Is Avusa Media consistent with columnists?

The purpose of this is to check from a news reader’s perspective if Avusa Media, publisher of Sunday Times and Sunday World newspapers, is consistent with columnists or that it is just being “racist” as some of its columnists have been accused.

And I know very well that this was one heck of a topic not many of ya’ll are going to like and I certainly do not expect you to as, like when David Bullard expressed his ‘racist’ right to freedom of expression when he called us black people of this black and dark continent of ours “backward” (see here), I am only expressing my responsible and not so offensive right to freedom of expression as enshrined in the South African Constitution.

Sunday Times vs. David Bullard

Now former controversial columnist for the Sunday Times newspaper David Bullard was sacked over three years ago for a column that was seen as racist, backward and insulting to black people.

This is by no means an attempt to imply that Bullard was right or wrong. Plus, it is not like we know anything about Morals, do we? I mean, we are not as morally clean as we keep telling ourselves that we are than Bullard. When it comes to morals, we still have a long way as our Moral Regeneration Scorecard is so down than it should be. As much as we have the constitutional right to express our rightful freedom of expression and opinions, I however, think that maybe, just maybe, Bullard’s may have been a bit too much as his “what life would be like in South Africa if the evil white man hadn’t come to disturb the rustic idyll of the early black settlers” question that seems to imply that (South) Africans would still be as backward as when the white men found them

Bullard said at some point after his sacking that Mondli Makhanya who was Sunday Times editor at the time claimed in Jenny Crwys-Williams’ show that he [Makhanya] had spoken to him after the article was published and Bullard had told him that he stood by his views that “blacks were inferior”. Of course Bullard denied this saying “no such conversation ever took place”. He said Makhanya “claimed, answering a question about whether I shouldn’t have been sacked earlier, that he had frequently had to ask me to change paragraphs and sentences because the column was so racist. Again, completely untrue”. “I only ever changed three articles in 14 years at the reasonable request of the then editor, Brian Pottinger. So I throw down the gauntlet again to Makhanya…come and take a polygraph test with me”, wrote Bullard.

When he fired Bullard, Makhanya admitted that “the column should never have been published in the first place” and that “our systems failed us badly”. Makhanya said he would not make any “excuses for the mess and I will not blame anyone else for that system failure. I am the editor of this newspaper and take full responsibility for having allowed the poison to pollute the pages of the Sunday Times”.

At that time, if not a few days or weeks later, Bullard said in his apology written in the Business Day newspaper that his column was “intended to make the point that some black South Africans blame white colonialism for all the country’s problems”. He said it was “never intended to offend, but it has, and that offence has caused the column’s permanent disappearance from The Sunday Times”. “For that, I offer sincere and heartfelt apologies to those who were offended, including Mondli Makhanya, my friend and former editor, whom I respect enormously. Particularly offensive to so many was the suggestion that a family who had lost a child would mourn for a week or so and then have another child,” wrote Bullard at the time.

Bullard said despite his “claim that this is a fantasy SA, I realise that this was an insensitive remark to make and I humbly apologise”. He said the term ‘simple tribesmen’ was “never intended to imply stupidity but to suggest an uncomplicated lifestyle. Nonetheless it offended my readers and therefore requires an apology”.

Makhanya said at that time that Avusa had “begun a process of assessing our internal systems and how to tighten them without compromising the right of columnists to speak their minds” and that the “right to free speech is something everyone on this newspaper holds dear. “We hold diverse views on different issues and would lay down our lives in defence of everyone’s right to express themselves. Our pages are testament to that”.

He said Sunday Times was “NOT in the business of promoting prejudice”, and that the “relationship of an editor to a columnist is a special one”. “You hand over a piece of real estate to the column, the site for a villa, a mansion or a castle. The onus is then on the columnist to treat the space with responsibility and not abuse that freedom from interference,” said Makhanya after sacking Bullard.  He said “Bullard had fun with the [that] space… He espoused views that were contrary to the views of the newspaper and did so without any hindrance from me or my predecessors. He made people angry and he made them laugh”. However, it was on that Sunday that “[Bullard] crossed the line”.

Makhanya has now been appointed Avusa Media editor-in-chief.

Sunday World vs. Kuli Roberts

I agree with Chris Moerdyk when he says “what seems to be happening, these days, is that a lot of newspaper editors are either fast asleep or just plain lazy”. This is because, says Moerdyk, many of them would “blame their sub-editors for fiddling with grammar, punctuation and fit, without giving a thought to the content” and with this, some “really stupid stuff gets through”. Yes, some really stupid things get through. And Sunday World editor Wally Mbhele is a case in point. And so was Makhanya at the time when Bullard was fired.

With Mbhele you would have to wonder if he was “fast asleep or just plain lazy” when he let his columnist Kuli Roberts’ so-called racist column which was seen as insulting to the coloured when it made it to the newspaper he was supposed  oversee as expected of editors. But he did not, did he?

Mbhele later said the weekly column “would be discontinued with immediate effect” after it sparked an outcry countrywide. He continued, as if he felt sorry, to claim the column had made a “derogatory generalisations about Coloured people which were in clear violation of the South African Press Code and Avusa Media’s internal codes”. Even Makhanya defended Avusa saying it “will not allow any of its titles to disseminate prejudicial commentary that re-enforces divisions and entrenches racial stereotypes”. He also said Avusa was still “totally committed to the values and principles enshrined in the Constitution”.

Mind you this is the same man who, when he fired Bullard for a racist column in 2008, said and I repeat his exact words that Avusa had “begun a process of assessing our internal systems and how to tighten them without compromising the right of columnists to speak their minds”.


Fast-forward back to 2011, Roberts’ wrote almost the same thing as Bullard and hers was “discontinued” immediately with Makhanya saying none of Avusa publications will “disseminate prejudicial commentary that re-enforces divisions and entrenches racial stereotypes”. And Bullard somewhat agrees that Roberts’ “an almost exact repeat of (his) sacking from the Sunday Times three years ago”. And like every one of us, Bullard too asks the “obvious question” that “how can (such) an article get into a newspaper without anyone seeing it”. He says “the incompetent tosser [Mbhele] who edits this rag has admitted that he takes responsibility so why hasn’t he resigned as a matter of honour?”

I am not sure if Makhanya is a “man to whom lying comes as naturally as breathing and he will almost certainly lie his way out of taking responsibility for this cock up” as Bullard tells us and, who knows, that may well be true taking into account what he said in 2008 when he fired Bullard that “a process of assessing our internal systems and how to tighten them without compromising the right of columnists to speak their minds”.

Of course you would then have to wonder how Roberts’ column got past Mbhele’s fingers as an editor if such “internal systems” meant to make sure that columnists did not “speak their [racists] minds”. It is funny because he has now repeated the same thing this year that “prejudicial commentary that re-enforces divisions and entrenches racial stereotypes” we not allowed by Avusa publications.

I personally agree with Bullard that journalists “seem quite happy to accept that they can be sacked for something they write but the person who publishes it walks away scot free”. If only editors indeed took responsibility for what went into their papers, Makhanya should have been fired a long time a go, and so should have Sunday Sun Editor Linda Rulashe been fired for publishing John Qwelane’s homophobic column (see Pierre De Vos’ take on it).

And now that no one seems to take the blame for that goes into newspapers before going for print, and that it seems Makhanya “has also failed in this task” – is it time he got “sacked along with the editor of the Sunday World” as Bullard has suggested? This because Makhanya admitted “full responsibility for having allowed the poison [Bullard’s column] to pollute the pages of the Sunday Times” while Mbhele said he took “full responsibility for the offending column”.

By the way, though Bullard never went to see the light of the Labour Court with his dismissal claim, is it not inconsistent depending on whether he is regarded a consultant or an employee that he got to lose his job and was fired while Roberts only lost her column at Sunday World and instead has reportedly landed another column for the Times newspaper?

Consistent? Just asking…


5 thoughts on “Is Avusa Media consistent with columnists?

  1. S’thembiso Msomi said I got this twisted, that “When a journalist is hired they join a newspaper and not group. They account to editors and not publishers.

    Therefore, it should be the editor of the newspaper, and not the company, who takes the decision to hire, fire or suspend.

    As far as I know, Bullard wasn’t axed by Avusa but by the Sunday Times through its then editor.

    The same, I believe, has happened with Kuli.

    Hence, the question shouldn’t be whether the group of consistent but whether editors within the group sing from the same hymn. But, as I say, I speak for no one and do not intend expressing any view on how the issues were handled.”

    And I say:

    Or maybe I did get it twisted, or may be not. But let me untwist this:

    You are correct that columnists and journos are not hired by Publishers but by Editors. However, those editors are responsible for and or are expected to report to the publishers who take full responsibility for what its title had published.

    For example, when Zuma tried (and I think he is still doing that) to sue Zapiro, it was not Zuma sues Zapiro and Sunday Times, but that he dues Zapiro and Avusa as it was the publisher (of the parent company, let me say) of Sunday Times. Further, Sunday Times in not independent from Avusa Media.

    Zuma sued Avusa media and, if I am not wrong, Sunday Times will also be a responded to the case.

    You said “it should be the editor of the newspaper, and not the company, who takes the decision to hire, fire or suspend” but forget to mention that such a decision has to be compliant with the HR Policies of the mother bodies although each contract that columnists and journos enter into with the publisher’s different titles will not be the same.

    I am saying the “not the same because” for example, if Sowetan has to get a new editor, you cannot give him the same salary as The Times (despite the two being daily publications).

    That Bullard wasn’t axed by Avusa but by the Sunday Times through its then editor, Makhanya, is okay. However, if Avusa being the parent company of Sunday Times did not agree and or see appropriate for Bullard to have been fired, it would have intervened. And even when it did not, it was aware and sure, as expected, tried to find way of how it would have responded to Bullard if he decided to take the decision further like he did although that was spoilt by his apology in the Business Day.

    Further, to show you there’s nothing with my saying that Avusa is inconsistent with its titles’ columnists, Monday following Roberts’ column on Sunday World, Makhanya said at the time as editor-in-chief of Avusa Media that none of Avusa titles (Sunday Times, Sunday World, Sowetan The Times, etc) “will not allow any of its titles to disseminate prejudicial commentary that re-enforces divisions and entrenches racial stereotypes”.

    On whose behalf was he speaking, Sunday World, Sunday Times?

    That there was no editor-in-chief of Avusa Media at the time he sacked Bullard is not an issue and it should not be. And still, that decision he took at the time, was supported by Avusa Media, being the publisher of the newspaper he was an editor to.

    And that is the very same this with Mbhele on Roberts’. His decision to “discontinue” the column was accepted by his boss as there never was any opposition to that, and that shows that Sunday World did not operate independent from Avusa Media, its parent company.

    Still twisted?

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