Thirty-three years ago, on October 19 1977, the apartheid government banned three newspapers and many political organisations.
What they showed, of course, was not their strength but their weakness. Theirs was a regime unable to survive an environment in which people were free to impart and receive information and opinions.
South Africans recall the injury inflicted that day, and over the years that followed, not as distant history but as a lived experience. We can still feel in our bones the abrogation of fundamental humanity that came with curbs on speech.
And that is why the central position of freedom of expression and the media in our constitutional architecture is not a product of some lifeless democratic theory — it is the living heart of the choice that we made for a free society, a choice based on the all too recent misery of unfreedom.
As Kate O’Regan, at the time a Constitutional Court judge, put it in NM v Smith: “Freedom of expression — is indispensable, not only because it makes democracy possible but also because of its importance to the development of individuals, for it enables them to form and share opinions and thus enhances human dignity and autonomy.
Recognising the role of freedom of expression in asserting the moral autonomy of individuals demonstrates the close links between freedom of expression and other constitutional rights, such as human dignity, privacy and freedom. Underlying all these constitutional rights is the constitutional celebration of the possibility of morally autonomous human beings independently able to form opinions and act on them.”
To set up an opposition between dignity and freedom, then, as proponents of a media tribunal like to do, for example, is wrong-headed at best.
Of course, in a free environment diverse voices ought to flourish and we would like to see a more plural media environment, not just from a political perspective, but also in scale, locale, language and audience.
There are those who think that more political intervention is the way to achieve that. Hopefully they were attentive to the obvious lessons on offer this week.
First, the SABC, the largest, best-resourced media organisation, with the most potential to transform the news and current affairs landscape, spiralled into utter chaos and faces financial collapse.
That is a direct result of years of political interference, crony deployment and consequent mismanagement.
Then there is The New Age (TNA), the print title that promised to lend a more sympathetic, “constructively critical” ear to the government and the ANC.
Ideally, it would be a welcome addition to the menu, not just for the perspectives it could bring, but because it would disarm those who argue that newspapers are ideologically uniform.
As our reporting makes clear, the departure of TNA’s most senior editorial staff this week came as a result of poor management and a rush to production. The Gupta family, who own the paper, have no newspaper experience and are no doubt anxious to make good on promises to the politicians whose children they employ. This is not a recipe for durable change in the media landscape.
October 19 reminds us why we chose freedom. There is no “plan B”. We all have to learn to live that freedom — especially those who think it’s their duty to tell us how.
Sickening state of affairs
Maybe former Mpumalanga premier Ndaweni Mahlangu knew something we didn’t when he famously said there was nothing wrong with politicians who lied. In the context of his province, it has since become abundantly clear that the politics in South Africa’s “wild east” are made up of smoke and mirrors, lies, assassinations, death threats, failed delivery and conspiracies.
The latest shock is the apparent assassination of controversial and outspoken former ANC Youth League leader James Nkambule. There is initial evidence that he was poisoned. Now one of his critics has speculated that he took his own life. It seems unlikely.
Nkambule’s death followed that of Mbombela municipality speaker Jimmy Mohlala, the disappearance of Govan Mbeki municipality chief financial officer Joshua Ntshuhle and death threats to journalists.
The Sunday Times‘s Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested “Hollywood style”, interrogated at 3am about his politics and later told he had no charge to answer.
The SACP believes one of its leaders in the province, Bomber Ntshangase, was also killed for speaking out against corruption last year.
Meanwhile, the province faces a governance crisis. As matric examinations start next week, national education officials have made it clear that they don’t trust the provincial department to run the exams and have taken over. Service delivery protests have become synonymous with local municipalities. And corruption allegations are so regular and go so high, they have become banal.
Most, if not all, of the madness in the province is linked to power struggles in the tripartite alliance. It is baffling that the ANC has done so little to deal with such a deep crisis.
The province needs rapid and robust state and political intervention now, before it becomes an internal Zimbabwe. The legislative tools are there. It is time they were used.