Forget colour – work counts

Brendan Seery

Moving beyond denial is necessary if whites want to have a future in Africa.

The other day, I met one of the reporters who worked under me when I was a news editor on a Sunday paper. I reminded him of his nickname for me in those days: “Yes, I remember!” he guffawed, “Mister F… that!” It came from the time I explained to him my simple philosophy of news editing.

“When it comes to news,” I told him, “I don’t give a s**t whether you’re black, white or tangerine orange. I care about the story and nothing else. However,” – and I paused here for effect – “if you think I’m going to tell you your crap is good just to spare your poor black feelings … F… that!”

Of course, if I say it is good, cut it out, frame it and stick it on the wall. That meeting reminded me of someone else in that newsroom, an abrasive Zimbabwean reporter, who stood toe-to-toe with me – seconds away from blows being exchanged, probably – and raged: “You are just a racist Rhodesian!” “And,” I shouted back, “You’re an arsehole!”

Two years later, when he received the inaugural CNN African Journalist of the Year award, he walked to the edge of the stage, pointed to me and said: “Thank you, white man.”

When he had realised that I judged him by his copy and not his colour – and also that I wouldn’t treat him with the sort of kid gloves the white liberal bosses suffering from apartheid guilt would – we had a working relationship that produced great news and feature stories.

The point of this – apart from noting that a newsroom is no place for a sensitive, shrinking violet – is that those with experience are obliged to pass it along. Right throughout my career in journalism, I have learnt things from others. I am still learning today.

Many of my seniors in this business have shared their wisdom and expertise with me, so how can I not help others who are on their way up? Also, what life has taught me – often in hard, unpleasant ways – is that, much as I despise the phrase “white privilege” (because, like racism, it is the first refuge of the incompetent and inadequate), I do believe there is some substance in it.

Was I privileged because my parents were rich? No. Did I have to work to get where I did? Yes. But did I have the advantage of an excellent education? Yes. Did I get my foot in the door where it might have been more difficult for those of a different colour? Yes.

The echoes of that unequal society remain. You only have to look around you – but honestly – to see that. Moving beyond denial is necessary if whites want to have a future in Africa. I am never going to say I am not racist … no white person raised in this part of the world in the past 60 years can say that, because we all are captives to our legacy.

However, we should be aware of it … and make a conscious effort to treat everyone equally and with dignity. Part of that is sharing your experience and knowledge. I am happy to help and mentor people – as long as they are prepared to work and to grasp the opportunities.

But life is way too short to pay any attention to that culture of entitlement which seems to be growing by the day in South Africa. F… that.

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