Despatches: Black South Africans claim media racist and unpatriotic

Public hearings this week into the white-controlled media's collusion with apartheid were marked by bitter criticisms from black journalists about the past. But it is the future that is causing more concern, for black columnists and intellectuals are clamouring for a purge of the still white-dominated media, arguing it is as racist as ever. The signs for press freedom are ominous.
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It was a heated three days. At the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's hearings into the media's role in apartheid, Jon Qwelane, one of South Africa's most influential black columnists, was characteristically uncompromising.

"I want to charge all the mainstream newspapers - English or Afrikaans - with collusion with apartheid, and having a hand ... in the subsequent murders of tens of thousands of black people by the apartheid army and police." He added: "I am not off my rocker."

Forget the film Cry Freedom and the brave white editor Donald Woods. In a country where "white liberal" is now a term of derision, Mr Qwelane allows the media of that time only the occasional flash of apartheid-era courage. At the hearings, other black journalists talked about the watering down of copy by a media which conspired to keep South Africa - and blacks in particular - ignorant.

They complained bitterly about humiliation in white liberal newsrooms; their allocation of tin mugs while white colleagues were dished the porcelain and rules which forced them to use blacks-only toilets.

They spoke of the frustration of always being paid less than whites and never being trained or promoted.

The past, of course, has many versions. The print giants Times Media Limited and Independent Newspapers (formerly the Argus Group) which dominate today have changed owners since apartheid crumbled and like to concentrate on the transformation of their companies. The Independent group admits its titles could have done more, while TML argues it was not apartheid's poodle and did what it could within the confines of the times.

Black criticism of the "white liberal" press is not just about the past. Thami Mazwai, head of Mafube Publishing and a former Argus employee, insists the "apartheid mindset" lives on at his old workplace. And Don Mattera, liberation poet and former journalist, this week called for a complete purge of the media to rid it of racism.

With TML now in black hands, black journalists see their fight for control shifting from the boardroom to the newsroom where whites still dominate. "We are always about to fulfil our potential," says one young black journalist. "But somehow we never manage to get there."

Black journalists' dissatisfaction with the pace of change is understandable. But their complaints are part of a larger, more ominous anti-media campaign begun by Thabo Mbeki, President Nelson Mandela's heir apparent, and developed by prominent members of the new black establishment.

Mr Mbeki has condemned the media for negative portrayals of the new South Africa, particularly in relation to crime. The press, he complains, is running down the country. In this fledgling democracy, in a continent where few states place any value on free speech or press freedom, the antagonism is worrying.

President Mandela has also criticised journalists but Mr Mbeki is different; his pronouncements have led many journalists to conclude he does not like the media and does not understand its role in a democracy. Mr Mbeki, it is rumoured, is orchestrating - or at least encouraging - the attacks by black writers and intellectuals who insist the media is the new enemy within, undermining government and hampering Africanisation.

And no matter how impeccable a white journalist's anti-apartheid credentials, there is no escape from criticism which at times degenerates into racist diatribe. The editors of the liberal Sunday Independent and the Guardian and Mail were last month accused of being unpatriotic by Mr Qwelane and Mr Mazwai after revealing an arms deal the government would rather have kept secret. Unpatriotic is just the charge levelled at them many times by the old National Party government.

The white editors' sin was to reveal South Africa's plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, a disclosure the government claimed endangered the creation of 30,000 jobs. The Saudi story was part of a wider public debate about the ANC's promise to inject ethics into the arms industry. Nonetheless Mr Qwelane denounced the scoop as an "abuse" of press freedom.

Mr Mazwai went further, reassuring defence minister Joe Modise he would do all in his power to "ensure that press freedom serves the interests of South Africa rather than assuage the egos of some Euro-South Africans". Mr Qwelane even denounced dissenting black journalists as "Uncle Toms".

The drawing up of a wider Eurocentric conspiracy is left to Professor William Makgoba, an academic at the University of the Witswatersrand. "The media has become a major obstacle to (social) transformation and the African renaissance," he argues, claiming the media deliberately negates African excellence to promote "an endangered conservative liberal agenda".

Mr Makgoba argues that the debate is really about national identity and the tension between "two societies living on different wavelengths in the same geographic space". Some of his criticisms are valid. The media is trying to cater to black interests - it is in its commercial interest.

But his insistence that the media is deliberately preventing social change is unsubstantiated. Most worrying, he insists the media cannot reform itself and this week called for a government inquiry into the press and reform of the sector.

Press freedom, says Mr Mazwai, must serve South Africa and its national objectives. A minister from the disgraced old National Party could not have put it better.