The following is an excerpt from “Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World.”
“Television [has] shrunk the world and [has] in the process become a great weapon for eradicating ignorance and promoting democracy,” wrote Nelson Mandela after meeting the Inuit people in Alaska. They had watched his release on television and followed the transformation of South Africa from a deeply unjust country into an evolving democracy. And there he was, live and in person. “Viva, ANC!” (African National Congress), they shouted. Mandela’s plight had reached communities that couldn’t be farther from South Africa.
The transformation from an intensely oppressive, divided state to a multiracial democracy was hard-won by antiapartheid activists who engaged in a multidimensional fight. Key in their war chest was an arsenal of words – the information, framing, perspective, and channels of dissemination. The antiapartheid activists decisively won that war, particularly in the international media – through press, television, radio, books, theater, and music. Their war of words persuaded leaders throughout the world to take actions that collectively, along with the internal battles, caused the change.
Inside South Africa, the mass media were a battleground, mostly divided by language and ethnicity that “overwhelmingly reflected the social situation,” according to Albie Sachs, former justice on South Africa’s Constitutional Court. For many years, much of the Afrikaans-language media, particularly the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and especially during the early struggles against apartheid, hid the ugly realities and upheld the apartheid system as natural and legitimate. “Speaking of my perspective as one who was disenfranchised … the Afrikaans and electronic media … supported apartheid … largely [acted as] mouthpieces of the ruling elite, hardly ever [as] the watchdogs,” remarked Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission media hearings.
These media excluded vital coverage of oppression and white-instigated violence, while they headlined black-instigated violence and denounced many antiapartheid leaders as “terrorists.” Some reporters colluded with officials to oppress Africans. But through the cracks of the wall of silence erected by the apartheid government, another reality seeped out, through the staunchly anti-apartheid media and later, through the more established English-language, church, and international media.
By the late 1980s, some Afrikaans-language press, such as the alternative Vrye Weekblad became “outspoken, vigorous, and courageous antiapartheid,” according to Allister Sparks, veteran South African journalist.* Gradually, even the long nationalist Afrikaans-language newspaper, Beeld, urged the government to release Mandela from prison and end petty apartheid.
Through much of the struggle, the government clamped down on activists and journalists who tried to expose and denounce the injustices and succeeded in destroying many of them. But words and images trickled through the fissures and engaged broader audiences throughout the world, winning hearts, minds, policies, and collective actions that coalesced to overturn apartheid.
The Early Antiapartheid Alternatives
“This is the African National Congress, the voice of freedom,” said the broadcaster over the outlawed Radio Freedom in 1969. “This government of slavery, this government of oppression, this apartheid monster must be removed from power and crushed by the people!” declared the host. “Never give up the freedom struggle.”
Radio Freedom was one of several early resistance media, challenging apartheid’s legitimacy, exposing realities, helping build cohesion among activists, and offering alternative frameworks from leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.
Another was the alternative publication, the Guardian, which consistently faced peril – from the day it opened its doors in 1937 – including charges of sedition and high treason. But the Guardian team relentlessly uncovered scandals and published unabashed criticism every week for 26 years.
Journalist Ruth First exposed forced labor camps on which farm owners chained, whipped, beat, and released attack dogs on laborers. She witnessed “large [welts] and scars whipped on [the] backs, shoulders, and arms” of workers, and she uncovered the state’s role as “a recruiting force for bad farmers who cannot attract labor by normal means.” First’s investigation worked alongside farmworker-turned-ANC-activist Gert Sibande to free the laborers. Through their crusade, courts convicted one farmer, Max Mann, of thirty-nine counts of assault and battery – he had beaten farm workers with whips and pick handles.
After the Guardian was banned – twice – and collapsed, it reemerged under a different name, the New Age, which continued the Guardian‘s tradition of exposing schemes of abuse, including the abduction and “sale” of children into forced labor. Through the government’s “youth camp,” traffickers sold children into slavery, according to the article. Another New Age article uncovered farm owners who bludgeoned laborers and used hoes to hack workers’ feet to prevent them from fleeing. The information prompted a successful ANC potato boycott and a new headline, “POTATOES: SUPPLY GOOD, DEMAND POOR.”
The government raided the New Age and arrested its entire editorial staff, except for Albie Sachs, leaving him on his own to produce the publication. He delivered the issue, featuring articles on the Treason Trial, Tambo’s escape, and the Langa March to the printer. But the minister of justice confiscated all but a single, hidden copy of the paper.
After five months and with 55 staffers in jail, the New Age reemerged, featuring photos of banned Mandela and Duma Nukwe walking home with the headline, “FREEDOM IS WITHIN OUR GRASP.” Inside the paper, columnist Alex La Guma rated prison wardens whom he encountered while incarcerated alongside exposés of women ostensibly “hired to entrap ANC men.”
As officials apprehended ANC member Anderson Khumani Ganyile on a prison train, the paper’s reporter managed a “shouting” interview. Ganyile escaped and fled to neighboring Basutoland, and the South African government followed, crossing the international border to re-arrest him. Ganyile scrawled a note onto scrap paper, which appeared in the New Age: “Kidnapped in Basutoland … by six policemen … we appeal to our friends. We know and can identify our kidnappers.” Demonstrations broke out before the Parliament, and debates emerged in London’s House of Commons. The government finally released Ganyile.
The New Age featured the ANC’s breaking news – including details of Mandela’s departure from South Africa and exploded towers from the sabotage campaign. When police arrested Mandela, the paper published, for the first time, the two words spray-painted on a fence that would decades later become an international, household phrase: “Free Mandela.”
Through an act of Parliament, the government finally destroyed the New Age. Balthazar Johannes Vorster waved an issue of the New Age before a session of Parliament. “One of the newspapers which ought to be forbidden is this paper, New Age, which is the propaganda organ of the Communist Party!” he insisted. By the end of session, Parliament had engineered the paper’s demise.
Political leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other media protested the banning. One newspaper, the Evening Post, noted, “The government is creating the impression … that the people chiefly interested in the difficulties created by apartheid are Communists.” Added the Cape Times, “The political opposition of New Age becomes Communism because Mr. Vorster chooses to call it Communism. … He does so without hearing argument, without having to produce evidence, without having to give reason, subject to no appeal to any impartial authority.”
The New Age writers launched Spark. But it was futile. The government had prohibited the journalists’ freedom to publish or to even be on the premises of a publication. “WE SAY GOODBYE, BUT WE’LL BE BACK,” said Spark‘s headline. But it never returned.
In 1963, using the “ninety-day” detention law, the government arrested First and placed her in solitary confinement for interrogation. To prevent breaking down and disclosing information, she attempted suicide, but survived long enough to flee South Africa. Agents later killed her with a letter bomb.
In 1966, the government used an amended anticommunist law and regular harassment to silence the remaining resistance media and journalists and to eliminate traces of their ideas. Security police tortured journalist Nat Serache for 11 successive days before he fled into exile. Some journalists, including Serache and First (until she was killed), continued their work from abroad, which ultimately expanded their audiences. And their work still penetrated into South Africa through illegal channels.
Although antiapartheid media’s reach was limited, their content informed an important readership. And along the way, the more mainstream media carried the battle another step further. But under pressures from an overzealous government that infiltrated their organizations, raided their offices, harassed reporters, and spread misinformation, most media refrained from challenges that might imperil their operation.
The English-language Rand Daily Mail also covered forced labor and bludgeoned workers: “NEAR SLAVERY IN BETHAL DISTRICT.” Laurence Gandar, its editor, analyzed and opposed apartheid, initially under the pseudonym Owen Vine. Gandar connected the African uprisings to insufferable conditions – poverty and institutional oppression – and called for a just future. In 1965, using eyewitness sources, Gandar and reporter Benjamin Pogrund exposed details of 11African detainees bludgeoned to death while in government custody.
Using laws such as the Prison Act, which outlawed criticizing army or prison officials without permission, the government cracked down on journalists. Police dogged Gandar with threats and raids, serially prosecuted his sources, and, using perjured evidence, convicted him and Pogrund of violating the Prison Act.
South Africa has “lost its way,” wrote Gandar, calling for racial integration and freedom of the press. Gandar’s board eventually removed him from his position for fear of losing advertisers, but his work left an indelible mark, including incremental but meaningful changes, such as the use of “African” rather than “native” to identify the black population.
Other English-language newspapers, such as the Johannesburg Star joined with exposés about the government’s subhuman treatment of Africans, including the savage abuses in prisons. And it criticized the government’s “pathetic faith in the power of machine guns to settle basic human problems.”
A decade after Mandela was convicted in the Rivonia Trial and sentenced to prison, Black Consciousness (BC) leader Steve Biko founded the Black Peoples’ Convention, initiating self-help projects such as healthcare clinics and small-scale industries. Recognizing the power of language, BC leaders rejected white language, such as labeling black people “nonwhite.” Black people were not “non-anything;” they were positively “black.” “We are merely refusing to be regarded as nonpersons and claim the right to be called positively,” said the BC’s SASO Newsletter in 1970. “Adopting a collectively positive outlook leads to the creation of a broader base which may be useful in time.”
BC ideas filled the pages of publications, such as the SASO Newsletter and Creativity and Development and annuals such as Black Review and Black Viewpoint. Its advocates recruited black journalists, sought black-owned newspapers, launched letter-writing campaigns to dissuade white-owned publications from using negative language, and expelled reporters from meetings if they refused. The East London Daily Dispatch and the Rand Daily Mail eliminated such language, and white-owned, African-read publications, including the World, after long avoiding apartheid politics, finally denounced racist policies.
The BC movement reinvigorated the African community, which had been despondent after the Sharpeville massacre. In 1976, thousands of energized African youth marched from their schools to Orlando Stadium, protesting the forced use of Afrikaans in school. When they approached police barricades, most students continued peacefully, but some lobbed stones at the security forces. Police opened fire and sprayed tear gas, sparking riots that ultimately killed more than 661 people; nearly all were black.
Because foreign and white journalists had been “sealed off,” only African journalists reported what became known as the Soweto Uprising. Police pummeled the reporters and arrested them, detained them, and charged them with terrorism and incitement of riots. But their stories still appeared in the Rand Daily Mail and the World, without which “the world would never have known what really happened.”
Their reports ultimately informed the actions of international leaders, including US President Jimmy Carter and the United Nations. That year, the UN Security Council adopted a mandatory arms embargo, which diminished South Africa’s capacity to fight in neighboring conflicts.
Apartheid government officials arrested nine BC leaders, including Biko, and banned 18 organizations. Biko never emerged from prison, but his tragic death ignited a movement. The East London Daily Dispatch, the Rand Daily Mail, the Cape Times, and the Johannesburg Star all demanded a full investigation into Biko’s death, an explanation to his family and “the world at large,” and the resignation of Prison Minister James Kruger.
Government officials greeted Biko’s death with indifference. “I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko,” said Kruger. “He leaves me cold.” Claiming Biko died of a hunger strike, Kruger added, it was his “democratic right” to starve himself to death. Kruger’s frigid response produced another tide of disgust through papers such as the World, the Johannesburg Star, and the Johannesburg Times. “What ignominy,” said the World. “What arrogance. What a convenient ducking of responsibility for the whole ghastly business.” The Johannesburg Star added, “The civilized world will be more than left cold – it will be positively chilled by the callousness of yesterday’s display.” The Johannesburg Times accused Kruger of “unforgivable crimes.”
Medical examiners disputed Kruger’s claim, reporting extensive brain injury, bruises, burns, damage to his rib cage, acute renal kidney failure, and partial paralysis. “NO SIGNS OF HUNGER STRIKE – BIKO DOCTORS,” affirmed the Rand Daily Mail on its front page. “TORTURE IN SOUTH AFRICA?” queried the headline of the Christian Institute’s publication.
Instead of a sober acknowledgment or corrective action, the government attacked its critics. It ordered retractions through the regulating Press Council, raided and banned three publications, outlawed eighteen additional organizations, and arrested 47 black leaders and seven sympathetic whites, including three journalists – East London Daily Dispatch‘s Daniel Woods, World editor Percy Qoboza, and Weekend World‘s Aggrey Klaaste for having “contributed to a subversive situation.”
“KRUGER EXPLODES THE MYTH OF SOUTH AFRICA’S ‘FREE’ PRESS,” responded the World. The government “seems bent on transforming moderate black opinion into extremism,” said the Johannesburg Star.
The government banned Woods, and agents anonymously mailed his five-year-old daughter a Biko T-shirt laced with acid, which burned her skin and eyes when she donned it. Disguised as a Catholic priest, Woods jumped his fence, hitchhiked three hundred miles, and fled to Britain through Lesotho, where his family would later meet him.
While domestically, the government used deadly violence and oppressive laws; internationally, it was armed with persuasion dollars only to try to rescue its disgraced image. The international propaganda campaign, deemed “Muldergate” by the Rand Daily Mail, earmarked $74 million to buy international media influence, and $31 million to launch an English-language, pro-apartheid publication, the Citizen. (The government later charged the Rand Daily Mail editor Allister Sparks and reporter Hamish Fraser with contempt of an investigative commission). But international journalists were unpersuaded, and along with a growing, global, antiapartheid movement, they relentlessly exposed it. A media revolution was under way, with two key protagonists in its spotlight, Steve Biko, whose death in custody sparked an avalanche of bad press for the South African government, and Nelson Mandela, who remained incarcerated.
While international media had already lambasted the South African government’s abuses, Biko’s death created a surge of scorn. A Washington Post editorial openly asked: “Is there an explanation other than a calculated official policy to physically destroy substantial segments of the country’s black leadership, and in so doing to try to intimidate others who would offer South Africa’s black majority alternatives to tranquil acceptance of apartheid?” Biko suffered “multiple brain and body injuries,” said CBS News, escalating calls for Kruger’s resignation. The government denied Biko hospitalization, reported Canada’s Globe and Mail.
South African police cracked down on Africans gathering to mourn and protest. They opened fire on stone-lobbing youth and arrested some 1,200 students to prevent an assembly. But increasingly under an international spotlight, South Africa’s overzealousness generated more criticism. “The still unexplained death … has more than ever put the South African system … with its provisions for unlimited detention without trial or charges … its apparent use of brutal assault and torture – on international trial,” wrote The Washington Post. It detailed South Africa’s torture techniques: “Bodily assault … long periods of standing, two days and more without sleep, food, or even permission to go to the bathroom. … Electric shock treatment applied to various parts of the body, including the penis, the tying of bricks to men’s testicles … throwing the detainee high in the air and allowing him to land on the cement floor.”
Some 20,000 people gathered for Biko’s funeral. Biko became the subject of books, plays, documentaries, songs, and paintings. Among them, recording artist and human rights activist Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko” reached number thirty-eight on the British music charts.
Citing Biko’s death, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a resolution that strongly denounced South Africa’s “repressive measures” and called on President Carter to “take effective measures” against the South African government. The US threatened to initiate economic sanctions unless South Africa made “significant progress toward the elimination of apartheid.” African nations, universities, and other institutions divested their South African holdings.
“The time has come for the nations of the West to realize that if they hope to have any credibility in the increasingly important continent of Africa, they must adopt stronger measures,” said journalist Woods on national British television. Otherwise, they are “propping up the system.”
FREE MANDELA: What began as an ANC petition in time catalyzed a relentless explosion of media attention that grew until the day Mandela was finally released. Although banned in South Africa and locked away for 26 years, Mandela became an international legend. His letters smuggled from prison made international news, as he called on “democrats of all races” to oust apartheid and its leaders. “Unite! Mobilize! Fight on! Between the anvil of united mass action and the hammer of the armed struggle, we shall crush apartheid and white minority racist rule. … The whole world is on our side.”
Mandela was right. Across the globe, political and religious leaders called for his release. The United Nations created the Special Commission Against Apartheid; US congresspersons formally requested to see Mandela; Britons voted for Mandela to succeed Queen Elizabeth as the chancellor of London University. In a country thousands of miles from his home, Mandela received the third highest number of votes, coming in third behind Princess Anne and a labor leader. Humanitarian organizations and universities bestowed awards and honorary degrees to the imprisoned leader, while cities such as Rome offered him citizenship.
Each declaration bore another headline, building the movement and Mandela’s global profile. Major newsmagazines featured Mandela’s story and his accomplishments, including his organizing – from prison – a large-scale education program for prisoners.
In 1978, for the first time on US national television, a broadcaster referred to the ANC not as a “terrorist” group but as a “liberation organization.” During the CBS-aired documentary Battle of South Africa, Bill Moyers explained an intense struggle for the soul of the country that produced most of the Western world’s gold, diamonds, and metals. Other international media increasingly changed course, calling the ANC “liberation forces,” not “terrorists.” National and international institutions’ punitive actions were double punishment because the actions triggered coverage that inspired new ones. Apartheid is a “crime against humanity,” and the struggle to eradicate it is “legitimate,” declared the United Nations. The organization embargoed arms sales to South Africa and reviewed existing contracts “with a view to terminating them.”
South Africa’s ultimate irony was this: While Mandela’s name, words, and image were prohibited in South Africa, “Free Mandela” was boldly displayed on walls throughout the country.
The man Mandela became the worldwide symbol for the “struggle for freedom, human dignity, and resistance to apartheid,” said Oliver Tambo to The Associated Press. He is the “undisputed leader of millions of enslaved people,” wrote The Washington Post. Mandela “is legendary,” said an article titled “CONSCIENCE OF SOUTH AFRICA.”
“The name ‘Mandela’ is magic,” said Helen Joseph, a white antiapartheid activist, to the press. She and others, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, predicted Mandela’s ascension to prime minister of South Africa.
The government cracked down harder on journalists and liberation organizations to silence criticism. Officials raided and arrested journalists, including Allister Sparks, Suzanne Sparks, and Bernard Simon for interviewing a banned person. Suzanne Sparks was charged with “defeating the ends of justice.” It expelled foreign reporters, including a 24-year-old correspondent for the Nation magazine, and prohibited the sale of publications, including Newsweek, because they mentioned banned persons such as Mandela. But each oppressive act wound up, again, ironically, in the news.
Internationally, Mandela was legend. His story was recounted in movies, books, and songs, reaching an ever-growing international audience. THE STRUGGLE IS MY LIFE included a large collection of Mandela’s writings. In his Graceland tour, singer Paul Simon crooned “Bring Him Back Home,” specifically calling for Mandela’s release. Twenty-four television networks worldwide aired the dramatic film Mandela, about which the Sunday Mail wrote, “If you can watch the Nelson Mandela film dispassionately, you have no soul.” In essence, Mandela had “imprisoned his white keepers,” asserted the Washington Post‘s Howard Simons, for the government feared that his death could spawn a “rampage” and drive the state into even worse peril.
In one of the world’s largest media events, antiapartheid activists produced a ten-hour Wembley Stadium concert featuring superstar musicians, including Dire Straits, Whitney Houston, Simple Minds, George Michael, Phil Collins, the Bee Gees, Joe Cocker, the Eurythmics, Peter Gabriel, and Chrissie Hynde. In addition to the 72,000-member live audience, artists performed to one billion television viewers in sixty countries.
“Now, the whole world is watching, P.W. Botha,” announced Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone, president of the antiapartheid movement, from the stage. “Tonight I appeal to him to unlock the doors of the apartheid jails. … The artists of the world have spoken with one voice: ‘Free Nelson Mandela!’ “
South African Prime Minister Botha had a plan to get the world off his back. He offered Mandela conditional release, eliminated pass laws and prohibitions on interracial marriage and sex, and increased funding for black education. In a new constitution, Indians and “colored” people gained new rights and representation in a tricameral parliament, but blacks were still excluded. The proposals sparked the formation of a new coalition – the United Democratic Front (UDF), which devised a countrywide opposition strategy. Through multiple media, including its own publications, plus pamphlets, posters, stickers, the UDF saturated much of South Africa with its message: “It is not for us to sit back and merely dream of the day that the people shall govern. It is our task to realize that goal now. … ” The “power” was not an “either-or” of choosing between the “workerism” and “populism,” but rather one that included both. Its massive campaign resulted in the largest mass protest in 25 years. Its message was simple:
Botha sought to crush the uprising with a “total strategy,” including countrywide states of emergency, curfews, and tighter restrictions, while agents assassinated movement leaders. For South Africa’s “national interest,” his regime demanded the media’s full support; he barred international journalists from covering uprisings or strikes, and forbade support for “activities of subversive or revolutionary elements.”
Under regular attack and facing charges of inciting revolution, several media shuttered operations. Among them, after 82 years of award-winning coverage, was the Rand Daily Mail, which had lost over $119 million over 10 years. But the Weekly Mail emerged, featuring the “unsweetened truth” about the country. Alongside coverage of boycotts, forced removals, deaths in detention, and the disappearance of African activists, the paper uncovered South Africa’s covert operations to destabilize Mozambique, unrest in African townships and vigilante attacks. It reported the “necklacing” of suspected apartheid collaborators; victims were forced into gas-doused rubber tires and then lit on fire. And it covered the inner workings of the notorious Robben Island prison penned by a journalist who had been imprisoned there.
As the Botha regime tightened media restrictions, the Weekly Mail made censorship the news. Its front-page headline read, “OUR LAWYER TELLS US WE CAN SAY ALMOST NOTHING CRITICAL ABOUT THE EMERGENCY. BUT WE’LL TRY.” Beneath the headline, large redactions covered sentences and chunks of articles.
As parts of South Africa descended into near civil war, the government stood aside, allowing assailants to rape, assault, and kill fellow South Africans. Bombs exploded, fires raged, and officials called in the military to “occupy” the UDF-controlled townships. The UDF placed full-page advertisements, calling to “unban the ANC” in sixteen newspapers. The police commissioner responded by outlawing ads or articles that “promoted” banned organizations. In February 1988, the government effectively banned the UDF. Its members instead created the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) to continue their work.
There was hope, suggested the Weekly Mail. Botha’s successor, F.W. de Klerk was “QUIETLY THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE.” Secretly, de Klerk called for Mandela. Agents retrieved the ANC leader from his confines and smuggled him through the presidential office basement garage for their first meeting. Perhaps no one was prepared for what was ahead. On February 2, 1990, the international media arrived in South Africa, ready for Mandela’s release.
“Walk through the open door and take your place at the negotiating table,” de Klerk said, unbanning the ANC and some thirty other political organizations, including the Communist Party, in a single breath. It is time for “a totally new and just constitutional dispensation in which every inhabitant will enjoy equal rights, treatment, and opportunity,” he declared. South Africa was ready to “set aside its conflicts and ideological differences and draw up a joint program of reconstruction.”
In one afternoon, de Klerk unconditionally lifted long-established bans, suspended the death penalty, lifted the state of emergency, freed the media and trade unions, released political prisoners, and relaxed exile laws. The country would now engage in “a new democratic constitution, universal franchise, equality before an independent judiciary, the protection of minorities as well as of individual rights, freedom of religion . . . [and] dynamic programs directed at better education, health services, housing, and social conditions for all.”
Nine days later, through the window of mass media, the world watched the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela. The ANC laid down its arms, and the parties began constructing the new South African constitution.
But the hard reconciliation work was far from over. “We [South Africans] must be one people. Our communities must be united and not at war with each other,” said ANC leaders over Radio Freedom. It was time for a “peace” in which “communities do not see each other as enemies.” That would take an extraordinary event and a “media moment.”
Truth and Reconciliation: The Media Moment
The cameras were on, broadcasting live on television sets in South Africa.
“Show the Commission how you would smother us until we thought we were drowning, that we would suffocate and die,” said Tony Yengeni to Sergeant Jeffrey Benzien, who had tortured Yengeni in detention. Benzien, one of several people asking for amnesty, walked to a person lying on the floor and placed a bag over his head. “Now please show us how you held it there – how long you held it there.”
Benzien knelt, holding the bag as time passed. “Can you explain how one human being can do this to another human being?” asked Yengeni.
Benzien’s eyes puffed up and filled with tears. A man who, in his role as a hard, tough officer, had tortured people now wept before all of South Africa when confronted with the very real, human question: “How can one person do this to another person?”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set out to heal a deeply divided and injured South Africa, to “repair and lay the basis for common citizenship and for joint efforts to improve the lives of everybody.”
“We knew terrible things had happened,” explained Sachs. “But facts can be cold and lacking the [human] dimension. The Truth [and Reconcilation] Commission brought these experiences into the public. We saw the tears; we heard the voices; we heard the lamentations, the sometimes stilted apologies. We saw on television, heard on radio, [read] in press; and it was that humanizing of what had happened that captured the minds and spirits and healed. It didn’t heal the iniquities, but until we got rid of these hidden and denied examples of atrocious conduct and behavior, we couldn’t secure forward-looking government.”
After initially vilified in some Afrikaans-language media as a “witch hunt” and “Tutu’s Commission on Confessing and Lying,” even the skeptical media covered the testimony. The live daily broadcasts in television and radio plus weekly television summaries and daily newspaper articles made the TRC hearings a unifying event in South Africa. With mass media focused on the singular event, a fractured South Africa together experienced a transcendent moment of “common national history,” that created a shared language, such as the phrase “gross violations of human rights.”
“Many ordinary Afrikaners … had no idea what was done by agents of the apartheid government to maintain white minority rule,” wrote journalist Tim du Plessis. “Had it not been for the TRC, many Afrikaners (and other White South Africans) would have never known” about the misdeeds.
Through mass media, the TRC was everywhere, signaling to audiences its seriousness and legitimacy as it reshaped society’s understandings of itself and its government and offered new norms for acceptable behaviors. “The impact was enormous,” acknowledged Sachs.
The TRC marked the end of one society and government and the birth of a new one – one that was embedded in an entirely different set of values and principles. “It created a common mold platform that there are some things people just can’t and mustn’t do to other people,” according to Sachs. “And in the new country, [there would be] no secrets, no lies.”
Ultimately, South Africa’s transformation was the result of multiple factors, including visionary leadership in the churches and antiapartheid organizations. But media played a crucial role, informing and denouncing the injustices of the system, which spread internationally and helped build multilayered pressure on the South African government. Through mass media, the stand of a few dedicated leaders for multiracial democracy became the accepted truth. Finally, through its live broadcast of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, mass media helped close the doors on the old South Africa and give birth to a new South African government and society. The struggle is not over, for it is always a work in progress.
And just as television and other mass media can be a great “weapon for eradicating ignorance and promoting democracy,” as Mandela said, they can also be a weapon that eradicates democracy and promotes ignorance, along with other less desirable ends.