Distinguished Publishers and Proprietors,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Permit me to express my profound appreciation of the invitation extended to me by the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers to address this important assembly. I consider it a great honour that your organisation has asked me to share our views with you on this occasion. I recognise that this is an honour bestowed not on me personally, but on the movement which I have been associated with all of my adult life.
Your conference takes place in the context of a rapidly changing world. During this century, which has witnessed upheavals and transformations of daunting proportions, the present decade will be recorded as a period of intense change, that has swept away institutions of long standing and is inaugurating a new age of democracy, social justice and freedom. Our own country, South Africa, is also caught up in the throes of a process of transformation which has continental proportions.
The media, and especially the oldest component of the mass media, the newspapers, have played their role in assisting the birth of this emergent of this democratic order.
It is an irony that in a world in which massive illiteracy still enslaves millions, not least in our own country, the printed word nonetheless carries great weight. An awesome and grave responsibility therefore devolves on the owners of media and publishers. It is a responsibility I know you take very seriously. Three outstanding South African journalists, the late Percy Gqoboza, Donald woods, and Anthony Heard, have been recipients of your prestigious Golden Pen Award.
Your Federation so honoured them because of the contribution they individually made to the struggle for freedom of expression in South Africa. During the darkest days of apartheid and repression, the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers was amongst the many international bodies that lent their voices to that of millions in South Africa demanding freedom of the Press. We remain in your debt for that support.
A South African novelist once compared "truth"to a powerful wrestler. No matter how hard its adversary, "falsehood", may try to overwhelm it, truth refuses to yield. And even when falsehood thinks it has overpowered truth, truth will gather new strength and cast off falsehood .
Truth has great power;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. Truth can be arrived at only through the untrammelled contest among differing opinions, in which as many points of view as possible are given a fair and equal hearing. It has therefore always been our contention that laws and mores that repress freedom of expression are a disservice to society. we would also insist that these are devices that are employed by falsehood. Freedom of expression, of which freedom of the press and other media is a crucial aspect, is one of those core values of democracy that has always been a central plank of the ANC's political platform. This was inevitable because a number of the pioneers of the black press were amongst the founders of the ANC. In this context I recall the name of the first President of the ANC, Dr. John Langalibalele Dube, a distinguished educator who founded Ohlange Institute and the newspaper, "Ilanga lase Natal". There was also that 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".
With such antecedents, the ANC was, from its birth in 1912, firmly devoted to securing the right of the citizen to express whatever opinion he/she subscribed to, as long as the exercise of that right did not harm others.
South Africa is indeed a land of ironies. In 1912, when the ANC was founded, there was a great diversity of media voices in our country. That is now a thing of the past. In 1912 there existed at least two weekly newspapers in the Xhosa language, published and owned by African companies. There was at least one Tswana language weekly, owned by a co-operative of African business interests. At the same time there were at least two Zulu language newspapers, similarly owned and published by African companies.
In 1913, the ANC was able to establish its own newspaper, "Abantu-Batho"(The People). with the exception of "Imvo", formerly "Imvo ZabaNtsundu"(Black Opinion) and "Ilanga lase Natal", everyone of these African newspapers has disappeared. Both "Imvo"and "Ilanga"are no longer under African ownership, having been acquired by the powerful media giants that dominate the print media in South Africa.
The false impression is sometimes created that the demise of the black owned newspapers was purely the outcome of market forces. The hard facts of the matter are that successive white minority governments have, since 1910, steadily undermined and destroyed the legal property rights of the disenfranchised majority of South Africans.
It was the brutal application of racist law that deprived the African community of the economic capacity to build and sustain any autonomous institutions of value. By 1950, virtually every venture made by black South Africans to gain a foothold in publishing had come to naught. We should also not forget that the outright banning of publications played no small part in this.
The reality is that today, three large conglomerates, drawn exclusively from the white racial group, dominate the print media of our country. This, as you may well imagine, has produced an alarming degree of conformism in the South African print media. With the exception of one daily, "The Sowetan", the senior editorial staffs of all South Africa's daily newspapers are cast from the same racial mould. They are all white, they are all male, they are all from a middle class background and tend to share a very similar life experience. The same, unfortunately, holds true for the mass circulation weeklies - again with a few exceptions.
The ANC has no objection in principle to editors with such a profile. What is disturbing however, and in our view, harmful, is the threat of one dimensionality this poses for the media of our country as a whole. It is clearly unacceptable that a country whose population is overwhelmingly black, 85% of the total, is serviced by media whose principal players have no knowledge of the life experience of that majority.
The scandal that has rocked South Africa in the past month, the revelations that serving members of the South African Government share responsibility in ordering the deaths of four political activists, reaffirms the crucial role of a diverse and independent press in South Africa.
We have long suspected that senior officers of the South African Defence Force are deeply implicated in planning, financing, and fuelling the violence that has decimated the African population of Natal and the Witwatersrand. Proof has now been provided. The investigations that have uncovered the sordid facts were conducted by small, independent publications who have pioneered a new tradition of investigative journalism which South Africa has sorely lacked for the last 30 years. That the criminals in high places responsible for these deeds might one day, soon, be brought to justice is a tribute to the alternative and independent weekly newspapers. The courage shown by these endeavours needs also to be recognised.
Founded at a time of severe repression, it was these publications that kept the flag of press freedom flying in the face of draconian press censorship. They offered a platform to the people and issues generally excluded from the mainstream print media. The established newspapers are beginning to follow the lead given by the alternatives in order to compete.
People on both sides of the political spectrum, particularly those in authority, are aware that the activities of the alternative media are under close scrutiny. As recently as the weekend of May 15th, the Minister of Law and Order in South Africa brought an injunction against the "Weekly Mail"and "Die Vrye Weekblad"to prevent these two papers from bringing to light facts they had uncovered of police wrongdoing and a conspiracy to fuel violence.
The removal from South Africa's Statute books of the scores of laws, ordinances, regulations and administrative measures that abridge the rights of South African citizens to know the truth, and which repress the freedom of the media to publish, is essential for the creation of a climate of free political activity. we have insisted that this be effected as speedily as possible because these laws provide a convenient shield to conceal government misdeeds. They also inhibit the growth of a democratic culture that is beginning to find roots, and which needs careful nurturing.
The tradition that has emerged through this process must be safeguarded if we are to achieve democracy in South Africa. R critical independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. It must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to bullying by Government officials. It must be protected so that it can protect our rights as citizens.
To ensure the free flow of ideas and information is one of the objectives the ANC seeks to attain in a new South African
constitution. The maintenance and extension of the limited diversity the alternative newspapers have been able to inject into our print media is of vital importance. The huge imbalances that persist in the press sector between a handful of struggling independent, alternative newspapers and the giant monopolies - the Argus, Times Media Ltd., Nasionale Pers, and Perskor - must be redressed. this should also include reassessment of the control exercised over distribution.
The new independent weeklies had been fortunate in winning the assistance of international funders when they first set up during the 1980s. They are now working against a difficult economic climate. It will not be easy for them to continue to grow and become self sustaining. The five major independent weeklies agreed, in March 1992, to join the Newspaper Press Union (the NPU) - the industrial body that represents the established urban and country based newspapers in South Africa.
This development could signify the end of a long division in our newspaper industry. Tension between the mainstream and the alternatives peaked during the 1985 to 89 States of Emergency when the then State President, P.W. Botha, tried to conclude special agreements with the NPU at the expense of the alternatives. There were also differences because the alternative media were prepared to defy press restrictions while the mainstream newspapers, despite their power, continued to support shameful special agreements with the South African police, the SADF, the South African Department of Prisons - a regime of rigorous self censorship that protected the Pretoria Government against regelation of its worst excesses. This compliant attitude has not yet completely altered. we hope that the new political climate, created through the struggle of our people, in which the alternative media play an outstanding role, will afford the two sides of our media industry the opportunity to accept each other as partners, with a shared interest in defending freedom of the press now and in the new dispensation.
We stress that the mainstream media have an equal interest in ensuring the diversity of the South African press even in the teeth of the economic pressures that militate towards monopolies.
As the South African newspaper industry rejoins the world media community, it is important that meaningful steps are taken to reduce the imbalances in control and access to the media. In this regard it is necessary that the conglomerates who today bestride the South African media like colossi, find ways to disaggregate themselves so as to make room for other players.
Despite the indecisive outcome of Codesa II, which stalled precisely because the National Party and Government refused to accept democratic principles, we have no doubt that democracy is the inevitable result of the negotiating process now underway.
Our country is making a troubled transition from racism and apartheid to democracy. Our path is beset with problems and at times the battalions of democracy are besieged by those of our discredited past. Those who want to cling to this past are determined to see us fail. It is they who are the agency for what has been projected to the international community as black on black violence;as inter-ethnic pogroms;or, at best, the expression of a primordial African intolerance of a diversity of political opinions.
There is now compelling evidence implicating elements of the State Security organs in the orchestration of these violent deeds. The shocking indifference of the majority of our white compatriots, which sadly finds reflection also in our mass circulation daily newspapers, to this heartless bloodletting is a cause for great concern. The De Klerk Government, its shrill protestations notwithstanding, still has to demonstrate any meaningful commitment to tracking down these killers and bringing them to justice.
Because of these acts of omission we are finding it increasingly difficult not to draw the conclusion that this violence intersects with aspects of State President De Klerk's own political agenda. And ultimately, as State President, he has to assume full responsibility for the carnage.
The talks we have had with the South African government, both in the context of the five working groups of CODESA, and in bilateral discussions, indicate deep-seated reservations among them about coming to terms with the logical consequences of democracy. The reluctance of De Klerk and his colleagues to live with democratic arrangements became very evident in the last few days preceding CODESA lI. They remain intransigent, acting in narrow self-interest as opposed to the national interest of our country. We are deeply disappointed that CODESA II failed to deliver the breakthrough so many worked so tirelessly to achieve.
The South African government has placed four major obstacles in the way of forward movement. These are:
- Unacceptably high percentages to draft a constitution, in essence veto powers through the back door.
- Determination of boundaries and entrenched powers at both a regional and local level during the interim phase, to be binding on the future democratic constitution.
- An undemocratic and unelected Senate with veto powers;and
- A determination that the interim constitution, a mechanism to ensure continuity during the transition, includes wide veto powers and so becomes a permanent feature, remaining in force indefinitely. The essence of the problem is not one of percentages or arithmetic. It is that the National Party is trying to hold on to power at all costs, introducing minority veto powers in a variety of ways that can only result in paralysis of decision making, strife and great instability. This intransigence fundamentally affects the very process of democratisation of the country.
The majority of disenfranchised South Africans can ill-afford to wait patiently while the privileged minority mull over the implications democracy will have for them. Those who delay the birth of democracy assume an awesome responsibility and should be aware of the risks their actions entail for the country as a whole. Our people cannot postpone their hunger. Neither can their freedom be postponed. Time is not on our side. South Africa needs democracy as much as its dry earth needs rain. The undoubted potential of our country and its people will never be realised without it.
The ANC is fully aware that its own track record and commitment to justice has been subjected to question. We understand and welcome the concern expressed by our own, South African media, and that of the world.
I have often said that the media are a mirror through which we can see ourselves as others perceive us, warts and all. The African National Congress has nothing to fear from criticism. I can promise you, we shall not wilt under criticism or close examination. It is our considered view that criticism can only help us to grow, by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people's expectations and the democratic values to which the ANC subscribes.
Many, including well-known international agencies, have expressed concern about allegations that the ANC has abused, maltreated and even tortured people it held in custody as agents in the employ of the apartheid government. We also want to get to the bottom of this matter. It is for that reason that the ANC has established its own Commission of Enquiry, composed of distinguished members of the bar, with impeccable records. We would have preferred that the Commission be allowed to complete its work and make a full report before its competence was called into question.
In this instance too, the media could assist us by encouraging those that have facts with a bearing on the enquiries of the Commission, to come forward. The ANC has absolutely no interest in a cover up. Our leadership, in addition to the Commission of Enquiry, is very open to meet anybody who believes he or she has questions to put to us on these matters, and is more than ready to answer these questions to the best of our ability.
Freedom of the press is amongst the oldest and most valued of the freedoms for which so many South Africans have given their lives. Among them we are proud to recall the names of two courageous ANC militants, Joe Gqabi and Ruth First, the tenth anniversary of whose assassination we are marking this year.
Joe Gqabi was a skilled journalist who served a twelve year prison term on Robben Island. In 1982 he was assassinated in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, by persons in the hire of the South African Intelligence Services.
Ruth First was an outstanding investigative journalist and academic. She was murdered with a parcel bomb in her offices at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, by agents of the Directorate of Military Intelligence of the South African Defence Force.
These were journalists in the tradition of the founders of the ANC whom I have already mentioned. It would be a slight to their memory and their pioneering work if by our actions we proved unworthy of their sacrifice.
I cannot overemphasise the value we place on a free, independent and outspoken press in the democratic South Africa we hope to build. This task will be even more important given the legacy of information manipulation and distortion employed by the National Party's faithful servants, the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
Such a free press will temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. A free press will be the vigilant watchdog of the South African public against the temptation to abuse power. This is all the more reason why the press in South Africa, including in its ownership, should reflect the composition and varied viewpoints of all our people.
The African National Congress reiterates its commitment to the attainment of freedom of the press in South Africa as a democratic objective of intrinsic value.
The tide in the annals of all countries and peoples ebbs and flows. Even when it appears we have sustained reverses it would be foolish to despair. South Africa is experiencing the terrible birth pangs occasioned by a democracy struggling to be born. lf we are to secure the life of the mother and her child, we dare not fail.
In closing, permit me to quote the words of that democratic journalist. Thomas Paine:
"These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country;but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered;Yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.