/ 1 May 1998

Controlling the mind of South Africa

John Pilger : CROSSFIRE

In his fine book, The Mind of South Africa, Allister Sparks wrote: “South Africa has the widest gap between rich and poor of any country in the world for which data are available. Eighty-seven per cent of its land and 95% of its industrial holdings are in white hands. That degree of inequality cannot be left to the free market to rectify … unchecked market forces could result in even greater inequalities.

“One cannot hobble people for centuries, give others every possible advantage for generation after generation, then put both in the same starting blocks for a flat race and say piously, ‘May the best man win.’ Anyone who doubts that should try joining a Monopoly game late, after the other players have bought nearly all the properties and built houses and hotels on them, and see how he fares.”

Sparks wrote that as the apartheid regime began to crumble. His analysis, based on common sense, and his prophesy were accurate. For all the promises and tinkering of the African National Congress government, little of what he described has changed. The old game of Monopoly is still in progress.

More than 80% of the agricultural land is still controlled by a few white farmers. The industrial and economic power remains in the same hands, with the same five tentacular companies dominating the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and the same foreign multinationals that defied sanctions, increasing their profits and providing few new jobs.

As Sparks predicted, unchecked market forces have today resulted in greater inequalities than ever. According to a 1997 Central Statistical Services report, the income gap between blacks has increased. A small ANC-connected elite has seized the opportunities of the “market” while the majority sink deeper into unemployment and poverty.

Last week, I flew to South Africa to see my documentary film, Apartheid Did Not Die, go to air on the SABC. It was an exciting prospect. Under the old regime, the SABC rarely allowed critical analysis from outside and when it did, the credentials of the reporter were suitably disclaimed. Favourite tags were “pro-Soviet”, or “pro- terrorist”, which usually meant ANC sympathiser. In the 1960s, I was called a “naughty communist sympathiser” by an official at the South African embassy in London.

His words were similar to the drubbing I received on Prague Radio in 1977 after I had secretly interviewed members of the dissident movement, Charter 77: brave men and women who had openly defied the totalitarian regime then running Czechoslovakia called for human rights. Vaclav Havel was one of the chartists’ spokesmen; another was the philosopher Jan Patocka, who wrote in his Last Testament that “no conformity has yet led to any improvement in life. The greater the servility, the more brazen the authorities will become.”

Like the regime in Pretoria, the Czech government subsequently banned me; and because I had done similar reporting on dissidents in the Soviet Union, I was banned from returning there, too. Truly independent journalists must, of course, expect these inconveniences as an occupational hazard. That some of us were banned on both sides of the Cold War must puzzle those who persist in seeing the world in Cold War terms while representing themselves as eternally impartial.

Sparks, whom I described admiringly in these pages recently as his country’s great chronicler, was editor of the Rand Daily Mail between 1977 and 1981 and did his best to uphold the liberal traditions of that newspaper. Today, as head of news and current affairs at the government- controlled SABC, he is an important guardian of the new ANC establishment.

The SABC, having bought the South African rights to my film, last week sought first to ban it, then to muffle it. Sparks’s explanation for this has a Kafkaesque tone similar to Cold War tracts denouncing journalists, writers and playwrights who begged to differ with the regime in the Eastern bloc. He describes me as “a man with an ideological mission to ‘expose’ former socialist regimes as sellouts to modern free-market capitalism”. As part of this mission, I have “trashed” the “socialist” governments of Bob Hawke and Tony Blair. I champion “basket cases around the world”.

Inexplicably, my ideological masters and the colour of my party card are never identified, no doubt because it would be too truthful to point out that I have never allied myself with any political group. Indeed, I have always been intensely proud of my independence.

The “unchecked market forces” that Sparks warned about as a liberal-minded journalist in 1989 he now calls the “social market course”. “What alternative is there?” he asks, apparently indignant that I do not share his Damascene conversion.

“Pilger,” he says, “relies mainly on fringe sources and disaffected people, such as Cosmas Desmond and Mzwanele Mayekiso, rather than the primary sources.”

This is strange, because the film’s primary source is President Nelson Mandela himself, who reveals just how much he has changed his views since he and the ANC made those “unbreakable promises” to their supporters. I can well understand how embarrassed Sparks and other government devotees must have been when the president said to me that the ANC would do business with any country “regardless of its internal policies” while apparently failing to see the terrible irony of such a statement.

Sparks objects to my suggestion that international capital benefited from the atrocities of apartheid. He says there was an economic slump following the Sharpeville massacre. This was short-lived; in the 1960s, foreign investment was unprecedented, with foreign liabilities almost doubling. In 1964, British companies accounted for 61% of investment, a rise of 2% over 1963, the year after the massacre.

Sparks also objects to the film’s juxtaposition of rich white areas with poor black areas, like the rich white Sandton municipality in Johannesburg with the adjoining black Alexandra, an appalling slum.

Sparks lives in the Sandton municipality. He says Alexandra has “substantial new housing developments”. Really? Would he live there? As he must know, these “developments” are minuscule when set against the degradation of Alexandra.

He says my film ought to have made more of the “massive population changes”. A few hundred here, a few thousand there, are not, by any stretch of the imagination, “massive”. The fundamentally unchanged divisions of apartheid are as obvious as the day.

According to Sparks, the film “denigrated” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This is patently false. I described the commission’s preference for amnesty over justice, then paid tribute to its work with these words: “By broadcasting its evidence on national radio and television, the truth commission’s great achievement has been to give white South Africans the opportunity to come to terms with the horrors of the crimes committed in their name. No one can now say: I didn’t know.”

“Pilger’s only [implied] alternative,” says Sparks, “appears to be to pursue the revolution and win it, however long and devastating this may be, so that you can then have proper war crimes trials and shoot the bastards.”

It is saddening to read such a crude inanity from a once distinguished observer. As my work has demonstrated, I have been opposed to mindless violence and to revolution for the sake of it all my life.

And my film offers no alternative because that is not the journalist’s job. Given a critical analysis, people have a right to make up their own minds. Only true ideological missionaries, and state apologists, deny them this.

Once it was agreed at the SABC that suppressing my film would be difficult as it was being shown simultaneously in Britain, Sparks wrote a sheaf of disclaimers that ran as words on the screen. These were rather like the health warnings on packets of cigarettes. They warned viewers that the film they were about to see had nothing to do with SABC and was “a highly critical view of the new South Africa”.

Which South Africa? Perhaps Sparks was referring to his Sandton neighbours. It is unlikely he meant the South Africa populated by squatters thrown off public land, and miners awaiting the sack without compensation for lung disease, and domestics still working for peanuts, and temporary teachers sacked by the government. Among them, there would have been a very different reaction.

Unfortunately, many could not voice their reaction to this and other newspapers because 15-million people in the new South Africa remain illiterate while the ANC government spends billions of rands on fighter planes and warships.

Far from being “highly critical” of these people, the majority, I made clear at the end of the film: “Coming back to South Africa, I have been surprised to discover a generosity of spirit that survived the atrocities of apartheid. It’s a humanism expressed in a distinctly African notion that people are people through other people. This sense of community and sharing is not without the usual frailties, but the evidence of its resilience is everywhere in this country. And this film has been a tribute to that vibrant quality.”

I was delighted when the SABC appeared confident enough to take my film, but alarmed when this confidence suddenly evaporated in an atmosphere of fear and secrecy.

Urgent questions remain. Why did the SABC suppress a long interview with me, in which I explained the genesis and aims of the film? This was due to be shown on the eight o’clock news on the night before Apartheid Did Not Die was scheduled.

Why was I excluded from the panel discussion that followed the programme? Why was the film shown to a Cabinet minister, who was invited to appear on the panel, but not the film-maker?

When I challenged Sparks to debate these matters on News Hour, which he controls, he did not reply. It is a fine irony that it was left to the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld to offer an answer. “The Pilger film,” wrote the deputy editor, Tim du Plessis, “held up a mirror to South Africa which showed a side of its face that certainly is not pretty.”

Sparks has since announced that all foreign-made “socio-political” documentaries will carry a disclaimer when shown by SABC. So speaks the media commissar, whose message is clear: the South African people are not to be trusted to make up their own minds.

What bold SABC executive will now risk making career waves by buying a foreign- made programme that is as mildly critical of the ANC as mine was?

The message for aspiring young South African journalists and the makers of documentary films is equally clear. It is not to break the mould as Sparks once did; it is to play safe and conform.

This is how censorship spreads: at first indirect and insidious, followed invariably by the most virulent form – self- censorship. In the aftermath of a long and traumatic history, there is still fear in South Africa. People are feeling their way. They need reassurance that a true diversity of information and opinion is their right in a democracy.

Those who care about this should speak up now.