JOHANNESBURG — South Africa today leaves me feeling like Rip Van Winkle. It’s as if I went to sleep in the mid-20th Century when this nation suffered under a violent, racist white minority government and its Apartheid policy of color-defined racial segregation.
Each morning now, I wake up in the 21st Century South Africa, ruled by a freely elected multiracial government and its third black president.
Nothing so illustrates this change as white and black couples walking arm-in-arm, holding the hand of their racially-mixed child. They have no reason to fear today what was illegal under Apartheid.
I won’t parachute in and play network anchor as instant expert on the “new South Africa.” Rather, I want to talk about some of the ways the issues of race arise or erupt in the news media.
There is candor Americans could learn to emulate.
Nowhere is it clearer than on English-language 702, a 24-talk/news FM station. Callers raise all kinds of issues – employment, black economic development, white anxieties, crime – and frequently race is invoked. It almost always involves government policies and actions.
The radio hosts unfailingly listen, probe, and keep the conversation going without the shouting, interruptions and demonizing so common on local and national talk radio heard in Cincinnati.
Race is that important. The new South Africa – that’s a common, quietly proud term here — began with the first free election in 1994.
Ironically, there is no way to deal with the many employment problems without invoking the Apartheid categories that defined everything about an individual’s identity: black, white, “Coloured” (mixed race), Asian, etc. Whites still dominate the economy. Blacks form the majority – maybe 75 percent — but comprise most of the unemployed and underemployed.
Coloured and Asian South Africans remain caught in the middle.
For days, news media have followed angry exchanges between Trevor Manuel, a white senior government minister, and Jimmy Manyi, the government’s black chief spokesman. Both are prominent in the governing African National Congress.
Manuel said Manyi’s tirade against Coloureds echoed the worst of the Apartheid National Party government. Manyi said many Coloureds should abandon their historic home on the Atlantic shore, known as the Western Cape, and spread into other provinces.
Coloureds are the majority in the Cape province. It’s worth noting that the ANC, with its national majority membership, does poorly in Cape provincial elections.
More than one media commentator has noted that Manyi has not called on black South Africans to spread into the Cape provinces to reduce their majorities in some other provinces.
This same government spokesman also is complaining that Asians – South Africans largely of Indian descent – hold too many management positions because of their “bargaining” ability and blacks hold too few.
Both statements are openly and unapologetically racist; both draw a lot of reporting and comment. South Africa suffers serious unemployment and anxieties over affirmative action.
That’s one reason the government spokesman’s controversial remark about too many Coloureds in the Cape raises such anger. If national law requires that employment figures reflect the national population, an estimated 1 million Coloureds will have to be fired in the Cape.
Similarly, in another province, Asians will face dismissal because their employment reflects local demographics but they are over-represented in terms of national population figures and percentages.
More recently, Kuli Roberts, a black national TV host and newspaper columnist, wrote that Coloureds like to fight in public, have no front teeth, that Coloured women breed as if on a mission and were “nuts” because they drank Carling Black Label beer and smoke like chimneys.
I’ve been following this in The Sowetan, the 30-year-old daily newspaper published for the millions of blacks living in that infamous Jo’burg suburb.
One related problem has less to do with race than with the near monopoly on power wielded by the ANC. It’s the movement and now the party that led to the fall of Apartheid and the rise of majority rule.
ANC loathes criticism of its elected and appointed officials. Since most are ANC or ANC-appointed, that means ANC becomes the target of complaints along with officials. This sensitivity reflects in part ANC’s long history of collective leadership and references to colleagues as “comrade.”
In the decades of The Struggle (with a capital S) against Apartheid, that comradeship was a vital bond. It’s also why the government minister’s condemnation of the spokesman’s racist statements about Coloureds and Asians so far has evoked little support among senior ANC and government officials. This sensitivity also gives rise to efforts to curb the news media and evokes strong responses from journalists and others who remember the Apartheid era censorship and restriction of news sources.
And if anyone is listening, events in North Africa, Yemen, Iran and other nations demonstrate that even government controls over news media and communications cannot thwart the ability of the young to find ways to gain and share information on “new media.”
For all that openness here, there is a constraint.
South Africa’s constitution is liberal on human and civil rights. The law, however, also punishes “hate speech” even if the words don't call for hateful action.
Unlike the United States, where we have no right to not be offended, some South Africans are quick to take offense and go to court or the national press commission. Rude speech we’d pass off as just that, rude and offensive, can cause serious trouble for columnists and others in the media as well as other aspects of public life.
From the little I read and heard about incidents of hate speech, it is indistinguishable from popular debate and seems to depend more on whose ox is gored and prior relations between the purported victim and speaker/writer.
If sex and religion are not staples at dinner tables, race is. No one is shy about their views.
We encountered this everywhere regardless of whether we knew the people we encountered or it was a casual conversation in a cafe. That lays the groundwork for the openness of the news media. Most South Africans we heard and read about are not shrill voices crying in the night but a reflection of the racial questions at the nation’s foundation.
I read local and national dailies for a month; all in English. I don’t read or speak Afrikaans, the language of the other white minority and many, if not most Coloured South Africans. I have no idea what they say but I’ll willing to generalize about the news media in large part on the basis of what our Afrikaner hosts talked about.
Moreover, some preferred the English-language papers to those in Afrikaans for the quality of their reporting.
Papers I read differed widely. Some were tabloids in content and presentation as much as format. Scandal, hint of scandal, rape and other crimes figure prominently in their news. The writing is vivid if not judgmental; our “objective” reporting would bore many South Africans.
Broadsheets vary widely too, except that they are so wide that they are hard to hold open. Writing is lively and allegations or suspicion of influence peddling and government wrongdoing is a mainstay.
Sex and violence never are far from the headlines, especially in the continuing story of a young, handsome husband suspected of bringing his bride to South Africa to have her killed on their honeymoon. It’s a weird story. The news media reflect the relief in Cape Town, where she was carjacked and murdered in a township, that the husband is suspected . That means the murder no longer can be played as “tourist killed visiting night club in township.” Cape Town lives on tourism and we were told there was a tangible slump in the days immediately after the gruesome killing.
Papers are fat with ads. In the more serious urban dailies, auto and real estate figure prominently. In tabloids and some broadsheets, retail, and especially food, fill page after page. Major cities have competing dailies and Sunday papers.
Whatever South Africans feel about their futures, their governments and their news media, our contacts appeared unanimous on this: It's better today than under Apartheid when skin color defined life, censorship was unapologetic, and despite heroic English-language journalism, too many people took their cues from government propaganda.
The inability of all of the news media, including the government’s South African Broadcasting Corp., to tell all of what they knew is cited as a major reason Apartheid lasted so long.
As a result of this restricted access to news, too many South Africans say they really believed there was a black peril motivated by godless international Communism and that sending South African soldiers to fight and die in Southwest Africa (now black-governed Namibia) and Angola was truly a battle against the Reds. It was the domino theory at home. Some still believe it.
Suppression of Communism also justified suppression of civil rights, free speech and association, to the point where words spoken by “banned persons” couldn't be published or broadcast.
Ignorance was a virtue as far as the Apartheid government was concerned. Not everyone welcomes the changes, especially black ascendance and limited white opportunities.
I’m sorry we never met these hardliners here. Their intransigence – regardless of race – would have enriched our stay and my understanding of the roles of the news media. They exist. I’ve heard them on the radio and read comments attributed to them.
They remain a part of the South African fabric and a reminder of what most South Africans we met and encountered in the news media don’t want to repeat.
South Africans who welcome majority rule refer to The Struggle waged by the ANC and its allies to end Apartheid and its generations of white minority rule by Afrikaner descendents of Dutch settlers.
In a conversation with an Afrikaner woman committed to helping create and sustain the new South Africa, I described our 1964 creation of an anti-Apartheid daily paper to support black majority rule in Zambia, hundreds of mile to the north.
At the time, Zambia already was refuge for anti-Apartheid fugitives. I added that I still believe it was that success at the Zambia Times that prompted South African authorities to refuse me entry in 1965.
“Then you’re part of The Struggle,” she replied.
Table Mountain dominates Cape Town and its sense of self. We took a cable car to its top and had a guided tour of the part which has been set aside for tourists.
Near the end of the walk around the edge and through that part of the plateau, my wife, Harriet, asked the white-haired volunteer what he had done before guiding.
“I was a journalist.”
Well, two old farts began to tell stories and we quickly realized that we had worked with some of the same people, including my chief reporter at the Zambia Times, Eugene Hugo, and a wonderful young photographer, Tommy Murray.
They’d come south after the Zambia Times was purchased and consolidated with our competition, the Northern News. I left at the same time.
Eugene was a South African. Tommy was a Brit who stayed in Southern Africa. I’ve lost track of both but a Google search for Eugene provided a reference in a book about the Apartheid era. It recalls an attempt by state security to recruit him as an informer. No way, the agent was told; Eugene “hates the regime.”