Sunday Times

The min­is­ter and the pro-Tl­habi me­dia: truth is not set­tled by a pop­u­lar­ity con­test

- V U YO MKHIZE Mkhize is an in­de­pen­dent strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­sul­tant.

In his sem­i­nal 1971 work, A The­ory of Jus­tice, US philoso­pher and ethi­cist John Rawls pro­poses that so­ci­eties should de­cide prin­ci­ples of jus­tice from be­hind a “veil of ig­no­rance”. This “veil” is es­sen­tially meant to blind those en­gaged in the task of deciding prin­ci­ples of jus­tice to per­sonal cir­cum­stances — such as their race, gen­der, class, creed, oc­cu­pa­tion, etcetera — to en­sure that they are not tempted to tai­lor these prin­ci­ples to their own ad­van­tage.

Adapt­ing this the­o­ret­i­cal propo­si­tion to the South African so­cial com­men­tary con­text, the “veil” would en­sure that no-one would tai­lor prin­ci­ples of jus­tice and fair­ness to ad­van­tage them­selves on the ba­sis of their oc­cu­pa­tion as, say, a me­dia per­son­al­ity or a cabi­net min­is­ter.

Which is to say no-one would labour un­der the mis­taken be­lief that the right to dig­nity, es­pe­cially pro­tec­tion un­der the laws of defama­tion, can be de­nied to some on the ba­sis of who they are and the po­si­tion they oc­cupy in so­ci­ety.

On Septem­ber 25, me­dia per­son­al­ity Redi Tl­habi took to so­cial me­dia and made the bold claim that Malusi Gi­gaba es­sen­tially abused the power of his of­fice as min­is­ter of home af­fairs by in­tro­duc­ing strin­gent im­mi­gra­tion reg­u­la­tions in or­der to set­tle a per­sonal grudge with his ex-wife. The reg­u­la­tions re­quire both ac­knowl­edged par­ents of a mi­nor child to con­sent to his/her de­par­ture from SA.

Tl­habi’s claim is, of course, patently false. Gi­gaba wasted no time demon­strat­ing to Tl­habi that the reg­u­la­tions were, in fact, in­tro­duced by his pre­de­ces­sor, Naledi Pan­dor. He also pointed out that their roots are ac­tu­ally to be found in the Chil­dren’s Act and not some do­mes­tic squab­ble in­volv­ing his then mi­nor child, as she claimed.

Despite this, Tl­habi and her band of sup­port­ers, among whom are a num­ber of sea­soned jour­nal­ists and rep­utable publi­ca­tions, per­sisted with their al­le­ga­tions and in­sults di­rected at Gi­gaba, mak­ing it quite clear that they are not, in any way, in­ter­ested in facts, only their false claims.

In their mis­guided view, the me­dia’s right to free­dom of ex­pres­sion and the im­per­a­tive to hold pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives ac­count­able ef­fec­tively amount to a li­cence to pub­lish false al­le­ga­tions about the said pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives or, al­ter­na­tively, to deny them the right to fair me­dia cov­er­age.

Of course, pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives are ex­pected to have thick skins and be able to tol­er­ate the oc­ca­sional hurt­ful re­mark or un­due crit­i­cism.

This, how­ever, is not to say they should tol­er­ate be­ing slan­dered at will. Nei­ther is it to say they are not al­lowed to act to stop the spread­ing of false­hoods and defam­a­tory al­le­ga­tions about them. To do so would limit the rights they en­joy by virtue of the con­sti­tu­tional procla­ma­tion that “ev­ery­one has in­her­ent dig­nity and the right to have their dig­nity re­spected and pro­tected”.

Me­dia per­son­al­i­ties must ac­cept that they do not en­joy a mo­nop­oly over the truth. They must ac­cept that they are not in­fal­li­ble. They must ac­cept that, from time to time, they will be chal­lenged and that, when they are shown to be wrong — as in Tl­habi’s case — they must have the in­tegrity and the hu­mil­ity to ac­knowl­edge this and apol­o­gise.

Much as it would be wrong for Gi­gaba to insist on his ev­ery as­ser­tion be­ing as­sumed to be the gospel truth on the ba­sis of the po­si­tion he has been en­trusted with, it can­not be cor­rect that Tl­habi can insist on be­ing ad­judged to be right, re­gard­less of the facts, just be­cause she hap­pens to be pop­u­lar with a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of so­ci­ety — no mat­ter how pow­er­ful that sec­tion might be.

The truth can­not be de­ter­mined via a pop­u­lar­ity con­test. Nei­ther can it be al­tered by our feel­ings about ei­ther of the par­ties.

Gi­gaba al­ready hap­pens to be one of the most un­fairly vil­i­fied politi­cians in SA. He has lived with the kind of defam­a­tory and abu­sive re­port­ing Tl­habi is sub­ject­ing him to since his ap­point­ment as a mem­ber of the coun­try’s ex­ec­u­tive at the age of 33, in 2004.

Over the years, he has been as­signed many dif­fer­ent la­bels, from “Thabo Mbeki lap­dog” to “en­abler of state cap­ture”. For­ever be­ing chal­lenged to de­fend him­self against “widely held neg­a­tive per­cep­tions” of him with­out once be­ing con­fronted with a clear set of es­tab­lished facts — or even spe­cific al­le­ga­tions, at the very least — un­der­pins these ever-evolv­ing la­bels.

If only me­dia per­son­al­i­ties such as Tl­habi would con­sider the virtues of Rawls’s the­o­ret­i­cal propo­si­tion of the “veil of ig­no­rance”.

If they could de­velop and ap­ply prin­ci­ples of jus­tice and fair­ness in a man­ner that is not bi­ased in favour of their nar­row per­sonal in­ter­ests and tastes, our pub­lic dis­course would be more con­struc­tive and in­clu­sive.

And pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives would not need to go to court to up­hold their right not to be slan­dered.

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