Christopher Merrett

Published in Information for Social Change [Edinburgh], No. 4, 1996.

Dennis Davis is one of the leading intellectuals of South Africa, an academic lawyer, occasional journalist and facilitator of televised debates with an impeccable record of opposition to apartheid. Early this year, he criticised the appointment to the government's Human Rights Commission (HRC) of individuals with political backgrounds at variance with the concept of civil liberty. His statement was a well-motivated expression of opinion which would have passed unremarked in any robust democracy.

The reaction in the brave new South Africa was to brand him a racist, a trendy term of abuse hurled at any white who effectively challenges the new establishment. What made it worse was the fact that the first stone was cast by Barney Pityana, chairperson of the HRC. He was apparently incensed that Davis should have criticised a committee set up by Nelson Mandela and stoutly defended appointees with dubious backgrounds on the ground that they needed 'educating'.

This vicious attack was widely supported: a radio journalist went on the air to put the view that in any debate the opinion of a black man was automatically right. After his appalling experience, Davis condemned South Africa's "dreadful authoritarian culture which exists in popular politics ... I no longer see any role for myself as a political commentator and critic." The social democrat newspaper The Mail and Guardian, one of the outspoken defenders of freedom of expression in South Africa, pointed out that the new black elite saw articulate white left-wing intellectuals as their main critics: "The old conservatives," it continued in an editorial, "are, by and large, adapting to the new South Africa by accepting the hegemony of the new power-brokers like Pityana. They are playing the game, being as uncritical of authority and as sycophantic as always." In its incisive analysis, The Mail went on to commend the Left for what it has traditionally done: "probe, criticise, argue and debate - a way of contributing to transformation which is very different to conservative acquiescence."

This has not been the only instance that suggests that freedom of expression is as fragile in the new South Africa as it was in the old. The left-wing intellectual, Pallo Jordan (whose experience interestingly includes abuse of his rights during a spell of detention by the ANC in exile), was sacked from the Cabinet in April because he had been too outspoken in his opposition to privatisation and in his support for indigenous control of the South African media in the face of rapacious and imperialist transnational corporations. One of the ANC's allies is the media magnate Tony O'Reilly who now owns a large share of the South African English language press. The ANC's reaction to criticism from the independent press has often been threatening. Apparently unable to respond by justifying its actions and policies in a mature way, it stoops to the cowardly tactic of accusing the press of 'insulting' the President.

Much of the rhetoric about democracy and its attendant freedoms in South Africa is actually about a shift of power from one elite to another. It is true that South Africans now have constitutionally entrenched rights and the prospect of new legislation on censorship and freedom of information. But all this counts for little when the politically powerful can muster no higher a level of discourse than puerile and spurious criticism about racism and lese-majesty. This should come as no surprise to those who know the background of many in the new rainbow elite: African traditionalists heavily steeped in patriarchy, returnees from the paranoid world of exile, plus the odd Stalinist. Under apartheid, dissenters braved the retribution of the police state; now they face marginalising misrepresentation by the new hegemonists strong and confident in the knowledge of uncritical international support.

Indeed, the foreign press is a major part of the politically correct myth making about South Africa. For the ordinary citizen the country is increasingly violence-ridden, inefficient and corrupt, run by a nomenklatura paid outrageous salaries and identifiable by their smart cars and cell phones (part of the 'package'). But perhaps the greatest piece of misinformation about South Africa is the frequently touted opinion that transition has been a 'peaceful miracle'. A civil war has raged in KwaZulu-Natal all decade leaving a trail of thousands of corpses across the province. But no-one takes much notice because nearly all the victims are black. Now that's real racism for you.

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