“When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the liberties we hold dear are endangered,” – Christopher Dodd. During the apartheid era in South Africa, saying that the press was censored is a gross understatement. If a newspaper wanted to publish more than eleven copies of their paper in a single year, they had to apply for registration from the government. Even if they did receive the registration, they were then censored and restricted about what they could report on and publish. Any reports remotely regarding the apartheid regime was immediately censored. Similarly, newspapers were not allowed to quote leaders of the anti-apartheid regime such as Steve Biko, and the also were not allowed to report on the conditions of political prisoners like those held captive on Robben Island. As a form of protest, editors applied for self-censorship, newspapers would leave full pages blank and black out their own paragraphs. One of the more well-known stories of rebellion against the press restrictions comes from Donald Wood, the journalist that wrote the truth about Steve Biko’s death then fled to the United Kingdom.
Once apartheid ended and South Africa established a Bill of Rights, the press and media became much more lenient about what could be published and reported. With South Africa’s new Constitution, there were safeguards that were put in place to protect the freedom of the media, freedom to receive or impart information or ideas, freedom of artistic creativity, academic freedom, and freedom of scientific research. The history of oppression and the fact information was withheld from the public has made South Africa as a nation very hungry for news. Today, there twenty daily and thirteen weekly newspapers that are circulated all throughout South Africa. Although all eleven official languages in South Africa are represented in some form of media, the majority of the newspapers are in English to appeal to a larger audience. Between the major national newspapers and the more local papers, there is a total of a little over twenty million people that buy the newspapers on a daily basis.
In the country now, there are four groups of newspapers that are separately owned: the Independent Newspapers, Johnnic Communications, Naspers and CTP/Caxton. These four newspaper groups cover the English press, the Afrikaans press, the black press, and the protest press. The English press started due to the mining business because the mining tycoons acquired the newspapers. The majority of the English press is owned by Tony O’Riley who owns the Independent Newspapers and Media in Ireland.
As for the Afrikaans press, their establishment was a reaction to the liberal views of the English press. Their main issues with the English press were their views on slavery, work of the missionaries in the Cape, and tensions between Dutch farmers and the Xhosa people. The roots of the Afrikaans press came from religious figures in the community that challenged both cultural and political views. They were promoting political independence and the widespread use and acceptance of Afrikaans as a language.
The black press started due to the lack of representation of the black people in the media. Missionaries began the black press to give them a voice. The missionaries immersed themselves in the communities of the blacks and educated and taught them literacy. Once the black press was established, they used it as a platform for the establishment of political movements for the black people of South Africa.
During the period of apartheid, the protest press had an enormous number of newspapers that acted as opposition to the apartheid regime, but most of them didn’t last more than a few issues because they were shut down by the government. These papers brought up issues that not everyone in the country was aware of. Some of these issues included migrant labor, the Group Areas and Bantu Education Acts, forced removals, detention without trial, and land reform. These papers were not only meant for the blacks and coloreds of South Africa, but for the whites that were against apartheid but were sheltered and kept in the dark about the on-goings of the apartheid party.
The South African press and media have grown by leaps and bounds since the end of apartheid and are now considered one of the more free presses of the world. According to Reporters Without Borders, South Africa is ranked as the 26th most free press in the world. As a base of comparison, the United States is the first on this list.
During our time in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, it was evident how the government silenced the media during apartheid to make sure people did not know exactly what was going on. One prime example of this was when we visited the Hector Pieterson Museum. During the student uprising of June 16th, 1976, students came together to protest the use of Afrikaans in the school systems and the government lashed back out at them. The government used media to pacify the South African public. The South Africa Broadcasting Corporation was used as a propaganda tool along with ethnic radio stations. White journalists were banned from enter Soweto during the uprising so they could not report the use of force by the government.
Throughout our trip, we kept hearing that South Africa has always been about ten to fifteen years behind the United States, may that be industrialization, the fight for civil rights and apartheid, or the freedom of press. The United States might not have a clean slate, but we have progressed and come a long way and South Africa can take a page out of our book and start progressing towards an even more free press and less segregated media.
Twitter: From the birth of apartheid to now, South Africa has come a long way in allowing a voice of blacks, whites, and coloreds in the press