Witchcraft comment not enough to get JJ taken off air

15 March 2020

Danger of self-censorship in reflections on society

South African television, like the rest of our media (if not major economic players), must contend with disrup­tion brought about by technology-fuelled innovations.

These rapid technological changes have ensured that, for television, we no longer wait for 7pm television news. With features like DStv catch-up, we watch only what we want and at our own time. Very few programmes are appointment viewing. Take Date My Family (yes, we are a crazy lot), sport (for our soccer and rugby-mad fans) and Your View on Newz­room Afrika.

DStv is a grudge purchase for me. I pay for way too many things I am not interest­ed in. If it was not for the news channels, I would not need it. My favourite show is Fareed Zakaria GPS. Zakaria is no ordi­nary television host. He is a researcher with a PhD from Harvard, has worked for the Washington Post, edited News­week International and is a columnist for Time magazine. What is important for me is that Zakaria researches his top­ics, puts together graphics and images that support his television commentary and leaves you, as a viewer, enriched. In all of what eNCA, SABC 404 and Newz­room Afrika produces, there is nothing like Zakaria’s GPS in terms of depth and mastery of content.

One former head of eNCA once said at a dinner of editors that the television me­dium is not about important and serious stuff, it’s about what appeals to the heart and eye – the emotive stuff. I knew then that he has never watched GPS.

Loyiso Gola and his crew once ran an exciting news-based parody that was ap­pointment viewing. Today, though, televi­sion, just like many newspapers, suffers a dearth of credible news content creative­ly delivered. Everybody is reading from the autocue. Viewers are bored.

The one person not reading much from the autocue, Onkgopotse JJ Tabane of Your View on Newzroom Afrika, a breath of fresh air, is, wait for it, off air.

Tabane made comments to the effect that the ANC Youth League in Limpopo is planning to protest against a decision of the government to house repatriated South Africans from Wuhan, the epi­centre of the coronavirus, at The Ranch Resort, outside Polokwane.

His view was that the youth league must be bewitched because, in any case, there is much witchcraft in Limpopo. The EFF, in fact, agrees with Tabane that it is witchcraft – well, they didn’t use the word (but you get the point) – to be so wor­ried about South Africans from China without coronavirus but be unconcerned about fellow South Africans already in­fected with the virus.

Anyway, Newzroom Afrika then re­sponded with, among others, this quote: “The comments made by anchor Onk­gopotse JJ Tabane on his show ‘Your View’…were disparaging of the people of Limpopo province, are not aligned with values of Newzroom Afrika. Respect for the cultures of all South Africans is at the core of these values…” The station added that Tabane’s views were “offensive and disrespectful” and he had so acknowl­edged. What culture did he disrespect?

As someone from Limpopo, I am more affronted by people from Limpopo being so fearful of South Africans without coro­navirus from Wuhan than Tabane re­peating age-old township folk tales about Limpopo being witchcraft-infested.

What Tabane said is nothing new. It doesn’t make it right. But the truth is the people of Limpopo have, in fact, accused each other of witchcraft, killed one an­other to a point former premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi was forced to appoint a com­mission of inquiry headed by respected academic Victor Ralushai to look into the mayhem.

Ralushai concluded that there was no evidence of witchcraft brought to his commission. But the legend about Lim­popo and witchcraft predates Newzroom Afrika. Tabane would have known there is no provable evidence to this claim. But why is it such a cardinal sin that an en­tire show – a show that we all know is unconventional – must be suspended? This is too harsh, I submit.

Tabane is allowed the privilege to ex­press his view – the rant – as his show starts. It is this, in fact, that makes his show popular. Video clips of his com­mentary are circulated in many more WhatsApp groups than any other show, not just on the channel but on all local news channels – eNCA, SABC 404 and Newzroom Afrika. When you are robust and express your view as fearlessly as Tabane does, you’re bound to make mis­takes. And who doesn’t? Is this that se­vere? I don’t think so. As a country, we need to reflect on ourselves without be­ing too sensitive, without self-sensoring.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard ob­serves that “people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the free­dom of thought which they seldom use”. Why allow Tabane the freedom to ex­press himself without the freedom to think, however flawed his thinking?

Tabane must be reinstated. The nature and severity of this mistake of associat­ing Limpopo with witchcraft – which, again, is not original – is not big enough to relieve him of his responsibilities. He is what makes Newzroom Afrika relevant today. Well, Cathy Mohlahlana too. But the rest are normal broadcasters. They are no different to eNCA and SABC 404 anchors. Tabane, who is doing his PhD, may not be Fareed Zakaria. But he brings to our broadcast firmament commentary not seen on SABC and eNCA.

As a person from Limpopo, I am nei­ther offended by JJ’s comments nor pleased that Newzroom Afrika has sus­pended his show. “If we don’t believe in a free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all,” says Ameri­can linguist Noam Chomsky.

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