"Yes, it was me."
These were the first words Marius Roodt (37), a researcher at the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), a prestigious think-tank in Parktown, Johannesburg, said when he was confronted with a profile picture of one Shelley Garland on Wednesday afternoon.
- Verashni Pillay: What Marius Roodt Did Was Wrong. But It Does Not Exonerate Me.
- Ann Bernstein: We Have Accepted 'Shelley Garland's' Resignation
Garland was the pseudonym Roodt used to deceive Huffington Post South Africa last week when it published his blog under the headline Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise? The blog led to a public outcry, after which it was taken down. HuffPost SA published the blog without verifying the author's identity or the veracity of the claims made in the piece.
Should I get a lawyer or anything?Marius Roodt, also known as the blogger Shelley Garland.
Roodt resigned from the CDE on Wednesday afternoon. It was accepted by the CDE's director, Ann Bernstein.
"Should I get a lawyer or anything?" Roodt asked HuffPost reporters in a conference room at the CDE, before explaining his motivation for writing a blog making an incendiary proposal using inaccurate statistics.
He was identified after the email address was digitally traced back to him and his identity was confirmed with facial recognition technology.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean for it to go where it did, there was no intention to go after Verashni (Pillay, HuffPost's editor-in-chief). I sent it to Daily Maverick first. It had nothing to do with Verashni or the fact that she's a woman or anything like that.
"I just thought you can say almost anything you want . . . not necessarily attacking white men. I think there is a lack of fact-checking in South African journalism. I thought, would it work? And it worked. In hindsight I wouldn't have done it, I didn't think it would get this big," Roodt said. The short, stocky man, wearing a charcoal jersey with sleeves pulled up to his elbows, appeared nervous, reserved and resigned to the fact that he had been identified. He apologised for the impact on Pillay three times in the first five minutes of a 26-minute interview.
I said in my piece that whites own 90% of land in South Africa. That isn't true. And 97% of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange isn't owned by whites . . . . uhm . . . all that kind of thing.Roodt . . . or Garland
His reaction when recognising the reporters in the CDE reception area was: "Oh . . ."
Roodt explained he didn't target HuffPost specifically and that his main motivation was "the lack of fact-checking in journalism". He also identified a few stories published by South African media which he believes are inaccurate and which served as his motivation. Some of these stories were linked in the Garland blog.
"I said in my piece that whites own 90% of land in South Africa. That isn't true. And 97% of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange isn't owned by whites . . . . uhm . . . all that kind of thing."
Roodt cites the figures he believes to be true: whites own 22% of the JSE, blacks 23% and direct black ownership amounts to 10% and direct white ownership is 13%, with most of the securities exchange owned by foreign shareholders.
He acknowledged that a lot of planning went into his guerrilla action: the creation of "Shelley Garland", the writing of an outrageous blog, the creation of a fake email address and the leaking of the backstory to a podcast.
Roodt says he acted alone and that nobody else was in on his plan. He conceived of the idea in March and it took him about two hours to write the blog.
"At first I was (happy) when it was published, but afterwards no, when I saw how it blew up. I didn't want to get Verashni into trouble and I definitely don't want her to lose her job . . .. And I hope she doesn't."
Roodt did not test Huffington Post's blogging systems using his own name, or submit opinion pieces, and said his actions may have been misguided. He repeated that he is "sorry" about what happened and equally sorry that he has been identified. He expected to be exposed and was initially chuffed when the piece was published but he got "nervous" as the story blew up around the world.
I'm not part of the alt-right and I don't like Milo (Yiannopoulos, the alt-right British propagandist journalist previously linked to Breitbart news) and I don't believe there's a white genocide in South Africa, and I'm certainly not a racist. I don't believe white men are under attack.Roodt
Roodt – who matriculated at Benoni High School and studied at the erstwhile Rand Afrikaans University – thought about coming clean but was unsure when the right time would be. He decided to contact the "libertarian" podcast on the cliffcentral.com platform called the Renegade Report with the backstory because he didn't think "one of the big guys" like News24 or Daily Maverick would be interested in it.
He says his blog – which promoted the idea that white men are the cause of a lot of societal malaise and should therefore be denied voting rights – might have been too aggressive or angry. Roodt, however, argues both white and black South Africans tend to generalise about other groups and that these generalisations often go unchecked.
"I'm not part of the alt-right and I don't like Milo (Yiannopoulos, the alt-right British propagandist journalist previously linked to Breitbart news) and I don't believe there's a white genocide in South Africa, and I'm certainly not a racist. I don't believe white men are under attack", he said.
"But, yes, there might be an element of that. You see what whites are saying on Twitter and what blacks are saying . . . these, or whatever. I don't think the 'Zuma must fall' marches were too bad, but there was a racial element."
Garland was my mother's maiden name . . . Shelley . . . well, jaRoodt
Roodt – currently collating CDE research on inclusive economic growth – says he is frustrated that South Africans, black and white, often don't acknowledge that "South Africa is better than it was in 1994."
"That's why a lot of people are looking at the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and why Brexit happened . . . people want their kids' lives to be better than theirs. And I think, even if the facts aren't true, there's a feeling that things won't improve. That their lives aren't better than before. That's where some of the anger is coming from."
He denies that he or his alter ego were angry or that he has used the "Shelley" persona before, insisting that he just made her up. The profile picture HuffPost published shows a woman with heavy makeup, red lips and a floral blouse, which Roodt says was a costume he previously wore to a party. "Garland was my mother's maiden name . . . Shelley . . . well, ja," was how explained the creation of his alter ego.
Roodt also said he wasn't behind the "Shelley Garland" Twitter account, which sprung up soon after the blog was published. He however deleted his personal Twitter account, which HuffPost identified over the weekend as the one which may belong to the originator of the scam. "I deleted the Twitter account because I and one of the podcast presenters followed each other . . . I thought if there wasn't a link . . ." he said.
Twitter mobs amplify anger to where it doesn't need to be and I think that's a problem. Maybe I did raise some good points about journalism in South Africa. I've seen some journalists saying it should never have been published because it was a silly piece, and it was a silly piece.Roodt
Roodt says he believes the resultant furore might lead to a debate in society about race relations and journalistic ethics. This, he added, was a good thing.
"Twitter mobs amplify anger to where it doesn't need to be and I think that's a problem. Maybe I did raise some good points about journalism in South Africa. I've seen some journalists saying it should never have been published because it was a silly piece, and it was a silly piece."
He continued saying he regretted an act that could be described as "nefarious" amid efforts to build a new society. "Yes, I think so. All I can do is apologise. I'm sorry. I didn't expect to be exposed . . . but I didn't expect HuffPost to take the blog, to be quite honest. I sent it to Daily Maverick. They didn't reply."
The impact of his blog on his own and the CDE's reputation only dawned on him after the blog went viral. He says in retrospect he should not have done it: "I will probably need to resign, I guess. I'll fly under the radar, I guess."
Roodt, given his work as a researcher dealing with the facts and figures of South African society, says he believes race relations in the country are better than many would believe. "I think what happens in real life is better than what happens on Twitter, to be honest."
In the letter he wrote to the Renegade Report podcast, he concluded with the words: "Be lekker, don't be doos."
He acknowledged that his actions might be that of a "bit of a doos" and that he can "only apologise".
Comments like 'whites take up too much space' or at that lecture by that Kenyan guy, Ngũgĩ (wa Thiong'o) where whites were asked to leave . . . some people don't want whites' voices to be heard. But with name changes too . . . names like 'Hendrik Verwoerd' should be changed, but not every single Afrikaans name should be changedRoodt
Roodt, who is English-speaking, explained that in his mind, a "lekker South Africa" is one where South Africans get along with each other and where: "People are not living in poverty, (there is) less unemployment . . . and voting rights for all."
Even though he has never felt that his franchise was under threat, public comments and slogans like those made around campaigns (cos not a single event) such as Fees Must Fall, did make him feel that his voice was being drowned out.
"Comments like 'whites take up too much space' or at that lecture by that Kenyan guy, Ngũgĩ (wa Thiong'o) where whites were asked to leave . . . some people don't want whites' voices to be heard. But with name changes too . . . names like 'Hendrik Verwoerd' should be changed, but not every single Afrikaans name should be changed . . . 'Louis Botha' or 'Jan Smuts' . . . the apartheid names should be changed."
He supports the transformation of academia, but he also believes that it is patronising to exclude black students learning from, for example, German philosophers.
Roodt says there's a difference between the way his English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking friends see the country and debate issues: "Actually to be honest, when you're with the Afrikaans guys you feel a bit more positive about the country than when you're with the English guys."
The main thing is individual rights, free speech, free elections, the rule of law . . . but, the state has to help the poorest people in South Africa. I'm not against the welfare state. I'm not a libertarian. Roodt
Roodt – who likes sci-fi and had pictures of the movie franchise Star Trek on his Facebook page – classifies himself as liberal, "with a hint of being a left-of-centre, social democrat".
"The main thing is individual rights, free speech, free elections, the rule of law . . . but, the state has to help the poorest people in South Africa. I'm not against the welfare state. I'm not a libertarian. The state should stay out of personal relationships, you should be able to marry whomever you want. Drugs . . . you can't legalise all of it. I don't think tax is a terrible thing."
He repeatedly emphasised that his mission was to see what was the most outrageous piece he could get published – and his next effort was to have been a blog titled Why The Khmer Rouge Weren't All That Bad. He punted the piece to the Huffington Post but it did not get through our systems. "The Khmer Rouge is the logical destination of Marxist thought . . . in Cambodia there was no classes, everyone was equal, you couldn't even own a vegetable garden and could be shot for picking up fruit that fell from a tree. I want to see what is the silliest thing I can get published."
* An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated Milo Yiannopoulos is American and misspelled his surname. This has now been corrected.