/ 22 November 2011

The right side of hope

“McDonald’s launching their new burger this week: The Big Mac Maharaj. Comes with a free Shaik. For only 1.2 million francs, It’s a steal!”

Marc Lottering, I believe. Although it was a common enough theme on Twitter that it’s hard to know who first put together the gem. South Africans: Give them a Black Tuesday and they’ll give you a joke or 20. And an accusation of racism (you know, it has the word black in it) but that’s par for the course.

There is a buzz in the air as I write this. On Twitter the president’s spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, has been trending for some time. So too has “secrecy Bill”, “POIB” — short for Protection of Information Bill — and of course #BlackTuesday.

It’s a buzz that began in the Mail & Guardian newsroom on Thursday night when we were forced to pull back an article about Maharaj lying about bribes he reportedly received from an arms deal company. It’s a tense energy that went out across the rest of the country as our newspaper went to print with large swathes of text blacked out. And it intensified over the weekend with Maharaj laying charges against our newspaper, immediately followed by the Sunday Times publishing further damning evidence against the spokesperson. And then the countdown began to a larger event that formed the backdrop to this tussle over freedom of information.

The highly-contested Bill will be voted on in the National Assembly today. The expectation is that it will be rubber-stamped by an ANC-dominated Parliament, to hopefully face further scrutiny by the National Council of Provinces. But still, South Africans will be donning black and marching to several locations around the country to protest the Bill with its draconian clauses that would effectively put an end to investigative journalism and its embarrassing consequences for corrupt politicians.

There is a sense of standing on the edge of something large and frightening. But also that familiar feeling of solidarity. The idea that, despite our constant and petty bickering, South Africans are pretty darn good at pulling together in a way that sometimes borders on magical.

And the support the M&G has received from all sections of society has been incredible. Of course there are the naysayers here and there, such as those who question our referencing of apartheid-era censorship of media.

Editor-in-chief Nic Dawes has said: “The point is not a crude analogy with the criminal apartheid state. It is the recent memory of unfreedom. A resonance, not a comparison.” And criticisms far more petty than that, such as the suggestion that gained a surprising amount of traction on Twitter that #BlackTuesday was racist. Right.

But these are largely the detractors that history will forget. What will be remembered is this moment as a major battle among a series for our democracy. The buzz in the newsroom has been distracting. It’s kept us on edge as we tried to focus on producing another newspaper, between reading the updates from Dawes about the situation, while the threat of arrest against our journalists hanging in the air. But it has reminded us why we do what we do and it has been gratifying to watch that energy carry across to other parts of South Africa who are also gearing up to fight.

There are so many things going on at the M&G at any given time. We are no joyless persecutors of government officials. There are projects that I love being involved in, things like Voices of Africa, which tell the quirky and smile-inducing stories that defy the stereotypes that are usually perpetuated about the continent. There is the incredible Book of Women and Young South African annual lists, an ambitious labour of love by every part of our business, where we pour ourselves into celebrating what is good about our country. There is our Literary Festival, our Critical Thinking Forums, our newly-launched Public Insight Network and much more besides.

Exposing corruption is just one part of what we do. But it is vital — in any democracy. As the game-changing and acclaimed economist Amartya Sen has pointed out, no country with a relatively free press has experienced a substantial manmade famine. There are many other facts I could produce along this line but I imagine I’d be preaching to the converted.

So join us today as we take a stand. The M&G team will be outside Luthuli house at 8am. Here are one of four things you can do, ranging in effort, depending on how busy you are:

  1. Wear black.
  2. Sign the petition.
  3. Use your phone to lobby Parliament chief whips. Here’s how.
  4. Come to one of the marches around the country tomorrow.

But whatever you do, don’t stop caring. It’s what keeps us on the right side of the line between hope and despair. And it’s the quality that makes for those moments of magic-tinged solidarity, that makes it all worth it.

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G online. You can read her column every week here, and follow her on Twitter here.