Black Wednesday is steeped in apartheid atrocities which must never be forgotten
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By Mushtak Parker
On October 19, 1977, the South African press experienced its version of Kristallnacht when apartheid minister of justice Jimmy Kruger unleashed a violent Pogrom, arresting several black editors, journalists and activists, and banning a spate of publications and organisations.
It came in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto riots and a month after the brutal murder in detention of Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, to which Kruger demonically retorted, “Dit laat my koud” (“It leaves me cold”). Instead of breaking the spirit of non-racial journalism, it reinforced it.
Black Wednesday is what defines my and subsequent generations of South African journalists. Anniversaries usually are occasions for commemoration. They are imperative for pondering the past and future! Some 26 years into a democratic South Africa, armed with a progressive constitution and a Bill of Rights second to none, what is the state of press freedom?
The World Press Freedom Index 2020, published by Paris-based Reporters without Borders, ranks South Africa 31st out of 180 countries - above France, UK and US. In Africa, Namibia, Cabo Verde and Ghana have a freer press than South Africa.
A world-class constitution is no guarantee of press freedom. During the Zuma presidency, the media, at best, was constantly undermined. During Covid-19, many governments, including our own, are using the pandemic as a cover for policy failures and procurement profiteering in the name of health security and national interest.
Freedom House, in a recent report “Democracy under Lockdown”, laments the rise of authoritarianism and decline of democracy, warning the “Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled a crisis for democracy around the world”. South Africa, says Freedom House, is a free country, but its democratic institutions are “somewhat weaker” and its economy “very weak”.
I was fortunate to train as a journalist in London’s Fleet Street in the 1970s. I later won a scholarship to study Government and Economics at the LSE - the six best years of my life, when my mind opened up, jettisoning the fog of an apartheid education.
I had that beginner’s buzz to see my name in print. In Fleet Street, I was surrounded by the offices of South African news outlets including Sapa, the Cape Times, Die Transvaler and Die Vaderland. As compatriots, we inevitably converged on the same cafés and watering holes. Die Vaderland representative, having learnt I was visiting West Germany and a divided Berlin, with the aim of crossing Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, commissioned my first paid article. Alas, he could not shake off his Afrikaner apartheid mindset.
He dissected my article into two parts - one highlighting the prevalence of hardcore porn on the bookstalls of Kudamm Strasse in West Berlin, with the heading, “Wes Berlyn - Die Hedendagse Sodom”, the other scoffing at the repressive austerity of totalitarian East Berlin.
To add insult to injury, he bylined me as a “Kleurling” journalist. I was oblivious of his ideological and racist shenanigans. For my efforts, I earned a measly five pounds.
On a visit to Cape Town in 1976, I met with a senior Cape Argus journalist, whose name I saw in the alumni magazine of the Cheltenham boarding school, where I did my A Levels. I arranged to meet him in his office, suggesting I was interested in a career at the Argus. His expression when I walked into his office was pure gold. With a surname like Parker he could hardly believe his eyes that I was not white!
Those experiences contributed to my persona as a journalist - independence, objectivity and doggedness - and to my success at LSE. While there, I even had a part-time job at an international magazine and started contributing to several outlets.
The aim was to gain experience. My break came as a correspondent for the FT Group of publications writing on Middle East, Eastern Europe, commodities, banking, petrochemicals, trade finance, the environment and robotics over a 14-year period. That was the best on-the-job training I got, and it shaped my career forever.
I wrote on apartheid South Africa inter alia for Richard Hall, then Africa editor of The Observer, South Magazine, Arab News, The Banker, African Business, New African, and Index of Censorship when George Steiner was editor. I wrote profiles on prisoners of conscience including Dr Fatima Meer, anti-apartheid activist, sociologist and Madiba’s biographer.
Index rejected profiles of Mandela and ANC stalwarts because they were not deemed “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International because of their refusal to abandon the use of violence in the Struggle.
But there was a potential cost. My father received a letter from the Department of Interior, questioning my South African citizenship.
His lawyer, Mr Wood, senior partner in the prominent firm John Ince & Wood, won the case against the minister. He confided that the action was triggered because of my articles against the apartheid regime.
Freedom of the press - the right to report news or circulate opinion without censorship from government - is not as simple. Equally important is access to opportunities and media ownership.
Today’s onslaught of social media, internet, fake news, disinformation, “influencers” and the rise of populism and dumbing down of democracy, political and civic culture are evolving challenges. While technology can be a force for good, its use and abuse are often morally ambivalent.
Libertarian notions of absolute free speech are as destructive as the underbelly of social media, internet, and state censorship.
There is no absolute freedom of speech. The cornucopia of D Notices, injunctions, laws that ban denials, hate speech, incitement, and shenanigans of politicians and proprietors is testimony to that.
Black Wednesday, steeped in apartheid atrocities which must never be forgotten, has to evolve to face up to the current challenges of post-apartheid South Africa, still struggling to emerge from the polarising politics of race, class, envy and inequality.
The Struggle against apartheid was as much for press freedom as it was for justice and equality.
South African editors and journalists beware beguiling politicians, proprietors, plutocrats and poseurs, lest our readers get left behind!
* Mushtak Parker is a writer and economist based in London.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.