Our skin-deep democracy

2011-10-26 00:00

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s great cabinet reshuffle on Monday became a talking point about whether we now have a leader who is taking charge. Strangely, this bold step left me unmoved. Not because it wasn’t important or that it did not represent a major shift in our politics.

Instead, my mind was consumed by something that happened last Wednesday. It started off quite blandly with the editor instructing us to attend a talk in the boardroom on the new Press Code. Press ombudsman Joe Thloloe had flown down to Durban from Johannesburg and had driven to Pietermaritzburg to take us through the code. The session was interesting, made more so by the fact that the soft-spoken Thloloe had a quiet, commanding presence. He emphasised ethics in journalism and said such things as plagiarism not being tolerated. “That’s just stealing,” he added.

Later that evening, I met Thloloe again at a function at the Durban University of Technology (DUT). Here he spoke at the book launch of Comrades and Memsahibs, a collection of writings by fellow journalist the late Ameen Akhalwaya.

It was there that Thloloe said something that I haven’t been able to forget. Last Wednesday was October 19, a day 34 years after several Black Consciousness Movement organisations and newspapers such as the World and Weekend World were banned. It has become known as Black Wednesday. In a quiet matter-of-fact tone Thloloe said he remembered clearly where he was on that fateful day.

He, who grew up in Soweto and barely knew KwaZulu-Natal, was in detention in a police cell in Howick, where he had been for several months. Thloloe said the worst aspect of his detention was the drive down from Howick to Alexandra Road Police Station where his interrogation and beatings took place. It is hard to believe that this quaint Victorian building represents a torture chamber. I know of an ex-detainee who lives in Pietermaritzburg and still today will not drive past that building.

Anyway, Thloloe recalled the drive in the week of that fateful Black Wednesday. As usual this was a trip filled with trepidation over what form his torture would take. This time he was left untouched, with his jailer taunting him that if he ever got out of there his whole world would be changed.

He was told: “Your [Steve] Biko is dead, your editor [Percy Qoboza] is in jail and you have no job because your newspaper has been shut down.” Thloloe did not believe this: isolated in detention it was a situation he could not conceive of when Several months later when he was released from detention, it was a reality he was forced to confront.

A thought that has stayed with me ever since hearing Thloloe relate his story was what must have gone through his mind as he drove from Durban to Pietermaritzburg that morning. A drive that would have taken him past the intersection with Alexandra Road. In The Witness boardroom he spoke about ethics and fairness, integrity and honour, freedom of expression and the rights of individuals to hold their views.

In April this year Thloloe was honoured with a doctorate from Rhodes University. In his acceptance speech he paid tribute to family, friends and colleagues who shaped his life. He went on to say that, “sitting glumly among them are those who also contributed unintentionally to this shape — people like the security policemen who tortured me in lonely offices haunted by screams when I was detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act or under the Internal Security Act”.

At the book launch, Thloloe said that many of the current ministers in government went through similar experiences as he did. He pondered why this did not make them more determined not to imitate the actions of their former oppressors. In his Rhodes address he said: “The irony is that some people will swear that they believe in freedom of expression but in the same breath they will shout that we should jail errant journalists and ban them and their publications. This tells me that our democracy is only skin-deep as we regress easily to what the Nationalist Party represented.”

ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema may be currently experiencing this skin-deep democracy. He alleges that state agencies are being used to intimidate people from joining his march. We may not like Malema, but in a democracy he too has a right to protest. It is possible that such intimidation is happening, because it has long been experienced by social movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo that has found that its campaigns on behalf of the poor are little tolerated by the ruling party.

A cabinet reshuffle may be a start but what is needed now is a getting back to basics and defining the kind of democracy we want. Nothing skin-deep and no regression to the past.

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