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Copying an awful recipe

The most ominous thing about the judicial censorship of a report in this newspaper last week is the virtual silence that has been the response from the African National Congress. Asked by a weekend newspaper for comment, Smuts Ngonyama, head of the ANC presidency, declined to say anything. He didn’t even duck behind one of the threadbare excuses that are used whenever the ANC tries to avoid answering embarrassing questions. He said the ANC would prefer not to comment. On Monday of this week a feeble sidestep was offered by the secretary general of the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe. He said ”a distinction needs to be made between a private company and the ANC”. That was that.

To call such response inconsistent would be to understate. It comes from a political organisation that is known to use every occasion it can to trumpet how profound is its commitment to the principles of democratic governance. Those lofty sentiments: transparency, the public’s inalienable right to know, freedom of expression, were trench-ideals in the ”struggle against apartheid”. How often and glibly they still slide off ANC tongues. Yet, when a newspaper has one of its reports subjected to the sort of mutilation, suffocation of fact and comment that was common in the years of apartheid, the principle-waving ANC declares itself indifferent.

If we take the ANC’s oft-repeated words and promises as a genuine reflection of its core beliefs and codes, then we would quite reasonably have expected the party to have been among the first and loudest to cry foul at the judgement against the Mail & Guardian. After all, the ANC itself is a pivotal factor in a story, which, once again, seems to give the lie to its ostentatious claims of incorruptibility. If the ANC is indeed a guiltless innocent, wounded in the crossfire of the ”Oilgate” scandal, then surely the party should welcome the exposure of the facts surrounding the affair. These facts would only serve as exoneration. The ANC’s silence is entirely suspect.

What makes it all even more ominous is the fact that under ANC rule, South Africa seems slowly but steadily to be re-engaging some of the most abhorrent practices of its previous government. For more than a week now, our television screens have shown police firing at homeless black people who were protesting at the deficient rate of government delivery. There have been reports of the tearing down of their wretched hovels. The tear gas and the batons of BJ Vorster’s time are again unpacked.

Concurrent to this disheartening display was the decision by the state to bring charges of sedition against a group of 13 people, also protesting about poor service delivery, in Harrismith. Admittedly their protests were violent, but charging them with a crime virtually equivalent to treason is the sort of response we used to expect from a PW Botha prosecuting authority.

How slickly do the poachers become gamekeepers. Last week three policemen appeared in the Harrismith Regional Court, charged with the murder of a teenager, shot dead while taking part in protest. Sharpeville comes in all shapes and sizes.

That this paper has been subject to gross censorship is, in a way, not surprising. Not since the late 1980s and the death throes of the apartheid government has any newspaper or magazine in South Africa been instructed by a court to excise what is nothing more nor less than hard news. This is not difficult to understand. Censorship’s role as handmaiden to moral probity is only secondary; it is far more often used to fortify the interests of those who are the incumbents of power. You don’t have to look very far to see censorship extended as an arm of governments. In the armoury of the fascist it is prime ordnance.

Censorship is popular in totalitarian countries for its subversive effect: not only does it control what may not be seen, it defines what may. It is thought-control exercised by political energies. In the past such censorship was utilised eagerly by the Calvinist masters of the National Party. Today it is being used to enforce the ends of the champagne socialists of the ANC. This political organisation, of such meritorious and courageous history and tradition, seems to be steadily abrogating its founding principles, degenerating into a hotbed of covetous power.

As a tool of government, censorship is popular because it can be deployed under so many guises. The application to have this newspaper’s report heavily censored was made by a company, Imvume Management, which, it is said, siphoned off R11-mlllion to the ANC at a time when that organisation was desperate for funds during its last election campaign. The R11-million was diverted from funds paid to Imvume by PetroSA, a parastatal company. The shortfall was made up by PetroSA. In effect this means that public funds were used to finance the ANC’s electioneering.

Last week’s censoring of further disclosures of yet another scandal close to high government offices is truly ominous. Is it the first step towards a general closing down of newspapers? The crude political methodologies of Zimbabwe seem dear to the hearts of our Cabinet.

In a perverse sense we should be grateful for the silence of the ANC on the gagging of the M&G. Once and for all it shows that under the Mbeki administration much comfort is being found in mimicking the practices of South Africa’s political past. Even as ANC politicians dutifully condemn the brutal oligarchy that was apartheid, they seem to be evaluating apartheid’s style of fascism for tips on how to control free speech and expression. We are starting to copy that awful recipe.

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