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Ryland Fisher

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

We remain obsessed with racism

I have to admit that I did not read the report on which the Cape Times based its “Cape Town is a racist city — study” banner headline last Thursday (October 22 2009). I did try to get a copy of the report, commissioned by the Employment Equity Programme and conducted by Sabie Surtee and Martin Hall, but was not successful.

What is clear to me, however, is that the headline and the story do not quite match up. Obviously, headlines have certain constraints and one is not able to be as subtle or as nuanced in a headline as in a story.

So what are the salient points of the story?

  • Cape Town is seen as hostile to black people, while white people still benefit from being appointed to top posts in the city.
  • African people are under-represented in management positions “in comparison to their overall contribution to the South African workforce”.
  • The mainly African people interviewed for this survey thought that coloured people were their competitors for positions and that there was “marked antagonism towards coloured people” among the people interviewed.

According to the Cape Times report, in the five retail companies surveyed, 65 percent of top and senior management appointments or promotions went to whites in 2008, but only 10 percent went to black people. At junior management level, the paper reported, 27 percent of the opportunities went to whites and 36 percent to blacks.

I did not read anywhere in the story that the authors of the report called Cape Town racist, but I suppose that is what the sub-editor who wrote the headline read.

After reading this article, I am again convinced that we remain a country pre-occupied with race. It seems that every time we cannot find a reason for anything, we blame it on race.

It is clear that the problems in the Western Cape have its roots in apartheid, when the province was declared a coloured labour preference area and Africans had to have permits to work and live there.

Thankfully, we no longer have a situation like that and we can all live and work wherever we want to in South Africa. However, I found myself thinking after reading this report: why is it such a crime for the Western Cape demographic to be different to the national demographic? And why must businesses be compelled to meet the national demographic targets in the Western Cape?

Surely, it makes sense to have different targets for the Western Cape? This pre-occupation with reaching national demographic targets is probably part of the reason why coloureds in the Western Cape, who make up the majority of the population, feel that they have no future in South Africa and continuously appear to be turning their backs on the ruling ANC in support of opposition parties.

I also realise why the researchers did this particular report but surely, if you speak mainly to African people, you are going to get a particular perspective only. Why did they not speak to quite a few coloured and white people also? By excluding them from the research, it seems to send the message that they are part of the problem and could not necessarily contribute to the solution.

Newspapers, and the journalists who work there, have an important duty to realise the seriousness of their influence on society. By using inflammatory headlines like “Cape Town is a racist city”, they are effectively saying that people of Cape Town are racist and that does not serve anyone’s purpose, except maybe selling more newspapers, but even that is debatable.

A headline like that probably only has the effect of making sure that people who feel uncomfortable with reading or discussing the issue of race, will not buy the paper.

I am a strong proponent of a continuous discussion on the effects of race and racism on our society today, but it depends on how we conduct that conversation. It definitely does not help to accuse an entire city of being racist. That is the quickest way to end the conversation.

This article originally appeared on ThoughtLeader

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A life ended too soon: in memoriam Garth Stead

When I was editor of the Cape Times and decided in 1998 to launch a project called “One City, Many Cultures”, I knew that I needed the best people to work on it.

It was going to be an editorial project for which I was going to hire some of the best writers and photographers in the country. I therefore needed the best possible coordinators. I found them in Jennifer Crocker, who was then an assistant editor at the Cape Times (who would coordinate the writers) and Garth Stead, who would coordinate the photographers.

My choice of Garth as the photographic coordinator raised some eyebrows because he was still, at about 26 or 27, considered to be very young to take responsibility for such a huge project.

But Garth turned out to be an inspired choice and the photography in “One City, Many Cultures” was among the best I have seen published in any South African newspaper, even up until today.

“One City, Many Cultures” was aimed at creating a more tolerant, more diverse and integrated city of Cape Town, at a time when intolerance was rife in the city. Every day, we delved into the different religions and cultures that existed in the city, explaining how they related to the important things in life, such as birth, growing up, coming of age, weddings, growing old and death and remembrance.

Garth did the job with professionalism but also great enthusiasm. But he also brought another dimension to this job. He included a developmental angle, which was his passion. He got established professional photographers to work with up-and-coming young photographers and initiated an award for both professionals and younger photographers.

One of the young photographers was a security guard at Newspaper House, the building which housed the Cape Times, who later became a reporter/photographer at the Cape Argus.

Garth left the Cape Times at about the same time as me but not for the same reasons and over the years, we kept in touch. I was very pleased when, after he had freelanced for a few years, he landed the job as pictures editor at Die Burger. At the time of his death, he was Cape Town picture editor of Foto24.

Over the years, he won several awards, including the prestigious Fuji Press Award, and remained committed to developing young photographers, especially from historically disadvantaged areas.

I saw him for the last time last week when we both attended a function of the Cape Town Community Housing Company, on whose board I serve. I was the programme director at the function and Garth was taking pictures for Die Burger.

I remember thinking that he was very reserved and not his bubbly self. Whenever I had seen him in the past, he was always bouncy and full of life. This time, he seemed down and not himself.

A week later, on Monday 19 October, ironically as we celebrated Media Freedom Day in South Africa, I got the news that Garth had passed away. Indications are that he took his own life.

I, like many others, was completely shattered. I could not believe how this young man, aged 37, the father of two young boys, aged 10 and five, could have decided to end his life.

I refuse to speculate on why he did what he did but I know that it was not an easy decision. I know that he loved his boys more than anything else in the world and would not have wanted them to grow up without a father.

All I know is that Garth’s life was one that ended too soon. Rest in peace, my friend.

This article originally appeared in ThoughtLeader

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Driven by race

I was fortunate last week to attend the Fourth World Summit on Arts and Culture at Museum Africa in Newtown last week.

The theme of the summit was “Meeting of Cultures: Creating Meaning Through the Arts”. For three days, we talked about intercultural dialogue and cultural diversity and everyone was agreed, roughly, on the need for both.

However, this message did not seem to reach everyone and two incidents made me realise just how ingrained racism is in our society.

The first incident happened after the second day of the summit when African delegates (as in delegates from African countries) met to discuss the formation of an African chapter of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies (IFACCA), which hosted the summit.

There was huge support from the international agency and other African countries for a South African who had been instrumental in putting the summit together to be appointed as the interim coordinator of this chapter, but, of course, there were objections from some South African delegates: because this person was not considered black by them.

This person happens to be classified as “coloured” in South African racial terms and I have always thought that such people were considered black in terms of our Constitution.

Not that that should have mattered. The only thing that should have mattered was whether this person was capable of doing the job.

The second incident was maybe not as significant but it was certainly more crass.

On the second evening of the summit, we were driven to Maropeng, close to the Sterkfontein caves, for a dinner and an introduction to what South Africans like to believe is the “cradle of humankind”.

After an hour’s drive, we arrived at Maropeng and, once we got inside, we realised that our driver did not quite know where he was supposed to take us. In fact, he dropped us off at a completely wrong venue.

Once we got back on the bus, one of the employees of the National Arts Council (NAC) of South Africa, who were co-sponsoring the event, asked the driver whether he had GPS in the bus, because that would indicate to us where we had to go.

The driver responded curtly that he had been to Maropeng more than a hundred times. When the NAC employee tried to suggest that he should check his GPS, he responded even more abruptly. The NAC employee then said: “I need to take your name because you are being very rude” to which the driver responded loudly: “No, you are being damned fucking rude.”

Those of us in the bus, including people from all over the world, were completely shocked at the response of the bus driver.

As we got off the bus, I heard the driver telling a security guard: “He thinks we can go back to the days when they used to call us kaffirs.”

The driver, as you might have guessed, was what we in South Africa call African or black or African black (I can’t keep up anymore). The NAC employee was a fair-skinned “coloured”.

The driver was young and probably never experienced apartheid, while the NAC employee was much older and lived through apartheid. In fact, I spoke to him later and he recalled how his family had suffered under the Group Areas Act and other apartheid legislation.

I thought that, just because he is black or African or African black, the driver thought that gave him the right to accuse a “coloured” man, who knows more about apartheid than him, of racism.

At the summit, I had shared a panel with author and journalist Max du Preez and poet Lebo Mashile. I was much more positive than both of them about the situation in South Africa today. After these two incidents, I found myself thinking that maybe I was wrong to be so positive. Maybe we are so deep in the racial morass that we can’t get out of it again. I hope I am wrong and can still remain positive.

This post first appeared on ThoughtLeader

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Death of a Legend: Studs Terkel

Sometimes one gets influenced by a writer even though he comes from a completely different background, indeed even a different country.

Studs Terkel was one of the writers who influenced me, because of his ability to tell the stories of ordinary people. Terkel died last Friday at the age of 96. He had become legendary for his interviews with ordinary people throughout the United States on all kinds of issues, including race, which was of course where I drew my inspiration from for my book, Race.

Dr Robert Coles, a Harvard professor of psychiatry who was also a friend of Terkel, was quoted in the LA Times as saying that Terkel was “the most extraordinary social observer this country has produced”.

His modus operandi was to walk around with a tape-recorder on which he recorded hundreds, if not thousands of interviews, many of them with ordinary people.

Terkel’s books were often quite long but they were always interesting, giving an insight into the American psyche.

I learnt a lot from his writing and it inspired me in doing the research and interviews for my book. Like Terkel, I set out with a tape-recorder and while I only did 15 major interviews for my book, I had the opportunity to do what Terkel probably did best, and that was to speak to people and get them to open up on an issue that still makes many people feel uncomfortable.

One of the people I interviewed said to me after reading my book that he could not believe that he had told me all the things I quoted him as saying. I am sure that that was often the feeling of Terkel’s subjects.

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Black People can be Among the Most Racist; White People can be Among the Most Racist

I was not surprised when ANC leaders, angered by cartoonist Zapiro, resorted to calling him a racist. After all, there is a tradition in South Africa where black people, unable to come up with a strong enough argument against a white protagonist, almost out of desperation calls the white person a racist.

This, of course, implies an unwritten assumption that black people are not capable of being racist and that all criticism of black people by white people is based on racism.

Well, I think it is time to debunk that myth. Black people can be as racist, or even more racist, than some of the worst white racists.

I see it every day on the Cape Flats where racism between so-called coloureds and Africans are considered the norm. It is not uncommon for coloureds to call Africans derogatory names and it is not unusual for Africans to call coloureds derogatory names.

And it is not uncommon for coloureds and Africans to speak disparagingly about whites or Indians.

I sincerely believe that black people use the race card when they are unable to come up with convincing arguments against white people. This is not to say that sometimes the criticism by white people of black people is not based on racism, but this is not always the case.

I believe that, by calling somebody a racist, it probably says more about you than about the other person.

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At the heart of intolerance lies ignorance

The Board of the Cape Town Festival notes with concern the recent spate of xenophobic attacks on nationals of other African countries.

These attacks have again shown to us the importace of the work done by the Cape town Festival and the One City, Many Cultures project, which aim to bring the people of Cape Town together, despite their differences.

Now more than ever, we believe, there is a need for projects that strive to create a more tolerant, more integrated and more united city of Cape Town.

We believe that, while there are many factors behind the xenophobic attacks, at the heart of the intolerance lies ignorance. We hope that we iwll see, in our lifetime, a city where everyone will feel welcome, irrespective of nationality, race, culture or religion. Our hearts go out to teh victims of the latest violence.

Ryland Fisher
Cape Town Festival Board

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Inaugural One City, Many Cultures Lecture Series

Cape Town Festival Lecture Series Invite


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A tribute to the ‘Judge’

There are many people who are probably more qualified than me to speak about Ronnie Morris, who died in his sleep early on Saturday evening.

However, I have my memories of him that I feel I want to share.

Ronnie was a legend in the newspaper industry and was hugely respected by just about every body in the legal fraternity for his work as a high court reporter over many years for the Cape Times.

He was, in my opinion, easily the best high court reporter in the country. I remember walking with him through the high court (or supreme court, as it was then called) in Cape Town and how he greeted everyone, from judges to cleaners and court orderlies.

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Is there a coloured identity?

Some media forms work better than others for different things. For instance, it is difficult to describe a song in writing because one can only appreciate its nuances when one is listening to it.

In the same way, it is probably impossible to try to have a debate about something as complex as “coloured identity” in five minutes on television. This debate is probably best suited to a documentary, a radio programme, a newspaper or magazine article, or a book.

Yet last Sunday, I tried to have this debate with two other studio guests on Weekend Live on SABC2. Apart from a host of mess-ups, like us not being able to link to the guest in Tshwane and my connection from Cape Town being lost when I was trying to make a crucial point about why I call myself black as opposed to coloured, it was also difficult to have this debate in the limited time available.

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Race on TV

I trust everyone is well. I am on Weekend Live on SABC2 on Sunday morning (Feb 24th) between 7am and 8am, debating “coloured identity”.

I hope you can tune in -


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