The ANC and freedom of expression - Pallo Jordan

ANC NEC member says ruling party has not and shall not wilt under criticism or close scrutiny

Freedom of expression, of which is Media Freedom an important dimension, is one of the fundamental rights South Africans secured through the democratic political revolution of 1994. After more than a hundred and fifty years of hard-fought struggles, entailing the loss of thousands of lives, imprisonment, torture and assassination, these rights should be cherished and defended by us all, citizens and government alike.

Historically, the struggle for media freedom and the struggle against colonialism and racial oppression in South Africa have been integrally connected. That link is encapsulated in the person and the struggles of Thomas Pringle who arrived in South Africa as an immigrant from Britain in 1820.

Though amongst the 1820 settlers, Pringle did not live in the eastern Cape, but settled in Cape Town where, together with John Fairburn, he established the "South African Journal" and the "South African Commercial Advertiser".

Like many editors who followed him, Pringle soon discovered the limits to freedom of expression in the colonies. A staunch abolitionist, Pringle opposed slavery at the Cape and agitated against the colonial government's excesses against the indigenous people. His newspapers were suppressed in 1827. Pringle returned to Britain where he continued his abolitionist activities becoming secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society that year.

Given this pedigree, it was an unavoidable consequence that the struggle for freedom of expression would invariably be refracted through the struggle for racial equality and justice and vice versa.

Kingwilliamstown, the site of the first secular newspaper in an indigenous language, is located among the hills and valleys where one hundred years of wars primary resistance - euphemistically called called Frontier Wars, but actually Wars of Dispossession - were waged.

John Tengo Jabavu, the father of African journalism in South Africa, established "Imvo Zabanstundu" in 1884 after he parted company with the missionary publication, "Isigidimi samaXhosa". Through "Imvo" he became one of the leading spokesmen for African aspirations during the late 19th century.

The printing press produced an information revolution in every part of the world where it was introduced and the newspaper was the most effective means of mass communication before the advent to radio. Beyond being couriers of information newspapers, were conceived as instruments for sharing political opinion. "Imvo" and the newspapers and journals that followed it, were the well-springs of what grew into an African nationalist intellectual political tradition. The relationship between media freedom and the struggle for national liberation thus became more firmly entrenched, emphasized by the repressive attempts of both colonial and post-Union governments.

This national liberatory intelectual tradition was the brainchild of a growing body of Christian converts living and working amongst their traditionalist brethren in the eastern Cape during the second half of the 19th century. They were bearers of the ideas, values and skills associated with modernity. Many had become successful as a middling to prosperous African peasantry. Some owned extensive farms producing grain, cattle, wool and other cash crops for the market. Others were skilled craftsmen. A few were professionals, working as teachers and clergymen. Their politics was 19th century liberalism and they appealed to that tradition when addressing the British colonial office and its representatives in South Africa.

They were committed modernists, who espoused Christianity and modern education, who nonetheless recognised the abiding values in pre-colonial African society. The newspapers and journals they pioneered, usually published in an African language and English, established a tradition of Black journalism that remains firmly committed to the democratic ideals they had embraced.

The literary tradition among the Africans began with the translation and publication of what many consider the pre-eminent Christian religious allegory in the English language; John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress", translated into Xhosa by the Rev. Tiyo Soga in 1866.

The late Master of Balliol College, Oxford, Christopher Hill, characterized "The Pilgrim's Progress" as a definitive statement of both Puritan theology and its latent radical message. John Bunyan participated in the English Revolution of 1640 as a fighter in Cromwell's army. That revolution ended the "divine right of kings" in Britain and established the supremacy of parliament. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, John Bunyan was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned at the behest of the High Church of England for preaching and publishing his Puritan views. Bunyan's own battles against all manner of censorship was thus integrated into the literary tradition that emerged among African writers at its birth.

As the first book in an indigenous language, "The Pilgrim's Progress" had a profound formative impact on those early generations of literate Africans. With the author and his protagonist, Christian, as their principal role models, those early converts absorbed the lesson of a continuing, but potentially creative, tension between the authorities and the conscientious citizen. It was to become a recurring theme in their own lived experience, especially for those engaged in journalism.

Recording words transforms them into potentially powerful means of communication, not merely between two people, but potentially amongst millions. Freed from the need for personal contact, the written word made it possible to communicate and to receive accurate communication directly from afar. The written word enabled readers and writers to commune with the present, the past and the future. Liberated from the constraints of time and space, the thoughts, opinions, emotions, beliefs, values and experiences of people acquired infinite mobility, even immortality.

The power of the written word has been vindicated again and again by those who seek to control the flow of information between and amongst people. It is ironic that in a world where illiteracy still holds millions in thrall, the printed word nonetheless carries such great weight. The influence of the media in societies is best illustrated by negative examples. Faced with the international scandal that the murder of Steve Biko became, the apartheid regime's first recourse was to try and conceal the truth. The shameless lies told during the inquest were crowned with the brazen verdict that no one was responsible for his death.

The media, and especially its oldest component, the press, played a role in bringing about a democratic order in this country. A number of outstanding South African journalists, including the late Percy Gqoboza, Donald Woods, and Anthony Heard, received laurels from the international community. Brian Bunting, Govan Mbeki and Joe Gqabi, all of whom were associated with the serially banned "Guardian", each received the Julius Fucik award from the International Organisation of Journalists for using their pens in the struggle against apartheid.

But the role of the South African media has not been consistently honourable.

While Pringle earned the wrath of the colonial government during the 19th century, there were other journalists and editors who served as the cheerleaders of aggression against independent African kingdoms. During the 20th century, the democratic voices of those who opposed racism were often drowned out by the vile proto-fascist propaganda that flowed from the pens of the likes of Hendrik Verwoerd. Before the mid-1950s the South African commercial papers rarely referred to an African as "Mr" or "Miss". As recently as the 1980's well-known South African editors felt no compunction about virtually congratulating the hired assassins who blinded Judge Albie Sachs in one eye and blew off his right arm.

The US media, which some consider the freest in the world, enthusiastically incited the American public to a criminal war based on a tissue of lies in 2003!

An awesome responsibility devolves on the media because its influence can be benevolent or malevolent. While we should all pride ourselves in our collective achievement of media freedom, we cannot shut our eyes to its uses and abuses in the past.

Yes, the truth is very powerful, yet it is also extremely elusive. No single person, no body of opinion, no political doctrine, no religious doctrine can claim a monopoly on truth. Centuries of human experience demonstrate that the truth can be arrived at only through the untrammeled contest among differing opinions, in which as many points of view as possible are given a fair and equal hearing. Laws and practices that repress freedom of expression have done society a disservice. Censorship, the suppression of information and the repression of those who bring us information, have invariably been the devices employed by falsehood.

But all information conveyed to us by another is necessarily filtered through, and consequently tainted and coloured by the messenger's own opinions, ideas and perceptions of the world.

The relationship that evolved between Steve Biko and the late Donald Woods is very instructive in that respect. By his own admission, Woods had never spoken to or encountered Steve Biko. Yet, he had felt competent to write and publish highly critical remarks about him and the Black Consciousness Movement. The confrontation with Dr Mamphele Ramphela compelled him to face up to what were, frankly, his prejudices. Woods had the moral courage to shed his prejudices after he had interacted with the real Biko, rather than the one of his imagination and developed a deep sense of respect and even fellowship with him.

Securing the right of the citizen to express whatever opinion he/she subscribes to, as long as the exercise of that right does not harm others, remains among the objectives all South African democrats should pursue. The removal from our statute books of the laws, ordinances, regulations and administrative measures that abridged the rights of South African citizens to receive and to transmit information, which repress the freedom of the media to publish, are among the finest fruits of the democratic transformation that the ANC led and initiated.

These critical ingredients of our democratic culture still need careful nurturing. It is the responsibility of the ANC, in the first instance, to continue striving for, nurturing and defending these rights.

Freedom of the press is amongst the oldest and most valued of the freedoms for which many South Africans have given their lives. The pioneers of the African language press were amongst the founders of the ANC. They include our first President, Dr. John Langalibalele Dube, the distinguished educator who founded Ohlange Institute and the newspaper, "Ilanga lase Natal"; that giant among African men of letters, Solomon Plaatje, founder/editor of "Koeranta eaBatswana" and our first Secretary-General. No less committed a journalist and publisher was the Reverend Dr. W. B. Rubusana, a distinguished writer and translator, the founder of the newspaper, "Izwi LaBantu".

We can also proudly recall the names of two courageous ANC militants, Joe Gqabi and Ruth First, whose murders by agents of the apartheid regime is still shrouded in mystery and clouded by half-truths despite the TRC. These were journalists in the tradition of the founders of the ANC. It would be a slight to their memory and their work if our actions today proved us unworthy of their sacrifice. The ANC has a long track record of commitment to media freedom. In defending a free media, we are defending the ANC's own rich heritage, the heritage bequeathed to us by those 19th century pioneers.

The value we place on a free, independent and outspoken press in democratic South Africa cannot be overstated. A free press can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. A free press can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptations to abuse power. This underscores the need for the South African media to become more representative of the diversity and variety of viewpoints amongst our people. Media diversity remains one of the critical challenges facing democratic South Africa. The complacency of media owners, media workers and their organizations is cause for dismay.

In a democratic dispensation in a pluralist society like ours there will be ongoing contestation amongst its various components. An elected government, deriving its authority from the consent of the governed, has the responsibility of ensuring that such contestation is managed in a non-conflictual manner.

Tension between those tasked with governing and the media, as purveyors of information and opinion, is one of the inevitable features of a democracy. It is pointless to deny the existence of this tension and it is short-sighted to suggest that it is indicative of a temptation to censor.

I cannot imagine an ANC government that is fearful of criticism. The ANC has not and shall not wilt under criticism or close scrutiny. Robust debate can only help us to deepen our democracy. But, debate is a two-way street, which contributes to the health of a democracy by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people's expectations.

Former President Nelson Mandela, addressing the International Press Union in Cape Town in March 1994, said:

"If the people of South Africa elect us to office, we firmly undertake that an ANC government will strive for an open society in which vigourous debate is encouraged through a free press and other media; in which equal status is accorded to all languages, cultures and religious beliefs; in which women will receive recognition as equals, deserving of the respect and the dignity intrinsic to being human."

The challenge today is for the ANC to live up to that undertaking.

Pallo Jordan is an ANC NEC member and Chair of the NEC Subcommittee of Communication. This article originally appeared in ANC Today, the weekly online newsletter of the African National Congress.

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