The importance of not being Eric

Eric Miyeni is an irritating distraction.

This former columnist has become a leading figure in the attempt to drag our national debate to the lowest depths, to trade in personal abuse and low-level threats imbued with a deep anti-intellectualism.

It did not start with the latest repulsive attack on City Press editor Ferial Haffajee. A few weeks ago he slammed the books by Jacob Dlamini (Native Nostalgia) and myself (Diepsloot), while proudly saying he has not and will never read them. This brought book reviewing down to previously unexplored depths. On Monday, he again criticised Dlamini’s book in a way that indicated he had not read it.

It is no coincidence that this comes on the same day that the ANC Youth League calls for regime change in democratic Botswana (but not the undemocratic regime of Libya) and tells us that there is consensus on the nationalization of our mines.

We are allowing the likes of Miyeni and Malema to determine, shape and drive our national debate.

Never has it been more pressing to engage in lively exchanges about how we overcome inequality; never has there been more openness among all the parties to put this issue at the centre of debate, and consider all reasonable options to tackle what threatens the long-term stability of our young democracy. Instead, we are discussing whether Haffajee should sue Miyeni, or the Sowetan editor was right to de-columnise him, so to speak.

Let me say this clearly: I will defend Miyeni’s right to criticise Ferial and City Press, and to challenge their reporting, their motives and even to be rude and abusive about it. But I will not defend the implied threat of necklacing, nor the resort to racial tagging. This is the stuff that stifles debate.

We have to change the terms of the discussion, not just the tone. The YL has defined the economic debate around nationalization, rather than around the best way to fight inequality. Miyeni tells us the debate is about Haffajee’s motives, rather than the facts of whether Julius Malema is running his influence-peddling through a family trust.

Let’s not let the likes of Malema and Miyeni (the younger man’s Jon Qwelane, it seems), set the framework of the debate. Let’s shift it so that we are exploring all options for how to spread the resources of this country more equitably and reasonably. Nationalisation is one of those options, but one of the least credible, so what else is there?

We can give credit to the Youth League for forcing us all to focus on issues of inequality. But they are keeping us constrained by a narrow set of options rather than allowing a free-flowing, rich and truly fruitful debate. They – and Miyeni – are doing it in a tone which is threatening and constricting, rather than open and respectful.

Other commentators and interest groups have been reduced to reacting to this stuff, rather than setting up new issues, different options and a wider range of discussion.

Editors have a special responsibility here. A great deal depends on them to illicit, encourage and carry ideas and suggestions more substantial and promising than nationalization. They have influence over how wide the debate runs, or how narrow our options are.

As one sage put it, the media cannot tell us what to think, but it can tell us what to think about. It can also guide us on how to think about it: what terms, phrases, tones, attitudes and options we can consider. And we need to be much more considered about how we frame our national debates.

And this takes us to the real issue raised by Miyeni’s column. He was fired immediately by the Sowetan, as has been done with other columnists recently who crossed a line of decency. But it would be more impressive if the Sowetan editor took responsibility for the decision to run the column (or the error of not making the decision). If we are to be more thoughtful about the terms and framework of our debate, this would be a good starting point.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, August 4, 2011

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