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The media is not free and without prejudice

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Picture: African News Agencym(ANA) Archives – Percy Qoboza, editor of The World and Weekend World, both of which were banned, outside the newspapers’ offices just before he was detained without trial.

By Professor Saths Cooper

On Thursday, October 19, 1977, directly following the murder of Bantu Stephen Biko on September 12, 1977, 19 Black Consciousness (BC) organisations were banned, and three publications were prohibited from being published again.

The political organisations constituted most of the organisations to have been banned during the apartheid era. Yet, this fateful day was dubbed Black Wednesday, a narrative that has continued unabated, generally perpetuated by the media, the academy and public intellectuals. Many white journalists were implacably opposed to, and their reporting often biased against BC, influenced by the prevailing inferiority-superiority ethic, adopting a newfound non-racialism that they claimed to espouse, but usually did not practice.

Of course, apartheid laws were relied upon to defend their racialisation, even racist depictions of blacks. I recall that the much-lionised Rand Daily Mail on some Mondays would report that it was a quiet weekend in Soweto, only x number were killed! Besides newsrooms being segregated, senior positions, if held by blacks, were very few, being usually accorded as a rare exception. Junior sub-editors held more power and sway in deciding which stories would be given attention and how, cancelling in red that which went against their persuasions. Then too, it is well-known that there were journalists in the pay of or under the influence of the apartheid security apparatus. Those calling now calling the shots may have changed, but the same game may be afoot.

Outstanding newshounds were restricted to township coverage – we hardly ever call a white residential area a township – even as we are about to enter 30 years of democracy, where freedom of expression and media freedom are often bruited as supreme. The freedoms seem to be held as pre-eminent in our liberal democratic constitutional dispensation and its much-vaunted Bill of Rights. The many frustrations, exclusions and degradation in the lives of the majority are assumed as normative, shaped as they are by a racialised diminution of blacks, who apparently deserve their lot.

After all, all blacks have to do is vote differently, and magically, a pale genie would light up their lives. In the annual South African Students Organisation (Saso) mid-year conference in 1972, a few renowned journalists, such as Bokwe Mafuna, were expelled from the conference for their reporting that continued to refer to Saso and the university student representatives who were in attendance as non-white. Mafuna explicitly stated to the conference that he had written black, which had been spell-checked/auto-corrected into the derogatory non-white by a Rand Daily Mail sub-editor. Nevertheless, he was expelled. He resigned soon after and eventually worked for the Black Community Programmes, one of the 19 BC organisations to be banned on October 19, 1977.

Notoriously, the editor of Allister Sparks, insisted that the term black was inappropriate, and that he and the Institute of Race Relations had a better term to describe all those who were not white in South Africa: Afrocolasians! Harry Nengwekhulu, who was then the Saso National Organiser, rejected this outrageous invented term stating bluntly that we would describe ourselves and not be dictated to be him or other liberals.

It is fitting then to consider that the media is not owned and controlled by majority interests, reflecting blacks to themselves in positive contexts, while not airbrushed truths that need to be called as they are. Most of us have decided that this or that media group has a bias for this political faction in or out of power. Ultimately, money talks, and few media house, especially print, but increasingly radio and television, can survive without big money advertisement or sponsorship, which is weakly disguised as editorial content.

From the tenure of former president Thabo Mbeki, banner headlines, especially from the more informed print media, screamed about black incompetence and corruption as if these were genetic and the natural condition of black leadership. The media is not free and without prejudice, and certainly does not represent majority views, so caught up is it in the intrigues of who is in power and who to put in power, that the real tragedies South Africa, when they do surface, require disclaimers about harmful and disturbing content and visuals.

Media and its commentators, including myself, have to be careful to avoid perpetuation incapacity and inferiorisation of those who seek to live their lives without being troubled by violence, exclusion from socio-economic opportunities, the rising tides of intolerance and Afrophobia, that ultimately renders us effete and mere shadows of the potential we can and should become.

All of us derive a better space and opportunity to fulfil our basic and higher needs. We should be an integral part of the media and the media should be us, not like the opening lines of the Bible: created in the image of some insecure clutch of individuals who vent their own agenda, which if repeated often enough, seems to be the prevailing narrative. Now blaming me, then blaming you when I’m out of favour. To enable our true humanity and feel part of the human race, there should be more space for the common people, not merely those in power and the wealthy.

*Cooper is the president of the Pan African Psychology Union, a black former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and a member of the 1970s group of activists