Eusebius McKaiser’s liberal propaganda not a debate

Phatse Justice Piitso says The Star provided no opportunity for responses for columnist's attack on Blade Nzimande

Red Alert: Eusebius McKaiser’s liberal propaganda is not a debate

The media must level the playing field instead of running negativity in their opinion pieces, columns and letters section without offering the other side of the story any opportunity

The recent legitimate student mobilisation against fee increases highlighted some of the problematic features in the South African media. This comes at the time when as a country we are still engaging on how to go about achieving media transformation. Some of the newspapers, among them The Citizen and The Star, ran opinion pieces, columns and letters that criticised the ANC-led government, the ANC and the SACP.

They did not allow any opportunity, in this sections, for that golden rule of justice, fairness and balance: audi alteram partem – meaning hear the other side, or let the other side be heard as well. It is worse that they did not care whether the criticisms were valid, or whether they were based on valid information and not distortions. This is characteristic of a biased political campaign.

Eusebius McKaiser, who in the process exposed his ignorance about the architecture and content of South Africa’s higher education laws, had the audacity, using The Star, to try and present to us as the readers a “lecture” about how to conduct a debate. Yet he enjoyed the monopoly of space in The Star through his series of columns or opinion pieces. The newspaper did not offer any opportunity to those who disagree with his liberal scapegoating of the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Comrade Blade Nzimande, to express their views.

What type of a debate is this by McKaiser?

It is common knowledge that the laws in South Africa reserve university governance, curriculum setting and administration decision-making powers to councils, senates, and vice chancellors as part of the executive management of universities. The Minister of Higher Education and Training is prohibited – by law – from making such decisions. This is called institutional autonomy, an instrument that universities have used to increase fees. Neither the Minister nor the government as a whole increase fees at universities or colleges.

Someone who is not ignorant about higher education in South Africa knows that the Minister has been taken to court by universities using and defending their autonomy. The court agreed, thus further cementing the restriction of the power not only of the Minister but of the government as a whole to intervene in universities on governance, curriculum setting and administration decision-making. McKaiser’s call that the Minister should have made those decisions not only revealed his ignorance but is tantamount to demanding that the Minister defy the law and put himself in contempt of court.  

If McKaiser was not ignorant, he would be aware that since Dr Blade Nzimande became the Minister, the Higher Education Laws Amendment Act was initiated and promulgated to introduce measures setting the scene to address the problem. Again, an organisation of university vice chancellors, called Higher Education South Africa, obtained a legal opinion determined to reverse this amended law.

Where was McKaiser when this happened?

Certainly not active in further and higher education and training.

Debating alone without any knowledge of what was going on in the field of higher education, McKaiser sought to blame the Minister, the ANC-led government, the ANC and the SACP. All of this without The Star offering equal opportunity to any contrary view, thus allowing disinformation or one-sided view to be fed to the public. McKaiser seems to think that saying wrong things about a minister will result in his or her removal by the ANC-led government. Our ANC-led national liberation movement and alliance do not follow that liberal style of work. Neither is the SACP afraid of it!

If McKaiser was not ignorant, he would recognise that further steps were being taken to deal with the problems of the use of institutional autonomy, which is often conflated with academic freedom, to perpetuate the legacy of race and class exclusion and resist transformation. The President’s announcement on this question did not come in a vacuum.

In the advent of the latest student mobilisation against fee increases by universities, Minister Nzimande had convened the second higher education transformation summit to deepen the work of transformation in universities and colleges. The use of institutional autonomy to exclude the children of the workers and the poor who cannot afford exorbitant fees and resist transformation was discussed at the summit. It was made clear that further amendments to our post-school education and training laws were necessary to push the work of dealing with the problem to its logical conclusion.  

Performing the work means that the Minister is “absent”. This is what McKaiser, who further wants to advise us about debate, wants the readers of his undebated opinions in The Star to believe. Learners will fail if they were to follow McKaiser’s advices published by The Star about the conduct of debate. At school, it is the basic rule of fairness in every debate, organised into affirmative and negative sides, to give the two sides an equal opportunity to state their side of the story and to respond to what is said about them and their views.

In contrast, McKaiser’s “debate” in The Star is co-ordinated to deliver only one side of the story to the readers, thus denying them access to the other side of the story – and about which wrong things are said. McKaiser must not create any illusions that this unfair talk about others – characteristic of a politics of mamgobhozi – is a debate. One-way information dissemination which might as well be disinformation, if not political agitation without allowing any debate, without offering space with equal prominence to those who differ to air their views, is not a debate.

This style of work is characteristic of a propaganda.

Let us take a look at it further in The Citizen. This newspaper has been very active during the recent student mobilisation in running negativity in its opinion and letters section against the Minister, the ANC-led government, the ANC and the SACP.  

For example, on 23 October The Citizen ran a letter by one Bhekithemba Mbatha concerning an SACP statement released on 20 October. In the statement, the Party welcomed government intervention on the problem of university fee increases. On 20 October, the Minister had met with university student representatives, vice chancellors and council chairpersons to map the way forward.

In his letter, Bhekithemba alleged that the SACP welcomed a “6%” fee increase. Completely untrue, which is why this has to be clarified! The Citizen did not offer any opportunity for this clarification.

There is no mention of any “6%” in the said SACP statement. The statement in fact reads: “In particular, the SACP welcomes the resolution that there must be meaningful consultation in universities, as opposed to unilateralism, and that no fee increases to be agreed to by the stakeholders from these negotiations must be above inflation”. This statement, which writer debased from its context, was developed against the backdrop where there was never such an intervention since our democratic breakthrough in 1994. Bhekitemba ignored the truth when he invented his “6%” and unfairly attributed it to the SACP – and, also, individually, to the person of the Party’s National Spokesperson, Comrade Alex Mashilo. This is un-comradely “engagement”, unscientific criticism and nothing but a display of childishness to seek attention.

The operative principles “meaningful consultation”, “as opposed to unilateralism”, “to be agreed upon”, “negotiations” advocated by the Party’s statement are fundamental to democratisation of decision-making in universities. When he invented his “6%” and attributed it to the SACP, Bhekithemba ignored all of these principles that are clearly spelt out in the SACP’s statement. He ignored, along with the principles, the minimum of zero per cent increase as presupposed in the lower co-ordinate of the framework. The Citizen was not interested in printing the true side of the story for the readers to judge for themselves.

The SACP supported the student mobilisation against the exorbitant university fee increases. Further, the Party took part in key processes within the ANC-led alliance leading to government announcing the zero per cent fee increase for 2016. In fact, the last statement issued by the SACP even before the announcement was made is categorical about zero per cent fee increase for 2016. The statements reads:

The SACP affirms the legitimacy of the present student struggles against exorbitant university fee increases. It is overwhelmingly the deserving children of the workers and the poor who cannot afford the high cost of access to universities and colleges, who are being excluded on financial grounds. The SACP therefore makes a call for a moratorium on university and college fee increases for 2016”.  

The Independent Media Group to which The Star belongs was fair in covering the statement.

Did The Citizen bother to cover the statement?

Not at all, it imposed a complete blackout of the SACP statements while making space for the statements to be criticised unfairly and unscientifically. 

The SACP has no problem with being criticised, for as long as the criticism is fair and in the context where there is balance in terms of diversity of perspective and equal opportunity for the Party’s views to be covered. The SACP has no problem with accurate and scientific criticism.

The press has an important role to play in levelling the playing field, rather than apply blinkers to the eyes of the readers and thus block the bigger picture out of their sight with the effect of narrowing their worldview.

Cde Phatse Justice Piitso is the former Ambassador to Cuba and the former provincial secretary of the SACP writing this article on his personal capacity.

This article first appeared in the SACP journal Umsebenzi Online.