Analysis: Citizen vs McBride, to remember or not to remember

By Stephen Grootes 4 October 2010

As the former Umkhonto we Sizwe fighter and the daily newspaper from Johannesburg got their final chance to argue their logic in the Constitutional Court, we can't but not feel that South Africans did a very good job of moving on with their lives. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It is a pity that such weighty issues about amnesty, murder, violence, our past and whether national amnesia can be a good thing get to be fought out on a playing field set by The Citizen and Robert McBride. We don’t hold a grievance against either of them. But we do think one tries its best not to accept that life has changed for the better for most South Africans since 1994, and the other does his level best to piss off those who read The Citizen. But, as always, it’s when the extremes clash that legal cases happen, and it’s only when they’re the type of personality that just won’t let it go that it ends up in the Constitutional Court. And that provides us with a good opportunity to take stock of our national memory and our national amnesia.

In essence, this is a case about whether The Citizen is allowed to call McBride a “murderer”, or not. The legal case is one about defamation. McBride is suing on the basis of four articles that did not mention he had been granted amnesty for the 1986 Magoos Bar Bombing that killed three women. The victims were non-combatants. But it was an operation sanctioned by Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the ANC has always insisted McBride was doing it to liberate his people. This was accepted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and thus we should accept it too. The Citizen says a murderer is someone who “unlawfully killed people”. McBride admitted in legal testimony that he did park the car with the bomb in it outside the pub, and did kill the victims. Which was against the law at the time, and would still be against the law now.

There are plenty of other arguments here. In probably the most powerful set of legal arguments this reporter has ever read, advocate Wim Trengove for The Citizen explains that “a murderer is someone who has committed murder”. It doesn’t matter whether they are convicted or not. It also doesn’t matter what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act says, because a killer is a killer, and a murderer is the same thing. Then there’s the argument that if McBride is a not a murderer, because he was granted amnesty, and apartheid killers were also granted amnesty, were people like Griffiths Mxenge murdered? If not, then if their families said they were the victims of a murder around their dinner table or during a memorial service, could they be sued?

On the balance of it, we are hugely persuaded by Trengove’s argument, and we await the judgment with interest. We must point out that McBride’s argument that “the point of applying for amnesty is so that you are not forever branded a murderer” is a powerful one too. This is a defamation case, and thus will be judged to a degree on the law of defamation.

But it points to much bigger issues. Firstly, isn’t it amazing that in South Africa people who perpetuated the most horrific attacks, on both sides, have been pretty much left in peace? We hardly ever hear about them. In fact, we can’t remember when we last saw a story about Barend Strydom, a man who surely would be the one guy most South Africans would feel deserves some sort of punishment. (The story is slightly different when it comes to Clive Derby-Lewis, but he nearly threatened all of us, and wasn’t granted amnesty.)

There’s been a sort of national amnesia about what really happened. The South Africa we all live in now is indeed another country from the one in which there was so much violence and fear. The things that divided us then are not nearly so present now. In a way, race is slowly becoming less of a dominant issue than it used to be. There’ll be flare ups, but only on the extremes of a Terre’Blanche killing within a particular set of circumstances involving Julius Malema and his choice of songs. But by and large, we don’t talk about race so much anymore.

That also means we don’t talk so much about our history either, we gloss over the nastier parts. This has to be a good thing. We could not progress as a country by dwelling on the past.

But we also believe that a good working knowledge of what did happen under apartheid is vital for us to move forward. Imagine the current argument about media freedom without the long memories of Raymond Louw and Allister Sparks? It’s partly because they know what happens when a government starts talking about media regulation that the fight against the “Protection” of Information Act has so much power.

Knowledge of our past also allows us to put up warning signals when things start to go wrong. It’s only because we know of the awful consequences of labelling people by the way they look that we know never to do it again. It’s only because we understand how awful it is to live in a country where a few elites rule at the top, where human rights are laughed at and journalists are hurried off by armed men in unmarked cars that we know we need to stand up and shout, and protest and fight when it happens today. In short, it’s only because we know our past that we try not to allow our children to be condemned to it.

On balance, we think our country has struck the right balance. We don’t obsess about the past, by and large. It doesn’t hang over our daily existence like the Holocaust did over a generation of Germans and Jews. But we’ve managed to remember why our past is so important, why it cannot be forgotten, and why parts of it are crucial to our future. DM

Grootes is an Eyewitnes News reporter.


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