When HuffPost expanded last year into a country still lurching past a history of racism and apartheid, its new South African editor promised honesty and “solutions-based journalism.”
Two weeks ago, a solution to global inequality was proposed in the site's opinion section: Ban white men from voting.
Not just in South Africa, but everywhere.
Not forever. For a generation or so, a “philosophy student” wrote for the site — until the rest of the world could seize white men's assets and “equitably distribute them to those who need them.”
Until last week, when the article's author was revealed to be not a female philosophy student, but a man in a wig — a hoaxer who said he never expected HuffPost (formerly known as the Huffington Post) to publish his intentionally outrageous submission.
But since it did — and even defended the piece — South Africa's media regulator accused HuffPost of publishing hate speech last week, prompting its regional editor in chief to resign over what began as an elaborate gag.
“Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?” (since deleted and archived) appeared below a photo of a woman dubbed “Shelley Garland,” whom a HuffPost editor later defended as “an activist and feminist” before discovering that she did not exist.
“If white men were not allowed to vote, it is unlikely that the United Kingdom would be leaving the European Union,” Garland wrote. “It is unlikely that Donald Trump would now be the President of the United States.”
So, too, the Dylann Roof massacre and “500 years of colonialism, slavery and various aggressive wars and genocides,” all the doing of white men.
Solution: Prohibit them from voting for the next 20 years and reapportion their stuff.
The article almost instantly drew outrage far beyond South Africa.
Verashni Pillay cited a few less-profane examples from her inbox. “The entire thing is misogynistic and also racist,” for instance.
Pillay chided her readers, telling them to think more carefully about the article. Garland's critique of white male wealth and power was “pretty standard for feminist theory,” Pillay wrote.
“Those who have held undue power granted to them by patriarchy must lose it for us to be truly equal. This seems blindingly obvious to us.”
But it was not obvious to everyone, including the real author of “Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?” — who HuffPost now says is a 37-year-old man named Marius Roodt.
When two HuffPost editors tracked down Roodt at his workplace last week, they confronted him with an oversized printout of Shelley Garland's photo, which he admitted was himself at a costume party.
“I just made it up,” Roodt says in HuffPost's video of the confrontation.
Roodt disavowed almost everything in his column and apologized for the uproar.
He “repeatedly emphasized that his mission was to see what was the most outrageous piece he could get published,” the editors wrote.
“I don't think race relations are that bad, to be honest,” he said at one point.
South Africa's race relations aren't anything like what they were during the infamous apartheid era, in which whites dominated the country's power systems.
But they're far from perfect.
“Whites make up less than 10 percent of South Africa's population but remain in control of much of the country's economy,” Max Bearak wrote in The Washington Post after two white men violently forced a black man into a coffin there.
Waves of assaults against and murders of immigrants from elsewhere in Africa have broken out several times, Al Jazeera reported, with false newspaper headlines stoking some of the violence.
And amid corruption allegations and huge protests, politicians in South Africa's ruling party have “begun appealing directly to black citizens and alienating nonblack voters, emphasizing racial disparities in wealth and calling for race-based redistribution,” The Post reported last year.
HuffPost, like much of the country's news media, abides by voluntary rules that forbid the publication of anything that promotes racial hatred.
After investigating complaints against the white disenfranchisement column, an ombudsman for the country's press council declared that the site did just that.
“Let me be short and sweet,” ombudsman Johan Retief wrote in his findings last week. “If disenfranchisement of anybody (whether white males or black females, for that matter) is not discriminatory, the meaning of discrimination should be redefined.”
And the editor, Pillay, “must not blame the reader for thinking that she in fact did support the gist of Garland’s argument,” he wrote before ordering Huffington Post to apologize for publishing what amounted to malicious, inaccurate, discriminatory hate speech.
The outlet can appeal the decision, and some in South African media are already defending HuffPost. A Daily Maverick writer said the ruling “set a dangerous precedent which could silence the media on controversial policy issues in the future.”
A HuffPost spokesperson would not comment on the incident, but said in a statement that “we don’t control what the independent bloggers across the globe write. … If issues such as factual inaccuracies arise, bloggers are expected to address these immediately.”
Pillay, who resigned in the wake of the findings, could not be reached for comment.
But she has already apologized to her readers.
“The fact is that white men still enjoy disproportionate power,” Pillay wrote a few days before resigning. “And yes, I believe that a loss of oppressive power is necessary to create a truly level playing field.”
But: “I did not make it clear enough in my initial response that I absolutely do not agree with the disenfranchisement of any group of people.”
“I don't hate white men.”