Ronald Suresh Roberts
Ronald Suresh Roberts

The chicken-hawks of the media wars

The most prominent chicken-hawks of recent times are those — such as United States Vice-President Dick Cheney — who, while pushing for war, also push with great finesse for personal exemption from its risks. Thus Cheney, the two-time warmonger of Iraq (1991 and 2003), famously dodged combat in Vietnam, pleading that he had “other priorities”; George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were at various times enrolled in the military but — like the local Tony Leon — artfully evaded any hint of dangerous duties.

In the recent South African media wars, chicken-hawks abound. Leading journalists seem to clamour for robust debates — but some have then sometimes ducked those same debates. This inglorious roster includes Wits journalism professor Anton Harber, the gentle ex-columnist John Matshikiza, and the administrator of several ladies’ magazines, Justice Malala, who moonlights as a foodie columnist in the rear pages of the Financial Mail.

But the Dick Cheney of the lot has to be Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya. He has invited rather extravagant comparisons between his own ho-hum legal difficulties and the draconian apartheid press clampdown of Wednesday October 19 1977 — and then he has systematically evaded relevant public debates, electing instead to give safe interviews to such fawning right-wing crackpots such as RW Johnson and Rian Malan.

While personally absent from the battlefield of discourse, Makhanya can be found hurling cruise missiles, in time-honoured chicken-hawk fashion, from his Rosebank offices. Hence the barrage of self-serving and self-obsessed headlines: “Editor, journalist to be arrested” (October 14); “Mbeki men in R7bn bid to own Sunday Times” (November 4).

The recent self-obsession of the newspaper marks the tragicomic collapse of the mission that Makhanya had set himself upon taking up the Sunday Times editorship: “I was aware that I was walking into an environment that would need strength. We needed to be the newspaper that was breaking the news, not the newspaper that was the news,” he told Kevin Bloom of The Media in September 2004.

Now the paper is the news more than ever before, while its fast-growing rival City Press breaks the news more than ever before. In these testing circumstances, it is perhaps no surprise that the “courageous” Makhanya is ducking most of the serious debates that have been generated by his newspaper’s supposed defence of robust debate.

If the plight of Percy Qoboza and so many of those banned and jailed in 1977 was a tragedy, Makhanya has brought those times back as farce. While the South African National Editors’ Forum commemorated the Black Wednesday bannings with a restrained and moving function in Midrand, Makhanya opted to attend the lavish Sandton banquet of the Black Management Forum.

I certainly have nothing against the BMF. I actually spoke at the conference. But you would think that, in assessing the diary clash between the BMF glitz and the Sanef free-speech commemoration, Makhanya would have favoured Sanef as I did. But he didn’t. He also chicken-hawked out of the Sanef panel discussion at the Sandton Convention Centre the following week. The week after that came a panel at the Human Rights Commission and again Makhanya was absent, albeit this time with an apparently good excuse: minutes before he was to appear, he cited a family bereavement.

During the famous court case in which the high court ordered the return of stolen medical records that were in Makhanya’s newspaper’s possession, the judge wondered aloud why Makhanya had chicken-hawked the court. As Sapa reported on August 24: “The judge said that Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya had not submitted an affidavit in response to how the paper obtained the minister’s medical records. The judge said: ‘We don’t even know if he [Makhanya] is in the country.'”

Was this the famous heroic journalism? If the heroic Nelson Mandela was dubbed the “Black Pimpernel” during his evasion of the apartheid authorities in the pre-Rivonia Trial era; if Ronnie Kasrils was the “Red Pimpernel” during his own revolutionary exploits of the early 1990s transition, then perhaps people will grow to know the elusive Mr Makhanya as the “Yellow Pimpernel”. His is hardly the colour of courage.

But it is when one turns to the vastly more substantial figure of Nadine Gordimer that the ironies deepen dramatically. Six decades ago, Gordimer recalled a dramatic scene from her childhood holidays, in which an apparent tragedy turned out to be farce: a brave old soldier wrestled with a monster in a river and finally subdued it, only to find that the beast was not hazardous, after all. It was a large but harmless lagoon lizard, or leguaan. “He was a great hero for half-an-hour … the man had done battle with the most reluctant of dragons.”

Now, in the wake of the Makhanya matter, Gordimer — momentarily discarding her otherwise deep appreciation of the country’s tragic past — farcically signed a paid Mail & Guardian advertisement that warned: “Dear President Mbeki: We support freedom of expression. Do not suppress the media.” Gordimer and her co-signatories (such evidently sober-minded souls as Xolela Mangcu, Rhoda Kadalie and Zackie Achmat) never explained how Mbeki was supposed to have suppressed, or threatened to suppress, media freedom.

Gordimer’s phony heroism in trading on the supposed parallels between 1977 and 2007 raises a fascinating question: Just what did Gordimer actually do in 1977, during the truly tragic clampdown of those days? To put the matter bluntly: Was she herself more heroine than chicken-hawk? As it happens, this was one of the matters I covered in my biography of Gordimer, No Cold Kitchen (pages 395 to 399), which Gordimer then tried to suppress.

The truth is that although Gordimer was, both before and after the October 19 1977 bannings, a strong and principled supporter of the armed anti-apartheid struggle, she momentarily bobbed and weaved to keep herself clear of the dangers that encircled her during the week of October 19 1977. She wilfully mischaracterised her true position on the armed struggle in order to keep herself safe from the arrest and detention that had been suffered by her fellow writers, black and white, including the publisher Peter Randall.

Two days before the October 19 1977 crackdown, the Sunday Times published an article popularising a recent book by Professor Humphrey du Randt, who was then the head of the Afrikaans department at the University of Port Elizabeth. Gordimer herself summarised both the problem and the solution in a letter to Anthony Sampson:

[Du Randt] has stated in a set work for Afrikaans university students of literature that I (and Fugard and AndrĂ© Brink) have advocated violent revolution in my books. George Bizos says I can’t just treat that sort of statement with contempt, as things are at present. So I find myself wasting hours with lawyers and preparing to demand R12 000 in damages for defamation.

Having proudly and correctly advocated armed revolution in numerous books, essays and private letters since at least 1957, Gordimer pretended, during the October 19 1977 crisis, that she hadn’t done that at all. Fortunately Du Randt had no stomach for the test: he phoned up Gordimer’s lawyer to beg for an amicable settlement. The lawyer said Du Randt must publish an apology. Du Randt agreed. Gordimer then personally drafted the text that she required Du Randt to publish in his own name, falsely clearing her of the revolutionary sympathies that would have exposed her to arrest during the October 19 1977 crackdown.

In the statement that herself Gordimer drafted to go out under Du Randt’s name, Gordimer required Du Randt to reject as “untrue and entirely baseless” any suggestion that she had ever advocated the violent overthrow of apartheid. “I apologise to Nadine Gordimer for the calumny I perpetrated against her as a writer, an individual, and a South African,” Du Randt wrote, parroting the words that Gordimer herself had placed in his mouth.

Two years later, Gordimer looked back with her trademark and searing honesty, indicting herself for this lapse: “I should think that at the end of my life I shall say, as Jean-Paul Sartre does, that my regret will probably be that I have not been brave enough. I know that already.” Having been, by her own admission, less brave than the circumstances required in the truly tragic week of October 19 1977, Gordimer has in October 2007 — and farcically — been very much braver than the circumstances have required.

This is the final and exquisite irony of the recent free-expression debate: Gordimer, the supposed champion of free expression, attempted to censor my biography of her and thus acted like the stereotype of Thabo Mbeki, the authoritarian control freak. Meanwhile, Gordimer accuses Mbeki — who, unlike her, did not attempt to mess with my work on him — of constituting a threat to free expression!

Rather than protecting free expression for us all, the chicken-hawks in the Great Media Debate just want to preserve their personal and longstanding stranglehold on public discourse. Thus George Bizos, who so legalistically urged Gordimer to duck the risks of October 19 1977, could be found bullying the press during his recent dispute with Ismail Ayob.

“It’s not for me to suggest what is responsible journalism, but perhaps the time has come that you shut the door to this guy,” Bizos said as quoted by the Weekend Argus of March, 3 this year. I neither know nor necessarily like Ayob, and I do not approve of what he allegedly did in the conduct of the Nelson Mandela’s business affairs. But he most certainly has a right to be heard.

In the same month as Bizos not-so-subtly sought to censor Ayob, Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee pronounced herself “flabbergasted” by how many champions of free speech seek to shut down certain voices. She reminded these pseudo-liberals that: “Commitment to principles like freedom of expression will always be tested by your tolerance for views that run counter to your own.”

Just as the military chicken-hawks in Washington are hardly fighting for democracy in the Iraq war, the Jo’burg chicken-hawks of the media know nothing of the functioning of free speech.