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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 11. Bring on the thought police: freedom of expression and the press in South Africa

by Christopher Merrett

During the long, hard years of apartheid the South African government had a quick and easy recipe for dealing with public dissent: it was denounced as communist; or, if particularly challenging, as liberal. After the honeymoon period of negotiation and the five-year term of the first democratically elected government, and under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, old habits have returned. Criticism of the ANC-led government and the new black elite is denounced as racist - or liberal. In a sense South Africa has come full circle and the recent Human Rights Commission (HRC) hearings into racism in the media are eerily reminiscent of the Steyn Commission into the Mass Media of the early 1980s which was designed to instill a sense of ëpatriotism' based on ëfacts' which would serve the white national interest.

It all started in 1997 when the Sowetan accused the media of ësubliminal racism'. This was a handy device because it spared the accusers the bother of identifying and initiating legal proceedings against specific examples of racism in the media as allowed by law. Barney Pityana, chair of the HRC, accused the media of a ëneo-colonialist conservative liberal agenda' which was killing the integrity of Africans and negating their mind set and excellence by abusing the limits of press freedom. This ludicrous diatribe later led to HRC objections to a Mail & Guardian ( M&G ) headline that read "African war virus spreads to Caprivi"; and the idea that blacks themselves could not be guilty of racism.

The nub of the problem seems to have been the investigative skills of the South African press honed in the anti-apartheid struggle which have now been focussed on the less savoury aspects of the new order. South Africa's best newspaper, The Mail & Guardian , has in particular led the charge identifying and exposing numerous cases of corruption, nepotism, incompetence and neglect in government and in the professions. Most of those fingered were black, not surprisingly in a country 85% of whose denizens are so pigmented (the actual ratio was 14 black to four white). Particularly incensed by the vitality of investigative journalism were two organisations, the Black Lawyers Association and the Association of Black Accountants, which as their names clearly imply are racially exclusive. They denounced The M & G and Sunday Times as hotbeds of subliminal racism to the HRC which eagerly grasped the complaint, presumably relieved that it did not have to confront some of the country's real human rights problems such as the totally inadequate level of social welfare, callous disregard of the AIDS epidemic, collapse of the judicial system, criminal activity in the police and prisons services and gross incompetence in the educational sector which are of course the direct responsibility of the government. The entire media, it was decided, would be investigated for racists who up to now had apparently been elusive and cunning enough to escape detection.

The HRC already had an unsavoury reputation as an organisation with formidable and ominous search, seizure and quasi judicial powers that made it a potentially dangerous force in South African society. The Commission contained a number of functionaries of the previous regime whose human rights credentials were laughable and whose appointments were an insult to those who participated in the anti-apartheid struggle. One brave man who pointed this out in 1996, and named worthy characters who should have been appointed to the HRC instead, was vilified as a racist and abused on national television. His main offence, it would appear, was to impair the dignity of President Nelson Mandela by questioning the membership of a commission appointed by him, a reaction redolent of the worst sort of banana republic. Apart from being called a racist for criticising the appointment of a white right winger to the HRC at the expense of a respected human rights lawyer, Dennis Davis was also smeared as a - liberal, the favoured term of abuse for authoritarians of all stripes. The writing was clearly etched on the wall. Black critics were called unpatriotic and the white, racist; and the level of public debate declined dramatically.

The danger posed by the HRC's Commission on Racism in the Media was, in Steven Friedman's words, that of "playing to their galleries and silencing critics". Many editors declined the invitation to participate in a circus whose foundations were based on wildly sweeping accusations devoid of empirical evidence backed by an investigation written up by one Claudia Braude which was widely condemned as unworthy of a poor undergraduate student. So the HRC issued subpoenas to force the editors before the tribunal with a strong possibility that some of them would end up in gaol. Even the apartheid regime had baulked at such muscular methods of intimidating its critics in the press although it did detain Zwelakhe Sisulu, editor of New Nation and other journalists, white and black, during the Emergencies of 1985 to 1990.

South Africa's international reputation nose-dived and a few of the old South African human rights warhorses began to sharpen their pencils again. The redoubtable Sheena Duncan of Black Sash resigned from a fund-raising role with the HRC for its violation of the right to freedom of expression, remembering the National Party's long trail of intimidation, commissions of enquiry, persecution and repressive legislation. A former commissioner, Rhoda Kadalie, called on Parliament to censure the HRC for bringing the country into disrepute. But five black editors agreed to attend the HRC hearing whether or not the subpoenas were withdrawn. In the event the HRC climbed down, revoked the subpoenas and adopted a more conciliatory stand.

South Africa faces a severe threat to its press freedom, all the more so because during this recent furore very few voices outside the media itself were raised in its defence. The aura of a witch hunt in an atmosphere of increasing authoritarianism and intolerance of dissent is potent encouragement to keep one's head down. Significantly, in an address at University of Cape Town, the departing Vice-Chancellor, Mamphela Ramphele, asked about the whereabouts of all the academics and members of NGOs who had fearlessly criticised the previous regime for its infringement of human rights ; a question echoed by Kadalie when she reported the HRC's "attempt to prescribe to the press what they should be thinking and writing" .

The honeymoon is over. There is a strong sense of deja vu abroad in South African civil society with fears of a return to authoritarianism and the vendettas that accompany the paranoia of political correctness. The example of our northern neighbour, Zimbabwe, an unravelling state in which those in the independent press who have the courage to tell the truth are charged with criminal offences, detained without trial and in some cases tortured, is an awful warning. The most alarming feature of this situation is the silence of most of South Africa's supposedly resilient civil society. The fear is that too many of those who courageously opposed the apartheid government have been compromised by the advent of a democratically elected administration and have abandoned their principles. As Howard Barrell puts it so well, "when institutional power is wielded to secure virtue, rather than take action against specified, ascertainable offences, tyranny may not be far behind."

It was widely (and accurately) expected that the immediate post-apartheid period would be one of unprecedented freedom in South African society that would later return to more familiar characteristics. Just one year into the Mbeki regime and that expectation is already being justified. The main beneficiaries of the new order comprise a very narrow segment of society, the black bourgeoisie. Large parts of it are incompetent and corrupt and heavily influenced by Africanist ideology. The ambitions of this class require an unquestioning adherence to a party line, about which any scepticism is regarded as racist or unpatriotic, and a tame press. It is openly acknowledged from within the ANC that the range of views and debate that characterised its broad church in the mid 1990s is a thing of the past and that there is now little room for dissent. Unless the fragmented political opposition comes to some form of understanding, South Africa will increasingly become a de facto one-party state and this realisation makes a free press all the more essential.

The signs are not encouraging. The eminence grise of black journalism, Thami Mazwai, has put forward the view that editorial independence should be subordinated to that nebulous concept, the ënational interest'. There is a growing tendency in the corridors of power to assume that this is indistinguishable from the interests of government and in particular the ANC. A new patriotism is being invoked, that is just as unacceptable as the old apartheid version, in the name of transformation, reconstruction and development. It contains within it dangerous portents for the information system of South Africa and freedom of expression.


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