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Brigalia Bam reflects on the ‘suppressive streak of the Mail and Guardian’ after Thabo Mbeki article

Democracy - More Than Just ElectionsBrigalia Bam, former chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and author of Democracy – More Than Just Elections, has written a response to the way in which the Mail & Guardian reported on the first of former president Thabo Mbeki’s series of articles on the period of his presidency.

Bam is Chair of the Board of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.

The article in question was published on Thabo Mbeki’s Facebook Page on January 11. In the article, entitled “The tragedy of history: When caricature displaces the truth”, Mbeki addresses the documentation of the struggle and the subsequent “characterisation” of leaders of the liberation movement. He refers specifically to the controversy related to Minister of Safety and Security, the late Steve Tshwete.

Read the article:

For various reasons many of us who were directly involved in our struggle for liberation have not taken the time to write about this struggle and the subsequent efforts to build a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.

One result of this is that people who were essentially observers of both these periods have written much of what has been published about these times, a good part of which has come to be accepted as authoritative and definitive, with no suggestion whatsoever that the authors of these supposedly authoritative and definitive histories had their own political or ideological mind-sets.

Some of this writing has sought to define my character as I served as President of the ANC and the Republic, and argued that this characterisation helps to explain various developments during this period.

On the January 15, the Mail and Guardian published a doctored photo of Mbeki with the headline “There’s an old sheriff back in town”, leading to a scathing editorial that asked the former president “to go back to not ruling from the grave”, and criticising his writing and choice of topic:

For all his reputation as being aloof and unaccountable, we always had at least some idea of what Thabo Mbeki was thinking during his time as president. Not always a clear idea, mind you; his use of impenetrable allusions and convoluted logic caused us a fair bit of head scratching. We had something to work with, though. Regular as clockwork there would be a lengthy essay in the ANC Today online newsletter, or a long academic speech to unpick. Mbeki was never a Twitter-length politician.

In her article, also published on Mbeki’s Facebook Page, Bam explains the context of Mbeki’s article and questions the newspaper’s response to it.

Read the article in full:
 

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THE SUPPRESSIVE STREAK OF THE MAIL & GUARDIAN REVEALED

Dr Brigalia Bam 
January 17, 2016

Perhaps reflecting a dry week in the news business, an inability to make sense of so much that is happening in the world around us or just exhibiting an existential crisis of sorts, this week’s edition of the Mail & Guardian led with a piece pretending to be an informed explanation of the first of former President Thabo Mbeki’s articles on the period of his Presidency.

Accompanied by a photo-shopped image of the former President donning cowboy regalia and a hunting rifle, the total package (the headlines: “There’s an old sheriff back in town” and “Mbeki is back, with guns blazing,” the photo-shopped image and the article) sought to conjure an image of a vengeful Mbeki on a mission to settle old scores.

Reading the story, one imagines a shebeen where all manner of urban legends proliferate. And so, the less said of it, the better.

The editorial (“Please put a lid on it, Mbeki”) on the other hand is worth a brief engagement for its extraordinary counsel. It advises
former President Mbeki to stop writing; to shut up!

At last, the Mail & Guardian, one of our country’s self-proclaimed defenders of free speech, has let the guard down, revealing its true belief. Freedom of expression applies only to itself and those with whom it agrees!

The supposed reasons Mbeki must shut up are that his first article did not discuss his “stance on HIV,” his supposed “failure in oversight that led to current electricity and water shortages,” his alleged “role in making the ANC into the patronage-dispensing machine it is today,” and that there are ANC factions who, like the EFF, allegedly want to rehabilitate Mbeki for their own ends.”

Supposing that we agreed with the Mail & Guardian, are these the reasons for gagging someone in a democratic society? What business are ANC and other political parties’ factional machinations to a paper which professes non-partisanship? Is this an inadvertent admission that the Mail & Guardian is not, after all, as non-partisan as it claims; worst of all that it intervenes in political parties in a factional manner?

The baseless charge that “Now Mbeki … shows every sign of wanting to influence South Africa’s path again” is in similar disposition as the Mail & Guardian’s extraordinary desire for a gag on him. No one, certainly not Mbeki, has explicitly stated or remotely implied that the articles are about issues other than those that served on the agenda of public discourse during his Presidency.

On December 15 last year, the CEO of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, Max Boqwana, published a notice on this Page on the “Forthcoming articles by Thabo Mbeki.” Among other things, Boqwana wrote that: “The Thabo Mbeki Foundation (TMF) regularly receives requests from South Africans and others in Africa and abroad asking President Mbeki to comment or speak on a whole variety of issues.

“Some of these communications request that President Mbeki should comment on matters which arose during the years he served in our country’s Presidency. These include direct criticisms that were and have been made over the years concerning his own personal conduct in Government.”

In the first article about which the Mail & Guardian complains, Mbeki would confirm that it is the first of many articles to come. Why then does the Mail & Guardian think that Mbeki must not continue to write if his first article does not raise the issues they protest it omitted? In principle, why does the Mail & Guardian think they have a right to determine for him or anyone for that matter, what to write and, by implication, what not to write, especially when the issues are of public interest?

Again, the reason can only be that the Mail & Guardian has long determined that Mbeki represents views with which they fundamentally disagree and do not want heard. The perverse reality is that the Mail & Guardian, which pretends to be one of our country’s torchbearers of free speech, is, at the best of times, effectively a Censorship Board, unafraid to gag and to set the agenda of public discourse by means subtle yet no less asphyxiating as those of the Censorship Board of yesteryear.

Alas, somewhere in the dark corners of the psyches of these purported defenders of free speech lurk an Idi Amin: “You have freedom of speech, but freedom after speech, that I cannot guarantee you.”

One might be expecting too much, but even in its Idi Amin mindset, the Mail & Guardian can surely do better than regurgitate swear words and phrases of no meaning and analytical value. What, for instance, does this verbiage mean? – “It was vintage Mbeki, right down to the hint of a whiff of pipe smoke and armchair leather – and the blinkered paranoia, the disconnection from reality, and the belief that he can change by decree how South Africans interpret facts.”

How does an article amount to a decree? Do South Africans interpret facts the same way? Which reality, which facts, whose reality, whose facts,
determined by who and why is a change in the interpretation of facts deemed impermissible in a democratic society?

The false and insulting charge that Mbeki believes that he can “change
by decree how South Africans interpret facts,” reveals more than it conceals the Mail & Guardian’s own undemocratic perspective which consists in the belief that society has a one size fits all lens of interpreting facts. We are firmly back to the era when it was widely
believed that the earth is flat, with the most grotesque and barbaric
violence visited upon those who dared to suggest otherwise.

But the newspaper may want to ponder the words of Naom Chomsky: “Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.”

We are indeed in the fortunate position that Mbeki’s articles are being published in a medium other than the pages of the Mail & Guardian. It gives South Africans the opportunity to interpret facts variously and differently from the lenses by which the newspaper interprets them. This surely can’t be a heresy in a democracy!

Dr. Brigalia Bam is Chair of the Board of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.

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