Writing badly of the dead

Andrew Donaldson on what the eulogies to the late Karima Brown say about the press she helped create


IT may just be me, but “veteran” journalists appear to grow younger with each passing year. The thought occurred while trying to make sense of the death of political commentator Karima Brown, 53. While I have no desire to speak ill of the dead, the same, alas, cannot be said of the eulogies. Much of it is dreadful. 

This is cruel, I know, but perhaps the grief-stricken should be advised against rushing wildly into print at such times. Some copy-tasting, at the very least, may have been in order.

 For her tribute, for example, Zenariah Barends, Independent Media’s former chief of staff, let rip in free verse. Here is an extract from her Ode to a Wild Woman (for Karima Brown)

How will we be in this world without you?
Oh wild woman
oh fierce spirit
to pierce the hidden veil
by your uncompromising vigilance

Further poetic licence could be found in other IOL headlines: “Karima Brown stood on the shoulders of giants in journalism,” “Love her or hate her, Karima Brown kept it real to the end,” and “RIP Karima Brown. World has truly lost a doyenne of black journalistic excellence.”

The latter trumpeted some hideous homage in the form of an open letter from Business Report deputy editor Sechaba Nkosi: “Dear Karima, I write to you today as you are probably sitting with the likes of Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Percy Qoboza, Sophie Tema and other doyennes of black excellence in the netherworld of the living dead.”

I’m not sure, even in this gender fluid age, if Nxumalo, Themba and Qoboza qualify as doyennes. But having consigned Brown to a Stygian zombieland, albeit unintentionally, Nkosi then dredges up the Lindsay Dentlinger witch hunt

He had, he says, resisted the “unbearable” temptation to denounce the eNCA journalist even though he would have “taken such delight in tearing through her” for asking MPs to wear face masks. 

“But,” he writes, “why should I bother myself about [Dentlinger] and her ilk when there are meaningful people like you in this country … You may have been Dentlinger’s colleague, but your differences couldn’t be more stark.”

All too true. One lives, one doesn’t, masks may have made a difference.

Further fawning and dribbling came from former Cape Argus editor Gasant Abarder. In his contribution, he recalls the time Brown joined the company in 2013 as group editorial executive following Iqbal Survé’s takeover of Independent Media. 

“I smiled at the prospect of working with Karima. Around me there was widespread panic at the news. Karima had a fierce reputation of not suffering fools. Some of my editor colleagues and even those higher up were literally running around in panic!”

And with reason. For many, Brown’s arrival signalled the coup de grâce for the ailing group. She was the berserker who spearheaded the gutting of Survé’s titles. 

Rebecca Davis, in the Daily Maverick, writes that not everybody at Independent Media objected to Brown’s contribution to its decline and she points to a post on social media from former staffer Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya: “I know I wouldn’t have been editor of The Mercury without her nod.”

Davis’s article is noteworthy in that it is one of the few pieces on Brown that technically qualifies as an obituary. An obituary does not begin thus: “The sudden death of my very dear friend and media colleague, Karima Brown, this past Thursday, has left me searching for appropriate descriptions of her person and of her life’s work.” 

That is not an obit, even if its author, Eusebius McKaiser, insists otherwise. That is a tribute, eulogy or obsequy. There is a difference.

Like much of South African journalism, the obituary is an aspect of the craft that has now all but disappeared. Perhaps there is a supreme irony here; that having contributed to the depletion of skills at Independent Media, no one there is capable of reporting on Brown’s life and times in a meaningful manner. Much has clearly been written, but you’d need the Hubble telescope to find anything of interest there.

A reminder of the basics is needed. As a journalistic form, the obituary evolved in the 20th century to become a vehicle for narrative storytelling. In the introduction to his The New York Times Book of the Dead (2016), editor William McDonald states they have a core purpose: “[To] recall in full a life of consequence, to illuminate the life that moulded it, and to show how the path one person took helped lead us to where we, the inheritors, are now.”

There are simple guidelines the obituary writer should follow. Keep the families and interfering friends of the deceased out of it. Don’t even take their calls. Their version of events cannot be trusted. Omit the boring stuff. Include the interesting bits. Be aware that the dead cannot sue and therefore may be freely libelled.

The model to follow is the modern British obituary. Less stuffy than its American counterpart, its lively, literary and irreverent style arose in the late 1980s as a result of the rivalry between the Daily Telegraph’s Hugh Montgomery-Massingberg and the Independent’s James Fergusson, journalists who turned their obituary sections into their newspapers’ best read and most discussed pages.

South African editors may recall a time when they, too, once had readers, even those who discussed the contents of their newspapers. They may even want them back, but judging by recent SA National Editors Forum statements, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

In their reaction to Brown’s death, Sanef said she would be remembered for successfully suing EFF leader Julius Malema after he had published her cellphone number on Twitter and accused her of sending spies to a party meeting. Brown had also been harassed by members of Andile Mngxitama’s Black First Land First. 

There was no mention, however, of her involvement in Independent Media’s evisceration or indeed, her appearance in ruling party regalia at an ANC rally in Cape Town in 2015 — a provocation that literally paraded disdain for the ideals of editorial independence, objectivity and a free press while boasting of unprecedented insider access at Luthuli House. Being a party mouthpiece is a piss-poor example of a crusading journalist.

Sanef, meanwhile, has also waded into the Dentlinger controversy. While they condemn the death threats against the reporter, they dismayingly couch their remarks within a weaselly context of “healing the nation from our violent past” and rethinking “our approach to diversity and transformation”, an issue they say that has been neglected on the editorial floor.

“We … encourage all media houses to ensure that their newsrooms undergo diversity training and racial literacy training as our history makes it necessary. We are currently organising a Media Ethics and Credibility conference which will include panel discussions on race and racism in the media as well as diversity in the newsrooms.”

Oh dear. This does seem rather fashionable, and unnecessary. There is some opinion that “ensuring” staff undergo “racial literacy training” may actually be a human rights violation. As for “healing the nation”, this is a task best left to medical professionals. It’s not why journalists go to work. The may care deeply about such things, but their job is reporting. And they should be equipped with the skills to do just that. 

That’s the fundamental training that is needed here. All that other stuff is useless noise. 

Harry and Meghan soap Oprah

There’s no shortage of republicans at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) and we note that the allegation of racism at the heart of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey is fuelling anti-monarchist sentiment in former British colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

This morning The Times of London quoted Bert Samuels, a member of the Reparation Council of Jamaica, as saying the interview underscored the need to shed the Queen as the country’s head of state. 

“Out of this — a black majority country having a monarchy as its head of state that is racist towards Meghan — comes the fact that we should honourably part with the monarchy in London,” he said. “Harry and Meghan exposed the existence of entrenched racism against black people in the royal family and the wider British establishment.”

Many others shared Samuels’s view. News America, a Caribbean news agency, stated it was time for the Commonwealth nations to “emancipate themselves from the mental slavery and the last shackle of colonialism”, adding, “If the Meghan/Harry tea-spilling has revealed anything, it is the obvious racism that exists at the top of the so-called royalist ticket. The majority of the population of these independent former British colonies are also black and brown, aka ‘dark-skinned’. 

Why they have chosen to be independent nations but still hold on to the colonial trappings of their former slave master is anyone’s guess.”

A local expert has joined the row. Former Cape Peninsula University of Technology lecturer Asanda Ngoasheng — described as an “activist on race” — told The Times: “Interviews like the one by Harry and Meghan are important because they remind us of the unfair global systems that we take for granted. The royal family led the colonialism/imperialism project. It should not be surprising to learn that they are racist. I hope that all this makes us wake up and ask, do we need royalty?”

Readers who have only this minute arrived on Earth from some distant corner of the universe may not be aware the row centres on a query about the skin tone of the Sussexes’ unborn son, and the implications this may or may not have for the Windsors.

There are those who deny this inquiry indicates prejudice. They have been writing furiously to the newspapers: 

“When my god-daughter (who is white) was expecting a child by her partner (who is black), both families spent the entire pregnancy wondering what colour the baby would be. That’s not racism. It’s natural curiosity.” 

“When I was pregnant, those around me happily speculated whether or not the baby would inherit my husband’s ginger hair. Thanks to the Sussexes, I now realise that I should have been outraged rather than simply pleased that they took an interest.”

Could that be it? Natural curiosity? It depends, I suppose, on who asked the question. The Sussexes aren’t saying — although they clearly believe the incident was upsetting. Winfrey insists it wasn’t the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh. If it was Princess Michael of Kent, though, we may have an issue on our hands.

And what of the duchess’s charges that her in-laws are a remote and emotionally frigid bunch? This could be a transatlantic cultural thing. Markle is an American. The society in which she was raised is generally regarded as warm and genial, open and inviting. As for her in-laws? Well, they’re English. Of course there are problems.