Allister Sparks

A move that is both a protest and an embrace

2015-01-15 06:00

Allister Sparks

There must surely be something symbolic about a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail becoming a columnist for newspapers of the Nasionale Pers. Especially Die Burger, a paper so intimately associated with its first editor, Dr D F Malan, the founding father of apartheid South Africa. For that is where this, my first column of 2015, will be appearing, as well as in its sister papers, Beeld and The Witness of Pietermartizburg.
And, of course, in its usual spot in Business Day, the only surviving offspring of the late, great Rand Daily Mail, which was done to death by its own proprietors in a crime I would call "lexicide", if such a word were to exist.

So what does this mixed relationship symbolise? Some on both sides of the old South Africa divide may turn in their graves, but for me it is another personal step in our process of reconciliation. An embracing of the new South Africa.

The differences of the past were profound and they were passionate, but now all that is over, having ended where the demographics of our country always indicated it was bound to end.

Today we face the greater challenge of trying to merge all our different colours and cultures, histories and languages, faiths and foibles, into a single, united nation. A nation of many cultures but able to coexist in a state of tolerance and mutual respect.

It is a massive challenge. When I consider how difficult East and West Germany - people of the same race, language and history - found it to reunite into a single nation, I sometimes feel daunted.

To say nothing of the Israelis and Palestinians, both Semitic people; or the Catholic and Protestant Irish, Indians and Pakistanis, the Greeks and Turks of Cyprus, or the Serbs and Croatians of the former Yugoslavia.    

Moreover, the challenge we are facing is one the rest of the world is beginning to face as well. Modern technology, the speed of communications and travel, are rapidly shrinking the world into Marshal McLuhan's "global village", where all will have to live harmoniously beside their alien neighbours if we are not to perish in an Armageddon of mutual hatreds.

The inhabitants of former colonies are streaming into what were once the "mother countries." Frantz Fanon's "desperate of the earth" are flocking to the centres of economic development, defying immigration laws just as our rural black workers streamed into our cities despite the pass laws.

North Africans are crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, and Latinos are crossing the Mexican border into the United States. The developed world's apartheid laws can't stop them, just as ours couldn't.

The world is integrating, just as South Africa is. And the developed countries are not doing a very good job of integrating these communities in their midst, as the outbreaks of vicious terrorist attacks indicate - last week's traumatic gunning down of the Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris being the latest.

In this global process, we are in fact the pilot project. What an inspiring challenge this is, to be the world's test case, its social laboratory.

And what a delicious irony. The world's polecat becoming its pathfinder.

Virus of corruption

Unfortunately we are falling to rise to the challenge. Our present leadership has veered away from Nelson Mandela's grand vision when, in his first inaugural speech, he entered a covenant on our behalf, "that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - in a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world".

Instead our political leaders are infecting the prospective rainbow nation with a virus of corruption, self-enrichment and self-protection, while the poor languish and business sleeps.

What we need is to recommit ourselves to that grand vision and hold it aloft as the updated version of the Freedom Charter, whose 60th birthday the sclerotic African National Congress (ANC) is now celebrating.

That said, there is another symbolic aspect to my entry into the columns of the Afrikaans Press. This has to do with freedom of expression, that vital clause in our constitution which I believe is the single most important lubricant for a successful democracy.

There are many ways of trying to clamp down on freedom of expression. One is to shut down newspapers and broadcasting stations and throw journalists in jail, but that is pretty damaging for the regime's image.

Another is to restrict what can be written or spoken, but smart journalists can usually find a way around that, as we on the Rand Daily Mail did.

A  more cunning way is to buy the publishing house or broadcasting station, then gradually weed out all journalists of talent and independence of mind. Do that to enough of them and those who remain will be intimidated into following the line - or what they think is the line - that the new proprietor wants.

That is what Louis Luyt tried to do when he attempted to buy South African Associated Newspapers. His aim was obviously to change, or close, the Rand Daily Mail and he even roped in the leader of the United Party, Sir de Villiers Graaff, in his covert enterprise.

His attempt failed, leading to the clandestine launching of The Citizen and the subsequent exposure of the Information Scandal, in which I happened to play a part.

Now we have Iqbal Survé in the role of a latter day Louis Luyt. Like Luyt, he has no background in publishing, but he acquired the cash-strapped Independent News and Media group in August 2013, with the considerable help of the Public Investment Corporation, a government agency.

It is the country's biggest newspaper chain, monopolising the English Press in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria, as well as The Star in Johannesburg.

In its first year Survé's company, Sekunjalo, editorially cleansed its newspapers of 23 senior journalists, including five editors, who were either fired or resigned.

His main target has been the Cape Times, a venerable newspaper founded in 1876, with which I have had a personal relationship in various forms for the past 37 years.

His purpose, obvious to anyone with a trained journalist's eye, is to curry favour with the government by knocking the Democratic Alliance (DA) at every opportunity, however petty, because it is the only province, and Cape Town the only metro-council, that the ANC doesn't control.

There is profit to be had in that because valuable government advertising follows such subservience.

So it was that I found myself a subject of Survé's latest purge of contributors, my column having earlier been dumped from The Mercury in Durban.  It was fortuitous, because I had already decided to withdraw my column from the Cape Times in protest at the effective firing of opinion page editor Tony Weaver, following that of editor Alide Dasnois, both of whom I regard as among the finest journalists in South Africa.

But as one of the cartoons following the Paris shootings put it: "He drew first."


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