It’s a tragic coincidence that in the same week that media workers commemorated the life of Carlos Cardoso, a journalist assassinated in 2000, a senior government official stands up to admit that the arrest of Mzilikazi wa Afrika was wrongful.
So, two years later, the state mails the wronged Sunday Times investigative journo a R100 000 cheque (from the taxpayers’ purse) for damages and legal costs, but no explanation. Two years down the line? Justice delayed, is justice denied even for journalists. Heck, this is post-1994.
“(My parents) expressed their disgust, in no uncertain terms, with the government’s arrest of journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika. Addicted to the Sunday newspapers, their conviction that the tyranny of the old apartheid days are back was painfully palpable,” wrote academic and political commentator Rhoda Kadalie, granddaughter of a respected trade unionist, in her Business Day column back in 2010.
Not that those in power are inclined to care, or even bother to feign interest, but let history note that many ordinary South Africans shared the disgust expressed by the Kadalies. Helang basadi, people exclaimed. Hawu madoda! Goeie genade! The collective disgust, or the violation of WaAfrika’s rights, couldn’t spur the most senior public servants (who prefer to be addressed as ministers, commissioners and so on) to a mere public explanation. Nobody bothers. Forget it. Nobody is working on any tribunal designed to deal with, say, rogue government officials and those who abuse state power and/or resources.
Just why was this journalist arrested in the first place? The ANC Youth League cited treason. Union Buildings, Luthuli House and Sandton, our business hub, were conspicuously united in silence.
Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley roundly dismissed the arrest – sparked by an article, co-written by Wa Afrika, with Stephan Hofstatter, into a R500 million dodgy lease for police HQs – as “a full-frontal assault on the freedom to report on corruption”. History has recorded that the corrupt officials in question have since been red-carded, albeit belatedly, but not without playing innocence card right to the end.
Yet, Wa Afrika isn’t going to be the last member of the Fourth Estate to be harassed for telling the truth – here and elsewhere. Carlos, a truly inspiring Mozambican writer whose mighty pen booked him a place behind bars, once or twice, aptly put it in 1985: In the business of truth, it is forbidden to put words in handcuffs.
Fifteen years later, on November 22, 2000, Carlos was gunned down in Maputo. For the sake of those not familiar with the story, well-captured in Telling the Truth in Mozambique, which does a good job to help journalists introspect, let’s summarise: Carlos’ crusade was ended by an assailant who pumped five bullets into his 49-year-old body.
What was his crime? Doing his job, which in the process earned him enemies at Frelimo (the same way he’d irked the apartheid NP, and shook some in SA’s lazy Fourth Estate pre-94). His last assignment saw him probing the disappearance of a rather large $14 million of, otherwise cash-strapped, taxpayers’ funds in a complex scheme that involved the neighbouring state’s high and mighty.
In that year, 23 reporters were killed around the globe. Hundreds have been murdered since 2000. Scores have gone missing and others imprisoned. This year alone, CPJ has recorded a startling 232 journalist imprisonments. It’s an all-time high the NGO mourns. This year’s death toll is flirting with 70. Journalists Al-Hosseiny Abou Deif, in Egypt, Kazbek Gekkiyev (Russia) and Naji Asaad (Syria) perished this month for doing their job. Last month was Columbian freelancer Guillermo Quiroz Delgado’s turn. He died in detention.
Nature or murder, you might ask.
Returning to the past, that’s 12 years ago, then-Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano told mourners: “We were used to arguing with Cardoso. We argued with him because he raised pertinent questions that demand the attention of all of us… He forced us to think.”
That’s food for thought for today’s Fourth Estate. Do we force the people and subjects, whether, in sports, we cover to think? Do we raise pertinent questions?
The pending state secrecy legislation threatens to punish those who force government leaders to think. Good luck to people at such titles as City Press, Noseweek, Sunday Times, and the inimitable Mail & Guardian (and Team amaBhungane). That also goes for many other fine hacks and managers – at less-known regional, local and community media – who, regardless their intimidation staple diet, remain bound by faith: In the business of truth, it is forbidden to put words in handcuffs.
Those who raise hard questions should be encouraged. However, those at the top, whether in politics, sports or business, differ. They detest quizzical journalists who pose pertinent questions, hacks who criticise. Lawmakers belong here too. That’s why, despite clocking a huge 800 amendments to the Secrecy Bill, journalists remain unsafe in their quest to tell the truth as it is, sans handcuffs. Without seeming to trivialise the hard work by the likes of Right2Know, Safrea, the entire civil society, and the many ordinary people who worked hard to stop the secrecy project, get this: c’est fait accompli. The secrecy deal is sealed.
As things stand, the National Assembly will soon rubber stamp the Bill, thus pave the way for the head of state to sign it into law. Once that’s done, the number of journalists who, like Mzilikazi did, get detained will rise. As it is now, nobody will bother to explain.
Many, like the trio that was invited to Metro FM Sakina Kamwendo’s show only to be sent home because they didn’t have the right script – the ANC’s Gwede Mantashe cites the broadcaster’s “stupid” decision – might have to consider early retirement: public service or public relations. What that means? It means a pair of French-designer shoes (certainly not Proudly South African), a dozen properties stretching from here to Paarl, customary fat dinners at swanky Auberge Michel, flowers for your partner, perpetual service provider’s tender that gives you access to millions worth of property donations in the Midvaal. La vida loca.
See, things aren’t that bad after all. It wouldn’t have been a (dark) cloud without silver lining, not so? Or, as they’d say in Mozambique and elsewhere, including Mangaung: A luta continua!