/ 3 September 2010

Literary festival keynote address

Literary Festival Keynote Address

M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawe’s keynote address at the Mail & Guardian‘s literary festival on September 3.

Click here to listen to Editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian Nic Dawes inspiring keynote address at the opening of the 2010 M&G Literary Festival, on the current media landscape and the threat to our media freedom.

This is not a good time for journalists to be hanging out with purveyors of fiction, because too many people are likely to conclude that we are here to get better at inventing things out of whole cloth.

Actually, they would be correct to identify a degree of solidarity between those of us who merely type, and those who write, and that, of course, is why we are here. But let me take a bit of time to explain how and why. To do that I am going to have to traverse some familiar ground, before returning to this place, this event, and our larger theme, Being Here Now.

It is just two months since the African National Congress released its discussion document on media issues, and already there is a weariness to the debate that it has provoked, the kind of frayed and dusty quality that arguments get when they traipse back and forth across the public square confined to the same, narrow, thought tracks.

The possibilities all seem to have been settled. What remains is simply to resolve the vectors, and identify where the conversation is likely to come to rest.

A senior alliance figure – sorry for the reliance on an anonymous source, they are indispensible when the worst are full of passionate intensity and the best lack all conviction – put it crisply to me this week when he said: “The risk is that you (i.e. the media) will win the ideological struggle, while we win the political one. That is, we get a media tribunal and a tough protection of information bill, and you get to look good while being subjected to them”.

I think that is a pretty plausible forecast: on the one hand you have an incredibly weak and incoherent ideological motivation for clamps on media freedom, and freedom of information, which makes up for its deficiencies with sheer political force. On the other, you have a robust and layered set of arguments for openness, backed up by the ideologically efficacious but politically weak forces of civil society, the media, business, and ordinary citizens. The argument for openness then has to find its ground of legitimacy outside the prevailing political arrangements.

Of course we can turn for the protection of our rights to the courts, which are increasingly, as in the 1980s and the 1950s, where irreducible political differences are resolved. In doing so we are likely to increase the political burden that the justice system must bear, and open it up to fresh accusations of being “counter-revolutionary”. The battle may be partially, and temporarily resolved there, but that will not be the end of it.

Even if the protection of information bill and media appeals tribunal don’t pass constitutional muster, the larger and more diffuse project of their proponents will continue. In the medium term that project entails the progressive delegitimation of the press as component of our democratic architecture. That can be achieved in any number of ways. The Thabo Mbeki way, you will recall, was to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to rail against us as “fishers of corrupt men”, or as racists, setting out the terms of a national conversation in which the press would only be allowed to participate if it became more patriotic.

What is now being proposed, along with the laws that we have all been talking about for weeks, is a parliamentary enquiry into media diversity and ownership, conducted by the same communications committee that is responsible for oversight of our public broadcaster, and for fresh efforts to increase ministerial control of the communications space such as the Icasa amendment bill.

No doubt these are issues that ought to be debated – hugely concentrated media ownership, for example, is not something an independent newspaper like the M&G, constantly fighting for its place at the table, feels comfortable defending. But a long trial of the media driven by the completely data-free perception that it is not ideologically on board is hardly likely to deal with that problem. Instead it is designed to provide MPs with opportunities to pose the kinds of questions that we were asked in hearings on the Protection of Information Bill: are you with the struggle or against it? Are you still a South African when you go home at night? Isn’t it true that some of you are spies?

The most plausible result, if my friend is right, is a state of permanent, asymmetrical warfare. We will hurl logic bombs of condensed constitutionalism, and the occupying forces will gradually ratchet up the counter-insurgency – occupying territory through the SABC and the forthcoming daily paper the New Age, imposing new controls through parliament, withdrawing advertising.

It is possible of course that those in the governing party who are anxious about having ideological support for their expressions of power, and rattled by negative international reaction, will plump for a compromise that achieves some kind of armed peace.

My anonymous informant was essentially opening a negotiating channel, saying: you let us preserve some ideological credibility, and we’ll limit the impact on your rights.

It is an attractive idea, promising to transport us out of this tedious binary moment, securing basic freedom for the mainstream media, while providing its critics with enough of a victory to save face before supporters who have been mobilised for a long battle.

Handled carefully, it’s possible that such a solution would actually leave us better off.

It would have to look something like this: the Protection Of Information Bill dramatically redrafted to focus narrowly on genuine threats to security, and to restore the presumption of openness in government; the media tribunal dropped in return for a clear roadmap to a better resourced press ombud, with a well known and constitutionally minded ex-judge at the apex of the system; wide public promotion of the rules of the press code; commitment in the range of penalties available to the idea of restorative justice; and perhaps even a voluntary annual report to parliament on the work of the ombud.
That wouldn’t be a bad outcome, within the ideological and political balancing arrangement my friend proposes. I think many of us would accept it.

But it leaves fundamentally unresolved the larger question behind the moves against the media and freedom of speech and information more broadly, and the larger trajectory on which these moves are mere data points.

This really is – as writers like Nadine Gordimer, Achmat Dangor, JM Coetzee and others who have signed a petition against the propose laws realise – a question of culture.

That is a phrase very readily reduced to banality, so let’s think about it a bit.

Certainly there are those who would have us believe that this is a discussion about “culture” in the most instrumental and political sense.

That is, they suggest their critique flows to a greater or lesser degree from a failure adequately to account for, or – and this is very freighted, but also dangerously vague language – to respect African values. This particular critique ranges from Jackson Mthembu’s recent suggestion that for a newspaper to reproduce an artwork (good or bad) of Nelson Mandela on an autopsy table is grossly improper and ought to be illegal, to cruder suggestions like the one recently made to one of our staff that “as an African woman she should know better” than to ask questions about the private lives of her elders. A gentler sounding version of this approach suggests that our reporting practices ought to be motivated by values of ubuntu – to suggest that we be nicer to people who pillage the public purse because we recognise their fundamental humanity is, if you ask me, a particularly narrow and self-serving interpretation of that word.

Indeed, the broadly similar deployment of a “culture” defence in order to short-circuit public discussion of President Zuma’s polygamous lifestyle and extramarital relationships link the ideas of culture, dignity, and respect in a triad that frankly devalues all three. Access to the cultural archive is somehow supposed to allows the speaker to assert a legitimacy that is unassailable from outside. Anyone who doesn’t share that access, has no locus standi, anyone who does share it, and yet begs to differ, is an apostate and, like my young colleague, ought to know better.

Fortunately ordinary South Africans of all races see through this argument, as we learned from the widespread anger over revelations of the President’s child born out of wedlock.

It is, of course, quite spurious to give “cultural norms and values” the kind of clear legibility, and ahistorical consistency that promoters of this approach would like to.

It amounts to an extraordinary reification of African cultures, I would argue, to make them timeless, perpetual, and uncomplicated. Indeed, it sounds an awful lot like the racism of the colonialists who codified aspects of customary law in a way that allowed them to legitimise dispossession through the manipulation of traditional leadership.

To point this is out is not to suggest that journalists oughtn’t to be alive to questions of culture – even in the most narrow and, as John Rawls would say, anthropological, sense. We operate in a very public space, and depending on our different editorial approaches and values, need to find ways to take appropriate account of the manifold ways in which we can cause hurt or offence, and to avoid doing so without sound justification.

My most complicated experience of living through this question came recently when we published a cartoon which depicted the prophet Muhammad in what I and many others (including more than one Muslim scholar) thought was the gentlest and most affectionate of ways. The cartoon nevertheless caused intense offence, some of it stoked by exactly the kind of political mobilisation I have described, but much of it genuinely bewildered and anguished.

The result was a complex national debate about living with difference and complexity in which an extraordinary range of voices came to be heard. If the attempt to suppress it in court had succeeded, we would have lost the legal battle, and probably have won the ideological one. Because a Muslim judge allowed it to go ahead, we came to a much richer, and more complicated resolution which ended up being about what choices a fairly mainstream newspaper had at is disposal on a matter like this, and how it might choose to exercise its freedom in relation to the debate about representation and the politics of global Islam.

It was an illustration, I believe, of constitutional values in action.

It was exactly the legal freedoms that enabled publication which ultimately resulted in the production of a much richer and more durable kind of “respect” for the ban on representation of the prophet. A respect that is conscious of its contingency, and in a sense its absurdity, and yet that knows how and why it needs in many circumstances, to be honoured.

This is a point I want to return to in the context of literature, and this festival, but there is another dimension to the question of “culture” in this context that we need briefly to unpick first.

It is not just respect for culture in the received, anthropological sense that is urged on us, it is participation in the creation of a shared, and necessarily new, “national culture”.

Here is how our minister of arts and culture, Lulu Xingwana, explained her job in relation to photographs by Zanele Muholi that were exhibited on Constitution Hill, of all places.

“Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation building”, she said. “I left the exhibition because it expressed the very opposite of this. It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.”

These remarks did not emerge ex nihilo. Frantz Fanon predicted them with uncanny precision in his 1959 essay “On National Culture”.
Fanon, of course, was scathing about the way that the postcolonial elite, on their return from exile, often seek to replace the static and monumentalised impositions of colonial culture with similar monuments of their own. A process in which artists collude.

“[they] turn their back on foreign culture, deny it and set out to look for a true
national culture, setting great store on what they consider to be the constant
principles of national art. But these people forget that the forms of thought
and what it feeds on, together with modern techniques of information,
language and dress have dialectically reorganised the people’s intelligences
and that the constant principles which acted as safeguards during the
colonial period are now undergoing radical changes.”


“The artist who has decided to illustrate the truths of the nation turns
paradoxically towards the past and away from actual events. What he
ultimately intends to embrace are in fact the cast-offs of thought, its shells
and corpses, a knowledge which has been stabilised once and for all. But
the native intellectual who wishes to create an authentic work of art must
realise that the truths of a nation are in the first place its realities. He must
go until he has found the seething pot out of which the learning of the future will be found.”

Put differently, he or she must forge an art of the present, of what Homi Bhabha, in his rather strong reading of this essay calls: “a certain uncertain time of the people”. That means the tidiness of realism, and certainly of official culture, its backward glance, must give way. They are, he says: “already outworn and denied, called into question by the epoch through which the people are treading out their path towards history”.

Instead: “we must join them in that fluctuating movement which they are just giving a shape to, and which, as soon as it has started, will be the signal for everything to be called into question — it is to this zone of occult instability where the people dwell that we must come; and it is there that our souls are crystallised and that our perceptions and our lives are transfused with light.”

A passage that more powerfully speaks to our them of being here now, I cannot imagine, nor a more ringing and revolutionary rejection of the closed, static, and ultimately absurd idea of social cohesion that underpins Xingwana’s views on art, and the approach the ANC discussion paper takes to the media.

It is this very possibility of a freedom enriched and enabled by that which it cannot perfectly contain, that lives in a zone of occult instability, that the censors and spy bosses want to deny. That goes just as much for writers and for artists as for journalists.

That doesn’t mean we should assume a position of supine despair, fragile creatures of changeable light crushed under the boot of the state. It is in fact the extraordinary, illimitable capacity of literature that is our most powerful resource in combating the censors.

According to the ANC discussion document, its investigation into a possible media appeals tribunal “should further consider remedial measures which will safeguard and promote the human rights of all South Africans” and the central right consistently mentioned in this context is the right to dignity, as if it were somehow opposed to the right to free speech.

As Kate O’Regan has shown us, however, in a magisterial judgement of the Constitutional Court, that opposition does not exist. On the contrary, human dignity and the right to free speech are deeply entwined with each other, that freedom of speech is constitutive of our dignity as moral beings.

That is a potent argument within the legal discourse, and the discourse of rights, but it still doesn’t quite get us out of the oppositions that I began with. For that I want to turn to JM Coetzee, who not coincidentally spoke at the 1987 Weekly Mail Book Fair about the importance of writing outside of, albeit not uninfluenced by, the more politically effective dimensions of the struggle against repression.

That his Giving Offence, essays on censorship is unavailable in Johannesburg bookstores at a time like this says something about modes of censorship other than state regulation, but that is conversation for another session.

This is what he says – I’ll quote him at some length:

“The fiction of dignity helps to define humanity and the status of humanity helps to define human rights. There is thus a real sense in which an affront to our dignity strikes at our rights. Yet when, outraged at such affront, we stand on our rights and demand redress, we would do well to remember how insubstantial the dignity is on which those rights are based. Forgetting where our dignity comes from, we may fall into a posture as comical as that of the irate censor.
“Life, says Erasmus’s Folly, is theater: we each have lines to say and a part to play. One kind of actor, recognizing that he is in a play, will go on playing nevertheless; another kind of actor, shocked to find he is participating in an illusion, will try to step off the stage and out of the play. The second actor is mistaken. For there is nothing outside the theater, no alternative life one can join instead. The show is, so to speak, the only show in town. All one can do is to go on playing one’s part, though perhaps with a new awareness, a comic awareness.
“We thus arrive at a pair of Erasmian paradoxes. A dignity worthy of respect is a dignity without dignity (which is quite different from unconscious or unaffected dignity); an innocence worthy of respect is an innocence without innocence. As for respect itself, it is tempting to suggest that this is a superfluous concept, though for the workings of the theater of life it may turn out to be indispensable. True respect is a variety of love and may be subsumed under love; to respect someone means, inter alia, to forgive that person an innocence that, outside the theater, would be false, a dignity that would be risible.”

Journalists, needless to say, are not very good at stepping back and seeing the proscenium arch. We are too deeply immersed in the play. For us the play isn’t just the thing, it is, as Coetzee suggests, the only thing. The farthest we are likely to go is a vague sense that we feel O’Regan is correct, that our freedom of speech is somehow intrinsic to the mode in which we live our dignity. We are prisoners, pretty much of reason.

That, as I hinted at the outset, will only get us so far in a debate that is defined by paranoia, of a fear of the multiple, the uncontrollable, that which comes from outside – whether spies, investigative reporters, novelists, or lesbians.

“In paranoia” as Coetzee says in an essay examining South Africa’s films and publications regime, “reason meets its match”. To even understand the possibility of an alternative to paranoia then, we need unreason, art, the impossible fiction that is the mainspring of our possible freedom. And that, of course is why we are here with you now. A luta continua.

The Mail & Guardian Johannesburg Literary Festival hopes to be bigger and better this September. To mark the city’s 125th birthday the festival will focus on Jo’burg as both an African city and a world city. Visit our special report here.

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