Johannesburg: Hard Pressed

'I would like to think that all the politically correct Brits who lined up to condemn me for "juxtapositional racism" might say a word or two about the extinction of media freedom in a major Commonwealth country, but I am not holding my breath'

(Getty Images) 

South Africa is a country decidedly pas comme les autres. The current girls’ netball championship, for example, has strict rules about racial quotas for the teams. Games are won by one side but points are deducted for racial quota deficiencies and the game is then awarded to the other side. One of the teams, representing the southern part of North West province, bears the name North West South. Or take the case of the African National Congress guerrilla Robert McBride, who placed a bomb in a bar, killing and maiming a number of people. Pardoned and then amnestied by the ANC government, he was then made a police commissioner. One newspaper suggested it was anomalous to make a murderer a senior policeman. McBride sued for defamation and the Supreme Court of Appeal, no less, found in McBride’s favour, arguing that his amnesty had effectively reversed the historical fact that he was a murderer, even though no one disputes that he killed those people. McBride has meanwhile lost his job for repeated drunk driving.

Telling the unvarnished truth about a society like this is a risky business, for the post-revolutionary landscape is inhabited not just by political ideologues but by ideological entrepreneurs, scavengers and rent-seekers, all determined to impose their own hegemonic truth. And South Africa is a society in which becoming a Trotskyist can be a shrewd career move. For years, such people have written to publications I write for, demanding that I not be published and that someone more “progressive” (such as themselves) be asked to write instead. Recently, they targeted a blog I wrote for the London Review of Books, arguing that I was guilty of what might — at a considerable stretch — be called juxtapositional racism. This time they managed to round up a considerable number of doubtless unsuspecting allies on the British rent-a-crowd Left to sign up with them. I have never bothered to defend myself against such nonsense, for that would be to take it too seriously. But note that whereas in the old days when you disagreed with someone you wrote and said why, the demand now is that you not be allowed a voice at all, a form of fatwa.

Which brings one to the vexed question of press freedom in South Africa. The ANC has never understood a free press. In exile, its publications were all examples of “I-speak-your-weight” Marxism-Leninism with no room for any plurality or difference of opinion. Ever since the ANC came to power in 1994 it has sought to establish an uncritical “consensus” with the press, trying to reduce it to a tame toeing of the party line, a tactic which had largely succeeded with the churches. The press was scared of the former President Thabo Mbeki and deferential to him but he in turn knew that a formal gagging of the press would cost him dearly in the international gallery of opinion. Such worries have now been cast aside by President Jacob Zuma’s henchmen, who are less sophisticated and more parochial.

The Zuma-ites started by rushing through a bill allowing a parliamentary 
majority (themselves) to appoint and dismiss the board of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which accounts for 40 per cent of the radio audience and 70 per cent of the TV audience. A further broadcasting bill now under discussion allows the government to control SABC finances and issue directives to its board. Meanwhile, the SABC has been instructed to carry no more interviews with Mbeki since these “undermine” the Zuma government. ANC control of the SABC has been absolute for years but it is now a matter of ensuring that the right ANC faction has control.

The row with the press began with complaints by ANC ministers about press reports detailing their high-living in five-star hotels and restaurants at taxpayer expense (one of the chief high-livers and complainants was Blade Nzimande, the Communist Party leader who is minister for higher education). An avalanche of other reports detailed the now almost open corruption at ministerial level, usually via the allocation of state contracts, in defiance of tender regulations, to favoured bidders who then pay backhanders. Zuma, for his part, is still resentful about frequent press allegations of corruption directed against himself, together with embarrassing reports about his multitudinous wives, children and mistresses. He has taken legal action against many journalists and cartoonists. 

The result has been a protection of personal information bill, which will only allow reporting about people’s personal lives with their consent. Heavy penalties would thus prevent any more reporting of Mr Nzimande’s wine-bibbing or of illegitimate children born to President Zuma’s mistresses. This is accompanied by a new Information Bill which imposes penalties of up to 25 years jail for reporting about anything the government declares to be a matter of national interest, itself defined broadly to include anything which may be for the advancement of the public good. In effect, this would have prevented any reporting of a £6 billion arms deal with its massive bribes, or the corruption scandals which have recently seen the police chief, Jackie Selebi, jailed for 15 years. On top of that the government plans to institute a Media Tribunal to adjudicate complaints against the press and which will have power to jail journalists and impose fines that could close newspapers.

Recently Mzilikazi wa Afrika, a reporter on the Johannesburg Sunday Times, wrote a story showing how the new police chief, Bheki Cele, had broken tender regulations to award a new lease worth about £44 million. Outside the newspaper building wa Afrika was surrounded by eight armed policemen who, though without warrants, arrested him, drove him hundreds of miles from home, held him without access to lawyers, ransacked his house without a search warrant and then continued to hold him. All this despite the fact that the provincial public prosecutor said that wa Afrika had done no wrong and should be released. He is now out on bail on the unlikely charge of having forged a document. 

Most of these changes would appear to be unconstitutional but there is little confidence that the Constitutional Court will stand up to the government. It is not just that the ANC has long appointed its patsies to the court but what Humbert Wolfe once wrote of the British press applies all too well to ambitious judges here, that the wonder is what they will do, unbidden. I would like to think that all the politically correct Brits who lined up to condemn me for “juxtapositional racism” might say a word or two about the extinction of media freedom in a major Commonwealth country, but I am not holding my breath.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"