Parading prejudice in the name of freedom

2009-10-21 00:00

ON the occasion of Black Wednesday, as South Africa recalls one of its darkest days when the apartheid state banned progressive newspapers and resistance organisations, it’s fitting to look at how our hard-won media freedom has been used by some in the media.

But first to recap briefly. When the illegitimate state under B. J. Vorster saw that its days were numbered, it decided to unleash draconian force. In one swoop it banned the World and the Weekend World newspapers, as well as a religious publication called Pro Veritate.

The regime did not end there; it simultaneously banned at least 19 organisations, including the Black People’s Convention (BPC), the South African Students’ Organisation (Saso), Black Community Programmes (BCP) and numerous others for parents, students, youth, and men and women.

The World and Weekend World were perceived to be promoting the views and actions of these organisations that identified themselves with the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which was led by, among others, people such as Steve Biko, Strini Moodley and Dr Aubrey Mokoape.

In fact, the banning of these publications and organisations on October 19, 1977 came on the heels of the murder of Biko himself, in detention on September 12, 1977. Just a year before Biko’s brutal killing, the same racist state had mowed down school children in Soweto and elsewhere during the June 16, 1976 uprising.

What this tells us is that, for the people of this country, the struggle for national freedom was very much, at the same time, a struggle for media freedom. The struggle did not separate one from the other. Certainly the state did not draw any distinction between journalists who were committed to media freedom and freedom of association and freedom fighters and activists belonging to national liberation movements such as the ANC, PAC and the BCM. Whether you had a pen or an AK-47 in your hand, it did not really matter; so long as you were using it to oppose the state, you were perceived as its ­enemy and therefore you were brutally silenced.

Those of us who are in the media today would do well to remember the enormous price that the people of this country had to pay in order for journalists and media practitioners to enjoy the freedom that they enjoy today.

There are signs that some among the media may be inclined to forget that sacrifice and therefore be careless with that freedom. Equally, there are signs that within the media itself, there is a lot of selective coverage and criticism.

To take the matter of the succession debate for instance, the media was very quick to speak and write of two camps within the ANC: those who were supporting then president Thabo Mbeki, and those supporting his then deputy president Jacob Zuma, in the bruising contest for the post of president. This continued long after this matter was resolved in Polokwane, when Zuma emerged the winner.

Yet, when a similar scenario took place soon after the formation of the Congress of the People (Cope), with some of its members supporting ­Mbhazima Shilowa, while others sided with Terror Lekota, no one spoke of two camps. It was simply incredible how some journalists and media commentators allowed themselves to be so impressed with Cope that they lost all pretence at objectivity and balance.

The second area that those in the media have to look at is the continued projection of black people in influential positions as inherently corrupt and ­ridiculous. Let’s criticise, by all means, but let us retain a sense of neutrality.

Here is what Professor Steven Friedman of the Centre for the Study of Violence had to say in Business Day in July: “The problem is not that people criticise [Peter] De Villiers — or Percy Sonn or Norman Arendse or black lawyers and business people whose names come to mind: in a free society everyone can criticise everyone else. It is that they are reduced to buffoons, butts of ridicule, much as smiling minstrels were in the days when prejudices were expressed more directly ­because they were the law.”

As Friedman points out, there is more at stake here than just pointing out that the prejudice that kept apartheid alive still survives.

“The prejudices that allow some to be pilloried in this way do not present themselves openly as racial biases — their power stems precisely from their ability to appear as expressions of nonracial common sense,” said Friedman. You only have to think of the matter of Cape Town Judge President John Hlophe to see the veracity of this assertion.

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