FOR voices like mine, which find absolutely no concord whatsoever with the popular piper, words can be very expensive indeed. “I read your blog this morning, Kim,’’ the human resources lady said as she entered the boardroom at the sprightly Sandton office park, where she set about to interview me for a senior strategic communication post. “I see you have very strong views. Please do take a seat.” And so the “interview” commenced, on the sterility of an unearned scorn.
As I left the building a measly 10 minutes later, I walked past cascades of handsomely pruned jasmine flowers, whose fragrance and bloom had long been lost in the clipped chatter of the train and tame of corporate speak that lingered in these corporate corridors. My rather frank and untamed political voice, entirely out of tune with the pipe of popular propaganda, is a fluency that I have penned on a fountainhead of unedited principle. It is a vocabulary of word and deed, which has never surrendered to the synthetic synchronicity of a complicit and compliant conversational construct on the socio-politics of South Africa.
Although it has cost me dearly, professionally and personally, my voice and word will endure as a timeless autograph of my authenticity and unwavering unwillingness to subscribe to what top academic and thought leader Prof Sipho Seepe has termed the “country’s slippage into groupthink”. “Groupthink breeds intellectual intolerance,” Seepe writes. “Unfortunately this is what describes the state of affairs of the South African public discourse.” The professor speaks truth. I have been victimised by groupthink. My once flourishing career, bonsaied on the handicraft of corporate, media and political bullies with job offers, career opportunities, executive roles and powers summarily withdrawn on the inkblot of intolerance. “Her articles are a problem,” the CEO of a company I had a contract with, said as he issued an instruction to terminate my consultancy.
This penalty of prejudice is the everyday burden of independent thinkers, like myself, whose words grate into and disrupt the hegemony of popular crop conversation. Chastisement and insult bloomed, like a wildflower, after I published an article in June 2017 about how the pen of journalism in South Africa was so immersed in political partisanship that President Jacob Zuma was routinely villainised by the media. “If Zuma, on the stave of valour, leapt into a rapid to save a drowning newborn, or if he was to rescue 100 and one hapless rhinos from certain poach,” I posited. “Mainstream media would still render him as a ruthless protagonist.” I wrote about how the relentless automated “guilty before innocent” judgments on Zuma in the media were based on a stem of untested accusation rather than steady fact.
My article was an exposé of the stain and strangle of political bias on the popular narrative of our day and the labyrinth of half-truths which have fast become the killer strain of quality, socially responsible, conscious journalism as well as the signature tune of the deception and capture of public opinion. “Into the street, the Piper stept, Smiling first a little smile, As if he knew what magic slept in his quiet pipe the while, Then, like a musical adept, To blow his pipe his lips he wrinkled and green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled. Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled, And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered, You heard as if an army muttered; And the muttering grew to a rumbling, And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling.” (Robert Browning: The Pied Piper of Hamlin) The main retort to my article was a sweep of ideologically barren personal insults, coupled with a highly illiterate tangle of attacks on my credibility of voice.
Clearly, an expression of objectivity in the public discourse on Zuma is treated as a cardinal sin. Such is the state of capture of our contemporary narrative. Sad, like a jasmine flower without bloom or fragrance. In an article in The Sunday Independent and the Daily Maverick this week, Seepe wrote: “Going against the grain exposes one to all forms hazards. One expects to be subjected to insult, ostracisation and even total banishment.” You can take away our jobs, trim our economic prosperity and stain our reputations. But you will never take away our words. We are the permanent marker of principled analysis and we are growing stronger.
There are many like me, who will not submit to a national conversation that corsets controversial or alternate voices. We will challenge the censure and selective moral outcry of a mainstream voice that maintains a Catholic silence on corruption by the white deity of business, and who shout out, in shrilling unison that “Zuma must go” but fail to ever mouth the words “Save South Africa from Steinhoff”. Strong, independent and contrary voices are the seeds in the cultivation of a national conversation that is not only cognitively coherent but socially and ethically conscious. We will be the homestead of scholarly logic in a media landscape that worships sophistry.
The stifling modality of a monologist media and opinion landscape is beginning to wilt in its very own intellectual sterility and propagandist Pied Piper trickery. Tomorrow is a brand new day.
Kim Heller is a columnist and commentator