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 The story was later proven to be fabricated, and the prize was rescinded.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.