Guy Berger
Guy Berger

A Truth Commission for SA’s journalism education?

Over ten years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) convened hearings into the role of the media in relation to the gross violation of human rights that happened under apartheid.

But one sector that seemed to escape the TRC’s attention was that of higher education, except for a section in its final report titled: “Complicity of the medical schools”. And although the hearings and final report had harsh words to say about the media, there was silence on the country’s journalism schools.

Two recent events have brought that omission to mind:
• First, the Rhodes University leadership last month apologised for shameful actions, and inactions, on the part of the campus during apartheid, while also acknowledging that some staff and students had fought against the system. Left uninterrogated, however, was the historical performance with regard to individual departments and therefore whether there are any lessons for actors at that level.
• Second, Stellenbosch University’s Department of Journalism last week celebrated its 30th anniversary by convening an alumni reunion and a conference titled, significantly, “Journalism in Africa”, to mark its 30th anniversary. Again, historical performance at departmental level was left undisturbed (cf. video of the history)

The omissions involved in these events brought further to mind an intervention I attempted in 2004, which tried to engage with the specifics of university and departmental performance at Rhodes University and its School of Journalism and Media Studies where I now work.

My argument was outlined in a paper titled The view in the rear-mirror does not give much guidance, presented at a so-called “Critical Tradition Colloquium” to mark Rhodes’ centenary. The paper elicited outrage amongst a number of colleagues. Saying that they feared they would foster divisiveness by publishing it (even in more nuanced form), the editors of the proceedings decided to exclude the intervention from their compilation.

If this was the response at Rhodes, one can easily understand then why Stellenbosch journalism school head, Prof Lizette Rabe, avoided raising issues about the past of her institution. Better perhaps to use an anniversary to look to the future and forget about a past that is, after all, behind us.

Indeed, Rabe’s own tenure at Stellenbosch has seen a push for gender and race transformation in the media and in journalism education more generally, as well as “Africanisation” of the curriculum. These themes informed the 30th celebrations last week.

Avoiding potential division at Stellenbosch could be prudent, bearing in mind how that university polarised a few years ago over the proposal there to post-humously award an honorary doctorate to the late Communist leader Bram Fischer.

What then to make of the history of journalism schools, particularly at Stellenbosch … and at Rhodes? And how significant is it?

In an article in 2000, Prof Arnold de Beer and Prof Keyan Tomaselli, then at what were called Potchefstroom University and the University of Natal UKZN respectively, began to scratch the surface. In the first edition of Journalism Studies journal, they published an article titled: South African Journalism and Mass Communication Scholarship: negotiating ideological schisms.

In this, they noted that courses at Rhodes (and Natal) from the 1970s onwards “specifically influenced by the dynamics of struggle generated by the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) and the variety of small community and union-supportive anti-apartheid news agencies and newspapers.”

That’s fair, although it would also be useful to further assess the impact of these courses on students and the media. Rhodes journalism back then had its share of right wing students, apathetics, the fearful, the police spies, and of course future emigrants.

Not too many actually went on to work as democratically-oriented journalists.
As regards the then Rand Afrikaans University, University of the Orange Free State and Potchefstroom University, De Beer and Tomaselli do not say much about the politics of their programmes. But Unisa’s head of communications Prof Pieter Fourie is singled out for, in 1989, having provided the “first positive acknowledgements from an Afrikaans academic of the ‘critical’ work of English-speaking anti-apartheid JMC scholars.”

The article does not mention Unisa’s JJ Roelofse who was reported in the early 1980s as providing special communications courses for the PW Botha government, but it does note that some “conservative (mainly Afrikaans-speaking) administrative researchers at parastatal institutions assisted the state by publishing research such as content analysis on the ‘negative’ news coverage South Africa (sic) received.” It adds: “(S)ome (especially on Afrikaans campuses) took refuge in ivory-tower idealism.”
There is no discussion of Stellenbosch’s part in all this, in part because that department’s historical concentration has been on practice rather than research (which is the focus of the De Beer – Tomaselli article).

What is known, however, about the department at Stellenbosch is that its founder-head, Piet Cillié, had spent decades editing Die Burger newspaper. He attended a seminar in Grahamstown in 1977, where he 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”.

This is not to say Cillié was entirely at one with the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd (at least on the question of the Coloured franchise), but he was still always a loyal member of the National Party and its media. Stellenbosch cannot be expected to disown such a figure, but an alternative could be to contextualise his significance with today’s hindsight.

In later years, the department’s leadership under Prof Johannes Grosskopf was much more verlig, but it would still have had to negotiate two other challenges:
• Student body: in the 1980s, according to evidence to the TRC by Stellenbosch’s Jannie Gagiano, students lived in a “closed socialisation environment”, such that in June 1989, the United Democratic Front and ANC had less than five per cent support in white student ranks. Amongst Afrikaans-speaking students (mostly white), some 25% supported right wing parties, and 60% supported the ruling National Party.
• Afrikaans-language media: journalist Max du Preez argued at the TRC 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.

This is not to say that Du Preez or the TRC exonerated the English-language newspapers. In fact, he argued, in relation to exposes by the alternative press, 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.”

Du Preez’s claim is conjecture, but it does raise the historic significance of action and inaction. It can profitably direct attention to querying whether South African journalism schools – as claimed by the TRC for their medical counterparts – were complicit in much of the past.

Such a query is not for the sake of brow-beating or finger-pointing. But it could be important especially to excluded or discriminated against black students, who in the case of at least one Rhodes generation, felt too alienated to attend their graduation, and where remorse could therefore be expressed where appropriate.

By engaging what happened, it becomes possible to understand the roles that university journalism schools played and how each negotiated (or not) the constraints of their contexts.

The reason in turn is to have knowledge that can inform discussions how universities and their departments, like the wider media, can better serve a changed society. As I argued at the 2004 Rhodes colloquium, this is not because we can see the future by looking in the rear-view mirror. The value, instead, of an insightful retrospective is that we can then grasp where we have lacked, and where we have excelled. It provides a deeper understanding of what has shaped us.

For example, while Rhodes has now apologised for racism, the university’s attention has been on staff and student exclusions, and on one shameful honorary doctorate. These are spot on. Yet further and wider historical evacuation could signal other issues as well, at the level of specific departments.

Not just because of crude racism emerging at Free State and North West Universities, there may be merit in looking more closely at the past and future of curriculum (what exactly was and is being taught, and what was not). The same applies to research and community outreach.

Grasping the challenge of history — at the level of each department, at Rhodes, Stellenbosch and elsewhere – might sensitise us all to just how far we still need to travel. Perhaps.

• Lizette Rabe kindly sponsored my attendance at Stellenbosch’s 30th anniversary celebrations. The remarks here are not intended to detract from her outstanding leadership there, her integrity and her transformation-oriented achievements. There should also be no reading of this piece that implies that Rhodes’s history should escape critical questioning on a par with that of Stellenbosch.