OPINION: The increased frequency of explicit and implicit threats to the media, by the ruling party, are rather foreboding. If we are to emerge as the society imagined by Nelson Mandela and his peers, we have to guard against becoming that which we fought against during the previous era. By Ismail Lagardien.
Sometime during the Second World War, when the Nazis occupied Paris, an officer of the Gestapo stormed into Picasso’s apartment. The Gestapo officer pointed at a photograph ofGuernica, Picasso’s powerful anti-war painting, and asked: “Did you do that?”
“No,” the artist replied, “you did”.
The artist, as critic, merely recorded the deeds of the Fascist allies. He did not bomb Guernica, Picasso said, they did. The painting is generally understood to represent the artist’s response to the carpet bombing, by German and Italian planes, of Guernica, a town in the Basque region of the Iberian Peninsula on 26 April 1937. It is considered to be one the most powerful anti-war statements by an artist.
The important lesson from the Guernica story detailed, above, is essentially about the role of criticism in society. It is an affirmation, of sorts, of the role that critics can and should play in democratic societies – especially during times of social change and transformation. This was as true during the Spanish Civil War as it is in democratic South Africa.
As we go deeper into South Africa’s post-Apartheid transition, the roles of writers and artists, as critics, is being threatened, with uncomfortable frequency. The Freedom of Information Act hangs like a spectre over South African society, and the most senior politicians in the country seem to be retreating into a laager, fortified by a crude insider-outsider politics. This binary politics peaked, again, recently, when a journalist was described as being ill-disciplined, and references were made to ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ positions in the country’s discourses.
At the base of this retreat there seems to be a discomfort, on the part of the ruling party, with critical news and analysis reportage. With the public broadcaster having been transformed into an extension of the ruling party, and more and more publications falling in line, as it were, there are fewer independent voices in the media, today, than ever before.
I am sure that there are no news commissars or propaganda czars that visit newspapers to make sure that journalists do the right thing. I am always reminded that in The Invisible Writing, the second volume of his autobiography, Arthur Koestler wrote how editors and journalists did not have to be forced, directly, to comply with Nazi diktats. As Germany became increasingly totalitarian, journalists simply knew how to conduct themselves. In order to keep their jobs and protect their own lives and those of their families, they showed little resistance and opposition to creeping authoritarianism and totalitarianism in Weimar Germany.
Let us not get carried away, though: South Africa is far away from Fascist Spain and Nazi Germany; from the reign of the guillotine, the torture chambers of the Inquisition, the cellars of the Lubyanka – or from Goya’s Disasters. The increased frequency of explicit and implicit threats to the media, by the ruling party, are, however, rather foreboding. If we are to emerge as the society imagined by Nelson Mandela and his peers, we have to guard against becoming that which we fought against during the previous era.
To be sure, South Africa’s transition from the iniquitous system of our past, a past barely a generation behind us, is incomplete. Post-Apartheid South Africa remains, in many ways, a work in progress. Precisely because of this uncertainty, it is of vital importance that journalists start to confront and contest all subtle and insidious attempts at restricting the media. Like the Constitutional Court, the Press is a cornerstone institution that can protect us against arbitrary abuse of dominance, and of power in the country.
What some politicians, especially in the ruling party, do not seem to understand is that very many writers and commentators – if I may be so bold to speak for a generation of journalists who have been around for a while – know the enormity of the task that faced the country in the early 1990s. To the extent that politics, economics, finance and society are non-overlapping magisteria, most of us knew that by the late 1980s, South Africa faced political uncertainty, steep economic decline, precipitous financial collapse, and social instability, and that these began to rip the country apart.
The gap between South Africa’s haves and have-nots, the single most disastrous outcome of the previous era was mightily complex and multidimensional. It was manifested in families, communities, in villages and towns, in attitudes and in expectations. Under these conditions it is not unusual for the haves to want to hold onto everything that they gained, notwithstanding the means by which it was acquired. The have-nots always imagined that when the liberators rode into towns and villages they would set things right, so to speak.
Most of us knew that it was always going to take more than a single generation of leaders to start closing these gaps. The incoming government had to pull together – and hold together – the country while managing transformation and consolidation of the country’s finances, and manage the conflict and expectations of the various sectors and interests of society. Coming so soon after the genocide in Rwanda, the violence and destruction that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia, we knew that immediate post-Apartheid South Africa would be an almost impossible reconstruction project. The divisions, the vertically segmented privileges and the deep historical injustices were forged over almost four centuries. Our problems had deep origins. There were no quick fixes. It all seemed impossible in 1994. We understood this then, and know it now. Some of us readily acknowledge that the ANC has achieved a lot in the short space, but this is not a licence to plunder, or to allow the country to collapse and our institutions to implode.
What we have not abandoned, over the past two decades, are the critical faculties that helped us focus on the iniquities and injustices of the previous era. Today, they help us uncover the contradictions and tensions between politics and governance; expose maladministration and malfeasance, and to analyse the costs and benefits, and the trade-offs that have to be made to achieve prosperity, well-being, stability and trust in society. This includes stating facts, but also understanding and explaining the significance of facts, and the multiplicity of complexes that shape facts.
I guess what I am saying is that we are not stupid. We have no axe to grind with individuals, or with the ANC beyond politics and governance. Personally, I am not interested in the peccadillos of political leaders, or what they wear on formal occasions, or whether they deck their offices with lavish accoutrements. A line is drawn, however, when their indiscretions suck on the public purse. I will, also, insist that political leaders should set good public examples, if only because of the power of emulation… In other words, don’t boast about your association with boxers who are convicted wife-beaters, and post pictures on social media. That is the behaviour of prepubescent teenagers.
Some of the journalists I worked with over the years remain driven by a sense of justice, that which George Orwell articulated so well, and which brought us into the craft early in life. I have to confess that I was also driven by the love of writing, and continue to try…
Never mind. In the final analysis, political leaders have no place demanding, or even expecting, ‘discipline’ from journalists; at least not in a democracy, and especially not when journalists try to make sense of the times we’re living in. There can never be limits to what we discuss, write or think. Political leaders should know better than to peddle references to ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. The history of insider-outsider politics, is a history of genocide, ethnic cleansing, pogroms and the holocaust.
It seems like the ANC, based on the things that its secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, has said, is confounded by the idea that the media can be critical, and even scathing, about the state-party nexus that rules the country.
For many years, while the ANC was banned and living in the shadows, the movement enjoyed the moral high ground in South African politics. There were some among us, too, who thought that the ANC represented a better future; better, at least, than the times we lived in. Things have, however, gone horribly wrong over the past two decades, and journalists have no business being the praise-singers of disintegration and collapse – not of the order that most of us fought so hard to establish.
Most of a generation of journalists know where we come from. Most of us know the sacrifices that were made to get us on the way to a better future for all. It’s probably a bit overstated, for the comparison, but like Picasso and Guernica, the painting, we did not create the collapse and disintegration that are the stand-out features of our current political order. We are only trying to make sense of it all and record it for posterity. Regardless of what ‘objective’ journalists may say, and speaking here, entirely for myself, journalists are actually part of society and some may, indeed, want to see a better future for all.
I should say this to our political leaders: It is worth bearing in mind that unqualified praise is always more dangerous than informed negative criticism.
This post was first published on the Daily Maverick and is republished with permission.
IMAGE: Wikimedia / Guernica at the Whitechapel. It is no idle whim to include an image of this tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s great anti-war painting but because it is so significant for the political and cultural stance of the Whitechapel Gallery, the only British venue to exhibit the painting in 1939. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
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