Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality vs The Herald

Complainant: Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality

Lodged by: Mr Kupido Baron, Media management

Article: No horsing about as farmer combats high petrol prices

Date: 11 August 2012

Respondent: The Herald

Complaint

The NMBM complains about a story in The Herald on 16 April 2012 and headlined No horsing about as farmer combats high petrol prices, and about a cartoon that was published the next day.

The municipality complains that a comment by a farmer (in the story) is racist, and that the cartoon was meant to cause the NMBM maximum harm.

Analysis

The story was about a farmer who used a horse to plough his land because of the high cost of petrol.

The cartoon was a four-panel piece about the use of horses for transport. The top two panels of the cartoon said: “If we went back to horse power, things would change for the better…” The third panel showed people scattering as a horse and rider cause mayhem. The fourth one portrayed a horse pushing the cart – labelled “municipality” – and carrying four people. The words above the third and fourth panels were: “or would they?”

Story: Racist

The sentence in dispute says: “One of the nice things about horses is that they always come to work on time on a Monday morning and they don’t have a babelaas …”

The NMBM complains that this statement is racist as it was aimed at black workers. Baron says: “Since it is the norm in South Africa that black and coloured workers make up the majority of the workforce on farms, and the story does not state otherwise, I therefore get the impression that this is a derogatory statement aimed at black workers and to describe how the horse (an animal) can be considered better than them.”

The Herald denies that the statement is racist and regards it as “a satirical depiction of the frustration of all employers of staff who bunk work”. The newspaper argues that one cannot assume that the farmer was referring to people of any particular ethnic group.

Allegations of racism should always be treated seriously; on the other hand, such allegations should never be made lightly.

The reference to the Monday morning “babelaas” comment was not aimed or directed at any person or group, but was a general comment about workers not pitching for work on Mondays – a universal malady. Even if his comment mostly referred to black people, that in itself would not be racist. To suggest otherwise would stretch the imagination a bridge too far.

I also note that the:

·         farmer reportedly “quipped” the statement in dispute; clearly, this was said in jest; and

·         newspaper did not state the disputed part as fact, but attributed it to its source.

And yes, sometimes animals are more reliable than people – of any colour or ethnicity.

Cartoon: Maximum harm

The NMBM complains that the cartoonist “intended to cause maximum harm to the image of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality and its employees”. It describes the cartoon as a deliberate attack on the intellectual capacity of the administration of the NMBM and says that it made “a political statement”.

Baron argues that the story about the horse was not linked to the municipality and states that “the cartoon is a deliberate negative statement…as it cannot be linked to any newsworthy event initiated by the municipality”.

The Heraldsays cartoonists “do have some levity and the freedom of artistic expression to satirically comment on one or two seemingly unrelated events as a form of humour”. The newspaper argues that the cartoon was aimed not only at the NMBM, but also at several other municipalities that were slow in servicing their residents. It points out that it has published several stories about overspending and under-servicing in the many small municipalities in its region.

Firstly, it would be wrong to suggest that cartoonists, or indeed journalists, have a greater measure of free expression than ordinary citizens. Everyone has the right to criticise, to express an opinion, however wrong it may be, and to poke fun at people who are paid with public money.

Also: Public officials should not be too sensitive about criticism, but rather welcome it if it is not meant maliciously.

In this case, I find the criticism in the cartoon to be mild, and not malicious. Even if it was “damaging”, that in itself would not have been sufficient to rule against the newspaper.

Whether a cartoon is linked to a newsworthy event or not is irrelevant. The nature of the cartoon is entirely at the behest of the cartoonist and the editor.

 
 
Finding
The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman