EFF's Dr Charming pulls a fast one on TV
So, the television news channel eNCA decided recently to hold a week of programmes in which politicians could interview anyone they wanted to. Would I please be his guest on his evening, asked Dr Mbuyiseni Ndlozi of the EFF. Ndlozi is the happy, cherubic face of the EFF, the People's Bae (boyfriend). As I had been rude about them in some of the columns I write, I thought it would be equally rude to decline.
But I knew it meant trouble for me, obviously, especially after Julius Malema rang to make sure we were on. Ndlozi is wildly popular. We met the week before the programme and had coffee on a pavement. Schoolgirls and their mothers kept stopping for selfies with him. The smile is instant and infectious. He's genuinely good company.
Predictably, the night didn't really go well for me. I write about 12000 words for publication a month. When you're as far apart ideologically as I am from the EFF, they would have had more than 50000 words to pick from just this year alone.
There were a few moments when I know I stumbled but the worst was when he asked this question: "You write in one of your pieces that a tiny minority of black people will actually want to farm. Could you share with us what source did you use to come to that conclusion?"While you're being asked a question like that your mind races. When did I say that? What do I say now? And then you have to speak.
I was less than sparkling because it just didn't sound like me.
My mind was racing. I try not to generalise about racial groups. It's wrong. But there he was, reading the question to me. I ended the session poorly, nailed for speaking in the name of black people without a source nogal, and after the show the entire membership of the EFF sat on my Twitter account and did the same.
"Did I really say that?" I asked him during a commercial break.
"Yes," he said, "on March 4."
After the show ended I went home and had more than one Jameson. eNCA retweeted that particular exchange and thousands of people retweeted it. Did they check the veracity of the original question? Of course not. I would not expect them to. But did he? Or had he read out a note from the EFF research department? Once home, I checked what I'd written for March 4. It was a Sunday. It was this column. And nowhere, but nowhere, did I write what he said I did.
The column was about land reform. I said there were about 35000 commercial farmers in South Africa and even if you cut each farm in half and gave them to new black farmers you'd satisfy only 70000 people.
"But," I wrote, "only a tiny fraction of our population wants to farm. People want decent, affordable homes close to the jobs they might have or want."
I still believe that's just too obvious to have to "source". I'm writing an opinion column here, not a PhD dissertation.Former land minister Gugile Nkwinti said back in 2013 that of the roughly 76000 land restitution claims disposed of by then, more than 70000 claimants had chosen to take compensation in cash rather than reoccupy the land they had lost. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has just reported that Africa's urban population will double inside a generation.
Obviously there are pressing reasons for that. Africa's peasantry is dying off and people want to live urban and connected lives.
But what was the pressing reason young Dr Ndlozi had to misquote me and to introduce the words "black people" where I had never written them? Was embarrassing me because I didn't have a source for something I had not written in the first place really that important?
Perhaps he leads a double life, the PhD requiring a source for every assertion and the politician happy to distort a political critic's views at whatever cost.
I know how much the PhD must mean to him and how hard he must have worked for it and how proud his family and his friends and his followers must be of him. My only advice, as an older man, is to hold on to what it means and to the values that a doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand embodies.
I hope that the next time he sits in front of a TV camera with a critic that he stands up fair and square for what he believes. I know he will.
I also know that the next time he interviews someone on television or in public, it won't be me...