Black Wednesday: You can't understand SA if you do not come to grips with its history
by Gawie Botma
The remembrance of Black Wednesday has been a firm fixture on the media calendar for a long time, despite the changing context of post-apartheid South Africa and the challenges of the 21st century.
One obvious reason for remembering the day in 1977 on which the apartheid government clamped down (not for the first or last time) on, among others, news organisations and journalists who supported the liberation movement, is that the struggle and sacrifices of so many people must be honoured. At best, remembering history is about imagining and constructing a better future. We also pay tribute to our heroes because they deserve it.
Understandably annual commemorations tend to be ritualistic in nature. Often the same people meet and tell each other the same things - we must value media freedom, it was hard won, the media is the watchdog of society, etc. And all of these are true, and certainly society and journalists in a new era often need to be reminded of their precious heritage.
Another potential pitfall is the tendency to use the past as a weapon in the present. Current tensions between groups and communities are then projected on to a version of the past which suits an immediate agenda. Every year on Black Wednesday some of these fault lines become visible as battle lines are redrawn and old scores resurface. This is a reminder that our struggles in politics and life are generally ongoing and cannot be fixed in time.
How then should South African media history be remembered?
The first point is that the story of Black Wednesday needs to be told in context, even if an exact point of origin cannot be established. One possible start is at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the first newspapers were published in the Cape Colony, first in English and Dutch, and soon after also in indigenous languages.
Is it politically incorrect in 2020 to emphasise the rich colonial and apartheid history of the South African media because the topic has become virtually taboo or at least ideologically “closed” and one-dimensional? Yet, these stories tell not only of division and strife but also of efforts to communicate and collaborate, to build bridges despite sometimes overwhelming odds.
One example will suffice: Before Black Wednesday and up until it was banned on October 19, 1977, the newspaper The World - which supported Black Consciousness, and the Afrikaner daily Beeld had an arrangement by which the two exchanged editorial and opinion articles. Over time the two newspapers sometimes agreed and often differed, but kept on talking.
This may seem like an insignificant case which had little influence on the course of history, but it signifies a moment in press history where opponents respected each other enough to engage in civil discourse. Cynics may argue that it had little value for the supporters of black liberation at the time, and that the might of the Afrikaner state set the parameters all along. But if you compare the different contexts, something significant appears.
In the period leading up to Black Wednesday many partisan newspapers, representing different racial and ethnic factions, pushed their own agendas. Even small efforts to engage in dialogue in that era are therefore important, even though Black Wednesday symbolises a dramatic severing of communication by the apartheid state.
Looking back at Black Wednesday today, we have media freedom on a level which did not exist in 1977, but the question arises whether we are using the numerous channels of communication, including newspapers, for constructive engagement across barriers.
You cannot understand South Africa today if you do not come to grips with its complicated history, and ironically and perhaps understandably because they deal with the present, journalists are famously ill-informed about the past of their own profession. There is a truism that journalism is the “first rough draft of history”, but unfortunately journalists do not often spend time to delve deeper than the surface. There is so little time and always the next story to chase.
One could argue that this attitude to history also informs the writing of the “first rough draft”, the regular coverage of current affairs. In his new book about journalism and state capture in the Jacob Zuma era, Anton Harber argues that the inability and/or unwillingness of journalists to engage with complicated narratives was one of the main reasons why members of the profession could be manipulated by state security agencies in disinformation campaigns against civil servants.
With an over abundance of information and many agents with the means to spread rumours and propaganda on a huge scale, the challenge is not only to make sense of the present, but to engage with the complicated past.
* Dr Gawie Botma is a journalism lecturer at Stellenbosch University.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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