Keynote Address by Minister Pallo Jordan at Sanef/Dac Gala Dinner to Commemorate 1977 Press Bannings and Celebrate Media Freedom, Vodaworld, Midrand

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12 Oct 2007

We are here to mark the thirtieth anniversary of a number of repressive actions. One was an act of murder that of Steve Bantu Biko in police custody in September 1977. The second also took place thirty years ago, after the murder of Steve Biko became an international scandal, when the apartheid regime thumbed its nose at world opinion by banning 17 organizations and two newspapers, “The World” and the “Weekend World”.

What occurred on 19th October 1977 was unprecedented even by the standards of the apartheid regime which had acquired international notoriety for its repressive character. We mark these events not to bemoan the oppressive order of our recent past, but by way of affirming the democratic values in our Constitution and celebrating what South Africa has achieved over the past thirteen years.

Freedom of expression, an important dimension of which is Media Freedom, is one of the fundamental rights South Africans secured as a result of the democratic political revolution of 1994. Media freedom is the outcome of more than one and a half centuries of often hard-fought struggles, in which thousands lost their lives, suffered imprisonment, torture and assassination. These rights came at great cost and should be cherished and defended by us all, citizens and government alike.

From the outset the struggle for media freedom and the struggle against racial oppression and colonialism in South Africa have been integrally connected. That link is encapsulated in the person and the struggles of Thomas Pringle who arrived in South Africa as an immigrant from Britain in 1820. Though amongst the 1820 settlers, Pringle did not live in the Eastern Cape, but settled in Cape Town where, together with John Fairburn, he established the “South African Journal” and the “South African Commercial Advertiser”.

Like many other editors after him, Pringle soon discovered that there were limits to freedom of expression in the colonies. As a staunch abolitionist Pringle was very critical of slavery at the Cape and was not averse to taking issue with the colonial government about its policy toward the indigenous people. After his newspapers were suppressed he returned to Britain in 1827 where he continued his abolitionist activities becoming secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society that year.

Given this pedigree it was an unavoidable consequence that the struggle for freedom of expression would invariably be refracted through the struggle for racial equality and justice. The events that we are marking this evening underscore and reinforce that association.

Steve Bantu Biko was one of the outstanding representatives of a political tradition that has its roots in the Eastern Cape. He was born in Ginsburg, a stoner’s throw from King Williamstown, the site of the first secular newspaper in an indigenous language. He grew up and was educated among the hills and valleys that had witnessed one hundred years anti-colonial wars – euphemistically called Frontier Wars – actually Wars of Dispossession.

John Tengo Jabavu, the father of African journalism in South Africa, established “Imvo Zabanstundu” in 1884 after parting company with the missionary publication, “Isigidimi samaXhosa” the previous year and rose to become the leading spokesman for African aspirations in the late 19th century. The close parallels between Jabavu’s entry into politics and that of Steve Biko should also be noted as indicative of interesting continuities in South African politics.

The printing press produced the first information revolution in every part of the world where it was introduced and the newspaper was the most effective means of mass communication before the advent to radio. Beyond being couriers of information newspapers, were conceived as instruments for sharing political opinion. “Imvo” and the newspapers and journals that followed it, were the well-springs of what grew into an African nationalist political tradition. The relationship between media freedom and the struggle for national liberation thus became more firmly entrenched, emphasized by the repressive attempts of both colonial and post-Union governments.

The national liberatory tradition in which Steve Biko has a place of honour was the brainchild of a growing body of Christian converts living and working amongst their traditionalist brethren in the Eastern Cape during the second half of the 19th century. They were carriers of the ideas, values and skills of 19th century Europe many of whom had become successful as a middling to prosperous African peasantry. Some among them owned extensive farms which produced grain, cattle, wool and other cash crops for the market. Others were skilled craftsmen; a few were professionals working as teachers and clergymen. Their politics was19th century British liberalism and they appealed to that tradition when addressing the British colonial office and its representatives in South Africa.

They were committed modernists, who espoused Christianity and modern education, but they nonetheless recognised the abiding values in pre-colonial African society. The newspapers and journals they pioneered, usually published in an African language and English, established a tradition of Black journalism that remains firmly rooted in the democratic ideals they had embraced.

Reading, writing and the publication of newspapers and books are essential components of our cultural heritage today thanks to those 19th century pioneers. The beginnings of a literary tradition among the Africans was the translation and publication of what many consider the pre-eminent Christian religious allegory in the English language, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, translated into Xhosa by the Rev. Tiyo Soga in 1866.

The late Master of Balliol College, Oxford, Dr Christopher Hill, characterized “The Pilgrim’s Progress” as the definitive statement of both Puritan theology and its latent radical message. After participating in the English Revolution of 1640 as a fighter in Cromwell’s army, John Bunyan was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned at the behest of the authorities of the High Church of England for preaching and publishing his Puritan views. Bunyan’s own battles against all manner of censorship were thus incorporated into the literary tradition that emerged among African writers at its birth.

As the first book in an indigenous language, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” had a profound formative impact on those early generations of literate Africans. With the author and his protagonist, Christian, as their principal role models, those early converts absorbed the lesson of a continuing tension between the authorities and the conscientious citizen from the onset. It became a recurring theme in the lived experience of the emergent African intelligentsia, especially those engaged in journalism. The Eastern Cape into which Steve Bantu Biko was born in the mid-twentieth century was steeped in these intellectual and political traditions.

The power of the written word resides in the reality that recording words in print transforms them into potentially powerful means of communication, not merely between two people, but potentially amongst millions. Freed from the need for personal contact, the written word made it possible to communicate directly and to receive accurate communication from afar. The written word enabled readers and writers to commune with the present, the past and the future. Liberated from the constraints of time and space, the thoughts, opinions, emotions, beliefs, values and experiences of people acquired infinite mobility, even immortality.

The power of the written word has been vindicated again and again by those who seek to control the flow of information between and amongst people. Notebooks, drafts and other written materials that never go beyond the author’s desk pose no threat to authoritarian governments, though some have been known to search out and destroy even these.

It is ironic that in a world where illiteracy still holds millions in thrall, the printed word nonetheless carries such great weight. The influence of the media in societies is best illustrated by negative examples. Faced with the international scandal that the murder of Steve Biko became, the apartheid regime’s first recourse was to try and conceal the truth about this dastardly deed. The patent lies told during the inquest, crowned with the brazen verdict that no one was responsible for his death, even they knew, were unconvincing.

The media, and especially the oldest component of the mass media, the press, have played their role in bringing about a democratic order in this country. A number of outstanding South African journalists, including the late Percy Gqoboza, Donald Woods, and Anthony Heard, have received laurels from the international community. Brian Bunting, Govan Mbeki and Joe Gqabi, all of whom were associated with the serially banned “Guardian”, received the Julius Fucik award from the International Organisation of Journalists for using their pens in the struggle against apartheid.

But we cannot, for that reason, pretend that the role of the South African media has been consistently honourable. It is helpful to recall that while a Thomas Pringle earned the wrath of the colonial government during the 19th century, there were other journalists and editors who served as the cheerleaders during wars of aggression against independent African kingdoms and later against the Boer Republics; during the 20th century the democratic voices of those who opposed racism and its terrible consequences were often drowned out by the vile proto-fascist propaganda that flowed from the pens of the likes of Hendrik Verwoerd; as recently as the 1980’s well-known editors still felt no compunction about virtually congratulating the would-be-assassins responsible for blinding Judge Albie Sachs in one eye and blowing off his right arm.

An awesome responsibility devolves on those responsible for the media in this country. While we should all pride ourselves in our collective achievement of media freedom, we cannot afford to lose sight of the manner it has been used and abused in the past.
An African novelist once compared "truth" to a powerful wrestler. No matter how hard its adversary, "falsehood", tries to overwhelm it, “truth” refuses to yield. And even when falsehood thinks it has overpowered “truth”, “truth” gathers new strength and casts off “falsehood”.

The truth is very powerful, yet it is also extremely elusive. No single person, no body of opinion, no political doctrine, no religious doctrine can claim a monopoly on truth.
It has always been my contention that the truth can be arrived at only through the untrammeled contest among differing opinions, in which as many points of view as possible are given a fair and equal hearing. Laws and mores that repress freedom of expression cannot be anything other than a disservice to society. I would even say that censorship, the suppression of information and the repression of those who bring us information, are devices employed by falsehood.
Yet it is very instructive also to observe that all information conveyed to us by another is necessarily filtered through and consequently tainted and coloured by the courier’s own opinions, ideas and perception of the world.

The relationship that evolved between Steve Biko and the late Donald Woods can be very helpful in this respect. By his own admission, Woods had never spoken to or encountered Steve Biko, but he had felt competent to write and publish highly critical remarks about him and the Black Consciousness Movement. Dr Mamphele Ramphela confronted him and compelled him to face up to what were, frankly, his prejudices. Woods admits too that once he had shed his prejudices and interacted with the real Biko, rather than the one of his imagination, he developed a deep sense of respect and even fellowship with him.

Securing the right of the citizen to express whatever opinion he/she subscribes to, as long as the exercise of that right does not harm others, remains among the missions pursued by all South African democrats. The removal from South Africa's Statute books of the laws, ordinances, regulations and administrative measures that abridged the rights of South African citizens to receive and transmit information, which repressed the freedom of the media to publish, are essential ingredients of our democratic culture which still needs careful nurturing. It is our collective responsibility to continue nurturing and defending these rights.

Freedom of the press is amongst the oldest and most valued of the freedoms for which many South Africans have given their lives. The pioneers of the black press were amongst the founders of the ANC. They include the first President of the ANC, Dr. John Langalibalele Dube, a distinguished educator who founded Ohlange Institute and the newspaper, "Ilanga lase Natal"; the giant among African men of letters, Solomon Plaatje, the founder "Koeranta eaBatswana". No less committed a journalist and publisher was the Reverend Dr. W. B. Rubusana, a distinguished writer and translator, the founder of ''Izwi LaBantu".
We are proud to recall too the names of two courageous ANC militants, Joe Gqabi and Ruth First, whose murder by agents of the apartheid regime is still shrouded in mystery and clouded by half-truths

These two were journalists in the tradition of the founders of the ANC. It would be a slight to their memory and their pioneering work if our actions we proved us unworthy of their sacrifice.
The value we place on a free, independent and outspoken press in democratic South Africa cannot be overstated. A free press can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. A free press can be the vigilant watchdog of the public against the temptation to abuse power. This is all the more reason why the South African media, should more accurately reflect the diversity and variety of viewpoints among our people. Media diversity remains one of the critical challenges facing democratic South Africa and media owners, media workers and their organizations should be giving this greater attention.
Our Constitution unequivocally states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes

  1. freedom of the Press and other media;
  2. freedom to receive or impart information and ideas;
  3. freedom of artistic creativity; and
  4. academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

 

To millions of South Africans these rights remain aspirational because their languages do not enjoy an equal status despite being recognised as official languages. It is a serious indictment of our society that it is virtually impossible to find a bookshop in any of our shopping malls that distributes literature in the indigenous African languages.

It is easier to find a book in French, German or Portuguese than to find a book written in sePedi or xiTsonga, seTswana, isiZulu or isiXhosa in the bookstores in this African country.

This anomaly means that it is very difficult for those of our people who speak these as home languages to fully realise their right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression also means the right of “everyone to use a language of their choice”. The right and capacity to both write and read in one’s home language remains a societal challenge.

At the Cape Town International Book Fair this July, we launched the South African Book Development Council to forge a partnership with the publishing industry to, amongst other things, encourage and stimulate publication in the African languages. We once again invite South African publishers to rise to this challenge.

The assault on the dignity of African people includes their inability to express themselves in their mother-tongues because mainstream business and even the public service continue to conduct their work primarily in English and Afrikaans.

Equality amongst our languages, the right of people to use the language of their choice and thus exercising their right to freedom of expression will not be attained until all segments of our society actively encourage and promote these rights.

While the existing situation prevails a large segment of our population will not be able to participate in national discourse and debate because of the languages used. Yet their thoughts, views and aspirations have an equal claim to the national dialogue. Freedom of expression is the inalienable right of all our people.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is one of the features of a democratic dispensation in a pluralist society like ours that there is an ongoing contestation amongst its various components. An elected government that derives its authority from the consent of the government has the responsibility of ensuring that such contestation is managed in a non-conflictual manner.

Tension between those tasked with governing and the media, as purveyors of information and opinion, is one of the inevitable outcomes of democratic government. It is pointless to deny its existence and it is short-sighted to suggest that such betrays a secret ambition to censor the media on the part of government.

It has become the favourite hobby horse of some in the media to question and interrogate the ANC‘s track record and commitment to media freedom. The African National Congress and the government it leads has nothing to fear from criticism. It shall not wilt under criticism or close scrutiny. It is my considered view that robust debate can only help us to deepen our democracy. But debate is a two-way street which contributes to the health of a democracy by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people's expectations.

In closing, permit me to quote the words of a great South African democrat, former President Nelson Mandela addressing the International Press Union in Cape Town in March 1994:
“If the people of South Africa elect us to office, we firmly undertake that an ANC government will strive for an open society in which vigourous debate is encouraged through a free press and other media; in which equal status is accorded to all languages, cultures and religious beliefs; in which women will receive recognition as equals, deserving of the respect and the dignity intrinsic to being human.”

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.