Asked to reflect on the meaning of International Press Freedom Day a few days ago at Stellenbosch University, my thoughts went back to the editorial of Koranta ea Bechuana on September 6, 1902. The editorial read: “When it was discovered that we were ordering a plant we were encumbered with friendly advices not to undertake anything so disastrous…
“These black hands have not only edited and printed a paper, but have come to the rescue of a distressed community and delivered their work in two days, for which they formerly had to wait a fortnight and often three weeks.”
Koranta had been launched days earlier, on August 16, 1902, by Sol Plaatje and Chief Silas Molema. It was the first-ever African-edited Setswana newspaper.
Plaatje had established the newspaper to preserve the language. A language without any literary base, he had astutely observed earlier, was bound to become extinct.
Koranta’s significance, however, went beyond its linguistic distinction. It was the first of its kind in the history of the African press. Unlike its predecessors, Koranta was funded purely by African capital. Chief Molema provided the start-up capital. Imvo ZabaNtsundu and Izwi LaBantu, the pioneers of the native press, were funded by white capital, liberals and Cecil Rhodes respectively. They were mouthpieces of settlers’ political interests that paraded as advocates of African progress when they actually sought to establish racial supremacy and advance imperialism.
Plaatje insisted on complete autonomy to write as he wished without the compulsion to appease settler interests.
It is the meaning of Plaatje’s life that draws me to his memory.
He was both an editor and a political activist, having been the first secretary of what was initially called the SA Native National Congress, but later renamed ANC. Plaatje fused both intellectualism and political activism, which he articulated through newspapers.
Newspapers were a mouthpiece for his ideas and a tool for political mobilisation. Plaatje was emulating his predecessors and had many peers in the African community.
Native press sprung out of the intersection of African intellectualism and political activism.
In present-day SA, however, the nationalist movement considers the press the enemy of the revolution. How did we get here?
Tension between the political elite and the press is a function of a fracture within the progressive movement. It is an outburst sparked by the break between intellectual persuasion and political activism, both of which formed the leitmotif of the liberation movement.
This convergence was not a natural phenomenon, but a construct of history and context.
As such, the relationship between the media and the nationalist was always bound to change.
Nationalists earned wider support through the appeal of their ideas. They relied on intellectual persuasion to convince the broad-section of SA society, and later the rest of the world, of the superiority of their ideal society.
This intellectual engagement came easy to early nationalists.
They were the most educated in the African community. Missionary education had prepared them for leadership of their society.
Their role was to lead the rest of the uneducated black society into enlightenment. They were a modernising agent. Newspapers were their modernising tool. They carried a number of debates on topical issues of the day ranging from the appropriate orthography of African languages, the relevance of African cultural practices, and the meaning and benefits of education.
Just as the missionaries had done through religious newspapers, early nationalists used secular newspapers to establish hegemony of their universal, progressive ideas. Newspapers allowed them to reach a broader audience than they’d have otherwise been able to.
The ANC was the organisational instrument that would get them to the ideal society. It was not an end in and of itself, but a means to a different future.
These were individuals who would have otherwise, in a normal society, pursued simple professional lives. All that Plaatje ever wanted to do was to write books and edit newspapers. He had the intellect to achieve that, but a hateful society stifled that ambition on account of his dark complexion. Political activism was not Plaatje’s first choice, but forced upon him by the hatred of the Union.
Whereas racial repression had made intellectual persuasion vital, liberation would make it less important, and with that the private media became marginalised.
Because the democratic break-through was a victory of the progressive values they had championed for a whopping 82 years, the new ruling elite found it increasingly less important to continue persuading the rest of society of the rightness of their ideas.
Instruments of persuasion, such as the media, were nudged aside in favour of the use of state power.
Because they had the power, the political elite simply acted regardless of whether or not their actions had popular resonance.
Marginalising the media was a miscalculation. It rested on the belief that, because the democratic victory had vindicated the justness of their cause, no more persuasion was required, but action to translate what they had conceptualised for more than 82 years into reality. That was wrong. Transforming society is not a mechanical exercise, but an ongoing process of deliberation. Democratic SA was new to everyone and required sacrifices and tampering of expectations.
An open, public discussion, one that is afforded by the media, was therefore necessary to facilitate the trade-offs and secure a buy-in.
But, the media was snubbed and, consequently, it became indifferent towards the government. It found it a lot easier to publish unflattering stories about the government.
That made the ruling party even more intransigent. Worse, it began to see the media as the “enemy of the revolution”.
To some degree, the breakdown of the relationship with the media reflected a party that was becoming self-obsessed.
It was withdrawing into itself, becoming preoccupied with its own internal dynamics. One manifestation of this self-obsession has been the ugly leadership fights.
The party is no longer a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.
Party leadership has become everything. That has seen activists willing to do everything, even the most unseemly acts, to achieve or remain within positions of power.
The party has become more important than society itself.
The historical mission has been to modernise society. Now the objective is to bend society in a way that accommodates leadership ambitions of certain individuals.
This has only served to create distance between the party and some segments of society, especially the intellectual class.
Intellectuals that have historically been part of, or sympathetic towards, the progressive movement have either become silent or critical.
Both the intellectual class and the media are pivotal to a process of societal change.
Society is not transformed through statutes or leadership decrees, but through popular acceptance of the ideas that underpin that change. The potency of the liberation movement stemmed from the strength of its ideas.
It prioritised intellectual engagement and invested immensely towards its pursuit. With time, the progressive, universal ideas the liberation movement represented gained popular acceptance. Intellectuals and the media were instrumental throughout that exercise.
At present, the intellectuals cannot recognise what has become of the ANC and are simply perplexed by what they see. The party seems to be propelled purely by its own, weird logic completely inconsiderate to the symbolism its projects towards society. What is commonly repulsive behaviour is exhibited with such brazenness as to suggest that it’s normal.
Now we have a strange case involving a senior police officer, Richard Mdluli, who is accused of all manner of corruption and possible murder.
The legal case has simply stalled and his suspension was suddenly lifted. Mdluli has not only been restored back to active duty, but has also been given even more prominent responsibilities. Yet the allegations of impropriety against him continue to surface.
More frightening are the reports that Mdluli is at war with his colleagues. The entire executive management of the police force, the institution responsible for our safety, is at war with each other. This is really weird. What message does the government thinks this sends? Do they even care? How does something so unbecoming happen with such air of normality?
The media is not the enemy. It simply reports on the drama willingly, perhaps even happily, generated from within the ruling elite.
Stifling the media will not eliminate that hubris either. It will be invisible to the public eye, but eventually implode on our faces. Ask Ben Ali in Tunisia. Ultimately, the enemy lies within!
n Ndletyana is head of political economy at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection