When the Socialist Party of Azania’s (Sopa) president, Tiyani Lybon Mabasa, got up to speak at the Press Freedom Commission hearings in Braamfontein last week, he prefaced his words along the lines of “It’s been a long time since you last saw us in the press and it’s not a coincidence”.
The latter-day political representatives of the black consciousness tradition say the media is part and parcel of a systematic blackout of ideas from contemporary South African political discourse. And yet parties such as Sopa, the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) — the party from which Sopa split — and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) are uniform in their support of a “free”, self-regulating media.
“When The World, the Weekend World and black consciousness organisations were banned [on October 19, 1977, a day also known as Black Wednesday], we spoke strongly for a free press,” said Mabasa.
“But then the press can never be completely free. As the fourth tier in a democratic government in the context of a capitalist state it is expected to enforce its democratic and constitutional ideals.
“If it does something independent of that, then it runs into trouble. It reports the popular views of the day because it needs [financial] support and acknowledgement. But we are standing up [for a free, self-regulating press] because there are elements that are helpful to our people.”
As Mabasa’s comments demonstrate, black consciousness parties’ relationship with the media can best be described as complex. On the one hand, Azapo’s Strike Thokoane can declare that “the media hijacked Black Wednesday”, in reference to November 22 2011 when journalists took to the streets dressed in black to protest Parliament’s passing of the secrecy Bill, but on the other he was unwavering in declaiming his party’s call for self-regulation, as he demonstrated at the Press Freedom Commission hearings.
“Where retractions have to be made, they must be made in bold, not in small print on page 25,” he said. “That would be embarrassment enough for that publication. We are saying this despite the fact that the media has been unfavourable towards Azapo.”
Thokoane said when the party commemorated the assassination of Abram Onkgopotse Tiro in Dinokana in North West last weekend it sent invites to the media in vain.
“And it is not Azapo that is being commemorated, it is Tiro. It would be a tragedy to forget the likes of Tiro, [Robert] Sobukwe and [Tsietsi] Mashinini. They put their lives on the line for this country. Similarly, when we brought Ali Mazrui and Kwame Toure into the country both events were ignored. So it seems like the coverage depends on who is bringing the people, [rather than on their stature].”
His counterpart, PAC national executive committee member Mudini Maivha, concurred, stating that because of “proportional coverage”, media releases from “small” parties did not see the light of day, regardless of how relevant they were.
He said the media did not follow up the case of former PAC president Motsoko Pheko, who was dismissed from the party after being accused of defrauding it of millions of rand by running a secret bank account.
But the recession in the popularity of black consciousness ideas — from igniting an entire generation’s imagination in the Sixties and Seventies to the fringes of popular discourse after 1994 has, in some ways, been self-inflicted.
A general lack of media savvy pervades parties steeped in the black consciousness tradition. The PAC’s website, for example, is “still under construction” and has been for several years. With their website also “under construction”, Sopa’s Facebook page is a short biography with 25 likes. Azapo’s page, which seems more active (517 likes), does not exhibit any notable signs of frenetic interaction and robust debate.
Historically, the importance of propaganda in the mass mobilisation of the marginalised has been paramount. In the post-World War I United States, for instance, the Negro World, a weekly newspaper with an international circulation, became an invaluable weapon in Jamaican “race leader” Marcus Garvey’s arsenal. It helped his party, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, to become the largest known black organisation at the time, with representatives in Latin America, the Caribbean and even Africa.
It is something not lost on social activist and commentator Andile Mngxitama, who has effectively led a relentless one-man campaign to resurrect black consciousness from death’s door through self-publishing (New Frank Talk) and social media usage that has spilled over into the mainstream media.
Someone, it seems, has not forgotten the black consciousness maxim of “black man, you are on your own”.
The image, then, of former Chief Justice Pius Langa giving anecdotal public relations hints to Thokoane at the Press Freedom Commission hearings last week can be read as two old dogs discussing new tricks, which, as the saying suggests, has never worked.
The dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Tawana Kupe, said: “The black consciousness tradition was against media censorship, or rather the censorship of ideas by both government and editors who did not cover black consciousness ideas. In this context their fear is that media censorship of any form by a government could lead to the further blacking out of their ideas and, by extension, to their being removed from public discourse.”