Media and racism in Mandela's rainbow nation.
Prime Time for Tolerance: Journalism and the Challenge of Racism:
International Federation of Journalists World Conference, Bilbao, Spain, May 2 - 4 1997
      by Guy Berger, 1997

One of the challenges in dealing with racism in SA today, from a media point of view, is to get beyond the all-too-obvious.

As part of the compromises in our political settlement, we have a gentle alternative to the Nuremburg Trials and other war crimes tribunal. Our process is taking place under the leadership of Archbishop Tutu, and is called - with an unusual combination of words - the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC. The process is rather controversial: it promises amnesty to perpetrators of gross human rights violations, in exchange for the truth about what they did. Another, lesser, aspect is to recommend reparations to victims. Many South Africans are unhappy that there is not retribution, that reconciliation is required without full justice being done.

The media is a major part of the process not simply from its own point of interest in reporting the extremely powerful stories emerging. From the side of the archbishop the media is seen as the way that Truth will be disseminated and racial reconciliation stimulated in the broader public. How does the media respond to this challenge?

It was easy in the past: journalists had to take sides. With the end of apartheid, we thought we could now be journalists first and foremost. Suddenly we have to wrestle with our role in racial reconciliation. How do we understand it, and how report on it?

At a workshop of South African journalists in Cape Town earlier this year, participants were asked to jot down three words they associated with the term "perpetrator". "Cruel", "powerful" , "active agent", said some. Then one journalist read her associations: "Fat" "white" "man", she said. Nervous laughter greeted this contribution, as journalists recognised the painful images she so concretely evoked. Then another journalist chipped in: "I have seen a fat white man testifying at the truth commission," she said, "and he had lost a son who was killed in a landmine explosion while innocently travelling along a rural road". Silence resulted.

As that workshop proceeded, it became clear that the obvious stereotypes of racial victims and perpetrators are not adequate to tell the full story of South Africa. One of the perpetrators for instance was a black assassin named Joe Mamasela, who waded very deep into the dirtiest of tricks, because, he says, his brother was murdered by the ANC on suspicion of being an informer for the security police.

The case of victims becoming perpetrators, and resorting to gross human rights violations, should not surprise any journalist. What is surprising, however, is that - contrary to white fears - black South Africans en masse have not become new racists towards their erstwhile oppressors. Yet there are still big differences - broadly speaking - between white and black attitudes to the truth and reconciliation process. Whites are keen to have the past forgotten and forgiven. White journalists express concern that the story is getting tired. Not so with black journalists. Black people want to know the extent of what happened, to tell their stories publicly, and to have the symbolic affirmation of news worthiness of what happened to them. For the formerly white media to publish such stories constitutes due recognition, at last, for many black people, even if the lack of broader social retribution and redress remains a sore point. Unsurprisingly, black South Africans are keen to stress reparation and justice, whites emphasise amnesty. The differences translate into media consumption too: whites generally ignore the premier TV programme on the proceedings, but they did watch - in huge numbers - a documentary titled "Prime Evil" about Eugene de Kock, the now-jailed commander of the police undercover hit squad base, Vlakplaas, who has dozens of deaths on his account.

All this means that the challenge for journalists is to report the whole process for the whole society, to find points of entry for the different race groups, and to try and take them to the whole multifaceted, multi-racial story from there.

So, there is this substantial communication challenge in understanding and reporting racial reconciliation - getting beyond the stereotypes and the racial divisions. But there is also the question of journalists' moral stand towards such an enterprise. For the media is not simply a bystander in this whole process. It has a history. And even though few journalists see a connection, there is a strong link between how journalists covered (or did not cover) racism and gross human rights violations in the past, and how they are responding now.

It is thus not only a matter of how to represent today the victims and the perpetrators of the past, in all their complexity. The question for South African journalists now is also to assess whether the media itself was a victim of a racist regime, or a perpetrator of racism. Why is this important as a question? Because journalists are happy to go along with the Truth Commission, as far as reflecting Truth goes, but are unsure about what way to go when they consider the signpost of Reconciliation. If the media was a villain in terms of racial division, does it now carry a responsibility for reconciliation and reparations? If it was a victim, should it proactively try to put an end to such a social sickness? The past has a profound bearing on the present.

To be more than a journalist - to be a South African journalist specifically - demands a major decision. The decision is whether you support and promote racial reconciliation (and in the particular form proposed by the Truth Commission) - and what this might mean for your journalism. What if some parts of the truth are so horrendous that they actually undercut chances for reconciliation? Or if criticism of the TRC, or scooping the identities of secret witnesses, will undermine the effectivity of the process? So it is a complex issue, and it is influenced by how you see (and even by how you don't see) the role of journalism in the past - victim or perpetrator, and how that impacts on self-definitions today.

Evaluating whether the media was a victim or a villain under apartheid is about as complex as trying to say whether Winnie Mandela, accused to this day of involvement in a homophobic and political killing of a teenager, was a victim or a perpetrator.

The broadcast media, at least, is simple: it was a state-owned apparatus, kept in tight control by a secret society of Afrikaners, military intelligence operatives, and direct phone calls from the state president himself. It not only whitewashed white domination, it blackened the black opposition (to use racist words in the English language!)It is sad, and shortsighted, therefore that the new SABC leadership has not seen fit to use the TRC process to probe and publish what went on within Auckland Park in the not-so-old days.

The print media is much more complex: it combined victim and villain - often in the same persons. We know that many white journalists supported the system directly, or tolerated its normality (which of course played to their advantage and privilege in so many ways).
The worst spied and lied. Many others kow-towed to disinformation, to censorship or to white reader prejudice. But even amongst those white journalists who exposed apartheid's cruelties, or who promoted reform in the Afrikaans press, there was (and still is) often an obliviousness, about the day-to-day white arrogance and black humiliation in the newsrooms. For black people subjected to separate toilets and coffee mugs, this was not a minor part of what white editors did or did not do. It is a painful and integral part of the bigger picture.

The racism appeared in the news agenda and the political perspective: the issues addressed were mainly white society ones, and even where black affairs were touched on, this was from the point of view of bringing these to the notice of white audiences and the apartheid government. The idea of black audiences, of political centres outside the white parliament, were off the mental horizon of many white liberal journalists. White was what was important.

At the level of practice, black journalists were not trusted. They had their copy changed, were denied training opportunities and treated insensitively - even by good liberal white colleagues. Dennis Pather, who became in 1996 the second black editor ever to be appointed to a daily paper in South Africa, recently recalled how his colleagues would go drinking in the pub after work, and fail to realise that his staying behind was necessitated by the fact that they went drinking in a bar that, like most (but not all) South African bars, was for whites only.

A revealing phone-in programme on Johannesburg talk-radio station, 702, a little while ago, revealed some of the chasm that still exists between the white journalist's view and the black one.

In the programme, a caller told how she worked in a big department store, and had a child brought to her, who had become separated from his mother. She had announced over the loudspeakers that a child had been found, could the parents come and fetch him? She received no response. After a few repeats without success, she announced that "a black child" has been found. The call brought the mother directly. Was this wrong, she asked? Was it racist to have mentioned race? The radio journalist hosting the show replied that there was a difference between distinguishing a person on the basis of colour and discriminating against a person on these grounds.

This response sounded reasonable enough to the caller, and to several subsequent callers as well. That is, until a black person called the show and commented that it was noteworthy that the announcer, and the lost child's mother, would presumably not normally think it significant to mention race when a white child was found. In South Africa, a child by definition is a priori white, a black child is black. In other words, white is the norm: in fact it is a transparent or invisible colour - not even a colour. To be black is where the difference comes in. This in a country where black is the vast majority. The sad part about this story is the inability of the white radio host to comprehend the point at all.

Racism, like sexism, goes very deep. White journalists wrestle with accusations about the extent of their racism and their response impacts on their perception of their role today. Black journalists, on the other hand, often seem to feel the need to remind whites in general and their white colleagues in particular, of past and present prejudices and white power. Having been victims much more than white journalists, many are reluctant to accept reconciliation without redress. The result has been a critical stance of official reconciliation policy, which has incurred the wrath of Nelson Mandela himself who feels they fail to appreciate why he made the compromises that left redress only a small part of the picture. As black people increasingly became preponderant in journalism, white racism among journalists is diminishing, (although black languages are still absent in newspapers media with only two small exceptions).

What to do about the future of the media in racism in South Africa after the TRC? The political parties have given their answer by placing in the constitutional bill of rights itself, in clause 1b, a curb on freedom of expression in the case of hate speech that constitutes incitement to cause harm. This provision exists in addition to a clause that already provides for the limitation of any right if such limit is deemed reasonable and justifiable within a free, open and democratic society based on dignity, equality and freedom (clause 3b). Already in line with this, we now have a new law controlling media that is not within the Newspaper Press Union: the Film and Publications Act which allows for publications to be banned for distribution if they contain "advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and which constitute incitement to cause harm."

There is an expectation that additional legislation, based on the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of racial discrimination will be introduced. Is this legislation necessary? Is it not perhaps closing the stable door after the horse has bolted - or, rather, after the beast was well and truly banished, as it should have been, with the advent of democracy? Where does it all lead?

In fact, the legislation has primary significance for the future - and it could lead to problems for journalists. Not defined in the constitution or the Film & Publications Act is what constitutes "harm": is it physical, or also emotional, or even spiritual as in the case of offence taken at Salman Rushdie, for example?

These "hate speech" measures in SA have been criticised on the following basis.
1. The effect could be to chill freedom of expression: for instance, criticism that the government is pandering to white interests, or drives out of pubic discourse and into private chambers any reflection of black-against-white racism. The Freedom of Expression Institute believes that hate speech should be confronted openly through dialogue, not driven underground. Journalists need to report freely on racial tensions in the society, it argues.

2. There is a fear that legislation may be used by government to silence critics. For example, it could inhibit criticism of a Zimbabwe-style option where racial redress has mainly benefited a small group of black people, rather than advanced the position of black people in general.

3. There are unpredictable uses of hate speech laws. Right-wing whites are taking legal action against an ANC deputy Minister, Peter Mokaba, whom they accuse of anti-white hate speech. Mandela, arguably, could incite harm by singling out black journalists as disloyal.

4. South Africa already has hate speech legislation in the 1978 Bantu Administration Act and elsewhere, which makes it an offence to incite hatred amongst the races. This act was used under apartheid to prosecute people criticising white supremacy, and to chill the political criticism voiced by newspapers.

Certainly, the present government - as committed to press freedom as it is, has learnt fast to play the race card against the press. President Mandela who not so long ago declared. "We have no whites or blacks, only South Africans", has frequently hit out at black journalists for criticising his racial reconciliation policy. Many other politicians in the ruling party have denounced critical coverage - not on the merits or demerits of the story - but on the fact that it originates from white journalists. In other words, if you are white, your journalism is suspect, if you are black, you're expected to be supportive.

What this suggests is that the big issue of race in South African reporting is less about the legal setup - as important as this is, and more about the political environment.
For journalists, this means treading a very shaky tightrope. But it also means engaging in robust discussion. Nelson Mandela has said: "If black journalists criticise us, then give us the right to criticise them. Freedom of expression is not a monopoly of the press; it is a right of all of us."

He is right, of course, but journalists - for the sake of safety and for the sake of the role of a pluralistic press in a democracy - need to stress the special importance of freedom of the media, and freedom to debate exactly whether race is a factor, and to what extent it is a convenient stick with which to circumscribe journalists in this complex country.

There is, remarkably, one place where hate speech is not yet a point of debate and discussion amongst South African journalists. This pertains not to racism in regard to blacks and whites, or in regard to the various permutations within the SA racial landscape. It concerns xenophobia against migrants from other parts of Africa. With democratisation, South Africa has become much more part of the continent, and minorities from all over sub-Saharan Africa have come to Mandela's land of milk and honey in search of asylum or economic survival or both. In some ways, South Africa has the potential to benefit enormously from these waves of immigrants' talents and skills, as has the USA over time. But this is not how things are seen in the broad public or in the media.

That South Africa is now having to wrestle with this intolerance is a measure of its normalisation in the world. We are still some way from sorting out our own racial tolerance and reconciliation, and the role of journalists therein, and we now face this new issue of a majority, as opposed to a minority, practising a kind of racism against a group of "outsiders". These are important challenges to overcome. But there is reason for optimism: racism exists in South Africa, but it no longer rules.