Back to black

It was a student’s dream come true, working at the Mail & Guardian. I had poured over the 26-year history of the paper in all its previous incarnations while at university. The highlight of that history was the turbulent eighties, where the Weekly Mail—as it was then known—built up an international reputation as a vocal apartheid critic, leading to a number of clashes with the government that culminated in the paper’s suspension in 1988.

There is a poster outside our editor Nic Dawes’s office that stands as a stark reminder of that time.
Published during one of the worst periods of government crackdown on June 26 1986, it reads: “Our lawyers tell us we can say almost nothing critical about the emergency.”

“But we’ll try.”

Below it runs an article with most of the text blacked out, thanks to apartheid censorship.

Fast-forward 25 years later and it’s the same story with a different cast: the party that fought for a free South Africa turned into a government using similar censorship tricks on its media.

As the M&G reported on Thursday night, we experienced a chilling forewarning of what may happen if the Protection of State Information Bill is adopted in its current form when we were compelled to suppress a report about presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj.

The paper was planning to lead with an exposé into Maharaj that raised some disturbing questions about the man who speaks on behalf of our president. But after sending him questions he slapped us with a legal letter threatening criminal prosecution under the National Prosecuting Authority Act.

Section 41(6) of the Act makes it an offence to disclose evidence gathered in camera by a section 28 inquiry—providing for a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail.

It seems trite to point out that while the Weekly Mail was being silenced by the apartheid government, a younger Maharaj was part of the ANC’s underground struggle against that very regime. Ten years prior he had experienced a taste of potential censorship himself, secretly transcribing Nelson Mandela’s biography while serving time with him at Robben Island, and smuggling the book out when he was released in 1976.

I wonder what this Maharaj would have said, could he peer into the future and see the M&G‘s butchered lead story: reams of blacked out text, in a neat and sickeningly Orwellian return to what he fought against.

I may have dreamed of working at the M&G because of its combative history, but I never hoped for a return to those days. I thought we were entering a new period of engagement with the government, where fighting for the truth and progress was a shared goal. It’s devastating to see that I was wrong.

You can read Verashni’s column every week here and follow her on Twitter here.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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