What have they done to Jimi Matthews?

Andrew Donaldson on the SABC's news chief crackdown on Nkandla terminology

Here at the Mahogany Ridge we've been sorely tempted to drive up to Johannesburg, hunt down the acting head of news at the SABC, shake him firmly by the shoulders and loudly demand of him, "Who the hell are you? And what have you done with Jimi Matthews?"

Many of us, you must understand, knew Matthews back in the day and find it difficult to accept that the cheeky imp with a television camera on his shoulder who covered the upheavals in the townships in the 1980s and the stuffed shirt apparatchik who this week instructed the broadcaster to apologise for referring to President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla homestead as a "compound" in its news bulletins are, in fact, one and the same person.

But sadly that appears to be the case. The signs are all plainly there. An email from Matthews to his staff was read out in Parliament by Cope's acting chief whip, Juli Kilian, to wit: "Your [sic] are hereby notified that, with immediate effect, President Zuma's Nkandla home should be referred to as the President's, or Mr Zuma's, ‘Nkandla residence' and not a ‘compound' or ‘homestead' or any other such term. Please also refrain from using imported terminology in reporting on the controversy surrounding the infrastructure developments around the residence, such as ‘Nkandlagate', ‘Zumaville' and such like."

The closing "and such like" is the giveaway. It's one of his pet phrases, and so typical of Matthews, it's almost as if we can hear him using it right now, just tossing it out there at the end of another of his long-winded tales about swimming through shark-infested seas and being chased through a volley of rubber bullets by a sweating man named Odendaal. And such like.

I'm not quite sure, though, given its throwaway nature and general vagueness, just how effective the phrase is in an official SABC memo, implying as it does that reporters are au courant in the imported terminology department. Imagine the emails flying about Auckland Park: "Would the staffers who made use of the following in their reports yesterday please report to my office: ‘Zumaschtetl', ‘Msholozi porzie', ‘Nkandlanomical expenditure'..."

Media organisations -- including this newspaper -- do of course make use of "style guides" which are routinely upgraded. Their principal aim is to help staff communicate in clear, correct and effective language. ("Hippie, not hippy.") 

The Matthews memo, however, smacks of censorship and political interference. Readers will recall that it was on Monday afternoon that Mac Maharaj, the Presidency spokesman, informed Johannesburg's 702 radio station of the sinister meaning of the word "compound". Helen Zille had used it in referring to Zuma's residence and this showed, ipso facto, that the Democratic Alliance is racist, Maharaj claimed, because the term was used during the apartheid era to denote single-sex living quarters for black people, especially on the mines. It was language "loaded with prejudice", he said. "She'd never use that for a white person's home."

This is utterly specious rubbish -- especially as Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, among other government members, had also used the term, quite correctly, in describing the chief's country crib. 

Maharaj, the Ridge regulars will tell you, was a former transport minister who resigned in 1999 and joined FirstRand Bank as its highest paid non-executive director. His political reputation was somewhat sullied a few years later by newspaper reports alleging that he and his wife Zarina had received several large payments from Shabby Shaik, the convicted fraudster who miraculously rose from the dead after punching a reporter on a golf course. 

In July last year, Maharaj was coaxed out of retirement by Zuma. Not many politicians get a second crack at establishing a legacy of full-blown ignominy, and the man certainly has grasped at the opportunity with relish, displaying a degree of zeal with his sophistry that is often quite breath-taking.

Anyway, on Tuesday, the morning after this bilge, SAfm, the SABC's "flagship" radio station, issued its startling apology. Was Matthews instructed to do so -- or was this a heat-seeking, brown-nosing own-initiative grovel? If the latter, then it suggests a new depth in toadyism.

Lastly, in a related development, it is perhaps in everyone's interests that cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (aka "Zapiro") has declined Maharaj's challenge to a debate over the Rape of Lady Justice editorial cartoon, which the latter labelled "racist" as it was informed by "ingrained prejudices" about African male sexuality.

It is an utterly pointless undertaking to debate any subject with anyone as manifestly unreasonable as Maharaj. Nothing you can possibly say will convince him to change his mind about anything. It's a waste of time. And such like.

This article first appeared in The Weekend Argus.

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