JOHANNESBURG – "Baby Thomas never had a chance," begins a South African newspaper report about the toll of fetal alcohol syndrome. The baby's alcoholic mother was a grape harvester who was paid in bottles of wine, it said.
Questions have been raised about the Cape Times article that was published this month and it has set off a divisive debate about media and politics in post-apartheid South Africa. The historical context is a system of partly paying farmworkers with cheap wine that dates from colonial times and was outlawed many decades ago but, according to the article, continues in "a few isolated pockets."
However, the head of the country's main opposition party questioned whether the article is accurate, saying there is "no clear time frame and scant details" about a baby that allegedly was damaged in the womb by his mother's drinking.
Opposition leader Hellen Zille, a former journalist and the premier of Western Cape province, also compared the story of "Baby Thomas" to a 1980 Washington Post story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that won a Pulitzer prize. The story was later proven to be fabricated, and the prize was rescinded.
Zille said officials have been unable to get details from the Cape Times so they can help "Baby Thomas," reportedly born on a farm near the Western Cape town of Wellington. Additionally, Zille said, the Cape Times plagiarized from a 2012 article about fetal alcohol syndrome that appeared on the World Socialist Web Site. The Cape Times article makes one reference to Eric Graham, the writer of the 2012 article.
Journalist Aly Verbaan, who wrote the Cape Times story, said "Thomas" was a pseudonym and that she didn't want to reveal her sources because they are seasonal laborers who could lose their jobs if they are identified.
"They're really living way below the breadline and I don't have the confidence that social welfare or anybody is going to come and save them," Verbaan said.
The Cape Times is investigating the "Baby Thomas" story but is currently standing by the story, said Lutfia Vayej, a spokeswoman for Independent Media, a group that owns the newspaper.
While some media analysts agree with Zille's criticism, a wider commentary has broken out in South Africa, where issues such as race and rights roil two decades after the end of white racist rule. The decision of Zille's provincial government not to renew subscriptions to the Cape Times following the article's publication was condemned by a media group, the South African National Editors' Forum, as well as the national communications ministry.
The ministry said in a statement that the government in the Western Cape, where Cape Town is located, could have brought its concerns to the Cape Times editor or the press ombudsman instead of choosing to "boycott" the newspaper.
"We dare not return to a time when the media is placed under siege simply for doing its work and reporting without fear or favor," it said, referring to restrictive measures of the apartheid era that ended with all-race elections in 1994.
The ruling African National Congress has sometimes accused Zille's party, the Democratic Alliance, of seeking to protect white privilege even though its origins lie in white liberal opposition to apartheid. Zille, who is white, was a journalist who helped expose a police cover-up in the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in 1977, and received death threats for her work.
Independent Media said in a statement that it was "open to engagement" with readers and subscribers and that the provincial government's move to stop subscriptions "goes against the promotion of a free press."
The statement alluded to apartheid's legacy, referring to a "painful recent history of racial inequality and discrimination" at the Cape Times that was emblematic of broader challenges in South Africa's media industry. The newspaper has become more inclusive, it said.
The article said the baby's mother was raped by another worker and didn't realize for a few months that she was pregnant. The infant's mental damage is so severe that he can't attend a special school for children with learning disabilities, it said.
Zille wrote in a party newsletter: "I am not saying that 'Baby Thomas' has been invented; but I intend to do everything possible to track him and his alcoholic mother... down so that he can get the help he clearly needs."