SA shocked by tabloids' horror stories: London reports of mass evacuations have been taken seriously by the press, reports John Carlin in Johannesburg

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The Independent Online
BRITISH tabloids have now turned their attentions to South Africa, a sure sign that this must now be a huge international news story. What the editors and the reporters concerned perhaps do not realise is how seriously their reports are taken by the white South African public. This week the media have been devoting an unusual amount of space to reporting what the tabloids in London have been saying about their country.

A report in the latest issue of the Mail on Sunday had the Monday morning radio and television programmes buzzing. Broadcasters reported that under the headline 'Mass airlift for South African Britons', the Mail had provided details of 'emergency plans' to evacuate 350,000 British passport- holders 'should the country slide into chaos after this month's elections'.

The Mail on Sunday also reported, it was said here, that British Airways and Virgin Airways were preparing, with the blessing of the Foreign Office, to divert their fleets to Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Such was the stir the story generated that the responsible-minded Johannesburg Star felt obliged to try and quell any incipient hysteria by publishing a report the next day quoting the British embassy in Pretoria pooh- poohing the Mail's report.

The same day, Tuesday, the Star published two stories about the Daily Express coverage of South Africa's white right. One, tongue-in-cheek, by the Star's London correspondent, Alan Robinson, quoted 'award-winning Express man Daniel McGrory' writing this about an AWB man: 'His neck was wider than his forehead and there was no question the bull terrier the Afrikaner held slobbering on the leash possessed the higher IQ.'

The writer of the second Star story, the Afrikaans author and journalist Hans Pienaar, was not amused. Another Express reporter, Peter Tory, had written a 'wild and vindictive piece of journalism' about his people. 'The Boers are largely stupid,' he quoted Tory saying. 'They are gross; foul- mouthed and bloated with beer and arrogance. They are probably the most unattractive breed on God's earth.'

A peeved Pienaar suggested this was much the same as concluding that all Britons were 'violent, gross, beer-soaked and bloated' because a few football hooligans smashed up German shop windows. High- mindedly, Pienaar went on to provide a potted history of South Africa, the purpose of which was to demonstrate the responsibility the British bore for the iniquities of apartheid. 'British journalists,' he complained, 'should know this.'

Pienaar clearly does not know the Express. Nor, clearly, do the rest of the South African media brethren know the Sunday Times, the highest circulation British Sunday broadsheet. It caused the biggest stir with an editorial, which was widely quoted as saying that the ANC and the National Party were perpetrating 'an enormous fraud' on the South African public in claiming that the elections would be free and fair; that South Africa was 'now on the brink of civil war'; that Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini were not 'spoilers'.

Why should people in South Africa care what the British press says about their country?

It is simple, really. The sun of the Empire has not yet set on parts of white South Africa. An awe remains, a reverence, for Britain and its institutions. Sad. A British friend who lives in South Africa has a phrase for it: 'colonial cringe'.