The Dark Ages Return to South Africa

August 20, 2010
The Dark Ages Return to’

 South Africa

‘This is the worst attack on press freedom I’ve seen in my career.’




Cape Town, South Africa

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Tags (key words): South Africa, press freedom, censorship, journalists, RW Johnson, Raymond Louw

“This is worse than anything under apartheid,” says Raymond Louw. “The powers the government is taking to curb the press are far wider now and the powers given to the SS Minister—the Minister for State Security—are far greater.”

Mr. Louw is something of a South African institution. He was the news editor of the country’s leading anti-apartheid newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, at the height of apartheid and then edited the paper for 11 years in the teeth of government hostility. Now 84, he still edits a press digest, Southern African Report, and plays a leading role in the national Editors Forum and the Freedom of Expression Institute. So when he calls the government’s recent media laws “the worst attack on press freedom I’ve seen in my career,” he knows whereof he speaks.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has never understood a free press. In exile its publications were all pure examples of Soviet journalism with no room for difference of opinion or human interest, let alone humor. They never breathed a word about the party’s factions or the fact that some leaders were car thieves and drug dealers and some were drunks.

Once the ANC came to power in 1994 it avowedly aimed to create a social and cultural hegemony over civil society and to this end attempted to recruit the press. Under Nelson Mandela this worked largely because the old man enjoyed enormous authority and popularity, to which the press paid court. This deference, backed now by a sense of threat as well as reward, continued for several years under Thabo Mbeki.

But as more and more things began to go wrong in the country—power cuts, Mr. Mbeki’s AIDS denialism, increasing corruption—the press, to Mr. Mbeki’s fury, began to speak out. By then Mr. Mbeki was locked in a power struggle with Jacob Zuma for control of the ANC. The press, realizing this was its moment, snapped its leash and escaped its kennel. One result is that the ANC hegemony lies in ruins. The media mock the president and expose the high-living and corruption of his ministers.

Appalled by this, the Zuma-ites, straight after last year’s election, rushed through a bill allowing a parliamentary majority (that is to say themselves) to appoint and dismiss the board of the South African Broadcasting Cooperation (SABC), which accounts for 40% of the radio audience and 70% of the television audience. Another bill now under discussion would allow the government to control SABC finances and issue directives to its board.

Meanwhile the SABC has been instructed to carry no more interviews with Mr. Mbeki since these “undermine” the Zuma government. ANC control of the SABC has been absolute for years but it is now a matter of ensuring that the right ANC faction has control.

The row with the press began with complaints by ministers of the ruling African National Congress about media reports detailing their exuberant life styles in five-star hotels and restaurants at taxpayer expense. One of the chief high-livers and complainants was Blade Nzimande, the Communist Party leader who is minister for higher education. An avalanche of other reports detailed the now almost open corruption at ministerial level, usually via the allocation of state contracts to favored bidders who then pay backhanders.

Mr. Zuma, for his part, is still resentful about frequent press allegations of corruption directed against himself, together with embarrassing reports about his multitudinous wives, children and mistresses. He has filed lawsuits against many journalists and, particularly, cartoonists.

As a result, the government plans a “Protection of Personal Information Bill,” which would only allow reporting about people’s personal lives with their consent. Heavy penalties would thus prevent any more reporting of Mr. Nizimande’s wine-bibbing or of illegitimate children born to President Zuma’s mistresses.

This is accompanied by a new “Information Bill” proposal, which would impose penalties of up to 25 years in jail for reporting about anything the government declares to be a matter of national interest, itself defined broadly to include anything which may be for the advancement of the public good. On top of that the government plans a special Media Tribunal to adjudicate complaints against the press and which would have the power to jail journalists and impose fines that could force the closure of newspapers.

Most of these changes would appear to be unconstitutional. But there is little confidence that the Constitutional Court will stand up to the government, for the ANC has long appointed its patsies to the bench.

The media, supported by a host of international bodies, are united in furious defence of their freedoms. It will be a matter of great gravity if press freedom is extinguished here in South Africa, for this is Africa’s leading state.

Little is heard today of the African renaissance promised by Thabo Mbeki when he was president. But no one is prepared for a return to the dark ages.

Mr. Johnson is a writer living in South Africa.


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Shared by Craig Lock (‘’just another battler for freedom of the press’’)

The various books that Craig “felt inspired to write”are available at: and


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