Thirty-two years since Black Wednesday, Government still wants control
- Branko Brkic
- 19 Oct 2009 11:54 (South Africa)
The 32nd anniversary of Black Wednesday is today. It commemorates the occasion on which a host of newspapers, 19 organisations and scores of apartheid government critics were detained. The day raises the obvious question: what is the current state of press freedom in South Africa? The obvious answer? It’s not good.
The banning of The World and Weekend World on 19 October 1977 by then minister of justice Jimmy Kruger was a brutal act of censorship the likes of which was not seen again until the imposition of the “State of Emergency” in the mid-1980’s. Kruger’s justification was the obvious one: that the publications were “publishing inflammatory material that threatened the nation's security”.
The newspapers' editor Percy Qoboza and other journalists were subsequently arrested and jailed.
Yet as is so often the case with censors, in their desperate attempts to shoot the messengers, they write their own death warrants. The banning of The World and the Weekend World really closed off the major voices supporting the black consciousness movement, which was stronger than the “congress movement” at the time.
In fact, with its quiet links to the external African National Congress and its explicit links to the emerging trade union movement, the congress movement had almost infinitely more potential to challenge the apartheid government than the effete, self-styled intellectuals of the Black Consciousness movement.
The banning of The World left only the tiny newspaper, The Post, on the scene. It was converted into The Sowetan in 1981 and tiny it did not remain, quickly going national and replacing The World as the voice of black South Africa. Only it was not the same voice. A former journalist at The World who was jailed for nine months in 1977, Aggrey Klaaste eventually became its editor and it proved an inspired choice: Klaaste’s careful journalism and righteous support for “nation building”, along with the growing power of the movement he now backed, kept the paper from being banned during the hectic 1980’s.
But one of the effects of Black Wednesday was to increase exponentially the power of the SABC, whose share of voice became unchallenged and essentially unchallengeable. Starting then, the SABC began its downward slide, adopting a ethic of subservience to government which has remained coursing through its veins to this day. The dominance of the SABC, with its huge budgets, national presence, multitude of ethnic stations, and a license fee system was essentially forged in the aftermath of 1977. With some small concessions to news independence, the new democratic government in 1994 accepted this great propaganda gift with glee, quickly substituting its subservient cohorts for those of its predecessors. Only recently has its power over the SABC been significantly dented.
New, alternative television news offerings by eTV in particular are proving popular. The Internet has provided new voices and a greater international perspective.
But the biggest political factor has been the SABC’s support for the wrong ANC faction in the recent election, which has had the sobering effect of demonstrating the dangers of biased journalism under the guise of “community journalism” to now ruling members of the ANC. And, as is so often the case, corrupt mentality almost inevitably results in more conventional forms of corruption as the best drift away and short-cut solutions begin to seem more attractive to those that remain.
In an act of true irony, the anniversary of Black Wednesday is being celebrated at the SABC with the decision to suspend four top executives, the start of a long process to discover those responsible for the government-controlled public broadcaster's financial meltdown.
By Tim Cohen