When it comes to freedom of expression there is a need for South Africans to protect our gains and broaden the right to even more people. In order to move forward, we have to take on the challenges of the present and learn the lessons from our past. As part of our human rights focus for March, we look at the case of the Grassroots community newspaper which came into being at a time when apartheid was at its most vicious.
The offices of a community newspaper were burned to the ground in October 1985. It was situated opposite the Grand Parade and next to Cape Town’s historic City Hall. A few weeks earlier three of the newspaper’s employees were taken into detention by apartheid security police who swooped on their homes in the dead of night, armed to the teeth. Several other staff members went into hiding, moving around in disguise, some shedding their beards and moustaches, others donning scarves and wearing Gandhi-like spectacles.
In the time ahead, the paper was banned in terms of emergency regulations. Police conducted several raids on the premises of Grassroots’ printer Esquire Press, and in the late 80s one of the staff members was shot and left for dead near a cemetery in Gugulethu. Fortunately – and almost miraculously – she survived the attempt to end her life.
In many parts of the City and indeed, throughout the land, protests, teargas and funerals were as much part of daily life as having a haircut or taking the kids to school. The rebellion against that monstrous crime against humanity – apartheid, was growing with each passing day. The apartheid state unleashed unspeakable violence on the black oppressed and white democrats – arresting, hurting, maiming and killing those who dared to take a stand, and even those who did not.
Just over 25 years on, these recollections of the Grassroots Community Newspaper experience, seem strangely surreal, even to those who were there when it all happened.
The idea of Grassroots, which operated from 1980 to 1990, was conceptualised in the late 70s by progressive journalists in the Writers Association of South Africa. It was further brainstormed with activists in the Cape, most coming from the fold of the Congress Movement – the ANC and its allies.
The mission was to add a newspaper to the armoury of the resistance movement in South Africa with the overall aim of bringing apartheid to an end and replacing it with a democratic government and society. For obvious security reasons these aims were not documented – or publicly stated – but were well understood by those who drove this mission and the thousands who participated in its operation.
The activists drew inspiration from Durban dock workers strike of 1973, Mozambique gaining independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975 and the nationwide 1976 uprising which began in Naledi, Soweto.
Activists argued that strong, enduring community organisations, built from the ground up, would make it almost impossible for the Apartheid State to crush resistance in the way that they did in the 60s and – to a lesser extent – after the 1976 rebellion.
Grassroots established itself in an office off Greenmarket Square with the veteran activist Johnny Issel heading up a small staff component. The paper was to be tabloid size, with some 12 to 16 pages and would appear monthly.
The real driving force behind this project was hundreds of community activists who had been drawn into the unfolding struggle in the late 70s and early 80s. They participated in newsgathering meetings, distributed the paper door-to-door across the Cape Flats, helped produce content for the paper and represented their organisations and communities at Grassroots forums that including quarterly General Meetings and AGMs. Many of these activists were referred to as charterists, those whose political programme was encapsulated in the Freedom Charter which was adopted in Kliptown in 1955.
A small number of journalists in the mainstream papers, mainly black, contributed to the Grassroots effort. Eager to support the struggle against apartheid and angry at the racism practised in newsrooms themselves – both Afrikaner nationalist and English liberal – they assisted with skills development and writing and editing. The Journalists and the growing anti-apartheid activist fraternity all shared the view that the mainstream media – apart from its job reservation practices – almost exclusively gave voice to an enfranchised minority. This was then part of the motivation for the development of alternative media platforms.
Issel was banned and Leila Patel took over as co-ordinator for two years until student leader Saleem Badat stepped into the hot seat between 1983 and 1986. By the mid-80s Grassroots consisted of the newspaper, a student publication Learning Roots, a political magazine, New Era and a media education project. A rural project was established with Saamstaan newspaper in Oudtshoorn as the flagship and a range of skills training initiatives across the province.
There were passionate debates during this time about the content of Grassroots, advertising policy, democratic practices in a newspaper project and importantly, how to deal with state repression.
The notion of Grassroots as a “collective organiser” featured strongly in the philosophical outlook of key players in the project. The paper had to do more than just inform and entertain – it had a critical role to play in bringing activists together around common goals, inspiring the formation and growth of local organisations and educating communities about their rights. This vision took Grassroots into rural towns and villages and eventually culminated in the launch of Saamstaan in 1984. That is a story on its own which was told in a 24 minute SABC documentary three years ago.
At its height Grassroots attracted 40 to 50 representatives from civic organisations, trade unions, student bodies and religious groups to its weekly news gathering meetings and hundreds from right across the Cape would gather for the Annual General Meeting. Activists would gather in large numbers in selected communities and, armed with copies of Grassroots, would encourage residents to be active in their local civics, bolster the trade union movement and make a contribution to student campaigns.
Far from being a conventional newspaper, Grassroots developed into something of a movement, bringing together people from across the social and geographic spectrum under one umbrella. It certainly prepared the ground for the formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983, since the UDF united a broad cross-section of organisational formations, but on a much bigger scale.
The paper’s content focused largely on local issues – electricity and maintenance campaigns, rates and rental tariffs. It was not the content of the paper that was a threat to state security, but rather what the project represented in its entirety. It had become a powerful mobilising tool and was helping to build people’s power from grassroots level. In the second half of the eighties, though, the paper did begin taking on more of a political character, as the struggle against apartheid intensified.
The paper was largely funded by a Church group in Holland, committed to the fight against apartheid. Grassroots was sold for nominal amounts and so income from sales was insignificant. The advertising revenue was limited since only a handful of small businesses on the Cape Flats advertised in the paper. Big businesses, which largely sided with and benefited from apartheid, were certainly not going to pour its resources into an anti-apartheid community paper.
Though the paper was relatively small, its impact was massive. Countless activists have spoken of Grassroots’ inspirational effect on their morale, since they viewed the project as quite an act of defiance against a seemingly monolithic and powerful State. Significantly, a large number of activists acquired media skills through their involvement in Grassroots and Saamstaan and they today occupy important positions in both mainstream and civil society communication sectors.
Grassroots closed its doors in 1990, the same year that negotiations to establish a democratic South Africa began. For a few years before that, participation had already begun to wane, partly due to repression, but also as result of activists devoting most of their energy to the work of the United Democratic Front.
Debates still occur over the decision to close Grassroots. It is argued that alternative community media platforms are of critical importance, to advance Constitutional ideals and rights and protect our democratic gains as well as to counter the lack of balance and diversity in the mainstream press.
These debates will rage intermittently for many years to come and may lead to new realisations and initiatives in time to come. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: Grassroots inspired and empowered a legion of activists and community members at a particularly turbulent time in our country. Its place in our media and political history is assured.
This story first appeared on The Journalist.
IN AN INTERVIEW published by Business Day/Financial Mail and written up by Carlos Amato, aptly entitled:’Johann Rupert on being cast as the poster boy of ‘white monopoly capital‘ the financier and inheritor of apartheid billions, appears anxious to recast himself as a key member of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Unfortunately the facts do not support the Rupert version of history.
The CEO of Remgro and a holding company active in SA media, already implicated in extensive apartheid denial — alongside the creation of alternative facts — is recorded as saying: “Remember that the National Party shut down Remgro’s import permits for 10 months in 1988. And I was threatened by Magnus Malan with his hit squads. He said I was costing them votes because a number of us were speaking out against the NP. So what’s happening now is nothing new. Then it was because I was against apartheid, now it’s because I’m against state capture or cronyism”
Wrong, Mr Rupert, that would make you, a businessman, a central member of the anti-apartheid movement. There is no record that the Ruperts were ever vocal in their apparent opposition to the inhumanity of apartheid. None of the explanations regarding Johann’s father, Anton leaving the Broederbond for instance, tackle the central problem of what he was doing there in the first place.
There is no mention in Anton Rupert’s 2005 biography of a supposed landmark event in his life, involving PW Botha’s rubicon speech. If Botha had “reaffirmed his rejection of apartheid” as his speech writers would have it, it certainly never figured loudly in the writing of historians.
Maano Ramutsindela writing in a book on transfrontier conservation parks, examining the legacy of the Rupert family and the areas thus administered by the apartheid regime, states: “Given that enemies of the apartheid state of all backgrounds were harassed, hunted down, maimed and killed, the media was at pains to explain why the agencies of the apartheid state did not harm Rupert as it did others, including anti-apartheid activists from the Afrikaner community. The explanation offered is that Rupert did not oppose apartheid loudly, because he wanted to protect his business interests (Die Burger 2006)”
It may well be that the Ruperts and their company were pressured by the cabinet of the late PW Botha, in the inevitable powerplay between verligte (liberal) and verkrampte (conservative) Afrikaners during the closing stages of the transition and at the end of the successive states of emergency, but to say:
“I was threatened by Magnus Malan with his hit squads” and because “I was against apartheid” is a blatant fabrication and outright lie, one which strips the victims and survivors of the apartheid system of human agency.
The issue of whether or not there was ever a problem with Remgro’s import permits is risible considering the firm was itself, a sanctions buster, one which enabled the government of the day to withstand the considerable boycott and disinvestments campaign being waged by those on the other side of the fence.
Denying or revising the instrumentality of apartheid should be a punishable offense.
At best it is a variation of the tired theme: “I was merely following orders, with a gun to my head under martial law.” A defense resoundingly rejected under the Nuremberg principles and international statutes.
The chicanery by the heir to the Rupert fortune, ignores the reality that indeed many activists, including myself, suffered under the threats issued on a daily basis by Malan, Viljoen, Coetzee et al, and thus the de facto military junta.
Rupert’s latest claim ignores the pivotal role played by his father Anton, in the creation of the apartheid state, the industrialisation of South Africa under the auspice of the National Party and the significant enrichment of the Afrikaner people, at the expense of fellow black South Africans.
It was the Catholic Bishop’s Conference which funded struggle titles, such as South Press and New Nation, not Remgro.
Whilst at South Press, an exposé of Malan’s trophy-hunting operations in Angola brought the ire of the authorities. I was subject to a campaign of dirty tricks which eventually lead to the demise of the title. Unlike Rupert junior who hid his private views behind the officialdom of apartheid’s boardrooms, I had no such insider junket.
Rupert’s assertions must therefore be rejected.
SEE: 1950-1990 Signs of Apartheid What South Africans had to look at every day for four decades. by Amanda Uren on Mashable’s Retronaut
HUFFINGTON POST need look no further than inside the offices of its local owners at the Naspers Building, where portraits of apartheid theologian DF Malan were openly displayed near the editors office, as late as 2006 when I attended an Eidos training course.
Two portraits that of Naspers founder JBM Hertzog and Perskor business partner H F Verwoerd are depicted in the piece published by Huffington.
By attempting an investigation of apartheid artwork, in a curious piece seemingly giving the appearance of editorial distance from the problem of their own association, the company is merely playing into the hands of those at Naspers who would revise history. The article fails to disclose Huffington’s business connection and involvement, and unfolds as if the portraits shown are merely that of some troublesome politicians.
Naspers itself has redacted its online corporate history to avoid uncomfortable questions surrounding director PW Botha.
No Mr Du Toit, you’re not investigating mere ‘apartheid art, you’re investigating your own history — the history of the self-same company instrumental in the creation of apartheid and the resulting tragedy which unfolded.
Recently Naspers directors have appeared at pains to create the impression they are the heroes not the antagonists of the struggle for freedom. The historical record is a little different and shows that Naspers were indicted on crimes against humanity and gross violations under apartheid by the TRC. The piece is consistent with the campaign of opposition to accountability.
In bringing the Huffington Post to South Africa, Naspers have gained an English language daily online title. They need to be reminded apartheid is still a crime, whatever the language, and whichever the colour of the ‘alternative facts’ procured by the Deputy-Editor.
EXACTLY dow do the authors intend to update their badly thought out and obscene journey into apartheid-era paternalism? The object may as well be renamed ‘Getting the Rainbow Nation All Wrong: A Recidivist’s Guide to racialising South African culture’
That the book in question clearly has no insight into its purported subject matter and appears to immediately launch into an illogical binary, an ‘Us vs Them’ proposition along with its absurd claim to normativity, and thus directing an editorial voice at an audience who are clearly ‘not coloured’ is highly problematic.
The otherisation of people is what hurts and what needs to be tackled here. The problem is not incidental and I have found the exact same condescending, patronising tone expressed within the transcripts of a 2010 court proceeding, only accessed this year and involving apartheid publisher Media24 and its own insane claim to demographic normativity.
In 2008 the same company won the right to use the term “bushmen/boesman” in reference to “coloured” persons. The latest offering from Logogog fairs no better in fictionalising and failing its subject matter.
Exactly who are “they” and what is “them”? Why the race stereotyping, profiling and patriarchy, and why is there something wrong with tackling racism by identifying with the oppressed?
Equally unacceptable is the continued use of apartheid race criteria to label people. The term ‘coloured’ itself is an anachronism, same way that the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Persons’ is anachronistic and harking back to a previous period before the ascendency of civil rights.
As a person who was disenrolled from the ‘white race” back in the 80s, sectioned under apartheid laws and assimilated into the self-same ‘coloured culture’ portrayed inaccurately and with contempt by the publishers, due to the Group Areas Act and other legislation, I find such chocolate box portraiture (in essence race stigma) highly problematic — as too my ongoing legal problems (mostly contrary to received science) surrounding my presumed race identity and thus the publisher’s supreme right to act accordingly.
Apartheid never worked, and its many sequels in the new South Africa of today are equally doomed to failure. This is not what the authors of the freedom struggle intended.
For starters, at South Press, (a struggle newspaper) we all decided we were black. Under a black government, the ‘coloured” label saw renewed contestation. The term is not so much an identity as an imposition.
Under apartheid persons could be classified ‘coloured’ or “other coloured” merely for looking coloured, or by associating with persons of mixed race. Such was the problem inherent to ‘coloured identity’ and the criteria enumerated by C Vogel and A Abdurahman. Yet, a 2010 decision, applauded by the press, and handed down by one H Cheadle, labeled me an “absurdity” for being just who I am.
The problem appears endemic, at a recent peacebuilders conference, a young spokesperson for the Fallist movement, who happens to be ‘black and transexed’, when questioned as to what a ‘transracial or postracial identity might entail’, claimed that “white people cannot experience racism … since they don’t have the same baggage…” to which I replied, aside from the fact that you choose to label me, do you mean to tell me a straight person cannot experience homophobia, similarly a non-Jew, anti-Semitism, and ergo, a non-Muslim, Islamophobia?
Lest we forget, I had a school mate named Marcus who attended my prep school and migrated to the village primary institution along with the rest of the class. Then one day an investigator from the Cape Provincial Administration (CPA) pitched up, yanked Marcus by the scruff of the neck and removed the dear from the school because his hair wasn’t straight.
The tragic case of Happy Sindane, the boy who thought he was ‘white’, despite having ‘black parents’, also springs to mind. Pseudo-scientific racial criteria and the ersatz and equally obscene ‘cultural wash’, now laid on thick by the publishers, and even the press, should not be a defining factor of life in South Africa. To reiterate, the Rainbow Nation is not about the colour of one’s skin, but rather, the colour of one’s rights. Equally, the Rainbow Nation is not about maintenance of racial privileges but rather the restitution of the innate rights we all hold from birth.
— David Robert Lewis
KHULUMANI reports that our Parliament is on track to ‘review and possibly repeal more than 1,800 apartheid-era laws.’
‘In 2016, the programming committee of the National Assembly mandated Parliament’s legal services with identifying all apartheid-era laws or sections in legislation, that could be inconsistent with the Constitution.’
‘Parliament’s legal advisers submitted their report to the committee on Thursday. It identifies 1,850 pieces of legislation passed between 1910 and 1993.”
“Parliament’s legal services will now begin identifying the departments under which each of the laws falls for input and processing.”
FOR OVER two decades the truth about apartheid-era bank bail-outs, corporate slush-funds, financial life-boats, espionage and dirty tricks was suppressed by the mainstream press. The country’s state broadcaster, the venerable SABC even went so far as pulling the plug on a documentary by Silvia Vollenhoven, which linked Swiss bank accounts to various deals.
Project Spear relates the story of how various politically-connected individuals looted the treasury during the last days of the ancien regime.
Alternative press outlets such as Medialternatives are the loan voice in the wilderness when it comes to exposing ongoing apartheid corruption, and continues to carry the story behind the creation of a vast media cartel, responsible for state capture, and controlled by several Afrikaner businessmen.
Then suddenly in 2017, the Mail & Guardian decided to take off the gloves and publish several articles by Phillip de Wet, in the process rebooting a lapsed tradition started by its predecessor, the Weekly Mail, giving apartheid the finger.
This was soon followed by important new contributions to the subject by Hennie van Vuuren and Michael Marchant of the Daily Maverick, as the Independent Group was once again forced to follow the lead taken by smaller publishing houses.
The source of much of the information appears to be a report released by the Public Protector.
It is doubtful whether any new journalism of any major import gets generated at Newspaper House, whose mandarins appear happy to lead with stories about the antics of snake-oil pastors and facile Ford Kuga anecdotes. After the rather timid newsroom shake-up which occurred following the acquisition of the company by Dr Iqbal Surve, the group appears to have once again settled down to the dry mediocrity of its flagships, and the yellow-journalism introduced under Irish press baron Tony O’Reilly.
Yellow journalism, or the yellow press, is “a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers.”