The fictional ‘Tembisa 10’ babies degenerated into a polarising narrative, where Piet Rampedi accuses anyone who questions it racist.
Sometime in the early ’90s, in a fit of pique, the editor of The Star newspaper, Richard Steyn, ripped down a photograph from the newsroom notice board, which I had only pinned there a few hours earlier.
It was from the Durban Daily News, accompanying a story about a fireman rescuing a huge Rottweiler from floods and carrying it to safety on his shoulders. I had scribbled on it: “She ain’t heavy, she’s my mother…”
And that was what made Steyn see red – a reminder of one of the most embarrassing pieces of journalism in the history of the paper… and which occurred under his watch.
A few weeks earlier, the paper had led with a story about a young boy, somewhere in the poorer part of the East Rand, who had been so badly abused and neglected that he had been raised by the family dog. The child lived in the dog kennel, could not speak, only barked like a dog, and crawled on hands and knees because it could not walk upright, the story said.
On the front page was an artist’s impression of the child, looking tiny between the forepaws of a massive St Bernard. There was only one problem: it was all rubbish.
Media outlets and newspapers around the world picked up the story and ran with it. Quite a few of us working in The Star building had our doubts – none more so than crusty old hack and cynic Dave Hazelhurst, then deputy editor of the Sunday Star.
He sent senior writer Mike Shafto out to find the family, and the dog… something his colleagues on The Star had not bothered to do. When he found them, the family – down and out alcoholics – didn’t have the child, because he had been taken into custody by social services. They told him, though, that the dog had died.
Shafto, being Shafto, took a spade to the place in the garden where they said they had buried the hound – and dug up a small animal, a cross being a poodle and a fox terrier.
Social workers told Mike that, while the child was socially backward, he could still walk properly and even speak a few mangled words in Afrikaans. The story then quickly, and dramatically, imploded.
I was reminded of that by the fuss over the never-existed “Tembisa 10” babies revealed to the world by ace journalist Piet Rampedi – he of the roundly discredited Sars “rogue unit” narrative and now editor of the Pretoria News.
When I first saw the piece I was instantly suspicious: Rampedi, supposedly party to the pregnancy secret for months, quoted a medical expert about multiple births, deliberately, in such a way that unsuspecting readers would assume the expert was part of the delivery team.
She wasn’t – and no such team has ever come out of the woodwork. That’s because there is not one. There are no babies.
While the “dog child” story all those years ago could be excused by enthusiasm and arrogance, as well as poor news editing, this one cannot be that easily written off.
It has degenerated into a polarising narrative, where Rampedi and his supporters are now accusing anyone who questions the story of racism because they will not accept the word of a black journalist… or because they blindly follow Cyril Ramaphosa and attack those who (like Rampedi) support “transformation”.
What is really worrying is the possibility that that may have been his intention all along.