An open letter to the CEO of Media24, Naspers and Die Burger:
Khulumani congratulates the Afrikaans media represented by Media24 and Naspers on its centenary and welcomes Media24’s CEO, Esmaré Weideman’s acknowledgement of its past complicity in defending what it now acknowledges as the “morally indefensible political regime” of apartheid and the hurtful way in which this complicity played out in the newsroom and boardrooms of the company.
For Khulumani Support Group, this represents an initial step in a process of taking responsibility for having misled mainly Afrikaans-speaking readers over many years by failing to report on and publish incidents of gross human rights violations perpetrated by the apartheid regime.
Professor Guy Berger, then of the Journalism Department of Rhodes University, in a Thoughtleader column published on October 20, 2008, referred to how “Over ten years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had convened hearings into the role of the media in relation to the gross violation of human rights that happened under apartheid.” He expressed regret that South African journalism schools had failed to embrace that opportunity to explore their complicity with apartheid, unlike the position that medical schools had adopted.
Professor Berger pointed out that the founder-head of the journalism department at Stellenbosch University, Piet Cillié, had spent decades editing Die Burger newspaper. At a seminar held in Grahamstown in 1977, Cillié had stated: “I personally have no professional or ethical qualms about producing recruits for a job market which I know from direct experience as well as from sustained contact through the chairmanship of the Nasionale Pers group”.
At the TRC Hearings into the role of the media, Afrikaans-language journalist Max du Preez argued that “until the last few months of PW Botha’s term as state president, Afrikaans newspapers never opposed the NP or their security forces on any important issue.” Nasionale Pers itself, the biggest Afrikaans-language media company, declined to give evidence at the Commission. In his testimony to the TRC, du Preez pointed to the failure of the mainstream media to follow up exposés by the alternative press, explaining that “If the mainstream newspapers and the SABC had reflected and followed up on all these confessions and revelations, every single one subsequently proved to have been true, the government would have been forced then to stop; to put a stop to the torture, the assassinations and the dirty tricks. It would have saved many, many lives.”
At that time, Prof Arnold (Arrie) de Beer, now an extraordinary Professor at Stellenbosch University, said he had “. . . felt compelled to approach the Commission because of the revelations at earlier Commission hearings, particularly those of Vlakplaas.” He said that he “felt that he and many other ‘God-fearing’ Afrikaners could not accept personal responsibility for specific gross human rights violations. Nevertheless, he did feel that there should be an acceptance of individual and collective responsibility for those violations committed under the ideological veil of apartheid, in the name of the Christian religion and Afrikanerdom. He expressed regret for keeping quiet about apartheid when he knew he should have actively protested against it.” [TRC Final Report, Vol 4, Chapter 6, Subsection 4, paragraph 60]
The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission captured these submissions in its statement, “When knowledge about gross human rights violations became public, the [Afrikaans media] journalists felt they had too readily accepted the denials and disingenuous explanations of the NP[National Party]. Those who made submissions also sought forgiveness for their lack of action and committed themselves to ensuring that history would not repeat itself.” [TRC Final Report, Vol 4, Chapter 6, Subsection 4, paragraph 59]
While Khulumani Support Group, as the national membership organisation of family members of victims and survivors of apartheid atrocities, welcomes this important development, we also assert that the process of acknowledging complicity with the “morally indefensible apartheid regime”, is incomplete without an accompanying commitment to make things right by helping to repair the damage done. For Khulumani, this would include an expectation of an ongoing commitment from Media24 / Naspers to actively participating in working to complete the unfinished business of the TRC, which marks its twentieth anniversary in 2016.
There are many possibilities for giving effect to such a commitment. The end of evil requires evidence that justice has been realised for the victims of that evil. The repudiation of an evil past and expressions of regret about complicity in past injustices, can serve as a starting point for the still needed commitment to explore how to tell stories about the people still affected by apartheid violations in ways that begin to change the untransformed social structures and systems that continue to limit the life chances of the thousands of people affected by apartheid gross human rights violations.
Writing in the New Yorker newsletter of 26 July 2015, Henry Finder refers to the discomfort that Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Outliers amongst other books, evoked when he “started researching what social psychologists call the “just world” hypothesis”, the “inclination to think that we deserve what we get, that we make our own luck.”” Gladwell was confronting the realisation that this might be a false hypothesis and that it is actually structures and systems that determine peoples’ chances in life. Gladwell asked how writers could write stories about social structures in ways that might seize the media imagination, just as stories about people do. Gladwell suggested “that writing about social systems can mean writing against the kind of stories that seize the media imagination. It means putting the headline-grabbing automotive scandals alongside the humdrum measures that could prevent far more death and injury, orders of magnitude more. It means imagining that context might matter more than character.”
For Khulumani, this represents one way in which collective responsibility – as Prof de Beer has expressed – could be demonstrated – telling the stories of the “structures and systems” within which the possibilities of the lives of those who survived apartheid atrocities, continue to be constrained; the stories of the agency of those who suffered major harm which has not been redressed.
Khulumani calls on Naspers and its shareholders, whose profits continue to soar, to complement their acknowledgement of their complicity with apartheid, by establishing an independent reparations fund for victims of apartheid-era gross human rights violations to support the endeavours of survivors to surmount through their own efforts the continuing constraints that are the legacy of the apartheid system.
Khulumani makes this call in light of government’s continuing failure to wholeheartedly embrace and implement the recommendations of the TRC concerning reparations for victims, and to engage directly with organised survivors of the gross violations of the past in the planning of the use of the President’s Fund, set up in terms of the National Unity and Reconciliation Act, (TRC Act), to provide redress for individuals within communities affected by apartheid-era gross human rights violations.
Khulumani looks forward to a substantive engagement with Media24 on these issues.
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