Supposed factional bias in Western Cape stories

Internal party politics conjure up images of smoke-filled rooms and the flash of blades as they sink into an opponent’s back.

In a democracy that is dominated by one party, as South Africa is, internal ANC politics can matter more than the other kind. It certainly has a greater impact on who ends up in high office than elections do, as demonstrated most dramatically at Polokwane in 2007.

The party’s internal divisions have played no small role in handing the Western Cape to the opposition, and it is no wonder that the party has deployed a powerful team to the province in order to resolve the issues. No less a figure than planning minister Trevor Manuel was charged with the responsibility, jetting into Cape Town in early December to tackle the task.

Inevitably, the intervention drew intense media interest, including in the Mail & Guardian, which published a series of stories. The paper first reported that he arrived with a mandate to get a new leadership elected, then that there was unhappiness about the way a regional conference in the Boland was conducted and most recently, that this unhappiness led to the party’s national leadership annulling the conference and sending in reinforcements for Manuel’s task team, which, it said, was a slap in the face for him.

This reporting has infuriated the minister, who wrote to me to complain in unusually strong terms about the latter two reports. Highlighting the fact that it is the first time he has made use of a newspaper ombud’s office, he essentially accuses the paper — and the individual reporters — of having an agenda in support of one of the Western Cape party factions, and to ruin him.

He writes: “I am convinced that the only intention is to impugn my integrity. It appears to me that your newsroom operates from the perspective that I am rotten and that they will get me.” Elsewhere, he accuses the reporters of being “hired guns” of one party faction.
Strong stuff.

‘Almost inevitable’
Editor Nic Dawes, not unexpectedly, rejects this completely. He told me that ANC politics in the Western Cape are intensely factional, and it is “almost inevitable” that journalists reporting on party controversies come under fire. Dawes said he had spoken to both reporters involved about the methods they used. “I am convinced that neither of them holds a brief for any of the parties to the ANC’s disputes in the province,” he said.

But neither the accusation, nor the paper’s denial, settles the question of whether there were problems with the reporting. And because Manuel sees the stories as evidence of hostile intent, it was important for me to look closely at them. Bear with me: it gets quite fine-grained, as these things tend to.

Manuel raises a number of points. He objects to being called on his cellphone rather than being contacted formally through his spokesperson. It is reasonable for the newspaper to respect his wishes, and Dawes has already issued an instruction to reporters to this effect.

The minister also disputes a number of assertions on statements and behaviour which could be seen to imply that he has taken sides in the provincial conflict. For instance, he refers to claims that he called for the election of a fresh leadership “a falsehood”.

The reports quote ANC members who attended a meeting with him in December as having understood him in this way, and quote his point, in response, that he merely objected to the existence of slates — the practice of voting a list of candidates compiled by one faction.

In any event, the difference is a fine one. It is clear that the purpose of the intervention by the party’s national structures is to find new leadership, and this has been said plainly by his colleague, deputy minister Joe Phaahla. The distinction is between arguing for all the old leaders to be replaced (which Manuel is keen not to be seen to be doing) and arguing for a fresh team, which could include some old and some new faces.

I can’t see that there was a major problem with the way the issue was captured. But since the distinction is clearly a critical one to him, future references to the issue should capture his position more precisely.

Trevor Manuel
Manuel also complains about the reporting, in December, on the Boland conference, objecting to the way in which some anonymous sources were cited. In some areas, I accept that clearer sourcing should have been used. But the fundamental point, that there was unhappiness about the way the event was conducted, was clearly also attributed to the ANC Women’s League, and later confirmed by the decision of general secretary Gwede Mantashe to invalidate the proceedings.

Manuel also objects to an assertion that he “campaigned with [Marius] Fransman for most of last year” (the deputy international relations minister who is allegedly the preferred candidate of Manuel and the national office), and demands proof of at least two occasions on which they shared a platform.

That was relatively easily obtained (Mitchells Plain, in April for an education summit, and again in August, with President Jacob Zuma), although it is not clear what it really proves one way or the other. Senior government and party officials can be expected to share platforms from time to time. Certainly, the phrase “for most of last year” is too loose.

There are other specific points Manuel raises which I do not have space to address here, although I have done so in my detailed response to him.

The real issue here is that Manuel objects to anything suggesting even faintly that he may be taking sides in the dispute. Unfortunately, this is a view held by some in the province, and it is perfectly legitimate to report on this, as long as adequate space is given to a response.

Manuel was asked to comment in every case, but has not always used the opportunity. I think it would be good if the paper now gave him some space to set out his views, and hope he takes up the offer.

Yet I do think it is important to make a clear distinction between what is observable fact and what is interpretation. It is not easy to penetrate internal party disputes, often hidden as they are behind the often repeated myth that they do not exist. It is doubly hard because the reporter depends on sources who almost always have an agenda.

Political reporting is, to some extent, interpretive — “reading the signs” for their hidden meaning.

I think in some places in the reports about the Western Cape, the distinction between fact and interpretation is not as clear as it should be. This is a matter of extreme sensitivity, and more could have been done to set out the evidence carefully and clearly on the critical points.

But that’s as far as it goes. An agenda to back one party faction in the province? I don’t see it.

This column was originally published in the Mail & Guardian on Jan. 28, 2011.

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