Johannesburg - Writing, it often is said, is not merely the exploration of self but the wilful submission of one’s thoughts for public scrutiny and, at times, for wanton attacks by brusque characters.
Writers – of news, literary works or even advertisements – submit themselves for criticism, much less praise, once their work is made known.
“A writer’s life,” observed Harold Pinter, a literary laureate, “is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb”.
Salman Rushdie, a celebrated author, has lived this experience. Rushdie has a fatwa on his name for daring to write what he believes and sticking to it.
So, when the creative minds at FNB, or the company they employed to come up with their latest “You can help” campaign, put pen to paper, they ought to have known that writing is, first and foremost, self-sacrificial. They ought to have known that every word they used, in this politically charged script, would be scrutinised, critiqued and used against them. So they need not be surprised by the tart language and the backlash.
Late last year, Nedbank boss Reuel Khoza was the subject of a vilification campaign by the ANC, SACP and the government similar to that to which FNB is subjected now.
Khoza, as a writer, had committed the abominable sin of putting the following to paper: “Our political leadership’s moral quotient is degenerating and we are fast losing the checks and balances that are necessary to prevent a recurrence of the past. South Africa is widely recognised for its liberal and enlightened constitution, yet we observe the emergence of a strange breed of leaders who are determined to undermine the rule of law and override the constitution.”
When some pointed out the obvious fact that Khoza had a right to free speech, former government chief spin doctor Jimmy Manyi responded: “Is Dr Khoza’s freedom of speech likely to be followed by an exercise in freedom of association on the part of Nedbank’s directors, shareholders and customers who may either express their support for the chairman or take their ideas and business elsewhere?”
The threat was clear: Nedbank must choose to be with Khoza and lose support and patronage from the government, the ANC and all who agree with the onslaught on Khoza, or else the chairman must be out on his own. That is how icy the wind was, how vulnerable Khoza’s words made him.
Now today, FNB is in trouble. For what? Saying our country faces enormous yet not insurmountable challenges that require us to work together.
Teachers’ union Sadtu, having learnt from Manyi, said: “As clients of FNB, Sadtu is… ashamed to have business dealings with a bank that has stooped so low and used children in uniform to wage a war against the government.” What war? Is to raise a concern to declare war?
The threadbare threat here is that should FNB not show sufficient contrition, it must know that it stands not only to lose Sadtu’s account, but risk having Sadtu campaigning against the bank.
The presidency also weighed in: “The current global economic crisis is threatening jobs and the livelihoods of our people. Frivolous adverts which display hatred of the government or the ruling party will not help us to achieve the country’s developmental goals.”
Why is the ANC, its unions and government so sensitive, so touchy? Why should a corporate citizen not be entitled to express its view about our challenges and how they should be sorted out?
The intended outcome of Sadtu, the presidency and the ANC’s attack on FNB is self-censorship. When the heads of Standard Bank and Absa see how Khoza was dressed down, how FNB is now threatened, why would they wish the same fate on themselves, especially if they hold sizeable government accounts? This is real bullying.
In truth, we are all observers and writers of the many histories of our time. The history of powerful parties is no longer the history of us all. Where there used to be a confluence of thoughts on what the country thought of what needed to be done to bring about real change in the lives of those who still endure the effects of apartheid, there is divergence. Let a thousand flowers bloom, you would think should be the approach. Not for the ANC. Or Sadtu. Or even the government.
An inability to appreciate the need to safeguard and defend FNB’s right to air adverts of its choosing is the beginning of our demise. The day we stop writing our real thoughts because we are fearful of the bullies in Luthuli House, the Presidency or Sadtu, that is the day we lose our country. That is when we lose ourselves, our being and succumb to thought control.
The fact that FNB has capitulated by withdrawing the advert is bad enough. Unlike Rushdie, it appears the bank’s Steve is too afraid of an economic fatwa! As a writer, you choose your words and, as Pinter points out, stick to them, however icy the winds you’re subjected to later.
But politicians, scholars remind us, are interested not in truth but in power and the maintenance of that power. “To maintain that power,” observes Pinter, “it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives”.
When FNB says – and it is neither the first to say so nor the first time it says so – there are challenges and we need leadership, we must understand that politicians will do everything possible to ensure we remain ignorant of that truth.
To fight off this ignorance, we need to take the first step of at least saying what we think and defending our right to say so.
Writing might be a naked activity, it might make you or your company vulnerable, you might be out on a limb, but it is also the fuel on which democracy, if it is to be meaningful, relies. Yesterday was Khoza, then Anglo, now FNB. Who’s next? What happens if we all speak out – at once? Our democracy demands no less.