Cultivating Babel: Disinformation and Dissent in South Africa

by John M. Phelan

John M. Phelan, Ph. D., is Founding Director of the McGannon Communication Research Center and Professor of Communications and Media Studies, Fordham University, New York City.  He came to Fordham as Chairman of the Communications Department to redesign the curriculum when Marshall McLuhan was Professor of Communications there.  He is a media reform activist who works with many public interest groups.  Phelan’s writings include: Communication Control (ed.)  New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969.  Readings on the structures and motives of censorship from psychoanalysis to Chinese thought reform to the First Amendment.

Mediaworld:  Programming the Public.  A Continuum Book.  New York: Seabury, 1977.  Essays about the effect of modernization and industrialization on politics, leisure, art and religion through the media.

Disenchantment: Meaning and Morality in the Media.  New York; Hastings House, 1980.  Essays on censorship, ethinic programming, pornography, popular religious practices, media criticism, effects research, ritual and transmission models of communication.

Commercial Television Campaigns and the Public Interest.  New York: McGannon Communication Research, 1991.  Monograph on the genesis and ethos of public service campaigns; principles and case studies.

Cultivating Babel: Disinformation and Dissent in South Africa<


A field trip during July and August of 1983 took the writer to all the major cities and many of the towns and villages in every province of the Republic of South Africa. Here he reports on the communication structures and processes which supported and maintained apartheid: the concept of “banning,” the Publication Act, forced “relocation,” and the influence of the mass media system, particularly radio.

There is no calculus for injustice, no measure for atrocity. In the Gulag Archipelago starving prisoners have been known to cut off pieces of their own flesh simply to taste a bit of red meat. Idi Amin required some of the condemned to perform sexual acts of his own devising before they were pounded to death by cheerfully wielded sledgehammers. In Uruguay there are professional torture centers, not unlike clinics in appearance and administration, to which prisoners of conscience are taken on a bureaucratically constant schedule to have their neurological systems meticulously ravaged. The list can go on and on, with greater or lesser vividness, until long after our sensibilities are numbed.

Most acts of savagery, like the structure of the atom or the size of the universe, surpass our imaginative grasp. The worst victims shrivel our capacity for sympathy, since they have lost the last shred of dignity necessary to evoke the remnant of hope for realistic remedy.

It is for this reason that we Americans, with our history of slavery and racism, so readily recognize and facilely revile the apartheid system of the Republic of South Africa. It presents a familiar scale of misery and a nostalgic form of injustice. True, black men have been beaten to death slowly or killed instantly for no offense beyond their color. But most of us have no realistic comprehension of what it must be like to be beaten to death or even to observe such a process.

Social discrimination and economic exploitation we know.


You are at a posh bar in Johannesburg, "Jo'burg," the largest city in South Africa and the one to which the largest black city in Africa, Soweto, is subserviently appended. It is the commercial center of the country, spiked with high-rise hotels and office buildings, wrapped round with expressways, and plagued by downtown parking problems. You are alone, attended by a white bartender in crisp red and gold. Behind you at a cocktail table are four young business men, slightly tipsy, bantering boyishly in Afrikaans. Two tables away there is a solitary black man, tweed jacket and trim beard, nursing a tall beer with a paperback book opened before him. Casually, one of the mustachioed businessmen tosses a peanut on the black's table; it bounces insolently to the side of the hand holding the paperback, black wrist in white cuff. There is no reaction. The whites' loud talk is abruptly hushed, punctuated by muffled snorts of derision. Soon, another peanut hits the table, another hits the book, a fourth plops menacingly on the on the padded shoulder of the tweed jacket. The barman studiously polishes glasses. You are transfixed, uncertainly alarmed, angry, a bit anxious. After three or four eternal minutes, the white men return to their conversation and the black man perdures in his impassive posture.

What has happened is against the law.

If you had insisted on complaining and the white men persisted in their little prank, the police may well have arrived, embarrassed at your presence, avuncularly annoyed with the young men, scrupulously correct with the black man, probably a visitor but possibly a native South African businessman himself (South Africa does have the largest black middle class in Africa). Boys will be boys. Best ignore the whole thing. The black man may have some trouble later; be disinvited for his own good from this bar. You suddenly find your voice and make some overly loud banal remark to the barman who agrees with hysterical bonhomie. Law and order have been restored.

The Law. The law is the key to our perpetually selective outrage at South African apartheid. White South Africans, even during the recent years of increasing township violence and repressive emergency measure, present themselves to the world as the embattled custodians of civil order in a continent notorious for whimsical massacres. As this is written, far more Africans have died of starvation in Chad and Ethiopia because of deliberate government policies, than have died in all the impoverished South African homelands put together. Yet racism is enshrined in their legal system, however many decent people try to circumvent it; just as racism is against our law, however many Americans practice it.

The Law. South Africa is a police state and was so long before recent states of emergency were declared; a Poland with palm trees. You are lucky if the police formally arrest you, for then you must be charged. In that case, you can get a lawyer and perhaps be released on bail pending trial. But any policeman of senior rank (in the State of Emergency, any policeman or soldier) may "detain" you: throw you in jail for ninety days without charges, then renew the detention for another ninety days, then for another.

Why have they come for you? You may never know. Perhaps you are suspected of being a terrorist, which is so broadly defined in the Terrorism Act that anyone who "embarrasses" the government can be legally considered a terrorist. Perhaps you are just a suspicious character, or a valuable witness to something you know nothing about. Your white skin is no protection here. Although all the laws are differentially enforced, the security laws do not observe apartheid.

Knowing this, you are amazed at the rarity of uniformed policemen. Johannesburg is a cosmopolitan center, yet one can arrive at Jan Smuts Airport, take a cab the many miles through the suburbs to the business center, and the only uniforms observed will have been on customs officials, bus drivers, doormen, and bellboys. Curiously, this visible absence creates the apprehension that there are even more policemen, in mufti, than the government could possibly muster. Doubt about real identities is a national state of mind.

You are digging into scrambled eggs and bacon at high noon on a well-windowed connecting structure between two bustling department stores in the main shopping center of downtown Jo'burg, not far from the railroad station. It is thronged with blacks, a few white faces in the milling crowds. Your white companion points to a traffic light just below. A few weeks ago, you are informed, he was robbed at the height of the rush hour right there, a knife to his white throat from behind, while another black robber went through his pockets deftly. Eight stitches took care of the farewell slash across the chest. Passersby minded their own business. Police? None about in uniform, as usual, and undercover men on more important security detail, would not reveal themselves for such a trivial cause. They might have come forward if the white man had been foolish enough to pursue his attackers into the railway station, packed with bustling blacks hurrying to get home before the witching hour when special passes would be required for staying in the white center of Jo'burg. The white man might be stopped from running into a black area, for his own good. It might be against the law.

You are standing on a hill overlooking a Scarsdalish inner suburb of Jo'burg. Your companion this time is a white executive, known as a liberal who pays blacks and whites alike for equal work. He is a patriot, too, proud of his country's material accomplishments, pleased with the recent relaxations of petty apartheid, the Jim-Crow segregating of public facilities. Making a broad proprietal gesture over the scene of tree-shaded lanes and discreet estate fences, bourgeois comfort wrested from the unforgiving red earth of Africa, he smiles confidently. You mention freedom. (At that time and place, no state of emergency had been declared.)

"Ah, yes," he admits, "the two of us could be standing here on this balmy winter day and a car could pull up and we could be hustled off, perhaps never to be heard of again. But it would be most unlikely. The police are not mad dogs; they would need a pretty convincing argument to detain us."

"Or," you suggest. "a plausible anonymous accusation."

He makes a gesture of exasperation at this naively pious visitor.

"Yes, yes, but, well, we are under siege from all over the world. The entire continent has vowed to bring us down. The Soviets consider us the key to the entire southern tier. And what about your CIA and FBI? Don't you think they keep tabs on subversives? In any event, the detention laws are perfectly legal - and necessary."

You recall that the SABC, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the exclusive state monopoly for radio and television, had the night before run an American Defense Department film version of their latest report on "Soviet Military Power," with Secretary Casper Wineberger issuing dire warnings as animated hammer-and-sickle emblems marched menacingly down the coast of Africa. There was little possibility, within this closed system, for the South African executive to see a broadcast rebuttal to this particular view of the world.

It is a pity; for this man is decent and honest; he is remarkably candid in his willingness to even discuss the existence of the security police and the awesome extent of their powers. South Africa is a vast land, bigger than France and Germany combined. It has three mountain ranges of great beauty, an endless seacoast that joins two oceans, red deserts and white deserts, deep forests and high savannahs, Irish-green vinyards and Utah-bleak scrub country. It has one of the largest seaports in the world at Durban on the Indian Ocean and one of the most dramatically scenic harbors of the planet at Cape Town on the South Atlantic. Johannesburg itself is an African Denver, six thousand feet above the sea on the high veldt, straddling the Reef or Rand, a deep rock backbone veined with gold. No matter where you go,* the topic of the Security Police is met with the same fearful freeze the topic of cancer evokes elsewhere. Horrible thing. Dreadful. Could get any one of us at anytime. But it is in rather bad taste, depressing and neurotically morose to go on about it. Chances are you will be passed by - unless you are foolish enough to take unnecessary risks.

The avoidance of politically heated topics is mightily encouraged by the law itself. Just as South Africa is a police state without too many police in evidence (and, as a matter of fact, with less police per capita than New York City), so, too, many of its political prisoners are not in jail. Rather, they are banned, a form of punishment unique to South Africa, with the partial exception of Brazil. Banning admits of different degrees, but it is fundamentally a form of house arrest and a stripping of political rights. In some cases you may not be with more than two people at once. It is a crime for anyone to quote you, even from your unbanned past. You are a non-person.

Although being banned is more humane than solitary confinement in a sternly administered prison, it has a more chilling effect on civil liberties in general because, as it were, it makes of the entire country a prison. The invisibility of the police makes you think they are everywhere. The invisibility of the banned makes you think that any odd passerby may be one of the damned - a prisoner in mufti.

The emergency decrees and the detention of more than 30,000 people by the end of 1986 only underscore the obsession with legal forms for essentially lawless behaviour on the part of the authorities. What the various fine details of the decrees and regulations do is to put a theoretical boundary around the areas of draconian repression. But there remains yet another device for legal illegality and that is the virtually duplicate shadow government that operates beyond the knowledge of the legislature or court system. It is the intricate system of security management so characteristic of totalitarian states. China has its cadres, who stand watch over every function to guarantee political orthodoxy, Nazi Germany had the everpresent party loyalists in all levels of the government, education, and the military sworn to the leader; Stalin had his political commissars who told generals what to do. A secret real government makes a mockery of the facade of legality of the surface government. And of course, mutatis mutandis, there is the same alarming propensity in the American leadership, from Nixon's "Plumbers" to Reagan's National Security Council.

In South Africa, the agency of fear is the State Security Council. Chaired by State President P.W. Botha, the SSC expands and contracts at the whim of the leadership from a central core of the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, police, justice and their lieutenants. This central organ reaches out to the smallest village through a tight network of a central Working Committee, an operations Secretariat, a dozen regional Joint Management Centers, three score sub-regional JMCs, and 448 local JMCs, each of which has an intelligence committee, a political-social-economic committee, and a commmunications committee. These local intelligence committees are the nerve centers of control through domestic spying and the use of informers - all the information is funneled to the National Interpretation Branch in the SSC Secretariat in Pretoria.

It is ironic that this bypassing of the regular government, with the Orwellian title of the National Security Management System, is practiced by `Botha's Nationalists in a sort of mirror image of the black ANC and other anti-apartheid groups, who are delegitimizing the official local black town councils and setting up what the government selectively brands "kangaroo courts." The Nationalists have a kangaroo kingdom of their own devising, while the "real" government is a sort of elaborate charade without power or punch. This emasculation of duly (if only by whites) elected officials reached near completion in the new emergency regulations of December 11, 1986, which abolished one of the most sacred aspects of the quasi-Westminster system that the Nationalists used to boast of: the freedom of debate and speech in the legislature. This abolition was accomplished in a typically "legal" way: Legislative speech is still privileged, but only in the actual chamber; if reported elsewhere, it may be judged "subversive" and thus punishable. Open court proceedings, the sole surviving arena for uncensored reporting, may no longer be reported, if detainees are involved, until after a verdict is reached.


You have just finished a succulent broiled fish fillet washed down with a delicate Cape version of Macon Village at the Civil Service Club in Cape Town. Your table is on a glassed-in veranda overlooking the Botanical Gardens, beyond which are the dignified white-washed silhouettes of the Parliament buildings. Towering over the entire scene is Table Mountain, for the moment trailing a plume of silken vapor. Cape Town, physically, is a place of enchantment. It combines the best features of Bermuda, San Francisco, and Vancouver (B.C.): salt sea air, red flowers, royal palms and tall pines, misty parks, booming surf, crowded and hunched mountains shoving their shoulders into the city. At times, silver curtains of sun showers sweep down one street, leaving its neighbor bone-dry.

You have been lunching with Mr. Tony Heard, the Editor of the Cape Times, one of the principal English-speaking opposition papers, which has more than once been punished by the government for its lack of cooperation. Heard himself has been detained and arrested for violating press laws. Mr. Gerald Shaw, the distinguished Assistant Editor, is also present. As with so many South Africans, they are gracious hosts as well as witty and earnest conversationalists. After lunch you stroll the few blocks to the editorial offices. Once there, Heard makes an ambiguous gesture toward a word processing station which Shaw activates; the printer rasps into life and spews page after page of dense text, mounting steadily in the tray. When it finishes, Heard hands you the packet. It is an updated version, fresh this day, of the various regulations that control the press and the latest list of the banned, the unquotables.

"High tech," he says, with resigned irony.

The Law. You recall being in the offices of John Dugard, the celebrated civil rights advocate and human rights activist, professor of law at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, whose Centre for Applied Legal Studies has been the principal instrument for appealing censorship decisions. It had come as a surprise that his highly critical, yet massively scholarly work, Human RIghts and the South African Legal Order, had not been banned. Wryly, he had mentioned that the book had passed muster probably because of its scholarly technical nature. But the dust jacket of the book was not so fortunate. It quoted the endorsement of a scholar who had subsequently been banned. So all the dust jackets had to be stripped from the book, an expensive and time-consuming process. Thus the great utility of the up-to-the-minute list  provided for Tony Heard, who could hardly afford to dump entire editions of the Cape Times. Gulliver in Laputa could not have run across anything more meticulously absurd.

Of course, the avoidance of quoting non-persons is but a minor itch amid a raging eczema of regulations. Laws unrelated to communications have censoring codicils. Acts primarily concerned with the police or prisons, as we shall see, forbid reportage of "false" information concerning them. No information about nuclear energy can be reported at all. The Internal Security Act bristles with direct hostility toward even the most gentlemanly versions of press inquiry. Tertius Myburgh, editor of the Johannnesburg-based but nationally circulated Sunday Times, told me, with baffling good humor, that he was given a suspended three-month sentence for merely printing the facts of a case that was known the world over: the aborted coup of the Seychelles and the subsequent amnesty granted the failed mercenaries. Some of them were South African intelligence agents. Publishing the names of intelligence agents is illegal.

It is the Publications Act, however, which embodies most of the regulations that affect freedom of expression in South Africa. Like any act of Parliament, it is crammed with details, exemptions, exceptions to exemptions, procedural rules and conditions for the suspension of procedural rules; nevertheless, the sweep and scope of the repression is breathtaking. It embraces all media and even includes "objects" which may be seen as expressive of an idea or political position. The grounds for banning any form of expression are extremely broad and vague.  Anything that might cause "ill-feeling" among the different races is reason for finding an utterance or object "undesirable." T-shirt slogans, key-ring emblems, films, audiotapes, videotapes, song lyrics, plays, cabaret skits, even government broadcast material are all subject to banning just as much as the obviously threatening political speeches, books, socially critical novels, and works of scholarship. There are stretches of blank pages in locally published encyclopedias.

Paradoxically, however, it is in keeping with South Africa's curious mixture of Draco and due process that abundant criticism of the government flourishes as do scathing condemnations of the central policy of apartheid. There is a handful of small opposition parties and a coalition of the disaffected called the United Democratic Front in this overwhelmingly one-party country. National Party members and government officials are quick to point out this toleration of vigorous criticism as unusual for Africa. Although the picture is complex and the freedom is both subtly and crudely curtailed, they are sadly correct in the context of sub-Saharan Africa. Without one-tenth of the regulations nor one-hundredth of the bureaucracy to enforce it, the rest of Africa has a much less free press, because what media manage to exist are either state-owned and operated or they are bribed into compliance. Worse, many African media are bullied into submission by totally unpredictable extra-judicial state terrorism.**

The cultural shape freedom of expression assumes in the legal climate of South Africa, therefore, is of unique interest. Some countries have unabashed state censorship. Some countries have a bought-and-paid-for press, whatever the official policies. Still others have a sacred tradition of freedom of expression in religion, morals, and political affairs which may or may not foster and encouraging milieu for countercultural modes of expression. Astonishingly, South Africa shares in all these characteristics, sometimes tilting toward freedom, sometimes toward repression. It has a legal culture cognate to our own yet in some ways alien.

Imagine, if you will, a United States Department of Public Media, which operated all the radio and television stations in the country and made all the programming decisions. All broadcasters, from TV anchorpersons to station janitors, would be federal employees, like Park Rangers of Pentagon public relations colonels. Now imagine, beyond and above this legion for communication control, a United States Department of Public Expression which could act on its own or respond to anonymous complaints about any book, magazine, newspaper, statue, painting, poster, videotape, song lyric – in short, about any "object" which might "express" anything. The Department would then be free to ban the sale, distribution, even the possession, of any "object" because it was "un-American," or "anti-Christian," or "undemocratic," or "depraved." or "communistic." Further imagine a Federal Media Appeal Board, which would review the censorship decisions of the government, now gently chiding the Department as too narrow-minded, now castigating excessive leniency. Finally, picture these agencies of repression presiding over a plethora of varied media that in no way resembles the great gray yea-saying totalitarian states, but rather reminds one of our own vulgar and sassy, bright and brave, deep and honest confusion of voices. In some ways the media spectrum of South Africa is broader than our own, because the churches and universities there are in the mainstream of political debate and their spheres of influence are less narrowly construed than our own.

In this hysterically anti-communist country, with state-run higher education, there are scores of Marxist professors, some of the vulgar variety. A city block from "Wits" [Witwatersrand University}, there is a book store that specializes in Marxist literature and revolutionary tracts. On the other side of the railroad tracks, quite literally, is Khotso House, the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches {SACC}, which provided Desmond Tutu with the strong and secure anti-apartheid platform which led to the Nobel Prize and his elevation to the Anglican Primacy of South Africa. Until it was banned during the most recent state of emergency, SACC published Ecunews, filled with thoughtful yet uncompromising denunciations of many government actions and policies, particularly the forced removals of blacks from newly declared white areas.

There are a large number of civil rights lawyers who donate their services or work for much lower fees than other work would garner to get due process for the detained and the arrested, particularly among the poor blacks. During the mass detentions of the summer of 1986, platoons of such lawyers brought countless court actions. The South African Institute of Race Relations, a rough equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, issues a broad program of scholarly books and statistical surveys that are implicit condemnations of state-sponsored racism. Its massive annual survey of issues, topics, and events, crammed with careful documentation, is the standard reference work for recent history. Ironically, the Institute published a study of censorship in 1983 that itself would have to undergo the censorship process from the Directorate of Publications.

Perhaps because of the climate of censorship, theater is more politically conscious here than in America, reminding one more of Czechoslovakia. Woza Albert, written and presented by two spectacularly energetic young black Africans, is a dazzling set of skits and mime that works off the single premise of Christ staging his Second Coming in South Africa; it is comic apocalyptic that sizzles with satire. Produced at the Market Theatre in Jo'burg, which features protest plays as well as Neil Simon-type imports, Woza [=Rise Up} Albert [Lutuli, a revered Christian Zulu chief, African National Congress President, and Nobel Laureate] has toured, uncensored, South Africa and the world. Country Lovers and City Lovers, two of six short films adapted from Nadine Gordimer short stories and locally produced, are well-wrought cries of controlled outrage against sexual apartheid. Despite an on-again-off-again censorship status, these films have been screened all over the world. Finally, there is the globally noted irony of exhibiting the imported superhit, Gandhi, before segregated audiences.

The letter of the censorship laws, like the letter of the security laws, is meticulously detailed, yet the spirit of their application seems capricious. Dissident South Africans develop a sense of what is currently getting by and the brave push against this moving edge until they meet rock.


You are walking down a "street" in Crossroads, the disputed no-man's land some miles from Cape Town, teeming with black squatters in cardboard/plywood hovels, stapled over with plastic garment bags. There is not a blade of grass on the compacted dust. There are no sewers. Amazingly, there is an heroic form cleanliness here and no foul odors flavor the sear air.

Crossroads has a dogged civic pride born of its very insufficiency. The government has been bulldozing the hovels and trucking people further out from the city, claiming, among other things, that no sanitary facilities are present nor providable. The "approved" more distant locations impose a crippling commute. Khayalitsha, the latest, has neat rows of cinder block and corrugated tin shacks, with plumbing. It is built on sand, surrounded by high barbed wire, the stark grounds spiked with immensely tall lighting poles that cast an alien sodium vapor glare at midnight: a Stanley Kubrick set for a futuristic nightmare.

You have also driven through Langa, closer to town, but only for men, not families. The men are stored, not housed, like sides of beef in concrete bunkers. They are often drunk, always angry. Here you did receive some taunts, some menacing gestures, on a late smoky Sunday afternoon. Unlike these pitilessly planned places, Crossroads is a home, however squalid.

You enter a large cinder block building, once owned by Transcendental Meditation, now used as a community center. You have come to see live protest theater. The blacks, advised by two white women students from Cape Town University, are to put on a play in their own tribal language, whose general drift, if not clear from the action, will be explained by locals at your side. No set, few props, a bare wall. The story is about a family going to jail for living in a white area, about unrequited love, about sickness, about revenge and rage. To get the girl who rejects him, the protagonist must present to his medicine man the testicles of a white man, which he duly obtains from the policeman who has been hounding his family. Exeunt omnes to that plaintive African chant that has a hint of the Gregorian. After the performance, the shy young actors gather around you, thinking you might be an agent from the big time.

You stroll over the dirt floor, chatting in English with the gently mannered and friendly black actors, heading for the door. Outside, the young white woman adviser is angry. She had asked them to present a more authentic play, one about displaced native life. This was patched-up Americanized theater of rage, staged to meet your assumed American liberal expectations.

Your black African guide for the day, a social worker, pulls up a battered Volkswagon and lurches you toward Nyanga, another black area, but legal, with semi-permanent buildings, even some struggling gardens despite the drought.

The guide is a handsome, compact man, from a different township, Gugaletu, established and settled: he was born there thirty-two years ago. At the time it was thought to be on the list of areas to be declared off-bounds for blacks, who would be subject to "relocation" - forced removal.

"We will have to fight. We just won't go."

He says this matter-of-factly as you begin walking through a scrubby field to an old white farm house, ramshackled and sagging, in need of paint, but generously proportioned and graced with a wraparound veranda. There must be fifteen or so men lounging about, smoking with an air of drained combatants between battles. Inside, in what must have been the front parlor, a grizzled thin black man is playing a battered but tuned upright piano. A subdued Scott Joplinesque air trickles throughout the room. You are led into a further room, quite large, dusty, filled with clay figures. This is the Nyanga Community Art Center. The next room, not quite so large, is filled with paintings and sketches. There is no attempt to sell or promote anything. Modestly, but knowingly, the works are discussed, the voices soft and serious. The eyes of the speakers are intense, as are the rapid hand movements, commanding you to carry out a message: These people are not beasts of burden. They have sensitivities, dreams for their children, social aspirations, even bourgeois pretensions.

The next day you are back in Cape Town, in the shadow of Table Mountain, driving through a bright neighbourhood of middle class homes, with front yards, plantings, dogs, people chatting on front steps. It would remind you of a Creole area in New Orleans except for the vigor of the salt air. It is a "coloured" district. Awaited in one of the homes, you are met with casual and natural hospitality. Soon you are sipping a beer, your back against the refrigerator door, as the women bustle and the children shriek around you, getting ready for dinner. Pat, the father of the family, is expertly filleting a fish he caught that morning. Over his shoulder, he talks to you about his great love, the Afrikaans language: its earthy flavor, sexual frankness, its connections with manor life and with a earlier, seemingly happier, time for his people.

Pat is a high school teacher who refuses to teach Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, any longer. This is a sad thing, since until recently Afrikaans was the first language of the "coloured," many of whose ancestors were the slaves or servants of Boers/Afrikaners, or. of course, of Afrikaners themselves. Disowning the language is painful, but beyond that, the "coloured" are beginning to dissociate themselves from their very name. If they cannot be white, they might as well be black, true brothers to the oppressed underside of apartheid. The category is of course hardly scientific, bundling a loose mixture of black, white, imported Malay, Indian, and East Asian. Historically, however, it is quite real.

The Afrikaners have always had a special affection for this group, roughly comparable to the "decent white" regard for the blacks in the older American South. One of the major precipitators of the current political crisis was the passing of the new Constitution, which gave the Indians and "coloured" each a Parliament of their own (about which Thomas More's comment on the Parliament under the Tudor's is most apt: like the male teat, decorative but useless). The regime still hopes to use the "non-white/non-black" groups as buffers between themselves and the angry Africans. In time, they promise the "coloured" full political rights, something they had over fifty years ago, when they had a real vote.

At dinner, switching over to the superb Cape wine, you are bathed in a happy family babble of teasing, dispute, conversation, Pat's strong teacher-voice cutting through to you, still talking about the beauty of Afrikaans, which is not really a language but a patois concocted from Dutch, German, and French, with a certain Flemish fullness to it. As with Norwegian, Afrikaans literature is inaccessible to the world because so few read it.

A local priest drops in, obviously very close to the family. (Pat is the church organist). He has come to take you back to your hotel but first sits down to share dessert, charm the children, tease the ladies, and argue with Pat about his qualities as a fisherman. Later, out on the street, slightly muzzy from the wine and beer, you get in the priest's car and are driven off serenely, as he waves back to dozens of families that know and apparently love him. As you leave the area for the open road, roaring along with the rest of the traffic, the priest turns to you seriously and begins to talk about his country.

The "coloured" number a bit over two-and-a-half million, mostly clustered around the Cape. This is almost exactly equal to the number of Afrikaners spread all over the country but concentrated in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, the high veldt of the northeast, the center for mining, finance, and government administration. The Republic of South Africa separates its legislature (newly become a racially tricameral body of whites, Indians and "coloured" that can no longer be technically considered a Parliament, although the term is still popularly used to refer to the only body with any real say - and that not much - the White Assembly) from the executive branch. The former sits at the Cape, the original European foothold from which the provinces, then the Union, now the Republic grew. The latter rules from Pretoria, a sort of artificial administrative center, like Brasilia, a short drive from Jo'burg.

The English-speaking whites (he went on) are spread all over the country, but they predominate in Natal, the province containing Durban, the major commercial port, and the Cape. As in India, English is the unifying medium that all ethnic groups can deal with at least as a second language, although it may be utterly foreign in some isolated rural areas. Generally, the English are in commerce and the professions; the Afrikaners are farmers or in government service. Although more Afrikaners are getting into business, among the whites they would have the most to lose if the African majority ruled, for they would lose their government jobs. Productive whites may be welcome to stay in a new black order, but it is doubtful they would man the bloated bureaucracy.

The Afrikaners are a tight-knit white tribe, descendants of Dutch, German, and French Huguenot settlers, as well as some blacks, no doubt. The English are in fact predominantly British, but the term is used to embrace all whites who are not Afrikaners. The Catholic priest telling you about all this is himself something of an anomaly since he is an Afrikaner, virtually all of whom are members of the Dutch Reformed Church, "The National Party at prayer."

He looks levelly at you for a moment, his eyes off the road. Overseas, you are told, the impression one might have is of an overwhelmingly black country dominated by a few clever and cruel whites. Not quite so simple, although it is essentially correct in the moral sense. Non-blacks, to put it that way, number about eight million. The 26 million or so blacks (the census is not terribly accurate about them, just as the American census is not very accurate about the Hispanic population) are tribally fragmented over a vast, mostly desert landscape. Many of the few (about ten million) who are close to the major cities or in so-called white rural areas have been forcibly relocated to the Homelands, remote tribal reservations like the Transkei, Bophuthatswana, or Venda, that are allegedly ancestral. These territories are to be converted into separate countries. Although the international community looks upon these artificial fiefdoms as internal colonies, the regime had high hopes for this plan until foreign pressure at least momentarily suspended the policy of denying blacks citizenship in their own country.

Whatever the cosmetic packaging of the policy, to the regime it certainly was and may still remain a plausible foundation for maintaining white supremacy.  Should it succeed, the role of the "coloured" would be pivotal, giving the urban whites a locally strong plurality vis-a-vis the urban blacks. If the "coloured" decide they are "black," as it appears they are doing thanks to both the United Democratic Front and the sledgehammer politics of the Nationalists, then the game is clearly up.

Petty apartheid, the public facilities Jim Crow practices that are truly being phased out in the larger cities (where they matter), are trivial and largely irrelevant to the grander strategies of both apartheid and liberation: A point sometimes lost on American liberals who remember the U.S. civil rights activism of the sixties.

He suddenly pulls over to the side of the road.

"You've got to see something."

You drive back a bit, still in the central area of Cape Town, only about a half-hour's brisk stroll from your hotel. You have entered a sea of rubble, level and combed, the size of Harvard's campus, its emptiness emphasized by three widely separated standing buildings: the priest's own Catholic Church at one end, a Mosque to the east and an abandoned Episcopal Church, now used as a community art center, further to the south. This is what is left of the notorious District 6, a "coloured" area once densely packed with a bustling community. It was declared too close to the center of things, too poor, too unsanitary, a hotbed of crime. The people were moved out to more planned, more controlled, more remote places. And then the bulldozers came in and leveled everything. To the north, where the rubble rears up toward Table Mountain, a new row of luxurious townhouses, reserved for whites, had just been erected.

It is this kind of action that makes "coloured" solidarity with the blacks rather than with the whites more likely. Pat's family, in this scheme, is between a rock and a hard place, deprived of their language and left only with another white one, English; deprived of their local habitation and name.

The priest has a professionally cheerful manner as he ticks off these observations, but his eyes are sad, flickering over smashed walls that you suppose might have housed memories of parish life, good and bad. Now there is a void. He drives you back to your hotel in five minutes.


The Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town is a rambling Bermudan pink structure, approached up a long drive guarded by soaring royal palms and surrounded by its own garden alive with songbirds even in winter. Inside, past a very efficient porter who disarmingly resembles John Cleese, there are cozy, hearth-dominated tea lounges, walls and drapes in flowery pastels. It is veddy, veddy British and the black and Indian staff serve with the style of the Savoy.

You are reminded that the British ruled South Africa under a variety of political arrangements and at the cost of some bloody battles for centuries. The last battle was against the Boers, the Afrikaner settlers whom they defeated and kept down for generations with their inimitable class system.
Only a few years ago, to speak Afrikaans in these rooms or in a posh shop was an admission of hairy-backed country-bumpkinism. Afrikaners do not forget this, especially since they turned the political tables on the English in the 1948 elections, when the National Party began its long climb to consolidated power. Among many other more obvious things, apartheid is also an attempt to restore the legal and social bondage of the darker-skinned that had been self-righteously diminished by the long arm of Victorian conscience, eager to "improve" natives.

Pieter Dirk Uys, a cabaret satirist who often does his stand-up routines in drag, plays an upper-class "English" matron who between bon-bons confesses her enormous hatred of apartheid - and of blacks, too, of course. Dirk Uys, an Afrikaner, does an "Afrikaner" matron as well as a merciless rendition of every verbal and facial tic of the State President, whom he can uncannily resemble. As in Moscow or New York, the great causes have left in their wake small hates and parlor grudges that the Directorate of Publications is just as happy to have lanced in public.

So the apartheid system is not just a question of black or white. It is the codified summit of a complex ziggurat of caste and culture, language and bloody history. It is an ingenious exploitation of African tribalism, that most intense form of the universal human need for in-group/out-group dichotomies which animates petty practices and energizes grand ideologies. Prison life, for instance, is rife with conflicts between rival gangs which the warders encourage. They, in turn, are part of a civil service caste system that recalls Evelyn Waugh's satiric view of the British army.

Apartheid, by its inventors, is defined as separate development and defended as a protection for disparate cultures. This formulation, if applied on a global scale, is alarmingly parallel to the language of apartheid's archenemies, Third World members of UNESCO and the UN, who have been demanding a "New World Communication Order" which will honor local cultures and oust the "information imperialism" of that great vulgar leveler, Western mass culture with its mouth wash, blue jeans, and James Bond movies.

Unhappily for ideologues on both sides of the argument, tribalism is not a total principle of social organization in the modern world, however fervently some form of tribalism, in Africa or Lebanon, or Ireland, or Iran, or Israel, is invoked. People cannot help belonging to a variety of cultures and groups in different degrees at the same time. A Frenchman may eat an American hamburger, see a British movie, revere a German philosopher, enjoy Spanish music, use Japanese technology. Look at any nation, even a Denmark, which banks on cultural homogeneity, and ethnic diversity appears. On a grander scale, India, China, Malaysia, Polynesia have all mixed and mingled cults and customs over the centuries. The high-tech communication distribution systems developed by the West and Japan may pour images of Madison Avenue all over the globe, but those very images are ladled from a huge melting pot of the creative and kitschy from hordes of ethnically diverse contributors.

The South African media system is part of this diversity and part of this unity, but it exists within a symbolic apartheid system of its own.


At one end of the media spectrum is the South African Broadcasting Corporation, SABC, the state monopoly for all television and almost all radio; it serves as an arm of the state, much more so than French television does and only slightly less so, if these things can be measured, than Soviet broadcasting. At the other end are the print organs of the black labor unions and black communities, which focus on specific grievances that stem from daily coping with life under apartheid. In the middle are the establishment presses: First come the fiercely loyalist Afrikaans press, which has a mildly dissenting wing on the right, growing less mild each day of township unrest. Next come the English newspapers and magazines which range from apolitical sex-and-soccer tabloids to brave anti-apartheid journals, mostly from the left. Student and church publications are politically aware, usually from a sharply left or right viewpoint, and have a much greater influence than do similar organs in America. Finally there are the non-broadcast audiovisual media, from rock and reggae records to videotapes, live theater, and funeral orations. Although these formats favor either apolitical entertainment or moral uplift, they nonetheless offer instances of both the most extreme state propaganda and the most radical rejections of the establishment, especially through the unique form of black protest theater.

In surveying the media world of South Africa, it must be borne in mind that most South Africans cannot or do not choose to read. In a country with an educated white population of over four million, with a middle class mixed race group of about two million, and the largest black middle class in Africa (admittedly a small part of the total black populace), the largest single print run is under half a million, for the weekly Sunday Times. The largest daily, The Star, runs well under a quarter million. None of the Afrikaans dailies exceeds ninety thousand. The solitary newsmagazine, The Financial Mail, modeled on Great Britain's The Economist, reaches thirty thousand. Frontline, an English liberal feature magazine in style similar to Clay Felker's original New York Magazine, has a readership of ten thousand.

Books are very expensive in South Africa, partially due to the censorship laws (a banned person's books are all retroactively contraband) which have made remaindering impossible and partially due to the high cost of importing books. Outside of schools and churches, there are scarcely a dozen bookstores in the country, although, as in the States, drugstores and newstands have paperback racks.

Once the literacy factor is accounted for, however, one must not underestimate the indirect, and for that reason perhaps more powerful, influence of the press. American broadcast news would have to invent The New York Times and even THe New England Journal of Medicine, if they did not already exist. So, too, South African audiovisual media depend on print for their ideas and most of their facts.

The most important influence of the mass media system, however, is its intrinsic marketing mentality, beyond and behind any fundamental moral conflict about apartheid. It forms the assumed unquestioned background to everyday life, dominating the public images and inner fantasies of black and white, of South and North Africans, of American, French, or Japanese. In this context, Tom Selleck or Frank Sinatra, Pele and Jimmy Connors, Donna Sommers and Ralph Lauren are more important than Archbishop Tutu or State President Botha. Despite the increased global coverage during the State of Emergency and the heightened curiosity provoked by tighter press controls, most people outside of South Africa have not paid much heed to either of them, but probably are aware of Sun City, the African Las Vegas in Bophuthatswana. Here whites and blacks dance and drink together and watch Vegas acts like those of magician Doug Henning or, until the boycott of the mid-eighties, of Sammy Davis, Jr. As we shall see, the commercial transformation of publics into markets makes T-shirt slogans and rock lyrics, which fall under the all-seeing eye of the Directorate of Publications, far more influential than Professor Dugard's scholarly skewering of the legal system.

Although losing ground to the secularising influence of the media, the churches still provide the single major forum for the apartheid struggle, which at a time of increasing violence still remains more a matter of words and symbols than of guns or fists. Although the Cape Parliament formally disestablished the Anglican Church in 1875, both it and the Dutch Reformed Church have a history of ecclesiastical leadership in civil affairs. With the ascendancy of the Afrikaners and the National Party, it is the increasingly reluctant task of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa to demonstrate that the status quo is the will of God. Virtually all the other ethnic groups, black and white, have their own churches, from Catholic to Congregationalist. Most of these are politically united under the banner of the South African Council of Churches, which, as noted, has gone far beyond declaring apartheid a heresy as an idea and fundamentally anti-Christian as a policy (which it has repeatedly done in a variety of fora). SACC supports a string of media beyond its own churchly publications. It gave an initial grant to Frontline; it produces videotape documentaries and editorials decrying substandard conditions for the black population; it regularly sends abroad exposes of government repression. In effect, SACC serves as an anti-establishment church.

The government has struck back with the Eloff Commission. South African commissions are similar to American Congressional Investigating Committees in powers and purpose, but they are totally creatures of the executive arm and their members are not necessarily elected officials. As in a previous investigation of a dissident church group (Beyers Naude's Christian Institute), this commission zeroed in on the finances of SACC and found irregularities. It also accused the body of actively supporting terrorism. It did fall short of urging the government to declare SACC an "affected organization." This is a legalism which would forbid SACC to accept foreign money. Since SACC is greatly dependent on funds from the World Council of Churches and other outside sources, such a ruling would be crippling.

Both sides share the conviction of American churchmen and politicians that the mass media are their most effective instruments for control, for "winning minds and hearts." Interestingly, as the churches at home and abroad condemn apartheid with rising intensity, the South African Broadcasting Corporation has turned more and more of its religious programming within. Christianity is projected as a private inner choice with no social consequences. The programmers may have gotten their cue from the corporately run American media, who find it convenient to present morality as private, something that should not be socially or politically "imposed" on others. Churches are for charity, not justice.


You are in the huge auditorium of the Good Hope Centre at Cape Town. You are part of a stomping, clapping mob of young South Africans, white and black, throbbing with the raw energy of Jaluka, a racially mixed indigenous rock-and-reggae band. They sing their own lyrics:


Spirit is the Journey

Body is the bus

I am the driver
From dust to dust.
Spirit is the story
Body is the book
I am the writer
Together we flow.
We hold on, and when the story ends
We hold on, until it begins again,
We hold on, we hold on, hold on . . .

South Africa, raw and repressed, Calvinistic yet sensual, howling grievances from the bottom and blaring righteous avarice from the top, this nation has much to tell America, the only other modern nation-state with a tradition of freedom and a history of slavery.


* A field trip during July and August of 1983 took the writer to all the major cities and many of the towns and villages in every province of the Republic, as well as the "homelands" of Ciskei and Transkei. Interviews, shared meals and quarters, journeys, brief and lengthy encounters were experienced with scores of South Africans. Rev. Bernard Sponge of the Interchurch Media Program, who shares my professional interests, was particularly informative and gave me entre to all the relevant and generous people at Khotso House, including, of course, the heroically accessible then Executive Secretary Bishop Tutu. Official South Africa was, I should add, both correct and cordial. My impressions and recollections are of course my own. I wish to emphasize that no one to whom I spoke ever favored any violent overthrow of duly constituted authority, although many were deeply opposed to apartheid on moral and humanitarian grounds and were well known to the authorities for this reason.


** Since this point is often made as a justifying boast by the Nationalist regime, it is often either ignored or denied by opponents of apartheid, especially if they are white and safe. Black African journalists and authors outside South Africa are not helped by this selective and ultimately self-undermining tolerance.

Nigeria, the most populous black African country, has had a particularly sad history of press repression, particularly under the former military junta headed by Major General Muhammadu Buhari, whose infamous Decree Number 4 against criticism of the government was the pretext for a number of detentions of journalists, some of whom died under mysterious circumstances. When President Ibrahim Babangida took over the government in August of 1985, he immediately repealed this decree. This was taken as a signal by my former student and friend, Dele Giwa, who had suffered for his journalistic courage and integrity, to try yet again with a new weekly newsmagazine, Newswatch, with the help of fellow journalists Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Mohammed, and Dan Agbese. The magazine was a sensation, which made us very proud of Dele, who was editor-in-chief. The new government was not very happy with this exercise in press freedom and made threatening noises which did not daunt Newswatch. On October 19, 1986, Dele Giwa was blown apart by a letter bomb. There is a widespread belief, and fear, that the bomb originated with the Nigerian Security Police. It was a message for other critical journalists but we hope that Dele Giwa, who wore his bravery lightly, who was warmly affectionate as well as coldly analytical, stands for a more enduring message to journalists and dissenters everywhere.

For more broad overviews of the African press and media, I refer the reader to:


Frank Barton. The Press of Africa: Persecution and Perseverance.
London: Macmillan, 1979

David Lamb. "Some of the News That is Fit to Print," The Africans. New York: Random House, 1982, pp. 245-257.

W. Steif and T. Mechling. "A Precarious Freedom," Commonweal,
112: 429-31, Aug. 9, 1985.

W. Steif. "Stop the Press," The Progressive, 48: 32-4, December, 1984.

Sanford J. Ungar. Africa: The People and Politics of an Emerging Continent.
New York: Simon and Shuster, 1985. Esp. pp. 115, 263.

Dennis L. Wilcox. "Black African States," Press Control Around the World. Edited by Jane Leftwich Curry and Joan R. Dassin. New York: Praeger Special Studies, 1982. Pp. 209-32.

_______________. Mass Media in Black Africa: Philosophy and Control.
New York: Praeger, 1975.