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Plot, Counter-Plot

Trust no one. South Africa’s bursting at the seams with conspiracies, and you'll never guess who's behind it all: the vile media. According to a group of intellectuals, the media are abusing free speech in ‘a campaign of apartheid-style disinformation’.

Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2001.

media plot to overthrow south africa

It was, at first, a Sunday like any other. As usual I was boning up on Mein Kampf and trawling the hottest hate websites. The busts of H.F. Verwoerd and Eugene Terreblanche on my desk stared far-seeingly towards a future whites-only Utopia, and all about the office swastika-emblazoned banners rippled in the breeze. A typical leisurely Sunday, it would seem. But once you've been inducted into The Media and taken the secret oaths, you can't waste a moment in devising new ways to shaft South African democracy. So it wasn't long before I turned to the Sunday Times for inspiration and began flicking through its pages. When I saw the full-page advertisement my blood froze. Exposed! Our media coven, our counter-revolutionary order, had been driven into the open. How long before the leaders fled to the jungles of Argentina, Brazil and Perth, leaving us in the rank-and-file to face mob justice? The game was up. I reached into my drawer for the Luger ...  

A key irony

Well, not quite. On May 6 a group of black professionals – including academics, businesspeople, and one Christine Qunta, who was pivotal in bringing a complaint of racism against the Mail Guardian and Sunday Times in 1999 – ran a full-page ad in the Sunday Times in support of President Mbeki, saying that the bad press he and the country in general have been getting is fuelled by racism. Familiar stuff, but remarkable for a key irony. Mbeki has long been castigated for his stance on AIDS and the Zimbabwean crisis; his government has been brought into disrepute by allegations of corruption in the multi-billion-rand arms deal, and recently, hard on the heels of the ‘womanising’ controversy, matters came to a head when his Safety and Security Minister said that there was a plot afoot to overthrow Mbeki, one involving senior ANC members. Across the country the op-ed pages hit red alert: Were the rumours true – or had South Africa's top leaders fallen prey to paranoid psychosis? Had they entered a delusional world rife with conspiracies and cabals?

How ironic, then, that the authors of the Sunday Times advertisement chose to retaliate against this volley of criticism directed at paranoid thinking by caricaturing the criticisms as they did: As a plot.

‘Apartheid-style disinformation’

The thrust of the document is that Mbeki has been grievously misrepresented in the media by a failure to report the good as well as the bad. A partial view of his performance, produced by a small part of society, the white-owned media, is passed off as a total view; conversely, Mbeki himself cannot be held accountable for this image of himself, which is not of his making. These misrepresentations, it is argued, are deliberate, amounting to a ‘campaign’ of ‘apartheid-style disinformation’ that has targeted blacks in power and Mbeki in particular. The media ‘provide a platform for a coalition of right-wing forces made up of white so-called liberal politicians ... certain so-called independent or research organisations run by whites and a few members of the white business community’. Even ‘a few Black commentators ... unwittingly contribute to this campaign’, no doubt too mentally enfeebled to make up their own minds about things or avoid being duped by their white overlords.

The document goes on: although these campaigners assert that their criticism of Mbeki is conducted in the service of democracy, they are ‘us[ing] the language of democracy to subvert democracy’ (phrasing that calls to mind the dilemma of liberal societies: should they grant political freedoms to illiberal elements intent on eliminating those freedoms?). ‘[N]o amount of self-righteous claims of the public interest, transparency and press freedom,’ says the document, ‘will conceal their real motives.’ What is this motive? ‘We believe that the President is being singled out because he represents the determination of this government to firmly dismantle the remnants of the edifice of apartheid.’

Stressing that ‘the media campaign ... does not reflect the views of all whites’, the document then urges a revitalised South Africanism, a unity of black and white forged in shared loyalty to ‘our country and government’.

Logic of absolutes

That's the paraphrase of the document. The problem with it, which may already be evident, lies in its absolutising logic, a pattern of reasoning signalled in the polar opposition with which it is titled: ‘The Media vs. President T.M. Mbeki’. At a first, provisional level of analysis the title sets up a contrast between appearance and reality, between the agencies of image-making, interpretation and opinion-dissemination, on the one hand, and, on the other, the man himself who is thus represented, shaped, and reflected in the media's distorting mirror.

The problem here, more specifically, is the implicit opposition of active/passive, speech/silence: the media actively speak while Mbeki is passively silent within this relationship, unable to represent himself, to give a representation of himself to the world. He is, in short, constructed squarely as a victim, the victim of ‘vicious’ and ‘sustained’ attacks, and therefore one with diminished responsibility for what is made of him. What is made of him, the image made of him, is beyond his power. That power lies in the media. ‘It is extremely disturbing,’ the document notes, ‘that the shaping of the image of this country is in the hands of a very small minority ....’

But, putting things bluntly, and even accepting that Mbeki's portrayal has been a negative one, surely it's an exaggeration to suggest that almost the entire burden of responsibility for Mbeki's ill-starred presidency can be placed on the media, or indeed on the reactionary forces they supposedly spearhead? Surely Mbeki himself might have had some role to play, however small, in ‘shaping the image’ and engendering the perceptions, good and bad, that surround what is, after all, his career as the country's national leader?

Plural, nameless, legion

The ad's title – ‘The Media vs. President T.M. Mbeki’ – gives a further point of access to its themes: a plural noun is opposed to a singular one, establishing a conflict between the Many and the One. The media are plural, nameless, legion; but they are in fact singular, reduced, despite their superficial differences and professed intentions, to what is at bottom a single hydra-headed campaign of reaction: their stated criticisms can be bracketed, put in suspension, while one concentrates on their ‘real motive’. The problem here, perhaps easy to see, is that differences of interpretation and opinion are nullified as differences and recast as error – worse, as treason.

But this opens a more interesting problem. The media are pitted against Mbeki, and although he is a single being, he stands for the many: he embodies the will of the majority. ‘To question his continued leadership only two years into his 5-year term is to seek to subvert the will of the majority,’ the document says, never mind that it was from within his own party ranks that the question of his continued leadership emerged as a question at all. It was Deputy President Zuma who first made the, to outsiders, puzzling admission that he had no presidential ambitions, not the media; it was Steve Tshwete, not the media, who implicated top ANC members in a plot to oust Mbeki. Nevertheless, the document is no doubt alluding to what was probably the last straw that led to its production, Howard Barrell's Mail Guardian editorial, ‘Is this man [Mbeki] fit to rule?’ In view of Barrell's stern words, the ad's comments on Mbeki's continued leadership have about them an easily understandable spirit of ‘Jeez, give the guy a break, he's only started, let him get on with the job.’

More troubling is the notion that ‘question[ing] his continued leadership’ – or, broadly, subjecting the country's CEO to the most rigorous political appraisal at any time in his term of office other than at intervals when elections are held – amounts to subversion, as if to say, The people have spoken and that's that until the next time. Time, life and politics go on despite election calendars. Any political representative – any One who stands for the Many – enters into a contract with those he or she represents, and this contract is not, or shouldn't be, set in stone and placed outside the flow of events. It is, or should be, open to account on an ongoing basis.

Parasites and brandy snifters

Of course, the document doesn't advocate an end to debate. The President, it says, ‘is human and therefore will sometimes behave as such. Where he stumbles we will hold out a hand. Where he errs, we will criticise and caution, sometimes publicly and sometimes privately, always however from a deep love for our country and people.’ Admittedly not everyone can hobnob with the President over snifters of brandy and act as trusted advisors, but an important point is being raised: the right to freedom of speech should be exercised within a framework of solidarity and patriotic loyalty.

The document says: ‘Even as they [the white media] benefit from the principles underlying the new constitution such as freedom of speech, separation of powers, accountability and the reintegration of this country into the rest of the world economically, they use the language of democracy to subvert democracy.’ In other words, the largess of these freedoms is being exploited for subversive ends: the media has a parasitic relation to the democratic state, fattening itself off it without giving anything back, thus killing the host.

‘They of course deny this, demanding the right to criticise equally with their Black counterparts. They do not realise that the right to criticise is accompanied by a responsibility to be fair and to recognise the landmarks and achievements of the government and Black people in the way Black journalists and commentators do.’ This suggests that the moral right to criticise, to exercise freedom of speech, is not a given, which would amount to getting something for nothing: you have to pay your dues. (And in these terms, perhaps the implication is that black journalists have already made an advance payment on their dues by virtue of coming from the class of the oppressed, unlike white counterparts, who are of the former oppressors.) Freedom of speech, that is to say, isn't an unconditional, untrammelled moral right but is required to sustain, is subordinate to, the democratic framework underpinning it.

Openness, unheard-of voices

For others, however, vigorous and untrammelled exercise of freedom of speech is the essence of democratic practice; it is democracy itself. For them, the spectre that requires constant vigilance is precisely the situation that the authors of the document hold in contempt: a condition in which (employing the document's words) ‘the shaping of the image ['the' image: the single, dominant, other-excluding interpretation] of this country is in the hands of a very small minority [be they in the media or whatever corridors of power], entirely hostile to democracy.’ As the document contends, ‘The media in any country is a mirror through which society sees itself and through which the world sees that society,’ making it ‘extremely disturbing’ for a minority to monopolise the capacities for image-shaping that exist in the country. This is a crucial element in the document's argument, and its implication that the field needs to be pluralised, opened up to a multiplicity of unheard-of voices and image-shapers warrants the strongest, utmost support.

But once image-shaping is opened up in this manner, the tension and ambivalence between freedom of speech and the context of statehood within which its plays out will surely remain. If the authors of the document are off kilter in speaking of plots and ‘campaigns’, it's certainly safe to say that, of the innumerable motives at work in the criticisms directed at Mbeki and his government, some but not necessarily all will be informed by racism and still-mutating apartheid ideologies. Freedom of speech may be motivated by commitment to democracy; it may just as well be hostile and ill-intentioned. But that's freedom of speech for you. More simply, that's freedom.

Evil fascists, savage bastards

Where do you draw the line? Under what conditions should freedom of speech be limited lest it jeopardise the body politic? I may seem to be a ‘free speech fundamentalist’ (a new coinage: as if free speech didn't mean the undoing of every fundamentalism), but I'm a Thomas Hobbes kind of guy at heart. It's the state, in the extended meaning of that word, one that includes but goes beyond the structures of governance, that stands between people and a life that is ‘brutish, nasty and short’; often, of course, it's precisely the state itself that produces this type of existence. To protect statehood, to safeguard civil, civic life, it is sometimes necessary to curtail freedoms. But there has to be a clear and present danger: a state of war, for instance. The general talk in our country at the moment of plots and counter-plots will simply not suffice.

The authors of the document write: ‘[W]e have faith in the potential of this country to be a well managed, technologically advanced truly equal society where the dignity and well being of everyone is assured.’ If President Mbeki and his administration are criticised, as is par for the course in any democracy, it is done so more often than not on the basis of a shared faith in this vision and the expectations attendant on it. South Africa's leaders under apartheid were a goons' parade of savage bastards, evil fascists and hollow bureaucrats. Thabo Mbeki moves in a different universe.


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