene”, the “closest thing” to being white women with their “long silky hair”, also suggest a racial and sexual self-loathing that is unnerving. She appears to be a deeply insecure person, perhaps in need of professional help. Maybe Ronald Suresh Roberts, the towering intellectual and our very own adopted Frantz Fanon, could have a few words with her.

Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of the controversy has been the hysteria with which the chattering classes have laid into Kuli Roberts.

Those who have clamoured for her head on a spike include presumably hardened journalists and politicians -- the most cynical people in the world. One newspaper editor even claimed that she nearly fainted when she read the column she was that disgusted. Oh dear, but not too weak to crank out the self-righteous moral outrage.

But you’d expect newspaper editors to know better. And, of course, they do. They’re aware, for example, that the real issue here is not the misguided air-headed ravings of a brattish socialite who cannot write and only got the job because she looks good on television and runs with a bunch of chaps who like to wear their baseball caps sideways, but the severe lack of skills and resources in our newsrooms. It’s the elephant in the room here.

Frankly, journalism is in a mess, and this sorry saga is just another indictment of the juniorisation of our newspapers.

What the press needs, of course, are writers of the stature of Trevor Manuel, the minister in the Presidency. Manuel’s piece on his government’s spokesman, Jimmy Manyi -- apparently a proper racist and not some dilettante like Roberts -- should be required reading wherever journalism is taught.

As a column, it was topical, pulled no punches in the withering scorn department, was appropriately witty, cynical and dismissive elsewhere and, more importantly, stressed that the “highest echelons of government” had been infiltrated by Manyi’s racism.

Typically, there were those who had problems with it. The ANC Youth League, for example. But so what? You could tell them bananas are yellow, and they’d argue they’re pink. Nothing new there.

However, some newspapers have accused Manuel and the Democratic Alliance, who are making much of Manyi’s utterances about Indians and coloureds, of political opportunism, particularly with regard to the forthcoming municipal elections.

Imagine that -- politicians behaving like politicians. Whatever next?

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